Tuesday, December 22, 2009

District 9

District 9 is described by its studio as a sci-fi thriller, and while that’s an accurate label in broad strokes, it sells short the film’s startling originality and thought-provoking social commentary. Rather than just presenting a heavily plotted story of aliens stranded on Earth, writer-director Neill Blomkamp utilizes loose acting improvisation and a documentary style to increase its realism and impact. He also sets it in a weighty locale that forces viewers to draw the obvious parallel between his film’s alien fiction and our own all-too-real mistreatment of fellow humans.

The film’s title refers to an internment camp outside Johannesburg, South Africa, where over 1 million stranded aliens have been reduced to life in the slums for over 20 years with no apparent hope of returning home. Amid escalating pressure from the local human populace, the government begins a program of forced eviction in the hopes of moving the aliens and the unsavory element they attract further from the city. Enter Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a nerdy government office drone selected to spearhead the militarized task force responsible for the relocation. His assignment requires door-to-door contact with the aliens as he coerces them to sign documents consenting to the relocation while he also scouts for any illegal alien weapons activity.

When Wikus runs across some mysterious alien goo in the ghetto, he begins a tragic transformation that grants him both human and alien characteristics. He also makes the acquaintance of the brainy alien who concocted the goo and is forced to reconsider his role as an oppressor.

Blomkamp’s alien ghetto is so fully realized that it becomes the most integral character in the film, a vividly detailed and massive shantytown that seems all too real. Aliens rummage through the trash and live in poorly constructed shacks that offer no dignity and very little shelter, adding to their desperate situation. It’s just as shocking as the favela in City of God or the slums of Slumdog Millionaire. The Blu-ray release amps up the minute details of this horrid camp, fully exposing its grime and hopelessness in crystal-clear high definition.

The Blu-ray also boasts a slew of exhaustive bonus featurettes about the film including spotlights on the production design, visual effects, transformation of Wikus, and a three-part documentary. There’s also an exclusive interactive map of the world of District 9, numerous deleted scenes, and Sony’s movieIQ feature that allows viewers to pull up dynamically updated trivia about the film during viewing, such as cast and crew filmographies that will continue to add ongoing entries as long as your player is connected to the Internet. If you want to watch on the go, the package includes a second disc containing a digital file of the film for easy transfer to PSP or other mobile video viewing devices.

But wait, there’s more: a playable demo of Sony’s forthcoming PS3 game release, God of War 3. Sure, the demo takes about twice as long to install on a PS3 hard drive from the Blu-ray disc as it does to actually play through, but players who stick it out also unlock a brief feature about the game’s production. There’s no apparent direct connection between the two properties, but considering the substantial key demographic crossover of the two it’s not at all an unwelcome addition.

District 9 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Blu-ray is the clear winner here due to the deep bonus features and the sheer technical beauty of the film. Fine details like the tiny letters in the bottom right corner of the documentary camera’s label overlay to the subtle differentiation between the aliens are displayed in stellar clarity, while the crisp 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track creates a fully immersive audio environment.

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Writer/director Mike Judge has managed to forge a cottage industry of small, quirky live action comedies that never really make much noise at the box office but develop a fan base of home viewers large enough to let him keep doing his thing. Following his established pattern, Extract was mostly DOA at the US box office, so its new home video release is its first real chance for some substantial exposure. On paper, it has a couple of pluses going for it: the ace casting of Jason Bateman in its lead role and Judge's return to workplace humor following up his cult classic Office Space.

Bateman plays a conservative husband and small business owner named Joel on the verge of realizing a major payday via the sale of his flavor extract company. Unfortunately, a freak workplace accident grants one of his key employees the legal grounds to destroy his plans and possibly his company. The employee is loyal to the company, but also really dim, so when a sexy swindler (Mila Kunis) breezes into town and figures out the financial possibilities of a lawsuit, he's more than willing to join her plan.

Meanwhile, Joel is stuck in a passionless marriage at home and stuck with relationship advice from his stoner bartender/best friend (Ben Affleck), leading him to accept his friend's harebrained idea to test his wife's fidelity via the hiring of an idiotic gigolo (Dustin Milligan). Predictably, the results are not what Joel might have hoped, especially when the gigolo continues to visit his wife and decides he's in love with her.

With so much drama at work and home, Joel is forced out of his conservative comfort zone and finds himself drawn to the unbridled freedom represented by Kunis's character. He's forced to question what he really wants in his future and choose the path that will get him there. There's not much question of how it will all shake out, but it's an enjoyable ride that plays to Judge's strengths at concurrently skewering and celebrating small-town Americana.

Bateman's performance is up to snuff, but his character is so straight-laced that he's not allowed to color outside the lines, limiting his potential here. Conversely, Affleck is granted a vivid, gonzo character and gets some decent comedic mileage out of it, but never fully embraces it and ultimately seems too conservative for it. It is refreshing to see him tackling a role in a project of this scope though as it recalls his winning early work in Kevin Smith's films. Kunis's character is a bit of an enigma, as we never really learn her motivations or forces that shaped her, but she's suitably appealing as the film's primary object of affection. Surprisingly, Dustin Milligan is really funny as the dopey gigolo, showing some range not even hinted at in his day job on 90210. Kristen Wiig also pops in as Joel's wife, but her role is so inconsequential and one-dimensional that she's largely wasted in the film.

Judge's film quality isn't such that much benefit is realized by Blu-ray, with fairly flat images and non-dynamic sound, but for what it's worth, the video is given a MPEG-4 AVC/1080p transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the audio track is delivered in full 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Where the Blu-ray does make a difference is the bonus features, as the package includes exclusive deleted and extended scenes. The scenes were fully deserving of ending up on the cutting room floor, but they do offer added insight into the production process. There's also a non-exclusive featurette on Judge's recipe for making a classic Mike Judge film, basically a chance for his acolytes to talk about how awesome he is, but it also includes some interesting info about the film's production such as the revelation that they filmed in a working factory that was still manufacturing its primary product lines in the background during some of the scenes.

Extract is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Beyoncé: I Am...Yours

Always an electrifying performer, Beyoncé pulls out all the stops in this exclusive live production filmed at the Wynn Encore resort in Las Vegas. Much more than just another engagement on her latest worldwide tour, this intimate performance captures Beyoncé in a classic Vegas revue conceived solely for this 4-night engagement. That doesn’t mean she’s in a ballgown, immobile at a mic with a full orchestra behind her, but it does put her on a smaller than normal stage and provides her the opportunity to present an autobiographical tour of her song catalog with special emphasis on her latest release, “I Am…Sasha Fierce”.

Rather than start with a blaze of theatrics and dancers, Beyoncé opens the show with an acoustic segment that highlights her vocal range and stripped-down reworkings of some of her hits. Surprisingly, there’s nary a backup dancer in sight until over a half hour into the show, at which point the choreography kicks for the balance of the performance in but never overshadows her soaring vocal fireworks.

While she shines on her own material, she also incorporates a few surprising covers throughout the show. There aren’t many performers who would dare risk covering Anita Baker or Alanis Morissette, but Beyoncé handles chestnuts from both of them with her own powerful interpretations and even throws in a bit of Jackson 5 and scatting in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for good measure.

The choreographed second half of the show also incorporates her musical biography, tracing her earliest days in Destiny’s Child (complete with mention of their failed “Star Search” appearance) through their breakout success, her growth as a songwriter and solo performer, and her ongoing side career as a movie star. The Destiny’s Child material is re-imagined for the performance, with her live all-girl band providing some welcome new colorings to the somewhat dated original tracks. Beyoncé provides commentary throughout the autobiography as she describes the significance of each of her songs, even touching on the shifting roster of performers in Destiny’s Child, the role of her father in furthering her career, and alluding to her marriage to Jay-Z. It’s an illuminating journey that provides fresh insight into the influences that have shaped and continue to guide her as a performer, and as such it’s essential viewing for her fans.

Putting aside the glitz and autobiography, Beyoncé’s performance here is nothing short of amazing. As she mentions in the bonus featurette, she always strives to give 100% in her performances and that dedication is on full display here. She’s not just a pop star, she’s a truly gifted vocalist and dedicated dancer who infuses this performance with so much passion and fire she seems on the verge of combustion at any moment. To witness her in this performance is to see an artist at the peak of her powers, a primal force of music unleashed on a fully enraptured audience.

The bonus featurette explores Beyoncé’s concept for the show and records the superhuman efforts employed to pull it all together in a very tight window. The crew assembled in Vegas during the week leading up to the show to rehearse and refine the one-off show, and Beyoncé’s touch is shown on everything from the set list to the stage design, further enforcing her dedication to presenting the best possible experience for her fans.

I Am…Yours” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and a 2 CD/1 DVD combo package.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

The James Bond Omnibus

The world’s most famous spy had a secret career as a comic strip star in the 50s and 60s, and thanks to this paperback omnibus collection his sequential art adventures have a new license to be discovered by the current generation of fans. Appearing in the pages of the British Daily Express newspaper, the daily strip faithfully followed the plots of Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories. Following these adventures in daily doses must have been a tedious exercise, making this and previous compilations the best method to fully enjoy the work.

Since the strip started well before the film series, the Bond character doesn’t resemble any of the actors. However, he does hew closely to Fleming’s literary description, with cold, cruel eyes, a rugged face, and dark hair that falls down in a comma near his right eye.

Thanks to the exquisite and finely detailed line work of artist John McLusky, Bond’s adventures are brought to life in stunning fashion that totally belies their humble origins as daily newspaper fodder. Where one might expect slapdash work cranked out on a deadline, readers are instead treated to fully realized settings and character models that provide ample evidence of the artist’s mastery of the medium. This makes reading the work far more than just an exercise in Bond fandom, instead transforming the experience into a fully enjoyable exploration of stellar sequential art.

Although the book cover and the strips within misleadingly assert that this material was penned by Ian Fleming, the strips were actually adapted from Fleming’s original prose work by writers Anthony Hearn, Henry Gammidge, and Peter O’Donnell. As adaptations, they generally stay very true to the source material, a nice change from the film series that gradually moved completely away from the original plots, retaining only Fleming’s colorful titles. The novels are typically whittled down to around 100 strips each, although a few of them weigh in around 150 strips: Casino Royale, Diamonds Are Forever, and Goldfinger. There’s also a little-known title here that may give the novel readers and film viewers pause: Risico, an adaptation of a Fleming short story that so far has not been called into action as a film title.

The material presented here has been compiled into book format before, but this is possibly the most extensive collection appearing under one cover, hence the “Omnibus” designation. It’s an attractive package that should hopefully find its way under the Christmas trees of many Bond fans this holiday season. The James Bond Omnibus is now available.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Yo Gabba Gabba: Music is...Awesome!

One recent sunny afternoon, my wife and I were walking with our 3-year-old daughter near the USC campus when we were approached by a drunken fratboy who noticed my daughter’s Yo Gabba Gabba t-shirt and enthusiastically proclaimed “that’s my favorite show ever!” He then proceeded to regale us with his rendition of one of the show’s signature songs before continuing on his extremely merry way. Clearly, Yo Gabba Gabba is a show that reaches well beyond its target preschool audience, and the show’s music is a large part of the reason. Unlike most other preschool programming, YGG has a certain cool factor that gives it broad demographic appeal and also exposes the tots to some pretty great tunes.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s something like a Sid and Marty Krofft production as envisioned by a Japanese vinyl toy designer, with 5 main characters in unique costumes who magically come to life when the sole human host removes them from his boom box toy chest. That human sets the tone of the show immediately with his b-boy style, with his aforementioned boom box, thickframed glasses akin to Run DMC or Spike Lee’s Mars character, and his name, DJ Lance Rock. Yes, this is the kids show for the post-hip hop generation, and as such it borrows heavily from the golden age of hip hop. Frequent guest star and legendary hip hop pioneer Biz Markie appears on the CD and in most episodes in an instructional beatbox segment, while newer acts such as The Roots and Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark perform in musical segments. Most importantly, the show’s best songs are extremely electro-flavored, with thumping 808 bass and hip hop hooks that travel far closer to “Planet Rock” than Planet Disney. Whether the star characters are rapping about a “Party in my Tummy” or declaring “I Like to Dance”, the energetic electro influence is omnipresent and entirely welcome.

That’s not to say it’s all about the beats, as the show also incorporates some kid-friendly light alt rock appearances from acts such as MGMT and The Shins, giving the Coachella crowd reason to tune in as well. The Shins appear here on the CD with their contribution to the show, an inspirational track entitled “It’s Okay, Try Again”. Elsewhere, Of Montreal contribute “Brush Brush Brush”, while I’m From Barcelona teaches the kids that “Just Because It’s Different, Doesn’t Mean It’s Scary”. They’re all a bit soft compared to the show’s hip hop offerings, but offer a nice change of pace while likely expanding the show’s audience.

With the tracks removed from the show and isolated on the CD, it’s even more apparent how important the music is to the show’s success. Cranking the tunes on your favorite sound system exposes just how great they are as hip hop/electro and alt rock confections, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a groove in your heart. The best artist appearance is probably Money Mark with “Robo Dancing”, but really, none of the guest stars compare to the show’s own signature funky tunes. You won’t mind when junior asks for a rewind, and you’ll probably even be a little proud when he or she shows off their new beatbox skills.

Considering the severe shortage of kids shows with any semblance of decent and cool music, Yo Gabba Gabba is a welcome breath of fresh air. Its continued success as it enters its third season and even stages a live tour is further vindication of the daringly niche but ultimately crowd-pleasing musical choices that contribute to its success. Buy this CD with confidence, and don’t feel guilty if you find yourself giving it a spin even when the kids aren’t around.

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