All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

Drive! They Said…

Drive: Nathan Fillion & Kristen LehmanFans of Tim Minear's previous TV programs [including Angel and Wonderfalls] should find a great deal to like about his new series on FOX, Drive [premieres Sunday, 8/7C, then moves to Mondays, also 8/7C] – a fast-paced, slightly peculiar effort that combines the cross-country racing of The Cannonball Run with an ongoing mystery that rivals The X-Files, or Lost.

 

Alex Tully [Nathan Fillion] regains consciousness to find his wife gone. The police question him – it seems she packed up everything before she left – and shortly after they're done, he gets a phone call that propels him into an illegal cross-country race that has a purse of thirty-two million dollars. The implication is that if he wins, Katherine [Amy Acker] will be returned to him unharmed.

Although he follows his directions to the letter, Tully arrives too late for orientation and has to persuade Mr. Bright [Charles Martin Smith] to explain what, exactly, is going on. Soon after he sets out again, Tully finds himself being attacked by a guy in a muscle car, which leads to the discovery that he has a stowaway hiding in the bed of his half-ton.

She is Corinna Wiles [Kristin Lehman], and Bill [Brian Bloom], the guy in the muscle car, wants to kill her. Over the double-length premiere, Corinna's story slowly comes out – and she has at least as compelling a reason as Tully to be in the race.

Other participants include John Trimble [Dylan Baker], an astrophysicist who sees the race as one last chance to bond with his willful daughter, Violet [Emma Stone]; Wendy Patakas [Melanie Lynskey], who's on the run from her abusive husband and hoping that winning will reunite her with her newborn son, Sam; Rob and Ellie Laird [Riley smith and Mircea Munroe], who are in because they thought it would be fun; and a host of others…

The series was originally conceived by Ben Queen, whom the network paired up with Minear because of his experience. The result is a show that has a multi-layered presentation and features a terrific cast. The premiere delves into the mechanics of the race and introduces us to the featured participants. We learn that many of them signed on for the adventure [and the shot at thirty-two mil], but that others were coerced. Which is to say that the mysterious people/organization behind the race wanted them in so much that they resorted to extra-legal means to insure their participation.

Drive: Cast Shot

For a series that relies on forward motion at great speed, Drive does manage to get a lot of characterization in. Likewise, with each hour representing one major obstacle to be overcome on the way to the finish line, there is more than enough action to satisfy the most fervent action fan. Through the device of having a character whose job is to explain the race and set up each leg – in the person of Mr. Bright – Queen and Minear have found a way to keep exposition to a minimum [we have to keep Bright as mysterious as the unseen powers behind the race] and provide a personal link between the participants and the organizers. Otherwise, everything would be conducted, anonymously, over the special cell phones each team has been given.

To keep the racers on target, there are occasional encounters between them and agents of the organizers [as when Wendy is told she's part of an elimination round, and gets unexpected encouragement from someone other than Bright]. These encounters add to the mystery of the powers behind the race. Who are these people that the organizers go to so much trouble to keep them in the running? What do they bring to the race – and why?

The actual racing sequences are shot in a studio, with a lot of green scree work, a la Sin City – and, for the most part, the results are extremely good. New techniques were used in combination with more traditional ones to do things like cross shots that include the teams of two vehicles in the same shot. Somehow, it all works. The show looks amazing.

Even though Drive is serialized, don't let that stop you from giving it a shot. It may be the most entertainment mid-season replacement of the year. Maybe, with its pre-24 timeslot, it can succeed where other Minear-produced series have not. Personally, I hope it's a hit – it's more commercial than Minear's previous shows, but it hasn't lost any of the weird charm that is his trademark.

Grade: A

Disturbia Star Lands Indy 4!

Shia LaBeoufIt's official! Shia LaBeouf, one of the fastest-rising stars in the world of film, has now been set for the new Indiana Jones movie. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have announced the signing of Disturbia and Transformers star, Shia LaBeouf, for Indian Jones 4.

LaBeouf, who is best known for his role in the Disney Channel series Even Stevens, and the lead in the critically acclaimed movie, Holes, stars in the teen/alt-rock take on Rear Window, Disturbia, which opened today. In Indian Jones 4, LaBeouf will play the sidekick to Harrison Ford's archaeological adventurer. There is some speculation that the character will be Indy's son, but that has not been confirmed.

Production on the fourth Indiana Jones adventure is scheduled to begin this June in Los Angeles and will also film at undisclosed distant locations. The film continues LaBeouf's rise to potential blockbuster stardom – and is the third film in which LaBeouf enjoys a Spielberg connection, the other two being Disturbia and Transformers, which opens, worldwide, on June 14.

"We are excited about bringing Shia into our Indy family," said Spielberg. "His talent has impressed not only his audiences throughout his young career but the directors, producers and fellow actors who have worked with him in his television career and now his film career."

"I was hoping the rumors were true, so I couldn't be more thrilled," said Shia. "To be cast in an Indiana Jones film is like grabbing the brass ring and holding on for the ride. I'll do my best to meet the high standards that Steven, George, and Harrison have set and I can't wait to take that giant step in front of the Indy cameras."

LaBeouf's other film credits include Bobby, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Constantine, I, Robot, HBO's Project Greenlight production The Battle of Shaker Heights, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and Holes.

On television, LaBeouf garnered much praise from critics everywhere for his portrayal of Louis Stevens on the Disney Channel's original series "Even Stevens." In 2003, he earned a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for his work on the highly-rated family show.

And this Saturday night he's live from New York hosting NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Uncut And Uncensored: Henry Rollins Begins Third Season On IFC With Unusual Documentary And Great Guests For His Talk Show

Henry RollinsI've been thinking about the title The King Of All Media. If such a title was genuinely applied to someone, Henry Rollins would be a prime candidate – he's published more than a dozen books; fronted two successful rock bands and had a brief but eventful movie career and a satellite radio show. Now he has a successful talk show on the Independent Film Channel [Fridays, 11/10C] and is preceding the third season premiere of The Henry Rollins Show with a brand-new documentary, Henry Rollins: Uncut From Israel [Fri. 9:30/8:30C]…

 

The Henry Rollins Show

The Henry Rollins Show

Henry Rollins looks like someone you wouldn't want to mess with. He's incredibly muscular [without being a hulking endomorph], covered i tatoos and is capable of glowers and glares that could reduce Tommy Lee Jones to protoplasm. His rock bands – Black Flag and The Rollins Band – propelled by his anger, became to their generations what The Ramones were to his.

His books are collections of poetry, structured and free form, that show a perception of the world that has grown and changed as he matured as an artist. His roles in movies like Johnny Mnemonic [he had the small but pivotal role of Spider], showed him to good effect in films that were otherwise, unremarkable. Now, he hosts The Henry Rollins Show – a job he tackles with gusto – in a manner that could make a prime candidate for an additional title: The Anti-Talk Show Host.

The first thing you notice is that Rollins' "monologue" is actually not a joke-fest. Instead, it's more of a rant – the section being titled "Teeing Off." To open the third season, Rollins tees off on the Bush administration [again, but they're such easy targets…] in a manner that makes exceptional use of irony.

Rollins follows that with a sit-down with shock rocker Marilyn Manson [an act I've never been fond of] and after mentioning that he has a new album [but not actually discussing it], launches into a discussion of how the media tried to make it appear that Manson was responsible for Columbine [Rollins is not one to shy away from controversy…]. It's a fascinating conversation [conversation being the appropriate word – no glib anecdotes here] and one that earns Manson my respect even though I'm still not a fan of his music.

The musical guest, Peaches, reminds of Suzy Quatro [if Quatro had been a member of The Ramones]. Neither Manson nor Peaches are edited in any way and the result is refreshing.

The Henry Rollins Show - Peaches

Next week's episode features Ben Stiller and Ryan Adams. Again, with Stiller, there's a passing reference about his movie and a shift to important stuff – like how his family background influenced his career choice, and how he handles the multi-hyphenate life of an actor-writer-director-producer. Adams' bluesy rock tune is probably a bit rawer than he might play on a network talk show [Rollins lets his musical guests pick the song they want to play and never edits…].

The third ep of the new season may be my favorite, so far. Playing with the conventions of the talk show isn't unusual for Rollins, but here he really stretches the form. Sit-down guest John Waters and Rollins only spend about five-to-seven minutes conversing, but the discussion – on Waters' experience with the MPAA [the ratings board] for his new film – has more actual content that most network talk shows manage in an entire hour.

Then, The Mars Volta play a piece that runs to about fourteen minutes – in essence, reversing the usual sit-down guest/musical guest air time ration. Not only would most network talk shows invite a band like The Mars Volta [think a hybrid of Captain Beefheart and Devo, filtered through The Grateful Dead] to play, they'd never let a musical guest run on for fourteen minutes!

Rollins is not the most polished of hosts. Sometimes it's clear he's reading cue cards – and he occasionally stumbles [as with the conclusion of the Stiller conversation], but that makes him far more real and relatable than other hosts. Besides, when you get quality conversations, the occasional goof adds spice. The Henry Rollins Show is definitely a talk show for intelligent viewers [though not necessarily the "intelligentsia" – Rollins is no snob].

Grade: A-

Henry Rollins: Uncut From Israel

Henry Rollins: Uncut From Israel

To kick of the third season of The Henry Rollins Show, IFC kicks of Friday evening's Rollins event with a unique documentary: Henry Rollins: Uncut From Israel. The film covers Rollins' recent appearance in Tel Aviv, and is divided between him onstage and him walking the streets of Jerusalem.

What, for me, makes Uncut From Israel work, is that Rollins is such an open human being. He wears his heart on his t-shirt sleeves, and focuses his anger at the things that most deserve it. When he talks to his Tel Aviv audience, he is completely frank about how he finds it cool and a bit hot that virtually every person in the audience can lock and load a gun – and "put him down." He is equally frank about his feeling that that situation should not be necessary.

When he walks around Jerusalem [with noted photojournalist Ziv Koren], he is visibly moved by the people he encounters – and places like the Wailing Wall, where he [and we] sees hundreds of people praying. He visits the Mount of Olives, the place where Christ is said to have been crucified, and one of Jerusalem's incredible street markets. In both cases, he is completely open to the experience – and listens eagerly to Koren's comments.

Uncut From Israel - Ziv Koren

During the sections of Uncut From Israel that deal with Rollins' exploration of the city, we get to see some of Koren's photos – and have to wonder, with Rollins [see interview], how it is that the man hasn't been driven completely psychotic. Instead, the soft-spoken Koren comes across as a caring, sensitive guy who values and respects life – and from we can see here, the people of Israel seem much the same.

Like most documentaries, Uncut From Israel is shot in a basic, straightforward manner. The liveliest camera moves come when it moves back and forth between the onstage Rollins and his audience. The visual style should come as no surprise, though. Rollins is very much a straight-ahead kind of guy – except when he gets on a roll with his storytelling. Many times during his concert/lecture thingy, he'll digress onto a seemingly unrelated tangent and wind up tying up two or three disparate threads together. It's a really masterful performance.

Uncut From Israel is a perfect introduction to both Henry Rollins and Israel. It contains much that is thought provoking – both from his onstage performance and from the streets of Jerusalem. When, at the end of his concert/lecture thingy, he braces his Tel Aviv audience with a heavy-duty choice, the moment is pure Rollins.

Graphic Anthologies: Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser and Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, Vol. 2

Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser - Cover ArtWith comics and graphic novels becoming more and more acceptable to the mainstream, more and more comics publishers are marketing their graphic novels and comics collections in mainstream bookstores. They are even making classic adaptations [like the DC mini-series based on Fritz Leiber's excellent Fahhrd & The Grey Mouser stories] available in spiffy new editions. Add to these classy reprints fabulous new collections based on the works of great writers like Harlan Ellison, and it's clear that the form is finally being recognized for the unique literary/artistic artform it is…

Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser - Cover Art

Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser

Fans of sword and sorcery fiction have long been aware that there was something different about Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser stories. In his introduction to Dark Horse Publishing's collection of the Marvel Comics mini-series, Howard Chaykin suggests that that difference is they are crime stories in a sword & sorcery setting. Since both The Mouser and his barbarian friend are thieves – and most of their adventures revolve around some scheme or other to acquire wealth without actually working for it, he's probably right.

Another facet of Leiber's tales is that they are uncommonly well written. Leiber had a real gift for character and atmosphere, and didn't lack for imaginative plots, either. The Dark Horse collection features issues one through four of the Marvel mini-series, adapted by Chaykin [scripts], Hellboy creator Mike Mignola [art], and inks by Al Williamson [Secret Agent X, Flash Gordon].

There are seven Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser tales included in the mini-series, beginning with Ill Met In Lankhmar, in which our heroes met each other in the midst of two separate attempts to robe the same persons of the same booty. There's also some eerie fun as the two meet the wizards who will become their employers/maters: Fafhrd's Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, and Mouser's Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. The story takes a savage twist as the fun ends with the deaths of our heroes' loves – and their vow to leave Lankhmar and never return.

In The Circle Curse, our protagonists travel the entire world trying to find surcease from the pain of their lost loves, but find them persuaded to return to Lankhmar by the two wizards. The Howling Tower introduces the pair to a particularly sly murderer and a ghostly battle ensues. The Price of Pain Ease has the pair stealing an entire house – and braving Death to steal a mask for the two wizards.

Bazaar of the Bizarre brings our heroes into contact with salesmen from another universe – salesmen whose goal is take over all the universes through bankruptcy. Lean Times In Lankhmar finds Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser's partnership dissolved; Fafhrd finding religion on the Street of Gods, and Mouser badly out of shape. Finally, in when The Sea King's Away, Fafhrd seeks to infiltrate the home of the Sea King and have his way with undersea ruler's concubines…

Between Chaykin's excellent, detailed scripts [check out a sly running gag that suggests our heroes always encounter the same two guards whenever they enter or exit Lankhmar] and Mignola's almost impressionistic pencils, the world of Newhon really comes alive. There's a touch of the exotic in all the women, and our heroes do heroic things while not seeming to be heroic in the slightest. Mignola's layouts are always interesting – a mix of smaller panels for character and exposition balanced with larger panels for action and setting atmosphere.

The legendary Al Williamson's inks heighten the edge of Mignola's pencils, and seem to make Fafhrd even larger, while making Mouser seem more slippery and sneaky [not a bad trick…]. No matter how good a series is, if it's not drawn especially for black and white [which involves much different techniques], if the colors don't work, it can reduce that series to junk. Sherlyn Van Valkenburg's colors are always appropriate to mood and tone – and she even manages to add a bit of humor to that already on the page [check out the bazaar in Bazaar of the Bizarre – the way she colors the bargain hunters and the interior of the bazaar really heightens both the humor and the horror to be found there].

Even Michael Heisler's lettering is sweet, adding the kind of atmosphere you find in the score of a movie soundtrack, and its sound editing. Top of the package with an afterword from Mignola and the first two chapters of Dark Horse's upcoming deluxe release of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser adventure, Swords of Deviltry, and the result is a package that should appeal to sword & sorcery buffs who like a little crime fiction mixed in with their fantasy and lovers of great advenutres alike…

Grade: B

Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Vol. 2 - Cover Art

Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume Two

Harlan Ellison is the most awarded writer in history. He's won Hugo and Nebula Awards, Edgar Awards and Screenwriters' Guild Awards [among others] – so it would seem that a comics/graphic novel adaptation of his work would be a natural. Indeed, Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor originated over a decade ago, as a regular monthly comic before shifting to a quarterly schedule. At the time, there a number of short story adaptations planned, but life happened and many of them didn't see print until much later – in this case, fifteen odd and exquisite little fables are collected in Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume Two – finishing of the project that began in 1995.

You can tell that this is a first class project the instant you lay eyes on the exquisite photo-real cover portrait of Ellison by Brian Bolland. Bolland doesn't come cheap, and it's easy to see why. This is a cover that leaps of the shelf. With a number of comics' elite providing art [Eric Shanower provides the interstitials, for example], and scripts [from the likes of Mark Waid, Jan Strnad, John Ostrander and the like], the result is an anthology of clever, twisty tales that wouldn't be out of place on the classic Twilight Zone or Outer Limits [both of which aired eps written by Ellison, or based on his work].

Arguing scientists, an elderly couple with unique hobbies, a teenager who gets a wish from an incompetent djinn – these are just a few of the intriguing and occasionally even sympathetic characters who populate these tales. Throughout, Ellison's senses of humor and justice make themselves known in fresh, intriguing, and occasionally horrifying ways.

Check out what happens when the arguing scientists of The Silver Corridor can't be persuaded as to which of their theories is correct. Or perhaps the giggleworthy end-of-the-world tale, The Voice in the Garden [which plays on a classic trope] will be more to your liking. Then there's the way that Ellison provides an unexpected new take on the concept of a Rock God. These three tales feature some of the best recent art by greats like Gene Ha [Corridor], Bret Blevins [Garden] and the legendary Neal Adams [Rock God].

As I pondered Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume Two, it dawned on me that the majority of these stories struck me as a collection of O'Henry tales from a malleable, otherworldly parallel dimension. Many of these tales end with twist endings, none of which lacks for justice – and all of which entertain mightily.

One of the most interesting aspects of the collection is the way that the artists match the material. From Gene Ha's realistic work on The Silver Corridor, to the underground style of Jay Lynch on Djinn, No Chaser, the artists capture the humor and terror of their assigned tales in a manner that suggests they had as much drawing them as we have reading them.

Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume Two is not just going to delight Ellison fans; it should please comics fans, fantasy fans, horror fans, science fiction fans and Lewis Carroll fans [among others]. Dark Horse has put together a package that works on every level – even to the point of including two of Ellison's shorter text stories [Goodbye To All That, written in a the middle of an art gallery over two days, and The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke – both based on paintings, by Kent Bash and Therese Nielsen, reproductions of which are included].

Grade: A+

Tons o’ TVonDVD: Masters of Horror: Family, The Lost Room, The Loop, Mile High, Engineering An Empire, and MoH: Pro-Life

MoH: Family - Box ArtIt's a measure of the broadening of the television audience that all manner of subjects and genres can produce successful series that, in turn, do well on DVD. Today, for example, we're looking at horror [the Masters of Horror episodes Family and Pro-Life], science fiction [The Lost Room], an airline comedy [The Loop], a very adult airline soap [Mile High], and a series on empire building throughout history [The History channel Presents: Engineering An Empire] – hosted by Buckaroo Banzai, himself, Peter Weller…

MoH: Family - Box Art

Masters of Horror: Family

John Landis' second season entry for Showtime's Masters of Horror series is a delightfully odd, more than averagely subtle piece, Family. George Wendt stars as Harold Thompson, a seemingly sweet, middle-aged guy with a nice house in the burbs. He's a cheerful guy who has only one real vice – killing people to create an ideal family for himself!

When David [Matt Keeslar] and Celia [Meredith Munroe] move in across the way, he becomes enamored of her – targeting her to become his new "wife" when Matt leaves her. In the sunny world of their cheerful little suburb, Landis takes a smart, sneaky script from Brent Hanley and makes us wonder about what goes on in the minds [and basements] of our neighbors.

Family plays almost like a classic Twilight Zone episode, what with its twists and surprises. If it wasn't for the judiciously placed gore, it might have been airable on network TV. Although all three actors are extremely good here, the piece really works because of the counter-casting of Wendt. The impact of seeing "Norm" doing these things adds just enough extra impact that we are not quite able to figure out the twists – and they are pretty cool. Family matches Landis' first season film, Deer Woman for odd humor and the deftness with which he brings about his twists – and it surpasses his previous MoH effort in creating contrasts behind surface appearances and the film's skewed reality.

Features include: Audio Commentary by writer Brent Hanley; Skin and Bones: The Making of Family; Terror Tracks: Mastering The Family Score; Original Storyboards by William David Hogan; a Stills Gallery; an updated John Landis Bio, and the Original Screenplay [on DVD-ROM].

Masters of Horror: Family – Grade: A

Features – Grade: A

Final Grade: A

 

The Lost Room - Box Art


 

The Lost Room

Last December's Sci Fi Channel event mini-series, The Lost Room, didn't garner the ratings landslide of a Triangle, though it was certainly a smarter, more engaging work. Combining a superb cast [Peter Krause, Elle Fanning, Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollack, Roger Bart, Dennis Christopher and more] with a twisty script [by Laura Harcomb and Christopher Leone], the mini-series follows police detective Joe Miller as he tries to find his daughter [Elle Fanning] who has gone missing from a very strange motel room…

The mini-series opens with Miller being unable to catch a two-bit thief because he goes through a door and vanishes. Instantly, our attention is grabbed. When Miller does get his hand on the key, he discovers that it makes any door open into a motel room – room 10 of the Sunshine Motel. When his daughter, Annie, goes into the room by herself, she disappears – and becomes the focus of Joe's actions as he tries to learn what happened to her, and how he can get her back.

He learns about the key – and over one hundred objects from the room that have unique abilities [a comb that stops time for five seconds; a ballpoint pen that microwaves human flesh; a bus ticket that teleports its victims to a specific destination…]. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles – mostly in the form of people who have one or more of the objects, and representatives of two opposing forces that have differing philosophies about what should be done with those objects.

Well thought out and equally well written, The Lost Room is a very engaging mini-series. The characters [including some of the villains and peripheral characters] are interesting and mostly sympathetic [Kevin Pollack's Karl Kreutzfeld, for example, has a very compelling reason for acquiring objects – possibly even more compelling than Joe's]. The mini-series is beautifully shot and the special effects are among the most effective [and integral] you will ever see in a television program.

The only feature on the two-disc DVD release is a thirty-minute making of featurette, Inside The Lost Room. It's reasonably comprehensive, and most of the cast members interviewed provide intelligent insights into both their characters and the mini-series as a whole – which in no way minimizes the lack of a good audio commentary…

The Lost Room – Grade: A

Features – Grade: D

Final Grade: B

The Loop - Box Art

The Loop

Sam Sullivan [Bret Harrison] is the youngest airline executive ever, having fallen into the job right of college. As a junior executive at twenty-four years of age, his world is one of a unique duality: the responsibility of a very high-powered job, and the instinct of the young to explore live [read party!]. At work he deals with a vaguely potty-mouthed CEO, Russ [Philip Baker Hall], a randy senior exec, Meryl [Mimi Rogers], who has a habit of touching him inappropriately, and his assistant, Daisy [Joy Osmanski], an acerbic woman of similar age [and who belabors the fact that she finished fourth in her class at Harvard].

At home, he's sharing an apartment with his hedonistic older brother, Sully [Eric Christian Olsen], his college buddy, Piper [Amanda Loncar, on whom he has a major crush [and is completely oblivious to it], and Lizzy [Sarah Mason], a ditzy bartender who definitely helps her roommates keep they party animals growling…

When he's working, Sam is given such assignments as marketing a now low-cost carrier [and you will laugh at the original marketing strategy] – a move that seems to kill the originally assigned executive, or find cost-cutting measures that won't cripple the airline [his apparent ruthlessness prompts admiration from Russ].

In his social life, complications arise that consistently cause problems with his job, as when Lizzy's buddy stays with them for a while – she's a rep for an alcohol distiller and develops a thing for him. The resulting partying prevents him from working on the marketing for that low-cost carrier [though, once away from the permanent party that is his bartender's buddy, his experience turns into inspiration…].

The Loop is one of the smarter sitcoms I've encountered this season. Between the problems of helping to run an airline, and surviving his social life, Sam is one of the most entertaining sitcom leads around. The supporting cast is remarkably good – and any series that counts Philip Baker Hall as a regular can count on my checking it out.

Feature: Thesis: Work vs. Play – essentially a making of featurette centered around Sam ["Thesis" is the nickname Russ has given him because of his being fresh from college…].

The Loop – Grade: B+

Features – Grade: D

Final Grade: B-

Mile High - The Complete First Season - Box Art

Mile High: The Complete First Season

This British soap is built around a pilot, a purser and six flight attendants for Fresh air, a low-cost airline that connects London with a number of vacation/party destinations. The review that's quoted on the first season DVD package describes it as being in the tradition of three British series that seem somewhat incongruous: Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, and Footballers' Wives. Incongruous, that is, until you see how the airline is run, how hedonistic most of the main characters are, and how much sex [and nudity] there is.

The series begins with Fresh's newest attendant, Marco [Tom Wisdom], arriving for his first day and being pranked to the point where it's almost his last. The prankster is Will [Adam Sinclair]; not quite enough of a queen to be a true gay stereotype, but close [until you get him to know him over the course of the season]. The purser who almost ends Marco's career, Janis [Jo-Anne Knowles], is known as the Ice Queen, but has a really interesting past.

Others to key on are John [Matthew Chambers], the handsome, womanizing pilot whose departure from Fresh nearly killed his girlfriend at the time, Emma [Emma Ferguson], who looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth – but has problems with booze and sex; Lehanne [Naomi Ryan], best friend to both Emma and Jason [James Redmond] – who is a womanizer because the woman he loves isn't in love with him, and K.C. [Sarah Manners], a free-spending, free-wheeling lass who lives beyond her means and sleeps with all the wrong guys.

Mile High is a lot of fun, once you get past the idea of all those influences. The characters [with the possible exception of Will] seldom go too far over the top to be relatable; the scenery [both human and geographic] is spectacular; the intertwining of various plot threads [not to mention relationships and one-night stands] is enough to keep one on one's toes, and the general atmosphere is real enough to balance the show's soapiest moments. The cast chemistry is extremely good [essential for this kind of series], and the show is well done, technically.

The first season DVD set contains no features.

Grade: B

Engineering An Empire - Box Art

The History Channel Presents: Engineering An Empire

Engineering An Empire is a good example of how history can be presented in a manner that couches its education in entertaining terms. While every episode deals with the engineering feats of a different empire [from Ancient Greece to The British Empire], and every episode features the usual assortment of talking heads, CG reconstructions and onsite tours [by host and University of Syracuse instructor Peter Weller] give their subjects an extra bit of depth and reality.

Of the twelve episodes included here, my personal favorites are The Aztecs [the only ancient civilization besides Rome to build aqueducts without being influenced by other civilizations] and The Maya: Death Empire [which shows how we learned that the Maya were not the peaceful people we had originally thought them to be – and ponders their mysterious disappearance…].

Other empires explored include: Greece, Rome, Napoleonic France and The British Empire – and each receives the same kind of thorough treatment. Weller, it turns out, is an engaging host, and while it may surprise some to know that he's a respected scholar and teacher – as well an actor and musician – it seems fitting that he is as accomplished in so many areas as his most iconic film character, Buckaroo Banzai.

Feature: Behind The Scenes Featurette – a look at Weller as he fine tunes his details and mingles with the peoples of the lands he visits.

The History Channel Presents: Engineering An Empire – Grade: A

Feature – Grade: D

Final Grade: B

MoH: Pro-Life - Box Art

Masters of Horror: Pro-Life

Pro-Life is a tale about a teenaged girl who has become pregnant – and wants the baby gone because she knows there's something wrong about it. Angelique [Caitlin Wachs] persuades two doctors [Mark Feuerstein and Emmanuelle Vaugier] to take her to a nearby clinic that performs abortions. Meanwhile, her father, Dwayne [Ron Perlman] is deciding whether to obey a restraining order to force his way into the clinic to prevent her having one.

As the film progresses, we learn how Angelique was impregnated – and witness Dwayne receiving an otherworldly command to "protect the baby." In the space of a few hours, Angelique's baby grows to full-term – despite an effort to abort it. And while the baby is growing inside her, her father and brothers have stormed the clinic – resulting in an all out gunfight. Things go rapidly downhill from there.

After the brilliant Season One Masters of Horror episode, Cigarette Burns, I have to say that I was disappointed by John Carpenter's second season effort, Pro-Life. The story, about a father who is hell bent on protecting his daughter's unborn baby, frequently seems clumsy and lacks the usual visual flair and wit we expect from Carpenter – at least for the most part. The conceptualization of the baby and its father, are interesting, although the big twist is obvious almost immediately.

Even the pro-life/choice debate is barely a part of the proceedings – one or two valid points are given for each side of the debate and it's quickly forgotten. In essence, then, Pro-Life – for all its apparently controversial possibilities – is little more than an old-fashioned monster movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but compared with the brilliance of Cigarette Burns, it feels a bit flat.

Overall, the piece is not unintelligent, and there are some superb performances [notably Perlman and young Ms Wachs]. Between them and the monster make-up [purely brilliant], Pro-Life does entertain – and scare. Just not as much as one would expect from Carpenter.

Features: Audio Commentary by Carpenter and writers Drew McWeeny & Scott Swan; Demon Baby: Birthing the FX Sequence; Final Delivery: The Making of Pro-Life; Storyboard Gallery; Stills Gallery; updated John Carpenter Bio, and the Original Screenplay on DVD-ROM.

Masters of Horror: Pro-Life – Grade: B-

Features – Grade: A

Final Grade: B

Grindhouse: Blood, Gore, Violence, T&A – All That’s Missing Are The Sticky Floors And The Cigarette Smoke In The Projector Beam!

Grindhouse onesheetsWhen Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez decide to pay homage to the grindhouse era of all-day theaters that ran b-movies, second-run flicks and exploitation movies, they do not kid around. Between their Grindhouse double-feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof, the two have incorporated almost every grindhouse cliche

Children of Men and The Pursuit of Happyness: Movies That Entertain and Provoke Thought!

Children of Men Box ArtIt seems like there were more high profile message movies last winter than usual. Two of the best hit the shelves last week: Alfonso Cuaron's ecologically grim Children of Men, and Gabriele Muccino's rags-to-a-position-from-which-riches-are-possible flick, The Pursuit of Happyness

Children of Men Box Art

Children of Men

Children of Men is a remarkable cautionary tale that has been fashioned into that rarest of all cinematic breeds, the thought-provoking action flick. Children of Men opens with Theo [Clive Owen] hearing about the death of "Baby Diego," the youngest person on Earth as he picks up his morning cuppa – at eighteen years, four month, sixteen days and however many hours and minutes of age. The detail given to reporting his age is the first and only clue required to tell us that mankind is dying. Seconds after Theo leaves the coffee shop it is destroyed by a bomb.

This world is a world without hope, and with the casual use of violence as a means of venting frustration. It is also a world of propaganda [the world is falling apart but "Britain soldiers on!"] and going about one's life [Theo works a nine-to-five job in an office that seems to be untouched by the chaos that runs rampant outside]. It is a world where immigration has not only been stopped – all recent immigrants are being returned to their original countries – by force, if necessary.

When Theo is kidnapped off the street, he is reunited with his ex-wife, Julian [Julianne Moore], who needs him to secure transit papers to get a young girl to the coast, where a "Human Project" vessel will spirit her away from the fascist British state. Why? Because she's pregnant! Kee [Claire-Hope Ashitey] would be separated from her child if she fell into the government's hands – but she would also become a symbol for a coordinated uprising if she remained with Julian's group, "The Fishes".

As Theo, Julian and Kee, along with Julian's second-in-command, Luke [Chiwetel Ejiofor] attempt to reach a safe house, they encounter a situation – and Julian is shot and killed. At the safe house, Theo overhears Luke and others talking about having had Julian killed. Their betrayal spurs him to action and he spirits Kee and her midwife, Miriam [Pam Ferris] away – but they are detected and so the chase begins.

Cuaron has [with co-writers Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby] taken what has been described as a cautionary tale and transformed it into a thought-provoking action flick. His direction is remarkably straightforward, and his use of handheld cameras, exclusively, gives the film an immediacy and realism that one usually finds in documentaries.

There are films where the use of a muted palette throughout can be off-putting – especially when contrast could heighten explosive moments – but it feels right here. This is a world that has been bleached of its hope. Despite the violence and rage, these people are not only going through the motions, they are aware that that is what they're doing. There is an ineffable sadness to Children of Men that persists alongside the grain of hope that is provided by Kee.

Cuaron somehow manages to connect all of this world's rage, despair, frustration and hope into well under two hours – and to create scenes that recall the momentary truces of World War II, when German and Allied soldiers might share chocolate over Christmas day – and the kind of awe that newborn life can inspire. This is a magnificent.

Features include: The Possibility of Hope – Cuaron's documentary on how the revolutionary themes of Children of Men relate to our current society; Under Attack – a featurette that details how the film's most dangerous scenes were constructed; Theo and Julian – Clive Owens and Julianne Moore discuss their characters; Futuristic Design – from concept to creation, we see how Cuaron's vision was brought to life, and Deleted Scenes.

Children of Men – Grade: A+

Features – Grade: B

Final Grade: A-

 

The Pursuit of Happyness Box Art

The Pursuit of Happyness

This is the story of how Charles Gardner's [Will Smith] life fell apart and how, mostly by force of will, he put it back together. It's a story of how a family broke up but the father overcame every obstacle in his path to climb out of the wreckage and become a successful broker and bring him and his son, Christopher [Jayden Smith], out of poverty. It's a film about the American Dream – directed by an Italian director [Gabriele Muccino] because he could more clearly see exactly what the American Dream was.

A semi-successful salesman, Gardner falls on hard times. His girlfriend [Thandie Newton] leaves and things get tough, financially. Even as his finances take a fall, Garner lands an unpaid internship in a stockbroker training program at Dean Witter – despite arriving for his interview in the clothes he was wearing to paint an apartment he soon loses.

As Gardner learns about the stocks biz, he leaves his son in a daycare center that is, to be charitable, barely adequate. When the two are together, they haunt homeless shelters and sleep on public transportation – or in a subway station's men's room. It is not an easy life – and yet, through Gardner's determination [and his boundless love for his son], we see how he struggles to magnify the ray of hope he sees with his internship into a full-blown blue sky.

Gardner's struggles and sacrifices do pay off, of course – this is inspired by a true story – but the journey from down to up is one of serious emotional payoffs. Will Smith got an Oscar.