All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

1408: Eat Your Hearts Gorno Guys – This One’s Really Scary!

1408 - Onesheet1408 is a bit of a throwback: its screenwriters and director figure that a hotel room can be more frightening than an abattoir, sewer system, or hidden lavatory in an abandoned train station. They also figure that real fear comes from the development of character, delving into a character’s fears and playing upon them. They’re right… Continue reading 1408: Eat Your Hearts Gorno Guys – This One’s Really Scary!

TVonDVD: Picket Fences, Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution, The Practice,The Fall Guy, Ironside

Quirky, chilling, dramatic and rollicking… these DVD releases span a range that exemplifies the quality of television over the years. Picket Fences may well be David E. Kelly’s true masterpiece; Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution is as chilling a piece of work as you’re likely to see; The Practice was easily David E. Kelly’s most purely dramatic series; Fall Guy was one of the coolest and loopiest mystery/adventure series of the seventies, And Ironside struck a major blow for the handicapped…

[b]Picket Fences: Season One[/b]

David E. Kelly’s Picket Fences introduced us to the town of Rome, Wisconsin – a seemingly idyllic little town that become one of the classic eccentric locales in history, rivaling Cicely, Alaska [Northern Exposure], Eerie Indiana, and even today’s Eureka, Oregon [Eureka]. Viewed through the eyes of the family of the town’s sheriff, it was a wonderland [if that’s the right word] of serial bathers, elephant enemas, hookers with platinum records, and death by nicotine poisoning – and that’s just for openers.

The cast included movie stars [Tom Skerritt played Sheriff Jimmy Brock; Kathy Baker as Jimmy’s wife, Jill], budding TV stars [NCIS’ Lauren Holly as Max, one of the local police, and a pre-Charmed Holly Marie Combs as Kimberly Brock] and a collection of new [and I use that term advisedly] faces like 70-year old Fyvush Finkel [shyster lawyer Douglas Wambaugh] and Costas Mandylor [Kenny, the “bad at math; good at guns” police officer with a the huge crush on Max] – or little veterans Adam Wylie and Justin Shenkarow, who played Zach and Matthew Brock. Which is not to ignore bigger veterans like Ray Walston [Judge Henry Bone].

Over the course of its first season, Kelly used the eccentric town to address all sorts of issues: there was the HIV-positive dentist of The Body Politic; the importance of doctor/patient privilege [Pilot]; the transsexual teacher who was to play Mary in the annual Christmas Pageant [Pageantry]; the Indian tribe that declares war on Rome when the town council okays a golf course on what is a scared burial ground [Rights of Passage], and the Catholic nun who is put on trial for assisting in euthanasia [Sacred Hearts] – to name but a few.



Picket Fences was notable for more than just its eccentricity, too – it won the big three EMMYS [Best Actor, Drama; Best Actress, Drama; Best Program, drama] – a feat that rarely occurs. Like most of Kelly’s shows, Picket Fences tailed off in its final season, but before that happened, it was easily the best of his many hit shows [yes, even better than L.A. Law – though maybe not as much of a ground breaker…].

The only unfortunate aspect of FOX’s DVD release is that the only feature is a fifteen-minute reminiscence, All Roads Lead To Rome. The series deserved better.

Grade: Picket Fences: Season One: A+
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]

 

[b]Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution[/b]

Joe Dante’s second season episode of Masters of Horror, The Screwfly Solution, is even stronger than his previous MoH effort, Homecoming – and that was probably the best episode of season one.

When sudden outbreaks of violence against women seem to be more than just a few drunken guys with mommy issues, Alan [Jason priestly] and his mentor, Barney [Elliott Gould], begin to investigate. What they discover is that the outbreaks are behaving like the outbreak of a disease – right down to the manner in which they are spreading.

Alan leaves his family [who are outside the area of the spreading mystery disease] to work on a cure. His wife, Anne [Kerry Norton] and daughter, Amy [Brenna O’Brien] are in the unhappy position of having to wait – all the while the spreading of the disease encompasses a larger and larger area…



Based on a short story by James Tiptree Jr. [Racoona Sheldon], Sam Hamm’s script gives us a chilling reason for the story’s violence against women. The secret lies in the way that Man eliminated an insect pest – the screwfly. The correlation between that, and what is happening in Alan’s world turns out to be both compelling and chilling.

Although not as outright gory as most eps of Masters of Horrors, The Screwfly Solution does have it share of blood – carefully calculated to emphasize that violence against women is appalling, while still furthering the story. Most of the effects, though, are informational, coming in the form of data on computer screens and the like – until the big finish…

Unlike much of Dante’s work, there isn’t a lot of humor to be found in The Screwfly Solution, though what there is is carefully timed for maximum effectiveness in relieving tension [or heightening it]. Dante once again shows why – despite having directed in a lot of different genres – he is most often thought of as a horror director. His ability to generate suspense and elicit responses from his audience is as sharp as ever.

Features include: Audio commentary by Dante and Hamm; The Cinematic Solution: A Look Behind The Scenes of The Screwfly Solution; The Exterminators: The Solution To The Special Effects; a Stills Gallery, and the full shooting script [DVD-ROM].

Grade: Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution: A
Grade: Features: A

[b]Final Grade: A[/b]

 

[b]The Practice: Volume One[/b]

The Practice was David E. Kelley’s attempt to get away from the glamour of L.A. Law and show us what the practice of law would be like in the real world. It was set in Boston because that’s where he practiced for three years before getting into television.

Bobby Donnell [Dylan McDermott] heads up a hole-in-the-wall law firm that includes associates Lindsay Dole [Kelli Williams], Ellenor Frutt [Camryn Manheim], Eugene Young [Steve Harris], Jimmy Berlutti [Michael Badalucco] and assistant Rebecca Washington [Lisa Gay Hamilton]. Lara Flynn Boyle was on hand as aggressive prosecutor Helen Gamble – who was also Bobby’s lover.

The cases that Donnell’s firm represented included such diverse clients as: a man who sues a major tobacco company when his wife of forty-three years dies of lung cancer; a girl who faces drug trafficking charges because she tried to help her brother; a woman, and her eleven-year old son who victims of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband; a man accuses of killing his daughter’s murderer; Jimmy, who’s charged with solicitation by a vengeful D.A.; a one-legged mugger, and a man who loses his job because he looks like a monkey.



Although Kelley’s odd sense of humor does get to shine during the course of the series’ run, it was more restrained than in any other of his shows. The Practice definitely played to the dramatic side of things. Bobby was the kind of guy who found it far more terrifying to represent the innocent [much more to lose if mistakes are made] and, while most of his associates were seasoned trial lawyers, one [Dole] was fresh from being admitted to the board and another [Berluti] had never won a case. Rebecca’s role amounted to research assistant/receptionist/cheerleader/mother hen – she kept the office afloat [which led to her attending law school and eventually becoming an associate].

The Practice: Volume One includes the six first season eps and the first seven eps of season two – the eps that were produced around Kelley’s initial premise of a scrabbling, underdog firm that was composed of characters from the fringes of law practice. With the show’s season two time slot being on Saturday night, the team had to become higher profile, and that led to high-profile cases, more eccentricity and a decline that eventually led to far more farcical Boston legal.

In the thirteen eps included here, we see Kelley’s vision exactly as he envisioned it. Although the series had an eight season run, these thirteen eps remain the best – and most dramatic – of the show.

The only feature is an eighteen-minute featurette: Setting Up The Practice. Kelly, another producer and various cast members talk about getting the show off the ground.

Grade: The Practice: Volume One: A
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]

 

[b]The Fall Guy: The Complete First Season[/b]

In the early eighties, the stuntman became a popular character in movies and TV. Former stuntman Burt Reynolds became a star in the Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, a movie about life as a stuntman. Peter O’Toole messed with Steve Railsback’s head in The Stunt Man. And Lee majors, looking for a way to avoid being typecast as The Six-Million Dollar Man’s Colonel Steve Austin, happened upon Glen Larson just as he’d finished selling a TV series idea about a stuntman. The result was a good-timey, goofball show about a stuntman who doubles as a bounty hunter when he doesn’t have movie work.

As memorable for its opening theme song, Ballad of the Unknown Stuntman, The Fall Guy was actually sold by using the song for its pitch. The idea was that stuntman Colt Seavers [Majors], and his partially educated nephew Howie [Douglas Barr] would hunt down bail jumpers – sometimes aided by stuntwoman Jody [Heather Thomas].

There wasn’t usually a mystery – the bail jumpers were usually wanted for crimes, but Colt, Howie and Jody only had to worry about bringing them in so that their employer, big Jack [Joann Pflug] wouldn’t lose her business. The result was mélange of stunts – both onset and in the pursuit of the bad guys.



Majors also managed to get a number of his friends to put in appearances, so the series featured cameos by the likes of Farrah Fawcett, James Coburn, Paul Williams, Robert Wagner and many more. The prospect of having a little fun in the lighthearted series also drew in some interesting guest stars, like Eddie Albert Jr., Percy Rodriguez, Lou Rawls, Henry Gibson, Terry Kiser, David Hedison and Heather Locklear. Helping to maintain a sense of continuity, Ben Cooper and William Bryant recurred as directors of various projects for which Colt and Jody had to perform stunts.

Overall, The Fall Guy was pure entertainment. It never pretended to have Something To Say, and it was never controversial. It was a series that emphasized family, fun and crashing cars into stuff. Shows like The Dukes of Hazzard may have done something similar in tone, but The Fall Guy was the Woody Strode or Dar Robinson of car crash series – in a league of its own.

The set contains two featurettes: The Unknown Stuntman: The Theme Song – a featurette on the song and how it was used to pitch the series, and Remembering The Fall Guy: An America Classic – Larson, Majors and Barr look back at the series.

Grade: The Fall Guy: The Complete First Season: B+
Grade: Features: D

[b]Final Grade: B[/b]

 

[b]Ironside: Season 1[/b]

Robert T. Ironside [Raymond Burr], Chief of Detectives for San Francisco, is spending some vacation time on the Police Commissioner’s chicken farm when an assassin’s bullets strike him down. A deliveryman finds him the next morning and the Chief is rushed to hospital, where he learns that he’ll never work again. His decades-spanning career is over.

Using his unique brand of persuasion, the curmudgeonly Ironside secures the Police Commissioner’s help in setting up as a Special Consultant to the Commissioner. He sets up in an old stockroom in police headquarters and puts together a team: Sgt. Ed Brown [Don Galloway], policewoman [and former society girl] Eve Whitfield [Barbara Anderson] and surly Mark Sanger [Don Mitchell] – a former young offender whom Ironside had put in juvenile detention.

His first assignment is to find his would-be killer [he writes Sanger off the list and rather forcefully suggests that Sanger should work for him]. The double-length Pilot for the series deals with that case and establishes the character as a cripple who will not be stopped by having to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The acerbic Ironside is short-tempered, keenly observant, very intelligent and hell on wheels [if you’ll permit a small pun] as a boss.



Other cases find The Chief – as everyone calls him – investigating racetrack robberies gone wrong; whether a murdered cop was corrupt; helping a pro football player try to keep his brother out of jail, and a sniper who’s terrorizing a college campus. Sanger chauffeurs Ironside and the team around in a paddy wagon that’s been converted into a combination crime lab and hi-speed pursuit vehicle.

The first season’s twenty-nine eps went a long way to making people think of Raymond burr as something other than Perry Mason – and that guy in Godzilla. The show was smart and forceful for its time. Smart scripts and [usually] excellent direction were further powered by the jazzy sounds of Quincy Jones’ scores. The cast was very good – all of the regulars could go toe-to-toe with Burr and more than hold their own – and the guest cast reads like a who’s who of movies and sixties’ television: Jack Lord, Geraldine Brooks, Barbara Barrie, Lee Grant, Farley Granger, Victor Jory, Susan Saint James and James Farentino among them…

Unfortunately, there are no bonus features included, but the series holds up well enough that they aren’t really missed.

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]

EM Review by Sheldon Wiebe
Originally Posted 06/18/07

Multiple Homicides And Budget Cuts Cause The Closer Major Grief!

The Closer - Kyra SedgwickLast season, TNT’s The Closer [Monday, 9/8C] pulled off an amazing feat – it got higher ratings than in its first year. The highest-rated basic cable series, ever, returns tomorrow night with a horrific murder case and serious crunch time at the Department budget cuts may cost Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson one of her team…

The Closer’s Season Three premiere, Homewrecker, opens with POV shots through a police videographer’s camera as he approaches and documents a horrific crime scene – the murder of three members of an affluent family: father, mother and daughter. Then, as Brenda [Kyra Sedgwick] tries to pull out all the stops to find the killer, she is informed of cutbacks. To make matters worse, her boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard [Jon Tenney] is nagging her to look at new houses/condos [he’s tired of having all his stuff in their garage].To say that Brenda is besieged is an understatement – the family may have been killed by one of its own, the teenage son, who was found hiding in the attic… high on ecstasy!

Then there’s need for a warrant that might be facilitated with Fritz’s help, but he won’t budge until Brenda goes house hunting with him. On top of that, Assistant chief Will Pop [J.K. Simmons] is having fits of apoplexy every time she does something that costs the department more money [using the department jet? OY!]. The mystery for the first ep of the season is a better than average one for the series. As usual, the writers play fair with the clues, and manage to make the solution tough by weaving it through Brenda’s other problems – like the solution to having to reassign one of her team to the Counter terrorism Unit, or maybe asking the gruff Lt.

Provenza [G.W. Bailey] to resign.

 

Although the ensemble cast of The Closer is excellent, this remains Kyra Sedgwick’s show as Brenda hands out assignments, cajoles, coaxes and bullies witnesses and suspects and runs interference for her team when it comes to the brass. In this commercial-free season premiere, Sedgwick is in top form – a force of nature that gets the job done regardless of the various encroaching dooms facing her team.

The Closer - Cast

One of the best aspects of the show is that, although Sedgwick is the undeniable star, at some point every member of the cast gets to do something only they could do. In this ep, it’s Sergeant Gabriel [Corey Reynolds] who gets to make a contribution that could solve the manpower problem – and maybe even make the department a few bucks.

If the revelations about the murdered family go a bit weird, and the solution – though fairly set up – is more than a little unusual, that’s par for the course on this series. The longer Brenda is in charge of the Priority Homicide Squad, the more complex and twisted her cases become – and it seems that’s unlikely to change.

The result is that Brenda’s life is a mess – but [for us, at least] an entertaining and absorbing mess. Will she ask Provenza [who took a while to come around to her way of doing things] to retire? How can Fritz ever persuade her to look for a place that’s big enough for their combined stuff? Will she chief Pop a coronary? And what happens when her parents find out that Fritz has moved in with her [they still don’t know!]…

The Closer is one show where the main characters’ lives are as interesting as Brenda’s cases. If Home-wrecker is any indication, it’s entirely possible that the series could gain viewers again, this year. So, welcome back Deputy Chief Johnson – and good luck!

Final Grade: A

Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer Gives Rise To A Much Better Sequel!

Rise of The Silver SurferThe first Fantastic Four was a bit clunky, and a bit awkward but still managed to be a lot of fun. Rise of The Silver Surfer – free from all that ponderous origin exposition – whips through its ninety-two minutes with action, effects and some genuine family character moments…

 

Reed Richards [Ioan Gruffudd] and Susan Storm [Jessica Alba] are really going to get married this time. They might be oh-for-four to this point, but Reed has promised that nothing will get in their way, this time. Of course, he probably wasn’t including the end of the world in that blanket statement, but one can never be sure…

The wedding plans are getting in Reed’s way – he still has scientific stuff he’s working on, but Susan puts a [temporary] stop to that by making his PDA invisible. Meanwhile, Johnny Storm, The Human Torch [Chris Evans] and Benjamin Grimm, the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing [Michael Chiklis] are carrying on as always – razzing each other and bugging Reed about the wedding plans – including the bachelor party.

Meanwhile, the ill-tempered General Hager [Andre Braugher] is apprised of some major nastiness and interrupts the family’s plans to get Reed to build a sensor to track something that has caused severe weather fluctuations around the world [turned water solid in Japan; caused snow in Egypt – that sort of thing]. He’s acting, in typical movie military fashion, in the interests of national security – not realizing that worldwide problems just might be indicative of something a wee bit more important.

Somehow, Reed gets the gizmo together, completes the wedding plans and manages to let loose [in true Mr. Fantastic style] before the actual wedding is interrupted by a flyby by the silver guy on the interstellar surfboard. The Fantastic Four roar into action, but things seem to get out of hand, so Hager enlists Victor Von Doom [Julian McMahon] [whose presence is presaged by a Surfer fight over Latveria] to work with Reed – despite Reed’s earnest protestations.

Rise of the Silver Surfer

The vast majority of critics [though not I] panned Fantastic Four, mostly, it seems, because it did not take itself seriously. The sequel will likely be roundly panned again, though this would be a shame. The screenplay, by Don Payne and Mark Frost, faithfully translates the essence of the comic and Tim Story’s direction is sleek and beautiful.

The relationships of the four come across precisely as in the comic and the team of Payne and Frost know enough about the comics to slip in references to pivotal moments in FF history – one of the best being Johnny’s first encounter with the Surfer putting his molecules "in a state of flux." Translated, that means when he touches one of the other three, they exchange powers. At a key point, he exchanges powers with all three of his teammates – in such a way that he manages to retain his flaming powers – and becomes the human equivalent of the Super Skrull [comics fans will get that – and it might presage a future film if the series continues to bring in the bucks].

The biggest effect, of course, is the Surfer, himself. Doug Jones does a terrific job of capturing the movements and poses of the character and really gives him both the majesty and pathos of the Lee/Kirby character. It’s a shame he didn’t get to do the voice, but Laurence Fishburne sells the character’s heart as well as anyone could.

Rise of the Silver Surfer - Johnny Storm

Since most of the film’s audience won’t necessarily know some key information about the Surfer, that revelation is handled with just the right amount of impact – as is the treachery of Von Doom. Both revelations lead to some cool action sequences and, of course, the single biggest CG set piece in the film.

 

Kudos must be given to the CG animators and the creators of The Thing’s costume. Both are exceptionally good. The action choreography is excellent and the actors, stunt people and effects really work well.

 

On the human side, the characters of the four are both consistent with the comics and real enough to hold an audience’s attention [even though Ms Alba really isn’t a terribly good actor]. McMahon doesn’t get to do as much in Rise of the surfer as he did in the original, but he does have a suitably evil presence that nicely balances out the goodness of the four and the nobility of the Surfer.

 

Overall, the film is smart enough to get up on stage, tell its story and get outta town. At a lean, mean ninety-two minutes [as noted above], Payne, Frost and Story manage to be true to the spirit of the comics and include believable human characters in amongst the superheroics.

The films real flaws are that the events of the film feel slightly compressed and Alba’s wig and blue eyes don’t feel real – the latter not being helped by her wooden acting. Also, Gruffudd may make Reed a bit too dull when he isn’t busy saving the world – That may be true to the comics, but is not something that works especially well in a movie.

Evans and Chiklis make the most of the peculiar, younger brother/older brother type of relationship. They get the best bits of business and most of the good lines – and they know how to work both. The introduction of a woman who isn’t immediately won over by Johnny’s efforts [Frankie Raye, played by Beau Garrett] is another nice nod to the comics – though she seems to come around to his charm a little to easily by film’s end.

Overall, this Fantastic Four film is a bit more than goofy summer fun – it’s just plain fun.

Final Grade: B+

Roberts’ Chops Not Quite Enough To Save Nancy Drew!

Nancy Drew Onesheet‘Tween icon Nancy Drew has been wowing girls since almost forever and spawned many, many movies, TV series and even comics. The new movie, Nancy Drew, enlists the aid of Emma Roberts to bring the character back to the silver screen. While the movie has a square-is-hip kind of oddball charm, if it succeeds in securing an audience, it will be mostly because of its star…

 

 

 

 

Nancy Drew opens with the earnest girl sleuth not only solving a case, but helping to persuade two thieves to turn on their boos [the police aren’t as interested in them as they are in him], and counseling one thug to seek psychiatric help in dealing with his anger management. When the police chief learns that the Drews will be moving to Los Angeles for a while, he mutters that the force is losing their best man – well, if she’d actually been on the force, or a man…

Unfortunately for Nancy, her plans to spend her time in LA trying to find out more about the death of a glamorous movie star are nipped in the bud by her father [Tate Donovan] who makes her promise that she’ll give up sleuthing – at least while they’re there. Of course, that’s going to happen…

Once the Drews settle into their new home – the former home of the aforementioned movie star – Nancy succumbs to temptation and begins to work the case. Before long, she’s rendering bombs harmless [by dropping them in a sewer]; chasing bad guys in her Nash Rambler roadster [but not going over the speed limit], and dropping in, unexpectedly, on her would-be kidnappers.

Somehow, with all this going on, she finds time to go to school, where her retro look [plaid skirts, penny loafers, and such] earns the ridicule of some of the school’s mean girls. Despite every effort to humble her, the other girls are eventually won over [in part because of the bomb thing, and partly because of a toney fashion store saleslady declaring that Nancy’s look is "The new Sincerity" – but mostly because of a wild party she hosts.

Nancy Drew

While it’s never in doubt that Nancy will solve the case, find the killer, and find the will that assigns the entire estate of Dehlia Draycott [Laura Elena Herring], the dead star, to her illegitimate daughter, the fun of the movie is supposed to come from the ride. Sadly, in meshing Nancy’s fifties look with modern LA, and playing the character dead straight [if you’ll excuse the expression], the promised culture clash between Nancy’s style and the modernity of LA is really given only the slightest gloss.

Still, there is a lot to like about the film. Nancy is smart and resourceful [Batman’s utility belt should be as well stocked as Nancy’s "sleuthing kit" purse], athletic [climbing, running, driving like A.J. Foyt] and compassionate [see: Dehlia Draycott’s daughter]. She also manages to build a solid professional relationship with one of the local precinct’s sergeants, throw that big party, and present her home’s caretaker, Leshing [Marshall Bell], with the surprise of his life.

While Nancy Drew may not be the best kids’ mystery around, Emma Roberts is a delight throughout. With looks to match her Aunt Julia’s, and chops to match her dad, Eric’s, she makes Nancy completely believable despite the silliness that creeps into the film. Another solid performance comes from Josh Flitter as a twelve-year old [who is in high school because his dad made a few calls] who develops a crush on Nancy and winds up as her sidekick and the film’s biggest source of comic relief.

Director Andrew Fleming [who co-wrote the script with Tiffany Paulsen] gives the film a breezy style that frequently undercuts moments of intended drama and poignancy. As a result, the film needs just a little more weight to really work. Instead, Nancy Drew is a bit of fluff that is really only notable for the performances of Roberts and Flitter. That’s sad, because if the rest of the movie was up to their level of performance, it might well have been memorable.

Final Grade: C+

Johnny Blazes To Glory in Ghost Rider: The 2-Disc Extended Cut!

Ghost Rider DVD Cover ArtWhen Ghost Rider hit theaters in February, it was roundly panned – except by those few reviewers who were actually familiar with the property. We, like the film’s not insignificant audience, recognized that it worked – and for a few very simple reasons: it respected the source material, and it managed to meld its disparate elements [werewolf movie, biker movie, gothic western and melancholy romance] into a unified whole…

 

Shortly after young Johnny Blaze discovers his father is dying of cancer, the ultimate seducer/salesman, Mephistopheles [Peter Fonda] appears to offer him a deal. In exchange for Johnny’s soul, Meph will cure his father’s cancer!

The next day, Barton Blaze [Brett Cullen] is "healthy as a horse" and Johnny prepares to run away from the circus with girlfriend Roxanne [Raquel Alsip]. As he heads away from the Blaze tent, he hears the sound of a crash. His completely healthy father has crashed and is dying.

Furious with himself, his father and, especially, Mephistopheles, Johnny hops on his motorcycle and rides off – taking a nasty spill at a crossroads, where old Jack Ketch himself appears to lay his claim and let him know that one day he will be required to provide a service…

Ten years later, Blaze [Nicolas Cage] is now a world famous super-Knievel, jumping two-dozen semis and bounding up from falls that would kill anyone else. His best friend, Mack [Donal Logue], suspects something’s up but has no idea what. Blaze may rock out to AC/DC when he’s working, but at home, he sips jellybeans out of a martini glass and listens to The Carpenters – rather than facilitate his demons, he’s fighting them all the way.

Ghost Rider: Johnny and Mephistolpheles

Almost simultaneously, Roxanne [Eva Mendes] and Mephistopheles come back into his life. Old Scratch wants Johnny to chase down some fallen angels and send them back to hell. Roxanne, it seems, never got over Johnny [despite her protestations to the contrary].

Unfortunately, one of the fallen that Johnny is to chase down just happens to be Meph’s son, Blackheart [Wes Bentley] – and he’s more powerful than Johnny [possibly because he doesn’t have a soul]. That gets in the way of romance when Johnny becomes The Rider on the same night he’s to meet Roxanne for dinner. And things rapidly get worse from there…

Writer/Director Mark Steven Johnson has created a movie that draws heavily [and appropriately] on the mythos of the Ghost rider comics. Much of the character comes from the original Johnny Blaze, but flourishes can be tracked to a later version named Danny Ketch.

The idea of a town of a thousand souls who are so evil they make Saddam Hussein look like Walt Disney is pretty cool – as is the idea that controlling those souls will allow Blackheart to take over the world and oust his father from his kingdom in Hell.

The film leans more toward action heroics than outright horror, but The Rider’s Penance Stare [when an evil man looks into The Rider’s eyes, he feels the pain of his victims – tenfold!] is genuinely creepy, and the effects that accompany the Stare are unique.

Ghost Rider: Johnny In The Graveyard

The mysterious Caretaker [Sam Elliott] may be a device to feed Johnny necessary exposition, but he’s also played a pivotal role in the tale of the thousand souls. His need for redemption allows Johnson to reference the Ketch comics and pay homage to the western hero that run under the name Ghost Rider in the ‘50s and early ‘70s.

Most of the performances are very good – especially Elliott [who can do no wrong, it seems], Alessi, Cage and Bentley. Eva Mendes seems to have some problems [you can tell when that happens – suddenly her body seems more lush and her teeth seem whiter], but does have some good moments. Logue is excellent, as well, but his part is way too brief – Mack exists to bolster Johnny [if a good guy like Mack pals with Johnny, then Johnny must be a good guy, too, right?].

The effects are good enough that we never notice the real fire in one key scene when it happens [check out the commentaries – I don’t want to ruin the surprise]. The lack of use of the earth elemental is also explained in the commentaries, but his short appearance is still one of the film’s biggest flaws. He really should’ve been replaced with a character who could have been used to better effect.

Extras are plentiful: the Audio Commentary by Johnson and Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Mack is extremely cool – and speaks to why certain scenes were cut from the theatrical cut; the Audio Commentary by Producer Gary Foster looks at the film from the point of view of production issues; there are three "making of" documentaries: Spirit of Vengeance; Spirit of Adventure, and Spirit of Execution that cover pre-production, production and post-production; Sin & Salvation is a series of four featurettes that look at the history of the Ghost Rider in comics, and Animatics is, as you might expect, a collection of animatics for a number of key set pieces.

There is also a bonus disc that looks at two major collectibles from the movie and excerpts from Ghost Rider panels at both the 2005 and 2006 comic cons.

Grade: Ghost Rider – The Extended Cut: B

Grade: Features: A

Final Grade: B+

EM Review by Sheldon A. Wiebe

Originally Posted 06-14-07

Ocean’s 13: Easy, Breezy Caper Flick Is Smooth And Stylish – And Great Fun!

After the inexcusably smug and self-referential [i]Ocean’s Twelve[/i], one might have been forgiven for thinking that another sequel might just be a bad idea. Instead, with its cornucopia of star power and more than just a little something to prove, Steven Soderberg’s [i]Ocean’s 13[/i] is as smooth as a vodka martini and as stylish as a second millennium Beau Brummel…

Legendary Vegas entrepreneur Reuben Tishkoff [Elliot Gould] thought he was on his way back. His deal with Willy Bank [Al Pacino] would result in the biggest and best casino/hotel/shopping complex in town, and things would be great! Unfortunately, Bank – a notoriously evil individual – swindled Reuben out of his share and the ensuing shock put him in bed, in a semi-comatose state.

Enter Danny Ocean [George Clooney] and Rusty Ryan [Brad Pitt]. Gathering together their crew, the two vow vengeance – not just vengeance, but a singularly appropriate vengeance [mere death being too good for the man who broke the code that exists between men who have shaken Sinatra’s hand!]…

When The Bank opens, Bank expects to get yet another Five Diamond rating and turn profits of over half-a-billion dollars per day. What Danny Proposes, is to fix the entire casino [dice, blackjack, roulette] so that everyone but the house wins. He even has a plan to disrupt the casino’s ultra-high-tech security system.



Naturally, things don’t proceed quite according to plan and Danny has to enlist his first victim, Terry Benedict [Andy Garcia] in an enemy-of-my-enemy kind of situation. The hitch is that Benedict requires more than just shafting the casino for a half-billion dollars. He also wants Danny’s crew to steal the diamond necklaces that came with Bank’s previous Five Diamond Ratings – something that is quite beyond their skills.

[b]Ocean’s 13[/b] moves along at a slightly better than leisurely pace. Since we know the good guys are going to come out victorious, we’re here more for the suavity and star power. If not all the parts of Danny’s plan seem plausible, we take them in stride, with a wink and a nudge. Like the original Rat Pack, the latter-day Ocean crew is all about chemistry, style and goofin’…



Soderberg, we can tell, doesn’t put any less of his craft into these caper flicks than he does in his serious films. Indeed, his use of primary colors at certain points remind of other directors who’ve influenced him, and his ingenuity at finding just exactly the right odd angle, or the best use of light is as good as it’s ever been. His camera work is exceptional [he did his own cinematography under a pseudonym].

The script is as loosey-goosey as the casual attitude of the players. Even if not everyone is used to full potential [like Don Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, for instance], everyone gets a brief turn upon screen and the result is almost more fun than anyone should expect in a second sequel. Even the music – from a truly demented arrangement of Caravan, to a sprinkling of Tomita’s electronic Claire de Lune – is as breezy and easy to take as the performances.

It’s great to see Clooney and Pitt, especially, sauntering along, finishing each other’s sentence [at some points, one will start a sentence, the other will provide a section and the first will complete it – it’s magical to watch!]. As the film’s big guns, they carry the weight of the project [such as it is] effortlessly.

[b]Final Grade: A-[/b]

EM Rview by Sheldon A. Wiebe
Originally posted 06/12/07

Fans Say Nuts! CBS Brings Back Jericho!

[i]Star Trek[/i] fans swamped NBC with mail; [I]Roswell[/I] inundated The WB and UPN with Tobasco Sauce – but [I]Jericho[/I] fans literally said “Nuts!” to CBS’ cancellation of their favorite series. After over 50,000 lbs [25 [I]tons[/I]!] of nuts were delivered to the network, they capitulated – though not without conditions.

The following open letter was released by CBS just minutes ago:

[b]To the Fans of Jericho[/b]:

Wow!

Over the past few weeks you have put forth an impressive and probably unprecedented display of passion in support of a prime time television series. You got our attention; your emails and collective voice have been heard.

As a result, CBS has ordered seven episodes of “Jericho” for mid-season next year. In success, there is the potential for more. But, for there to be more “Jericho,” we will need more viewers.

A loyal and passionate community has clearly formed around the show. But that community needs to grow. It needs to grow on the CBS Television Network, as well as on the many digital platforms where we make the show available.

We will count on you to rally around the show, to recruit new viewers with the same grass-roots energy, intensity and volume you have displayed in recent weeks.

At this time, I cannot tell you the specific date or time period that “Jericho” will return to our schedule. However, in the interim, we are working on several initiatives to help introduce the show to new audiences. This includes re-broadcasting “Jericho” on CBS this summer, streaming episodes and clips from these episodes across the CBS Audience Network (online), releasing the first season DVD on September 25 and continuing the story of Jericho in the digital world until the new episodes return. We will let you know specifics when we have them so you can pass them on.

On behalf of everyone at CBS, thank you for expressing your support of “Jericho” in such an extraordinary manner. Your protest was creative, sustained and very thoughtful and respectful in tone. You made a difference.

Sincerely,

Nina Tassler
President, CBS Entertainment

P.S. Please stop sending us nuts 🙂

EM Story Posted By Sheldon A. Wiebe
Posted On 06/06/07

Dragon Dynasty Re-Issues Hong Kong Classics Shanghai Express and Above The Law!

Dragon Dynasty makes a habit of reissuing the most entertaining martial arts movies. Their newest releases are a Sammo Hung classic, [i]Shanghai Express[/i], and Cory Yuen’s [i]Above The Law[/i] – examples of the wildly divergent styles to be found in the genre…

[b][i]Shanghai Express[/i][/b]

[i]Shanghai Express[/i] [also known as [i]Millionaire’s Express[/i]] is a sweeping farce that mixes a number of disparate elements: Keystone Kops sequences, the Orient Express, and the classic Western to oddly entertaining effect. Trying to summarize the movie’s plot would be exhausting, but here are a few of the high points: Hanshui Town’s corrupt police rob the bank and leave town; a scavenger/scam artist robs corpses – but it’s a war games simulation and he gets caught by the “dead”; a thirties-style gang plans to rob the Shanghai Express; the scam artist tries to makes amends by stopping the train so its passengers will spend their money in Hanshui. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

Sammo Hung directs – and stars as the semi-repentant crook – with vigor and humor. Main characters include: the fire chief who becomes Hanshui’s police chief [Yuen Biao], and the sheriff who’s been on Hung’s trail [Eric Tsang]. Among the various other characters are a madam who loves Hung; the madam’s band of prostitutes; three samurai [one, woman] who are taking a Chinese treasure to Japan, and a gentleman in a deerstalker who is having an affair.



Somehow, all these disparate elements combine to create an epic of martial arts mayhem and goofiness that makes it very difficult to look away from the screen. The fight choreography [by Hung and his Stuntman Team] ranges from stunning and mind-blowing to hysterically funny. For martial arts movie aficionados, many of the best martial arts actors and stuntmen have cameos [it’s like a group of friends got together to make a movie and decided that everyone they knew should pop up in it somewhere – which is exactly the case!].

As part of the marketing for North America, Cynthia Rothrock is featured prominently on the box art and cast list, though her role is fairly small – except for a truly demented fight with Hung. Richard Norton makes an appearance as well, and even has a few lines [he suffers a particularly nasty defeat…].

Somehow, [i]Shanghai Express[/i] manages to be an entertaining movie [many serious martial arts fans consider it a classic, though I’m not sure that even the two early CG effects warrant such devotion] instead of a mass of confusing bits. It’s energetic and fun and that makes it worth seeing.

Features include: Audio Commentary by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan; Rare Deleted Scenes; Express Delivery, an interview with Sammo Hung; Way Out West, an interview with Yuen Biao; Trailblazer, an interview with Cynthia Rothrock, and a Trailer Gallery.

Shanghai Express – Grade: B
Features – B+
[b]Final Grade: A[/b]

[b][i]Above The Law[/i][/b]

Above The Law is notable for a number of reasons: it was the first film produced by star Yuen Biao; it’s one of Cynthia Rothrock’s first leading roles, and it’s one of Cory Yuen’s earliest directorial efforts. The plot is a fairly typical vigilante one, with a Hong Kong prosecutor getting fed up after yet another witness – along with all seven members of his family – is killed to keep two gang lords from going to trial.

Biao plays the prosecutor; Rothrock is a testy police inspector who comes to suspect of killing the two gangsters; Cory Yuen doubles up as a slob cop who winds up as Rothrock’s partner, and Melvin Wong plays the stern, but philosophical police lieutenant – and Rothrock and Yuen’s direct superior.

With its slim, focused plot, [i]Above The Law[/i] hurtles along. In some ways – notably the use of guns and explosives – feels a bit like a John Woo gangster movie, but the martial arts are spectacular enough to give the film a unique feel. Yuen shows himself to be able to direct action [choreographed by Sammo Hung’s Stunt Team, of course] of all sorts. The movie features car chases, gunfights, Eastern martial arts, kickboxing and even some impressive climbing and jumping stunts. What’s even more unusual is that Yuen does some very nice work with character moments [not always a strong point in martial arts movies].



If you’re new to martial arts movies, some of the acting will be surprising. Biao and Rothrock are far better actors than they are usually given credit for. Wong plays his character’s twists with a black humor that is singularly prepossessing. Even kickboxing champion Peter Cunningham’s over-the-top performance [as an assassin] fits nicely into the conventions of the genre. Special mention should also be made of Karen Shepherd’s appearance as assassin whose sole reason for being in the movie seems to be in order to show that Rothrock doesn’t just kick the guys’ asses. Their brawl is great fun.

Originally released as [i]Righting Wrongs[/i], [i]Above The Law[/i] is a classic. It combines its gangster and martial arts elements in a way that feels right – and it arrives at a conclusion that is surprisingly Shakespearean. It really holds up well as a film [it was released in 1983], as well as a showcase for some of the best martial arts choreography ever.

Features include: Audio Commentary by Bey Logan; Alternate Endings [we barbarians seem to like happy, shiny endings, after all]; The Vigilante, an interview with Yuen Biao; Action Overload, and interview with Cynthia Rothrock; From The Ring to The Silver Screen, an interview with Peter Cunningham, and a Trailer Gallery.

Above The Law – Grade: A
Features – B+
[b]Final Grade: A-[/b]

EM Review Posted by Sheldon A. wiebe
06/06/07

[b]Check the DVD Page for more current DVD reviews…[/b]

Sheldon Says: Knocked Up Is The Year’s Best Comedy!

Back in my retail days, I had a regular customer who was, as some might say, “smokin’!” She was in Katherine Heigl’s league for looks and smarts, while her husband made Seth Rogen look like Matt Damon [she said she fell for him because he made her laugh…]. So I know exactly how much reality lurks beneath the surface of [i]Knocked Up!’s[/i] fusion of puerile humor and romance.

When Allison Scott [Katherine Heigl] gets a promotion to on-air interviewer at E!, her sister Debbie [Leslie Mann] decides to take her out to celebrate. At a club [where they’ve been let in ahead of a bunch of people – including a certain chubby, curly-haired goof – because Allison is hot] Allison gets a couple of beers courtesy of a smooth move by the aforementioned stoner goof, Ben Stone [Seth Rogen] and, when Debbie has to leave early because of her kids, she and Ben get to know each other a lot better. Eight weeks later, Allison discovers she’s pregnant…

Essentially, the film deals with Allison’s efforts to bond with her baby’s father, while giving us a look at her sister’s marriage to Peter [Paul Rudd]. Peter and Debbie have a marriage in which Debbie tries to train Peter [something she suggests that Allison do with Ben]. Ben, who is not a control freak like Debbie, plays along – though they have their fights. In spite of their problems, Peter and Debbie’s kids have somehow managed to be pretty much normal.

After learning that he is the father of Allison’s baby, Ben decides that he’s on board and makes a valiant effort to figure out the whole responsibility thing – failing spectacularly when he doesn’t read any of the dozen baby books they’ve purchased together [and she finds out]! Their blowout fight causes a breakup, with Allison and Debbie trying to go out partying and Ben and Peter [who’s also been thrown out of the house – because he wasn’t cheating!] head off to Vegas to catch Cirque Du Soleil whilst under the influence of mushrooms…



Why is [i]Knocked Up[/i] so good? Because Apatow understands that relationships aren’t just about the big events – the small stuff is what really matters most. Here, the fights over big stuff are played for comedic effect, while the fights over trivial poop are the ones that get the dramatic treatment [bear in mind that more spousal murders are committed over snoring, nose hair in the sink and failure to help with the dishes than over cheating]…

While both Peter and Ben realize that they’re screwing up situations that others would kill to be in – Debbie finds that her attempts at training Peter aren’t conducive to a happy marriage – Allison somehow doesn’t get that Ben is really the right guy for her. At the same time, Ben takes charge of his life. He dumps his dope-smoking and celebrity nude website idea and gets a real job. He gets his own place, reads the baby books – and puts in a nursery.



Subplots involving Allison not telling her bosses at E! that she’s pregnant, and the various antics of Ben’s stoner roommates provide some terrific moments, but they are in support of the evolution of the main characters. As such, they add to the film’s forward momentum in frequently odd ways [when Allison meets Ben’s roomies, for example…].

As with [i]The 40-Year Old Virgin[/i], Apatow has a knack for finding that sweet spot where bathroom humor, romance and dramatic truth hit a crossroads. His ability to fuse such disparate elements together is unparalleled – as when the panicked Allison calls him because her gynecologist has decided to go out of town for a bar mitzvah rather than keep his promise to be there for her when the time comes.

Again, as with Virgin, Apatow doesn’t go in for any really cinematic tricks. His shots are as stripped to the bone as is required to tell the story. Not a frame is wasted – even though [i]Knocked Up[/i] is over two hours long. When I came out of the theater, I felt happy and energized – feelings that are usually generated by a good, adrenaline pumping blockbuster. That an R-rated romantic comedy – with a tone – of rude humor – could generate that response says a lot about Apatow’s ability to entertain.

[b]Final Grade: A[/b]

EM Review Posted by Sheldon A. Wiebe
Originally Posted 06/03/07