All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

DVD REVIEW: Craig Ferguson – A Wee Bit o’ Revolution Rocks Boston!

If you only know Craig Ferguson as Drew’s boss on The Drew Carey show, or as the affable talk show host [the one who actually engages in conversation with his guests], then you may be in for a wee bit o’ shock when you play Comedy Central’s Craig Ferguson: A Wee Bit o’ Revolution [which was recorded on July 4, 2008].

Craig Ferguson

To begin with, the subject matter is all over the map [with a throughline on his becoming an America citizen earlier that day]. Ferguson can make a case for Sean Connery as the only James Bond [and dismiss the current lad in a wickedly concise and nasty manner] while noting that he always seems to be playing Sean Connery [Sean Connery as a Russian submarine commander in The Hunt For Red October, for example].

He is also quick to point out how born Americans take their situation, vis-à-vis various freedoms, for granted – and why that’s so wrong. His tale of how he decided to become and American citizen may even be funnier than his riff on Connery. He even steps over the line into Christopher Titus Land when he talks about his ex – though he comes at the situation from an entirely different perspective.

Whether he’s talking about rehab [a simultaneously hilarious and sobering bit] or addressing the topics listed above, Ferguson’s no-nonsense approach is completely winning. His delivery is assured and stage presence is solid – and the accent gives his material an unexpected texture. A Wee Bit o’ Revolution may be Ferguson’s first stand-up special, but it certainly won’t be his last.

Features: Interview With Craig Ferguson; Speech at Boston’s Historic Faneuil Hall, July 4, 2008.

Grade: A Wee Bit o’ Revolution – A

Grade: Features – C

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Rescue Me: A Coffee Table on 9/11 Re-Opens Old Wounds In The 5th Season!

Rescue Me [FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.] chronicles the gradual self-destruction of New York firefighter Tommy Gavin [Denis Leary] ever since his cousin Jimmy [James McCaffery]died in action helping to evacuate the Twin Towers. As season five opens, Tommy has been sober for a year, an achievement that his cousin, Father Mickey [Robert John Burke], says warrants becoming a sponsor to newbie Derek [Anthony Perullo]. This comes on the heels of an announcement that a French journalist wants to interview the crew about how 9/11 affected them. And that’s barely scratching the surface of this season’s journey.

rescue_me_5

I could go into the way certain relationships undergo stress; or talk about the bar that Mike [Michael Lombardi] buys [and his adventures in attempting to decorate it]; or reveal the identity of the crew member who gets a devastating illness that relates back to 9/11. I could delve more deeply into the effect Genevieve Lazard [Karina Lombard], the French journalist, has on the crew – for good and/or ill.

Instead, I’ll simply say that Season Five of Rescue Me goes to places that it has never gone before – at least not in this kind of depth. In dealing with all the abovementioned arcs [and several more], the series is not just examining one man’s self-destruction [and, yes, even sober, Tommy is self-destructive], but digging deeper into one of the most salient questions that can be asked of anyone whose job puts them in harm’s way on a regular basis: just how crazy do you have to be to run into building that’s on fire? And how does affect your fellow crew members, your family?

Because the show is written [and I use the term loosely, here – no part of the show is immune to improvisation within a fixed basic plot] by so few people [Denis Leary, Peter Tolan, Mike Martineau and Evan Reilly], there is a unity of vision – and it’s execution – that is unique. They are no afraid to, for example, incorporate Daniel Sunjata’s beliefs that 9/11 was part of a government conspiracy into their ongoing story and really examining how that kind of thing would affect not only 62 Truck, but the entire fire department [not to mention civilians who see it on the internet, or TV].

While all of these things are going on, though, Tommy’s family is going through more changes. Janet [Andrea Roth] has a new boyfriend – a paraplegic named Dwight [Michael J. Fox]; his eldest daughter, Colleen [Natalie Distler] is dating someone from the house, and his younger daughter, Katie [Olivia Crocicchia], is in boarding school [and wants her parents to lie about who they are]. Then there’s Tommy’s attempts to cope with his father’s death…

Somehow, not only does the creative team keep all these arcs – and several more – in the air, they give each the amount of time it takes to do them justice. Since this season has a full twenty-two episode order, that’s crucial.

FX made the first nine episodes available for review purposes and there’s not a dud in the lot. In those first nine eps, nearly every cast member, regular and recurring, has sufficient quality time that they could all be considered Emmy nomination-worthy. Season Five of Rescue Me is a rarity – it’s even better than Season One. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Sunshine Cleaning: Making Things Just a Little Bit Better

Sunshine Cleaning, which opened wide this weekend, is a quirky, entertaining dramedy that mines the same kind of vibe that propelled Little Miss Sunshine to hit status. It’s about pursuing a dream even though it would have appeared that it was too late. It features a very familiar performance from Alan Arkin as Joe, the eccentric father to sisters Rose [Amy Adams] and Norah [Emily Blunt], and grandfather to Rose’s equally eccentric young son, Oscar [Jason Spevak].

(Left to right.) Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star in Overture Films' Sunshine Cleaning.

Rose works for a home cleaning company [a kind of maids-on-wheels gig], but was once the captain of the cheerleading squad and girlfriend of the quarterback. She’s still the girlfriend of the quarterback, Mac [Steve Zahn], a married police detective], but that’s the only thing her life has in common with her younger self. This is not where she thought she’d be – something that being invited to a baby shower for a former fellow cheerleader drives home.

Norah was probably the class clown until she dropped out and began a series of wage-slave jobs. Where Norah is responsible and maybe more than a bit worn down, Norah still acts like she’s in high school. We meet her as she gets fired from yet another job.

When Mac suggests that Rose get involved the lucrative crime scene cleanup game, she takes the idea and runs with it – dragging Norah along with her. Working together has opposite effects on the sisters: Rose really gets into it, learning everything she can about the job – and excelling at it [plus, she believes it makes things better in some small way]; Norah, who really needs a handler at all times, is easily distracted and not really interested – a combination that brings about some really bad results. Since Rose needs the money to get Oscar into a private school, where he can get the kind of attention an eccentric kid like him needs, this drives a huge wedge between her and Norah. Meanwhile, Joe is trying various get-rich-quick schemes with little to no success.

Sunshine Cleaning is not the next Little Miss Sunshine, but that’s okay. It is a witty dramedy that gives us interesting characters who react to their circumstances in very real ways. The script, by Megan Holley, is rich enough in terms of both characters and situation that it feels real and we can easily relate to them. Director Christine Jeffs draws a solid performance from her cast, but I doubt that Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are even capable of turning a bad performance. Where Jeffs’ skill shows, is in her work with young Jason Spevak. Oscar could have been just another precocious kid, but he’s not – in a world of precocious kid actors, Spevak is intriguingly fresh. He cloaks his character’s intelligence within his eccentricities in a way that really does make Oscar unique.

If Sunshine Cleaning doesn’t quite hit all the heights to which it aspires, it still has enough wit and intelligence and warmth to balance its darker moments [and there are a number of them, right from the fade in]. It is a solid, entertaining film.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Season One Finale of United States of Tara Is a Breakthrough!

The unique United States of Tara [Showtime, 10-9C] reaches its first season finale this weekend with an episode appropriately entitled Miracle. It’s an ambitious episode that attempts to both tie together a number plot and character arcs and create a fresh beginning leading into season two.

UNITED STATES OF TARA

Since the series’ premiere, we’ve seen the Gillespie family pulled in different directions as Tara [Toni Collette] has slowly become disconnected from her family – husband Max [John Corbett], Daughter Kate [Brie Larson], son Marshall [Keir Gilchrist] and sister Charmaine [Rosemarie DeWitt] – have been subjected to increasingly odd situations, including the appearance of a new alter, Gimme. Gimme is an animalistic creature; pre-verbal and, apparently, governed solely by emotions.

Max has become frustrated by the actions of Buck, T and Alice; Marshall has had his dreams of a relationship with first love, Jason, thwarted by T, and Charmaine has slowly come to realize that the alters are not just Tara pretending to avoid stuff – and is more than a little freaked out by that until Buck becomes her “booby buddy.” Kate finally discovers that her boss is something more than just a creep – something that makes her more appreciative of her mother’s many, shall we say, facets.

Over the last few episodes, we’ve learned of a bad date that Tara went on in boarding school, and, in Miracle, she makes the call and faces the man responsible. The results are not what anyone is expecting. The ep also extols the use of bowling as family therapy – and the final scene of the ep is literally mind-expanding. I think I can guarantee you won’t see it coming.

Miracle was written by series creator Diablo Cody and features the kind of crackling dialogue and character insights for which she has  become known. The direction, by Craig Gillespie, is as fractured as Tara’s personality – and that’s a good thing. The ep’s pacing is determined by the characters and Tara’s alters. Over the course of its first season, the characters of United States of Tara have really been developed – especially the kids, who were more a collection of sarcastic dialogue and costumes, but are now recognizable people.

As I mentioned above, one of the most important things about Miracle is that it has to provide a satisfying conclusion to the season while simultaneously setting the stage for season two. Somehow, with everything else it has to accomplish, it does this particularly well. Kudos to Ms Cody and Mr. Gillespie.

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Fast & Furious is Exactly That!

The original cast of The Fast and the Furious reunites for this fourth film in the series – and it does exactly what it says on the label. Under the leadership of director Justin Lin, who also directed the Tokyo Drift instalment of the series, we get a car movie that will please fans of the previous movies.

fast-and-furious

The plot – Paul Walker’s FBI Agent O’Connor and Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretta are after a drug kingpin named Braga for their own reasons – is merely a device to let cars race [and, occasionally crash, smash or blow up]; guys brawl and women to wear skimpy clothing. It’s not Oscar® bait; neither is it indie art. It’s a popcorn movie of the most obvious order.

The races and various other stunts are different enough to feel fresh and get your adrenaline rushing. The stars – Walker, Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster – perform about as woodenly as they ever have, but that doesn’t matter. The villains [John Ortiz’s Campos, and Laz Alonso’s Fenix Rising] get the benefit of being portrayed by able character actors and chew the scenery admirably.

Fast & Furious is one of those movies that are just well enough made to work for its target audience. It’s nothing to write home about, but if you’re looking for a car/brawl/explosion movie with skimpily clad women, this is your movie. It probably won’t matter if you forget it mere seconds after you leave the theater.

Final Grade: C+

HOLLYWOOD INSIDER: Sci-Fi President Dave Howe Speaks!! Why Syfy? Why!!!???

dave_howe

There have been a lot of responses to the rebranding of the SCI FI Channel to Syfy, which takes effect on July 7, 2009. Most of those responses [as is usual on the good ole Interweb] have been negative – and there’s been a question of whether SCI FI appropriated the name from a popular website that had existed for ten years before a sudden name change. SCI FI honcho, Dave Howe said of that situation, “Once we settled on Syfy it became apparent to us that, you know, the Syfy Portal existed.” Of course, he said a lot more than as he attempted to give us a better understanding of the process of rebranding and its ramifications for the channel’s future.

(Fearless leader note – Do I deliver or what? I told you last week I’d try and get Dave to spill his guts about this stupid name change, unfortunately I was in the middle of moving to Florida so couldn’t sit in. But our fellow Sci-Fi Digital Press folks put his Dave’s feet to the fire. Great job Ken! Participants in this teleconference call included: Ken Gold [Media Boulevard], Meredith Woerner [i09.com], and Kelly West [cinemablend.com]. Continue reading HOLLYWOOD INSIDER: Sci-Fi President Dave Howe Speaks!! Why Syfy? Why!!!???

TELEVISION: Cupid: The God of Love Is In The House!

Cupid [ABC, Tuesdays, 10/9C] has an odd history. Rob Thomas [Veronica Mars] had this prematurely cancelled series in 1998 about an exiled God of Love who was exiled to Earth until he could match one hundred couples – true love, mind you. Then, and only then, would he be allowed to return to Mount Olympus. The series was smart, witty, funny, and almost desperately romantic and quite possibly the best show of the year in the minds of many critics. It also put Jeremy Piven on the road to something akin to stardom. It lasted fifteen episodes. Ever since, Cupid fans have been clamouring for it’s release on DVD. Now, ABC and Mr. Thomas have resurrected the series and the good news is that it’s very good.

Cupid & Shrink

The set up is virtually identical: Cupid [Bobby Cannavale]is the love god who is exiled to Earth for his arrogance, and charged with matching one hundred couples – without the aid of magic – before he will be allowed to return home. As in the original, he is thought to be crazy [though there are brief moments that give the audience clues that he isn’t] and only released into the world under the supervision of psychologist Dr. Claire Allen [Sarah Paulson].

Dr. Allen specializes in love, too, but love built on a foundation of sensible and logical steps. She and Cupid – now going by Trevor Pierce – are at extreme ends of the spectrum in their beliefs and approaches to the subject. His first attempt is to help an Irish troubadour find the woman with whom he had a “transcendent moment” on her last day in Ireland. In the process of helping Dave [Sean McGuire], Trevor enlists the aid of a reporter named Madeline [Marguerite Moreau] – who falls in love with Dave!

The premiere episode of Cupid is almost as smart, witty, funny and romantic as the original, if a little less brash and little more dramatic. The interplay between Trevor and Claire is saucy and clever; the two are very much a match for each other in intelligence and wit. The supporting characters – Felix [Rick Gomez] and Lita [Camille Guaty] – are an improvement over their original series counterparts. Felix is the guy who takes in strays – which means he hires Trevor to work at his bar and gives him a place to live. Lita thinks Felix is crazy [there’s that word, again] for doing so.

The direction is precisely what the show needs – the pacing is up-tempo, but not too much to make it jarring when a shot requires a bit of lingering, but never holding onto a shot for too many beats. The entire production is good enough that I will be very disappointed if Cupid is, once again, too hip for the room. Really, the original show was ten years ahead of its time, stylistically and content-wise – which means we should be ready for it, now. And maybe, just maybe, we can get that DVD set of the original series.

Final Grade: B+

MANGA: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka – Astro Boy Tribute Is an Instant Classic!

North Americans might not recognize the name Osamu Tezuka, a significant percentage of them know about Astro Boy – which, along with Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, was the first anime´ to really connect with that audience. One of the best Astro Boy adventures – both in a twelve-part manga serial and as an episode of the anime´ series – was The Greatest Robot in the World. Naoki Urasawa, best known for his manga series, Monster, has chosen to take that epic adventure and re-work it for today’s audience.

Pluto Vol. 1

Continue reading MANGA: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka – Astro Boy Tribute Is an Instant Classic!

TELEVISION: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: And Now For Something Completely Different!

I suppose that, outside of the show’s quality, there are three unusual things about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is that it is a show whole family can enjoy – and it’s on HBO [Sundays, 8/7C]; it is shot in Botswana, Africa, with a completely black cast, and it is one of the most physically beautiful shows on television. It is based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith.

Precious & Grace

Precious Ramotswe [Jill Scott] is a “cheerful woman of traditional build” [as McCall smith has descrivbed her] who inherits one hundred and eighty cows from her father – and sells them to buy a small house in the country’s capitol city, and set up a detective agency. Although she is a cheerful woman, there is hint of sadness about Precious that harkens back to her marriage to an abusive musician. It is this part of her that is able to relate to the pain of a schoolteacher whose son has vanished.

Precious sets up shop in a defunct post office – which leads to an awkward encounter in the first act. It’s a small thing, but it gives us a deeper understanding of her character’s generosity of spirit. She also acquires a secretary, Grace Makutsi [Anika Noni Rose], who is as ramrod stiff and uptight as Precious is round and relaxed.

In the two-hour premiere, we learn about Precious’ life prior to moving to the city. Her life unfolds in a leisurely manner, shot against some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. If you’re looking for fast-paced and/or glib, you won’t find it here. Instead, even the move to the big city and the acquisition and resolution cases [five in the premiere] are developed in an almost stately procession of events.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is not Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or Hammett’s Sam Spade. If they are hard-boiled, then Precious Ramotswe is most definitely soft-boiled, or maybe gently poached. The series is about character – hers, and her country’s. The various mysteries that are solved are there to show us that life requires character. They are handled in a manner that, at time, seems incidental to making [and being] friends; chatting over “bush tea,” and enjoying life – and when two of them overlap, it feels as natural.

Botswana is one of the few prosperous African nations – and one of the most beautiful. It is exactly the kind of place you might to find a curiosity like a ladies’ detective agency. Directed by Anthony Minghella [his last work], from a script he co-wrote [with Richard Curtis], The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is unique. Unless you’ve read McCall Smith’s books, you have never seen anything like it. It is different in many ways – all of them good.

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Monsters vs. Aliens 3-D: Dreamworks Catches Pixar With Homage to B-Movies!

The premise is simple: to stop and alien invader, the U.S. military releases its force of five captured monsters. The catch? It’s not as simple as they thought.

Group Shot

Although it took a veritable legion of writers [okay… five] to come up with the final script for Monsters vs. Aliens, like the group that pieced together Casablanca, these guys did good. Monsters vs. Aliens is the best 3-D CG B-movie monster mashup ever! [Okay… it’s the first 3-D CG B-movie monster mashup. Your point is…?]

It all begins when Susan Murphy [voiced by Reese Witherspoon] is hit by a meteor and grows to 49.5 feet tall. Before she knows it, she’s been abducted by the military and placed in a top-secret prison along with The Missing Link [Will Arnett], B.O.B. [Seth Rogen], Insectosaurus and Dr. Cockroach [Hugh Laurie] – who represent, in the same order, The 50-Foot Woman [Attack of the 50-Foot woman], The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Blob, Godzilla/Mothra and The Fly. The alien[s] in question would be Galaxhar [Rain Wilson], a bored, four-eyed purple [might be] people eater who is looking for a little excitement. The plural would be his clones…

The human element comes mainly from Susan, who’s engaged to a rather full-of-himself cable weatherman with ambition, Derek Dietl [Paul Rudd]. Unfortunately, Derek is also not happy with the new Susan. Stephen Colbert does a great job voicing an overconfident but easily confused President of the United States, and Kiefer Sutherland gives just the right amount of humanity to balance the extremely hawk-ish warden/guardian of the monsters’ prison, General Warren R. Monger. There’s even a wistful bit of philosophy from the “you can’t home again” school of thought.

Monsters vs. Aliens is a fast-paced, laugh-filled ride. For the second week in a row, I’ve seen a movie where the trailer, good as it is, does not contain the best bits in the movie. Not only that, but the 3-D is amazing – though there are only a very few blatant gags, including one just a few minutes in. It’s as though directors Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman are telling us, “our 3-D could do lots these gimmicky gags, but we really don’t need to do that to tell our story.”

While the script might be a bit jokier than, say, the average Pixar film, there are character moments that would not be out of place in one – and the animation is, for the first time right up to the Pixar level. Then there’s that wonderful 3-D. It seems that each new 3-D film outdoes its most recent predecessor and that’s the way it is here. Part of the fun of seeing the screening I attended was in hearing the little kids in the audience gasp as the world of the movie drew them in. Even the mom next to me was entranced. Yes, MvsA works as an homage to B-movie monsters; as a coming of age story [Susan’s a late bloomer, eh?], and as a wild romp for the kids.

I thoroughly enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens – and the audience gave it a standing ovation. Good thing I’d decided on my grade before they started standing [and blocking the screen while stuff happened onscreen during the credits…].

Final Grade: A+

TELEVISION: SCI FI and RHI Entertainment Agree To Do Three Four-Hour Movie Events: Riverworld, The Phantom and Alice!

The SCI FI Channel announced today that they have, along with long-time creative partners RHI Entertainment, begun work on a series of three four-hour movie events: Philip Jose Farmer’s renowned Riverworld; Lee Falk’s The Phantom [the first costumed avenger, created a full year before Superman], and Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Phantom

Riverworld is a two-night, four-hour movie event based on the popular award-winning series of novels by Philip Jose Farmer. It’s the adventure of Matt, a combat photojournalist, killed along with his fiancée by a suicide bomber, who awakens in a mysterious world where everyone who has ever previously lived on Earth, has been “reborn” along the banks of a seemingly endless river. Determined to locate his lost love Jessica, Matt joins forces, a 13th century female samurai warrior named Tomoe and American novelist Mark Twain. Together they sail upriver in search of its source, and to discover where they are and who put them there. Riverworld is produced by Reunion Pictures (Airdate 2010).

The classic comic book character The Phantom has been re-imagined and transported to present day in a live-action, four-hour movie from writers Dan Knauf (Carnivale) and Charles Knauf. A favorite costumed hero for more than six decades, The Phantom relies on his wits, physical strength and skill with weapons over superhuman powers. Production is slated to begin in April in Montreal with Director Paolo Barzman (The Last Templar) at the helm. The Phantom is produced by Muse Entertainment (Airdate 2010).

Alice is a modern-day reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alices Adventures in Wonderland. The four-hour movie event is written and directed by Nick Willing; director of SCI FI and RHI’s 2007 record-breaking, Emmy-nominated miniseries, Tin Man. Production on Alice is expected to begin in May in Vancouver. Alice is produced by Reunion Pictures (Airdate: Late 2009).

Pre-production and casting are under way.