Monday, July 21, 2008

I've not posted DVD reviews in a while. I'm trying to juggle the demands of writing local stuff for Pioneer Valley Central, while still doing things here that I like to do.

OUT FOXED: FOX Attacks edition

Well, I can hear the sighs now from conservative readers, but this documentary from 2004 is a revealing look at advocacy media. I hesitate to call what FOX News does as "journalism" as the most popular of its programs are the talking head shows such as Bill O'Reilly's program, which has more to do with punditry than covering various sides of a story.

Director Robert Greenwald has assembled a series of interviews with former FOX News personnel, as well as presenting clips and internal memos that show his own point of view: that Fox News is less about news and more about pushing a conservative political agenda.

For people interested in free speech, this is a thought-provoking film. Considering that for years in this country newspapers took partisan stances there were labor papers, Republican papers, Democratic papers what FOX News is doing is nothing novel. What is different is their sales job to viewers that they are watching "fair and balanced" reporting.

To update this 2004 film, Greenwald has included his "Fox Attacks!" short films designed for the Internet that focus on issues that Fox News has covered. These too are eye-openers.

The problem is that the people one would like to reach conservative voters are the folks least likely to give this film a chance.

I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say today about an outfit like FOX News. He maintained the American people should be exposed to a variety of opinions in the press and they would be naturally attracted to the "truth." The problem is these days, the "truth" seems to shift depending upon how it is presented.

The Skull

It's difficult for young horror film fans today to conceive of a time when real actors starred in such productions. Today much too much emphasis is placed on a film's concept, special effects and its monster, but not enough on presenting performances that mean something.

Yes, I was raised in the era of seeing Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing on screen I am proud to have interviewed Price and met Cushing, two remarkable gentlemen and these guys were classically trained actors who could bring something interesting to even some pretty weak scripts.

"The Skull" is a film that is a cut above some of the fare Lee and Cushing found themselves in, although it is certainly among their best films. Based on a short story by Robert Bloch, "The Skull" tells the story of two collectors of supernatural artifacts and what happened when the skull of the Marquis DeSade enter their lives.

Directed by two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, the film presents the story more through visuals than dialogue at times.

I liked the film a lot as it still packs a creepy punch, although it maintains the horror film convention of the hero being told not to do something and yet he persists. Let's face it, many horror films would end at the 15-minute mark if the hero simply were sensible!

There are no extras other than the film's trailer.

Comedy Central's TV Funhouse

Oh what a nasty piece of work this is. A parody of sorts of an old fashioned kids shows in which a live action host would interact with puppets and introduce cartoons and short films, "TV Funhouse" enters regions of bad taste that Paul Reubens never did with his "Pee Wee Playhouse" back in the 1980s.

Undoubtedly that is because Peewee Herman was a parody aimed at kids. This show is aimed at adults and adults only. The puppets are venal characters involved with prostitutes, drugs, tapping the spinal fluid of the host, over-eating, gambling and generally abusing themselves and others.

Some of the material is funny in a very dark way, while most of it is shocking to the point of numbing you.

Extras include commentary by the show's puppets and the actual human creators and "dirty outtakes." Yikes!

This may be for many an expedition in comic unknown territory.


My wife and I had wanted to see his film, based on the controversial book "Bringing Down the House," but had missed it in theaters.

I'm glad we did. Although I watched the entire film, my wife realized that she could make phone calls and take a shower and still not lose her place in the story.

That's because the film opens with a sequence that telegraphs much of the general plotline. Director Robert Luketic may understand comedy he directed the mega-hit "Legally Blonde" but he doesn't understand how to handle suspense.

"21" tells the apparently highly fictionalized tale of a MIT professor recruiting a group of students to learn how to count cards and win at blackjack in Las Vegas. Our hero, Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess) is, of course, an overachieving nerd who is looking for some way to make $300,000 for Harvard Medical School and reluctantly goes along when he is asked by his math professor (a smooth villain played by Kevin Spacey), the leader of the team.

Naturally the girl who is the object of his secret crush is a member of the team and naturally he gets all sorts of self-confidence as he begins to win. Naturally, there is a big fall awaiting him.

There are a couple of twists that are supposed to be surprises but aren't really.

Much was made of this film as being a depiction of real events, but the book on which it was based has been highly criticized by the actual members of the MIT blackjack team for inventing characters and events.

The filmmakers themselves proved to be pretty gutless by casting a white guy in the lead role that is based on an Asian-American.

"21" isn't worth your time.

The Extra Girl

You've heard of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd when it comes to silent humor. Perhaps you know who Mack Sennett and Hal Roach were. There's a good chance, though, you've not heard of the era's most successful female comic actor Mabel Normand.

Normand was never as big a star as Keaton or Chaplin who was an early co-star of hers but she was very popular and worked during the start of the film industry with many of its most influential people.

Kino on Video has now released one of the Normand's features, "The Extra Girl," on DVD and while it's not a classic, it's a solidly made, enjoyable comedy starring a woman who clearly knew how to act and how to take a pratfall.

And she was clearly comfortable looking ridiculous.

"The Extra Girl" tells the story of small-town girl who is movie crazy and convinced she could be an actress. By a twist of events she wins a contest with a film studio and skips town for Hollywood just in time to avoid an arranged marriage with a prosperous business owner.

Once in Hollywood, it's discovered the studio doesn't want her as an actress, but is willing to give her a job in the costume department.

This is a sweet little film and one that is well worth discovering. The print quality is very good and as an extra Kino has included a short comedy with Normand from 1913. This short gives the viewer a wonderful chance to see how far filmmaking had come in a decade.

Normand had setbacks both privately and professionally that certainly inhibited her career. Beset by poor health, she died in 1930 at the age of 35.

Once again, if you are an adventurous film fan willing to go back in time to discover a gem, latch onto a copy of "The Extra Girl."

The Spiderwick Chronicles

My wife and I took two young friends then ages 15 and 8 to this film when it in theaters and amazingly, it pleased not only them but us as well.

Based on the popular children's books by Tony DiTeruzzi and Holly Black, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" has the same kind of engaging charm as the "Harry Potter" series. The difference is the Potter series is an epic creating a whole new world, while "The Spiderwick Chronicles" keeps one foot in the fantastic and the other firmly planted in the real world.

After a bitter divorce, the three Grace children move into their mom's family estate, Spiderwick. There, one of the twin brothers, Jared, finds not only the journal of Arthur Spiderwick, but also an invisible world populated by brownies, sprites, hobgoblins and demons. His discovery of the book sets into motion an adventure that not only brings some balance to the unseen world but to his fractured family as well.

This is a very accomplished film with Freddie Highmore giving a great performance as twin brothers as well as Sarah Bolger as their first unbelieving sister.

The two-disc DVD set is loaded with extras on the making of the film that bring insight into the challenge of reacting to cast members who are in a computer rather than on the set.

A superior fantasy film for the entire family, make sure you see "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

The Magic of Melies

The cinema's first international hero was also among its first casualties. Georges Melies came from the world of theatrical magic and was drawn to the novelty of the early cinema literally at the turn of the 20th century. Although his subjects were at first similar to other films of the era short snippets of either street life or music hall gags Melies soon discovered that if he stopped the camera, he could make things appear and disappear.

With his natural attraction to magic, Melies began using the camera to create fantastic illusions depictions of other worlds, recreations and embellishments of magic acts and the earliest science fiction on films.

Melies' career was undone by changes in the film industry and he was forced into bankruptcy. He and his films were rediscovered in the early 1930s.

This disc has beautiful prints of 15 Melies shorts plus a 1978 documentary on his life and career. Anyone who is seriously interested in the origins of cinema should see this collection from Kino on Video.

Journey to 10, 000 B.C.

My buddy Mark Masztal and I had a ball when we saw the fantasy film "10,000 B.C." now out on DVD because it was an old-fashioned-doesn't-have-to-make-any-sense-Ray Harryhausen-style adventure. I mean, how you could not love a movie with cavemen, sympathetic saber-toothed tigers, terror birds and super creepy alien-like Egyptians?

Well, this new documentary from the folks at the History Channel doesn't have any cavemen being forced to build pyramids, but it does try to recreate the world of 10,000 B.C. here in North America.

Although the computer animation of mammoths and other long-dead beasts isn't as accomplished as in the fantasy of almost the same name, the film's facts make awfully compelling viewing. How did the first Americans come to this continent? Why does the geologic record show a time in which humans seemed to be almost wiped out? Why were there such drastic climate changes?

So see the fantasy first, but then make sure you watch this informative documentary.

Vantage Point

This under-rated thriller about a presidential assassination may not have received attention from movie fans when it was in theaters earlier this year, but it is well worth your time if you enjoy an original story told in a unique way.

Although telling the same story from different points of view is not new, writer Barry Levy and director Pete Travis created an revolving format: an American president in Spain for a terrorism summit is shot and the story is told from the point of view of a Secret Service agent (Dennis Quaid), a tourist (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish police officer, and ultimately the terrorists themselves.

Quaid's character is an agent who six months before took a bullet for the president and is considered to be on shaky emotional ground still. His performance strikes just the right note of being a man who is at first unsure of his abilities who comes to realize he is still capable of doing his job.

To write more about the plot would be a great disservice as there are several major twists and turns. A solid, entertaining thriller, this film should be on your viewing list.

Comedy Central's Home Grown

Way back in the dim, dark 1970s, Warner Brothers Records used to have collections of their artists on promotional albums that were very cheap as a way to introduce listeners to new artists and music. That's what I thought of when I received this three-hour collection of sample episodes and segments from several Comedy Central original series.

Since most, if not all, of the shows represented on the disc are already available on DVD, I can't imagine who would want this disc, unless it's aimed at people totally unaware of the Comedy Central programming.

There are complete episodes from "The Sarah Silverman Program" (yeech!), "TV Funhouse" (truly and enjoyable bizarre), "Strangers with Candy" (also quite bizarre, but in a good way), "Lewis Black's Root of All Evil" (very funny), and "Reno 911!" (a classic).

There are also sketches from "Chapelle's Show," "Drawn Together," and one of my favorites, "Viva Variety."

As extras, the disc has an episode of the 1980s PBS staple, "the Joy of Painting," an educational film showing what webs spiders weave when they've been given LSD and several animated shorts from "The Animation Show." There's no particular connection between the extras and the contents of the disc.

It's a fairly inexplicable artifact, but does have some good moments.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs


Mark Martin said...

I just added OUTFOXED to my netflix queu, and moved it to the top

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Dobbs said...

Okay...just curious what the distortions were?

Yes Xanadu is God-awful!

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Martin said...

"I hesitate to call what FOX News does as "journalism" as the most popular of its programs are the talking head shows such as Bill O'Reilly's program, which has more to do with punditry than covering various sides of a story."

JUST CURIOUS - Do you apply this yardstick to MSNBC, CNN, etc?

I anxiously await my copy of OUTFOXED!