All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

DVD REVIEW: The Mindscape of Alan Moore – The Creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta Speaks!

Originally a short film by Dez Vylenz for his film school thesis, The Mindscape of Alan Moore is an expanded ramble by Moore on various subjects – from Watchmen to the reasons he one day decided to tell his friends and family that he was a magician.

Mindscape_Box Art

The format is incredibly simple: Moore sits on a comfy chair in his living room and speaks for almost ninety minutes. Given that he comes across as your favorite eccentric professor – the on whose lectures you never miss – this is not a hardship. Moore is an engaging speaker and is always witty and direct.

As he speaks, director Vylenz uses various means to enhance Moore’s subjects. There are some good old-fashioned psychedelic lightshow effects; CG animations that illustrate points Moore makes about concepts like “ideaspace,” and even live-action recreations of moments from some of Moore’s best known comics work: V for Vendetta [V putting on his unique mask], Watchmen [Rorschach perched on a rooftop looking out over the city], three instances of a blond guy in a trenchcoat, smoking as he wanders the streets of London [yup, it’s Constantine – though we only find that out in the end credits and the director’s commentary.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss about Moore is, The Mindscape of Alan Moore will give you a glimpse of his genius/madness – whichever you may take it to be. If you’re already a fan, it will give you some insights into the man that may actually enhance your enjoyment of his writings.

Features: Disc 1: Scene Specific Audio Commentary by Dez Vylenz; Making a Mindscape – a narration-free video diary of the film’s making; Director Interview – Dez Vylenz – Producer/Writer/Director; Interview: Brian Kinney – Special Make-Up Effects; Interview with Drew Richards – Music composer/Sound Designer; Trailer 1 [Lustmord St.], and Trailer 2 [Drew Richards St.]. Disc 2: Interviews From the comics World – Melinda Gebbie [The Lost girls w. Moore], Dave Gibbons [Watchmen], Paul Gravette [Author/Comics Historian], David Lloyd [V for Vendetta], Kevin O’Neill [League of Extraordinary Gentlemen], and Jose´ Villarubia [Promethea].

Grade: The Mindscape of Alan Moore – A

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Beverly Hills Chihuahua: Kids’ Flick Is Smart Enough For Parents to Enjoy!

You’ve probably seen the trailers with the ancient Aztec ruins and the Esther Williams-like production number performed by Chihuahuas. The movie lacks the production number but the ruins play a crucial part in the proceedings. What’s really surprising is that Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a kids’ flick that will entertain the kids but has some gags that will work only for the parents.

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Chloe [voiced by Drew Barrymore] is the queen of the Beverly Hills canine scene. Spoiled rotten by her owner, Vivian [Jamie Lee Curtis], Chloe is shallow, selfish and haughty – not to mention rude to Papi [George Lopez], the landscaper’s Chihuahua who loves her. That all changes when Vivian heads off to Europe for ten days, leaving Chloe in the irresponsible hands of her niece, Rachel [Piper Perabo] – who heads off to Mexico to party, dragging Chloe along.

More concerned about partying and meeting guys, Rachel lets Chloe get away from her and the poor thing is dognapped for a floating illegal dogfight enterprise. Because this is a Disney film, the dogfight never happens as Delgado [Andy Garcia], a noble German Shepherd, rescues her just before her opponent, a vicious Doberman named Diablo [Edward James Olmos] can rip her to shreds. The rest of the film is the story of Chloe and her new friend try to get her home – all the while Rachel, Papi and his owner, Sam [Manolo Cordona] are looking for them.

Director Raja Gosnell [Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months] keeps the pace up, giving the film the feel of a romantic farce. The voice cast is extremely good [big names are joined by animation veterans like Grey DeLisle], though Cheech Marin does a little scene stealing voicing a rat con artist who works with a dim iguana. While the film is mostly light and frothy – darkening only for brief periods [and kids love a good scare, so it’s not an issue] – it is not unintelligent. The characters are well [and sometimes cleverly] drawn and the relationships that form along the way feel very natural.

Off course, we’re taking about a talking animals film [though the animals are only understood by each other], and no one does them better than Disney. The CG work that makes the animals appear to be speaking is very good, and the practical effects are right up there, as well.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua may not quite be inspired, but it is definitely good fun – good enough to not embarrass the parents whose kids drag them along to see it.

Final Grade: B

TELEVISION: Sanctuary – Sanctuary for All: Not an Empty Motto!

The Sci Fi Channel’s new series, Sanctuary [Fridays, 9/8C] is adapted from the internet series of the same name. It revolves around Dr. Helen Magnus and her “sanctuary for all.”

Dr. Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne] is a mess. A forensic psychologist, he’s lost his job with the FBI and now plies his trade with a police force that pays no attention to his theories and opinions. When he attempts to help the police investigate a triple homicide – including two police officers – he begins an adventure that will clear up mysteries that have tormented him since he was eight years old, even as he encounters new mysteries that will change the way he thinks, acts and maybe even dreams.

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Who is Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping]? Who is the blonde Valkyrie [Emilie Ullerup] on the motorcycle? And who is the tall, bald, sinister apparition [Christopher Heyerdahl] who can seemingly move faster than bullets? And what do they have to do with a scared ten-year old boy of Slavic ancestry? And what is Magnus’ semi-simian chauffeur, anyway?

Sanctuary’s two-hour premiere, Sanctuary For All, answers these questions and leads into a series that explores the concept that every creature from folklore and mythology is real. The physical Sanctuary is the place where Magnus and her team provide safety for those creatures who seek refuge, and confinement for those whose predatory natures threaten humanity.

Shot almost completely in CGI [only the cast and essential props are live action], Sanctuary has a unique look [think classic Universal horror mixed with urban cop show] and an equally unique feel. The premiere introduces the aforementioned characters plus a tall humanoid who might well be the so-called Missing Link. The ten-year old boy fits right in as a genetic mutation from Chechnya.

The script is solid, if not inspiring, and intriguing – especially since it gives us enough answers to make us wonder just how many more questions are out there waiting to be answered. The acting is, for the most part, adequate. Tapping’s English accent may wobble from time to time, but emotionally, she’s spot on. Dunne makes Zimmerman, who is almost a Daniel Jackson clone, seem fresh and different. There’s even a cameo from Battlestar Galactica alumnus Kandyse McClure as Zimmerman’s ex – just to emphasize how damaged he is.

The keyword here is potential. The premiere lays out an intriguing premise and gives us sufficient background to make us feel like we can relate that that specific world. It may be a bit stilted, but it manages to convey its concepts relatively clearly, and the cast of characters is an odd mix or near-immortal, exuberant youth, damaged professional and surly/quirky tech master. The mix of science and myth works, for the most part – and so does Sanctuary.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: The Ex List: Grey’s Anatomy’s Ava Strikes Out On Her Own!

Elizabeth Reaser did such a great job of playing the badly injured Ava/Rebecca on Grey’s Anatomy that it seems only right that she should have asked to front a series of her own. The Ex List [CBS, Fridays, 10/9C] is a bit of a high concept dramedy – Bella Bloom [Reaser] is told by a psychic [Anne Bedian] that she must marry within the year or she never will – but she has already met her soulmate, and he’s someone she’s had a relationship with in the past!

Ex List - Bella & Psychic

Bella’s situation arises from the bachelorette party for her younger sister, Daphne [Rachel Boston], and her own weird thought that visiting a psychic would be the perfect way to cap the evening. When other predictions she made come true in wildly unexpected [and funny] ways, she begins to take the psychic seriously – not least of all when bird poop leads to her discovery that former boyfriend Johnny Diamont [Eric Balfour] is back in town – and has a punk rock band. When she and roommate Vivian [Alexandra Breckenridge] go to his show, his first song shows he remembers her, and not particularly fondly…

The Ex List is based on an Israeli series, but seems to be of a vastly different tone [Diane Ruggerio, who adapted the series for America, left the show over creative differences – and she wanted to maintain the tone of the original]. In the premiere, she has a life – she runs a flower shop and has a core group of friends who share a house with her: the aforementioned Vivian, her best friend; Augie [Adam Rothenberg], Vivian’s boyfriend, and Cyrus [Amir Talai], who is a bit of a cynic and a slacker.

Although Reaser doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, she is the principal here, and her ability to shift from comedy to drama to melodrama in mid-line [and to look really, really good in a bikini] is the show’s primary plus. The cast has solid chemistry [always important], but the writing isn’t quite right, yet. The balance between humor, drama and melodrama needs to be tweaked [less melodrama, more drama – the humor content is about right]. I enjoyed the pilot, but I hope that the show will find that balance – that sweet spot – that can elevate it to the next level.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: Ghost Whisperer: Departures and Arrivals!

In the season premiere for Ghost Whisperer [CBS, Fridays, 9/8C], Firestarter, Melinda [Jennifer Love Hewitt] has to say farewell to a friend, while helping a sceptical psychologist learn to deal with being able to hear ghosts. It’s an entertaining episode of a series that never quite achieves greatness, but is always entertaining.

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When Jim [David Gordon] is called to a fire at the university, Melinda tags along fearing that her colleague, Rick Payne [Jay Mohr] might be a victim. Rick, it turns out, is fine – but Melinda sees a mysterious black woman who disappears, and the spirit of a victim leave his body while Jim works on him – and then return after being hit with the defibrillator.

The man is Dr. Eli James [Jamie Kennedy] and when Melinda sees him and a ghost chatting in his hospital room later, she decides to help him with his new “gift.” Unlike her, though, he can only hear ghosts – not see them. And he seems to prefer thinking that he’s gone crazy over being able to talk with ghosts – especially this ghost, Fiona [Alona Tal], who was his patient.

Like the best eps of the series, Firestarter is more than adequately written; directed with a deft touch and features the best performance that Jamie Kennedy has ever given. There are scenes that are simultaneously comic and dramatic – as when Eli is surrounded by a half-dozen ghosts, all imploring him to help them, in a bar that’s otherwise empty but for the bartender and a guy playing pool – and there are scenes that are heartbreaking – as when we learn why Fiona’s ghost hasn’t crossed over. I’ll let you discover who’s leaving…

Fans of the series will love this ep, while those who haven’t tried it before will find it to be a solid hour’s entertainment. No more, no less.

Final Grade: B-

DVD REVIEW: Sports Night: The complete series: 10th Anniversary Edition –What Rare Wonderment!

Ten years ago, ABC premiered a new half hour series the likes of which had never been seen before. With its single-camera walk-and-talks and three camera set pieces, it was a hybrid both in terms of style and content, being both dramatic and comedic in equal measure. Sports Night, which chronicled the behind the scenes goings on of running an ESPN/Sports center type of show, introduced the television audience to the unique perspective of creator Aaron Sorkin and his quintessential director, Thomas “Tommy” Schlamme.

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With an ensemble cast of first-rate actors [Robert Guillaume, Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Sabrina Lloyd and Joshua Malina as the main characters and recurring players including Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Timothy Davis-Reed, Suzanne Kellogg, Jeff Mooring and Ron Ostrow] who could shift from drama to comedy [and vice-versa] in the middle of a line – hell! In the middle of a word!; dialogue-heavy scripts that could be as much as sixty-to-seventy pages for a thirty-minute show, and that unique shooting style, Sports Night became a cult hit even while it was airing – and it influenced an entire wave of single-camera shows. It’s safe to say that The Office and Arrested Development would probably not have been sold if Sports Night hadn’t laid the groundwork.

The show was groundbreaking in content as well as style. Some of the best episodes carried controversy lightly on their shoulders – The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee dealt with race and the Confederate flag; Jeremy Goodwin dated an “adult film actress” over a four-episode arc; The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail dealt with date rape by a sports star; co-anchor Dan begins therapy, and so much more – not for the sake of controversy, but always in service of telling a compelling story.

In a momentary burst of controversy, I’m going on record as saying that Sports Night is the only series I’ve ever seen that produced no bad eps. None. Zero. Nada. Bupkiss. Zilch. It is a series that I can watch over and over and enjoy as much as I did the first time I saw it. Most eps of Sports Night are such works of beauty that I even mist over – made melancholy by the way the series died early, while far lesser programs flourished [I’m looking at you, According to Jim!] . For me, Aaron Sorkin will always the creator of Sports Night and those other two shows.

The six-disc Shout!Factory box set does it justice.

Features include: two excellent commentaries by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme for the series premiere, Pilot, and the series finale, Quo Vadimus; a terrific commentary by editor Jane Ashikaga for Small Town; two decent commentaries for The Six southern Gentlemen of Tennessee by Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Sabrina Lloyd and Robert Berlinger, and Eli’s Coming by Peter Krause and Robert Berlinger; three so-so-to-awful commentaries by various cast members for Sally, Kafelnikov and The Local Weather; Season One Bonus Disc: The Show – new interviews with cast and crew; Face-Off – ESPN’s Sports Center vs. Sports Night – the pros talk about what the show got right and… not so much; Season One Gag Reel; Season Two Bonus Disc: Looking Back – an intimate conversation with Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme; Inside the Locker room – a look at the technical innovations of Sports Night, and the Season Two Gag Reel.

Grade: Sports Night: The Complete Series – A+

Grade: Features: A+

Final Grade: A+

DVD REVIEW: Iron Man Ultimate 2-Disc Edition Flies High!

In my review of Iron Man during its theatrical run, after noting that the film worked mainly because of its honouring the source material from the Marvel comics, I wrapped up with:

“While the action scenes aren’t as accomplished as something by Michael Bay, they come off better because director Jon Favreau understands that it’s the characters that make everything else in the film work. He keeps the pace high enough to prevent lessening of interest and knows how to make the film’s effects serve the story. This is a film with surprising wit and genuine intelligence.”

Iron Man Box Art

Repeated screenings [twice more in the theater and twice more on DVD] convince me that I was remiss in grading the film a mere A-. Considering that the film’s only real flaw is that the big fight scene between Iron Monger and Iron Man is a bit clunky [which, when you think about it, is appropriate for the big, clumsy looking Iron Monger], and considering that the film translates extremely well from big screen to small, I have to revise that upwards.

Then there are the multitudinous features. How many are there? Check this out: Disc One: Eleven Deleted and/or Extended Scenes; Iron Man Adventures Teaser; Disc Two: I Am Iron Man [Seven Featurettes Documenting the Making if Iron Man: The Journey Begins; The Suit That Makes The Iron Man; Walk of Destruction; Grounded In Reality; Beneath the Armor; It’s All In The Details; A Good Story Well Told]; The Invincible Iron Man [Six Featurettes Covering the History of Iron Man In Comics: Origins; Friends and Foes; The Definitive Iron Man; Demon In a Bottle; Extremis and Beyond; Ultimate Iron Man]; Robert Downey’s Screen Test; The Actor’s Process [Downey, Jeff Bridges and Jon Favreau figure out a scene]; The Onion: Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer To Be Adapted Into full-Length Film; Galleries: Concept Art [Environments: Afghan Cave, Stark Estate, Stark Garage, Stark Industries; Characters: Iron Man, Iron Monger, Tony Stark]; Tech; Unit Photography, and Posters. There is no commentary track and that costs the Features grade.

The DVD’s menus are patterned after the 3D Hologram effects in the film and are both really cool and easy to navigate. The DVD comes in a standard box inside an embossed card stock slip cover.

Grade: Iron Man – A

Grade: Features – B+

Final Grade: A

DVD REVIEW: Quark: The Complete Series: Children and Quasi-Norms First!

In May, 1977, NBC premiered a [very] short-lived satirical science fiction series created by Buck Henry – one of the duo behind Get Smart. The series was called Quark and it ran for seven weeks before it was unceremoniously cancelled. The series was based around a United Galactic Sanitation Patrol vessel captained by Adam Quark [Richard Benjamin].

Quark Cover Art

Most of the components of the series were based on Star Trek – particularly the relationship between Quark and his Vegeton science officer, Ficus [Vegetons, being plants have no emotions] – The Captain’s “Space Notes;” the transporter [or at least its sound effects], and even one episode, Goodbye Polumbus, which was a send up of the classic Trek ep, Shore Leave.

Henry took the Get Smart template [smart stories about less than brilliant characters in important positions] and transferred it to Quark. The crew of the USGP ship included Gene/Jean [Tim Thomerson], a “transmute” who exhibited both male and female behaviors; Ficus [Richard Kelton], the aforementioned Vegeton; Bettys I & II [Trish and Cybill Barnstable], a human and her clone, both of them second in command [and both of them crazy about their captain], and Andy [Bobby Porter], a cowardly android/robot that Quark built from spare parts. They received their missions from Otto Palindrome [Conrad Janis], commander of Perma Station 1 and The Head [Alan Caillou], a disembodied giant head seen only on a video screen.

Besides the show’s riffs on Star Trek, it also poked fun at all manner of SF and space opera conventions. The episode, May the Source Be With You, had a pretty obvious target [and skewered it pretty thoroughly] and set the tone for the series. But the show was just hitting it stride with the two-part Flash Gordon spoof, All The Emperor’s Quasi-Norms, when it was taken from NBC’s schedule.

Much of the series has held up pretty well, but there are instances where the silliness doesn’t quite make it. Overall, though, even some of the effects hold up – the transporter is more colorful than Trek’s and the series did show a fair number of actual alien lifeforms [some of which changed shapes disconcertingly – check out Captain Walker who is radically different in each of two eps].

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: The Unit: The Unit Has No Women!

As The Unit [CBS, Sundays, 10/9C] wraps up its latest mission overseas – with the help of an undercover female soldier [pictured below] – their wives are told to drop every connection they have to their everyday lives, send their kids off to distant relatives and repair to an unknown location.

The Unit, S4

The fourth season of The Unit, Sacrifice, finds the team attempting to thwart a terrorist attempt to assassinate the President-Elect Benjamin Castillo [Benito Martinez] – a task made more difficult because the men attempting the assassination are dressed in proper military garb and know the codes of the day.

Written by the show’s Co-Executive Producer, Frank Military, and directed by the show’s creator, David Mamet, Sacrifice is the show’s best season premiere since the first one. Military’s script is smart and manages to create an arc that allows The Unit and their families to become – in an unexpected way – connected, story-wise. With the seeming uprooting of the families, and a terrorist organization that has the funding and training to attack the United States President, Vice-President, President-Elect and Vice-President-Elect, this first part of a two-parter pretty much cooks from beginning to end.

And that unofficial rule that “The Unit has no women?” It appears that the knowledge of that rule may have given the team an unexpected advantage as they track down the group behind the assassination attempts. Between that twist and the upheaval in the lives of The Unit’s families, the show’s creative team is showing that they have no plans to let the series get stale.

I just wish my screener had both eps. I hate cliffhangers! Seriously!

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Cold Case: Solid Procedural Enters Sixth Season

It’s hard to believe, but Cold Case [CBS, Sundays, 9/8C] has been setting the ghosts of the past to rest for over five years. The sixth season premiere, Glory Days, follows the familiar pattern – after we see the final moments of Michael “Bad Moon” McShane [Aaron Hill] in 1973, a piece of evidence is discovered in the present that suggests he was killed much later than was previously thought. Enter Lilly Rush [Kathryn Morris]  and her team of cold case investigators.

Cold Case, S6

“Bad Moon” was a football star who disappeared the night before the championship game. The investigation puts together a picture of how his last few days were spent by questioning various of his friends, coaches, tutors and such. There’s his teammate, Tom “The Breeze” Bernard [B.J. Britt/Clifton Powell], who lost his scholarship because McShane reported his ill health; Steve Pratt [Sean O’Bryan/James Karen], the alumnus who recruited McShane [and treated him to dinner once a week – and gave him extra spending money for books]; Assistant Coach Walters [Tom Griffin/M.C. Gainey], who was aware that the team’s unofficial, off-campus doctor was giving them steroids, R. Boretski [Justice Leak/James Read], McShane’s tutor, who, McShane threatened to reveal was cheating on class work for members of the football team.

With lots of suspects, there are lots of stories – some of them touching, some funny, and some false. The procedures through which the team solves the case may be familiar but the variations provided each new set of circumstances and suspects allow for enough variety to keep the series feeling fresh – especially when each ep is anchored by music of the period [here it’s by BTO and Steely Dan].

Another ep furnished by CBS, Wednesday’s Women, the third ep of the new season, deals with a group of women who drove from Philadelphia to Mississippi to help run Freedom schools under the cover selling Tupperware®. In it, what was thought to be a hit and run turns out to have far greater implications. The ep’s guest cast includes Olympia Dukakis and Carl Lumbly, among others.

The Cold Case ensemble [Morris, John Finn, Thom Barry, Jeremy Ratchford, Danny Pino and Tracie Thoms] is reliably together and between the regular cast, the guest stars and the consistent writing, the show remains one of the more watchable procedurals around.

Final Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: Miracle at St. Anna: Great Moments Do Not a Movie Make!

Spike Lee’s latest joint, Miracle at St. Anna, has a number of incredibly good moments. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole sucks big. The film, which is intended to show how black soldiers figured in World War II [and every war the U.S. has fought], has several plot threads and character arcs – enough to fuel two – or even three – sleek, ninety minute films that could make his point with benefit of sledgehammers or piledrivers.

Miracle at St. Anna

Of course, Lee has never been known for his subtlety, but sitting through Miracle at St. Anna is somewhat akin to being hammered by a sack of flying mallets. The plot twists and turn are many and varied [there’s even a flashback in the middle of a flashback], but just in case that’s not enough, we get three different tones for each piece of this unnecessarily large puzzle. The one main theme – the treatment of blacks, even in the armed forces – is hammered home time and again. If the Buffalo Soldiers aren’t been treated like imbeciles by their prejudiced commanding officer, they’re commenting on how they’re being treated like real people by the citizens of the Italian village where they spend a few days hiding from the Nazis.

Then there’s the shining hypocrisy of a character called Axis Sally [Alexandra Maria Lara] – a version of the infamous Tokyo Rose, only she aims to sew dissension among the Buffalo Soldiers so that they will turn on their white officers and join the Nazis – who would kill them outright. You need a major appliance to cut the irony – it’s that thick.

The only really compelling arc in the film is the bond that develops between the somewhat slow Private Samuel Train [Omar Benson Miller] and an orphaned Italian boy named Angelo [Matteo Sciabordi]. The two mange to figure out a way to communicate the basics, and give each other strength.

An arc that’s meant to be compelling is the triangle developed between a village woman, Renata [Valentina Cervi], Private Hector Negron [Laz Alonzo], who is falling in love with her, and Sgt. Bishop Cummings [Michael Ealy], who just wants to get in her pants. It is clichéd and trite and again, badly handled. And let’s not forget the framing device for the film, in which the postal employee kills a customer – it was in the trailers, and in the actual film, it’s just preposterous.

At two hours and forty minutes, Miracle at St. Anna is more enervating than inspiring. I can’t put it any more plainly than that.

Final Grade: D