All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Witch Mountain – Galaxies of Fun!

I have fond memories of the Witch Mountain movies of the seventies [though not so much for the TV version from 1995 – despite the presence of such cult icons as Vincent Schiavelli and Brad Dourif], so I approached this update/re-imagining with no little trepidation. Nostalgia can be a terrible thing.

Race to Witch Mountain

Race to Witch Mountain is not as whimsically charming as those films, but it has a charm that comes purely from the performances of AnnaSophia Robb as Sarah; Carla Gugino as Dr. Alex Friedman, and Gary Marshall as eccentric conspiracy and UFO theorist [as if there’s any other kind in movies], Dr. Donald Harlan.

The kids appear in ex-cons Jack Bruno’s [Dwayne Johnson] cab seconds after he emphatically suggests to a couple of goons that he has gone straight, and give him a huge wad of cash to take them “that way.” The kids, Seth [Alexander Ludwig] and Sarah, are not from around here as they demonstrate when they pick up a convoy of tails. The two have come to Earth to obtain something that might rejuvenate their dead homeworld [injecting a glossing of relevance into the film that is pretty much forgotten forthwith].

The U.S. government wants them and it’s the team of Henry Burke [Ciaran Hinds], Matheson [Tom Everett Scott] and Pope [Christopher Marquette] that is closing in on them. To make matters worse, there’s a Siphon Warrior [Tom Woodruff Jr.] that wants to kill them [their planet’s military thinks it would be easier to just invade Earth and start fresh]. Friedman is a scientist who tries to bring science to a UFO convention [!] and Dr. Harlan is a fringe scientist who keeps track of government and UFO stuff from a foil-lined motor home.

Director Andy Fickman keeps things moving well enough that the holes in the scripts are virtually invisible – and peppers the film with quotes from/homages to any number of science fiction classics [two of which, Marvin the Martian and 2001 are even included in the trailer] to give the proceedings another layer. There are plenty of good moments for Johnson, too, but he really shines when he interacts with Robb and Gugino. I still haven’t figured out why he isn’t the biggest action star in history – he’s got tons of charisma and is an infinitely better actor than Arnold.

Even in a medium budget SF film, the effects have to be solid to let the audience buy into the proceedings and they are very good here. The suit and prosthetics for the Siphon Warrior are also cool – and the climactic fight between it and Bruno is a good one. The kids from the original movies, Ike Eisenmann [credited as Iake, here] and Kim Richards, have delightful cameos as a small-town sheriff and a waitress in the town diner.

In short, then, Race to Witch Mountain is an action-packed ride that will likely have kids spellbound and adults consistently amused. It may not be an interstellar epic, but it is definitely galaxies of fun.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Castle – Where Murder She Wrote Meets Moonlighting!

Castle’s [ABC, Mondays, 10/9C] Nathan Fillion is a star waiting to happen. If you don’t believe me, just re-screen any of his work on television [Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives] or movies [Serenity, Waitress] – or the incredibly funny web mini-series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog – and you’ll see what I mean.

Castle

He has the look of a young Kirk Douglas [right down to the dimpled chin]; the timing of a Groucho Marx, and the acting chops of a Bruce Willis. He has a natural charm and holds the screen like the young Cary Grant. And yet, he’s never had a hit series [though Waitress was a minor theatrical hit].

Castle may change that. The premise melds the mystery writer who solves real mysteries premise of Murder She Wrote with the banter and unresolved sexual tension of Moonlighting – then a dash of police procedural to the mix just to provide an extra layer.

Rick Castle [Fillion] is a full-of-himself mystery writer who has just killed off the main character in his bestselling series and is suffering writer’s block. When two murders are discovered to have been taken from his books, he offers to help the police with their investigation and is partnered with Kate Beckett [Stana Katic, The Closer, The Librarian: Curse of the Judas chalice]. Beckett is a gifted detective who works within the procedural lines and her immediate reaction to the less disciplined Castle is one of distrust and wariness.

When Castle arrives at certain conclusions in his own unique way – conclusions that she has reached through more ordered deductive means, she begins to be impressed and, finally, comes to accept that they make a good team [even if it had to be formed at the behest of the mayor – one of Castle’s biggest fans]. The partnership also inspires Castle to create a new mystery series – about a female police detective!

On the periphery, Castle has a superb supporting cast that includes: Susan Sullivan as Castle’s frequently divorced mother, Martha Rodgers; Molly Quinn as his daughter, Alexis – one of the few grounding influences in his life]; Jon Huertas as a detective who support Beckett, Reuben Santiago-Hudson as Captain Roy Montgomery, and Tamala Jones as the Medical Examiner, Lanie Parish, probably Beckett’s best friend.

The premiere, Flowers for Your Grave, is written by series creator Andrew W. Marlowe and directed with all kinds of Panache by Rob Bowman. In order to introduce the show’s cast, the balance between humor and drama isn’t quite right – everyone gets time enough to give us a solid idea about who they are – but the chemistry between Fillion and Katic definitely has a Willis/Shepherd slow burn to it.

In next week’s ep, Nanny McDead, the balance is better and the cast is not only more comfortable, but more engaging. With everything it’s got going for it, Castle just might become the elusive hit series for Fillion – and it couldn’t happen to a nicer Canadian guy [not to mention his nice, Canadian girl partner].

Final Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: Watchmen Is An Experience!

The world of Watchmen is one where an actual superman is the lone deterrent to nuclear war. Too bad he doesn’t care. The world of Watchmen is one where a retired superhero can become worth three times the net worth of the major automakers – combined – by selling a line of superhero-related items – and using that platform to get into energy, cosmetics and anything else that comes to mind. It’s a world where the U.S. won the war in Vietnam in days – and where costumed heroes are a part of the national fabric. Watchmen contains multitudes.

Final Poster

Continue reading MOVIE REVIEW: Watchmen Is An Experience!

MOVIE NEWS: Chris Columbus’ 1492 Entertainment Options Ben Templesmith Graphic Novel Welcome to Hoxford!

Ben Templesmith, best known for 30 Days of Night [co-created with Steve Niles] has optioned the movie rights to his graphic novel Welcome to Hoxford to Chris Columbus’ 1492 Entertainment.

Hoxford

Hoxford follows a psychiatrist who follows one of her patients who is transferred to a privately run mental prison – and discovers that a lot of the worst mental patients are being transferred there – but none are coming out! After trying to see her patient, she finds herself trapped in the facility and must work with her patient to fight the werewolves that are running it.

“I actually owe the entire book to an idea I had after receiving a letter about some previous work being banned from a prison,” said Templesmith. “It turned into one of the darker things I’ve ever done, with a few sick twists. It’s really been quite fantastic that Chris Columbus has thought Hoxford worthy enough to perhaps burst from the comic page to the screen.”  

Welcome to Hoxford will be produced by Columbus and his 1492 partners, Michael Barnathan and Mark Radcliffe.

DVD REVIEW: Protégé: Derek Yee’s Gangster Movie is a Character Study!

Whether you’ve stumbled onto the work of Tung-Shing [Derek] Yee through his oddball romantic comedy The Truth About Jane and Sam, or the more uptempo revenge movie, One Nite in Mongkok, you will find something new and different with his latest film to reach DVD, Protégé.

Protege Box Art

Protégé features Daniel Wu as Nick, an undercover cop who has become a vital component of drug lord Lin Quin’s operation. In a great piece of counter-intuitive casting, Lin is played by actor/singer Andy Lau, who breaks from his leading man/hero roles to play a decade older bad guy who, like Tony Soprano, loves his family but is ruthless in business.

Although Protégé is a gangster flock, it is not an action movie. Rather, it’s a closely examined character study. In the course of his investigation, Nick meets Jane [an excellent Zhang Jing Chu], a single mom whose drug habit makes her unreliable – and whose ex [Louis Koo] is constantly trying to get her back. Jane is a complication because Nick begins to care about her even as he fails to understand what could have led her to become a junkie. At the same time, Lin is suffering complications from diabetes and thinking of retiring and leaving his business in Nick’s hands. In Protégé, the characters are clearly driving the story.

Yee’s pacing is a hair faster than deliberate; he doles out information and character development in a fairly smooth manner. What bursts of action there are produce a greater impact in this otherwise much more controlled tale. More importantly, the action is derived from the character development.

Protégé is as much about honor, integrity and the possibility for redemption as anything. While I’ve seen this kind of movie from any number of international directors, this is the first time I’ve see it from a force in Hong Kong movies. Anytime I encounter a movie that draws me in and makes me ponder the value of friendship, the importance of honor and family, I figure it’s been a good day.

It’s been a good day.

Features: an engaging, informative and entertaining Audio Commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert, Bey Logan; The Making of Protégé featurette; Under & Over the Edge – Interview with Daniel Wu; Chasing the Dragon – Interview With Zhang Jing Chu; The Dealer – Interview With Producer Peter Chan, and the Original theatrical Trailer.

Grade: Protégé – B+

Grade: Features – B+

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Saving Grace Welcomes Christina Ricci For Three Episode Arc

Tonight, Saving Grace [TNT, 10/9C], one of the more unusual cop shows returns – bringing Detective Grace Hanadarko [Holly Hunter] a new partner, Abby Charles [Christina Ricci in a three-episode arc] and Grace’s “last chance angel,” Earl [Leon Rippy], a seeming setback in his assignment to help Leon Cooley [Bokeem Woodbine].

Hunter & Ricci

Heart of a Cop introduces Abby, who makes a terrific first impression by being late on first day of a 28-day rotation. The day gets more complicated when a murder turns out to be the work of a serial killer. Then, to Earl’s consternation, Leon asks for his execution date to be moved up. Plus, a creepy crime scene fan may be the killer.

Do You Believe in Second Chances? Finds Grace’s brother, Father John Handarko [Tom Irwin] trying to help Leon – but being more than a little bewildered by Leon’s response. Meanwhile, Grace’s niece, Sarah, is arrested at a scavenger party [the guests bring various drugs which are then put in a bowl and everyone takes something randomly from the bowl – it’s a kind of druggie’s Russian roulette], while her friend winds up in a coma. This episode features one of the most heartbreaking depictions of consequences I’ve ever seen.

In Take Me Somewhere, Earl, the investigation of the murder of a drug dealer bleeds over into another case – one with unexpected ties to the precinct. Meanwhile, Father John and Loretta [Laura San Giacomo] meet the mother of the woman whom Leon was convicted of killing; Earl produces an ancient hangover remedy, and we see that Grace is actually capable of having fun without any artificial stimulus. Oh, and there’s an unexpected revelation about Abby.

Besides having one of the two coolest theme songs on TV [the other being True Blood], Saving Grace has taken an especially odd premise and turned it into a powerful exploration of ethics, morality, self-destructiveness and [hopefully] redemption. The writing has become sharper and wittier as the cast have settled into their characters [or, in Hunter’s case, rode her character into the ground]. The show’s directors have framed the cast’s performances in episodes that are now individual jewels in a complicated setting.

With Saving Grace, a series that could have become a joke has become a genuinely unique show – and one of the best on TV.

Final Grade: A

DVD REVIEW: Breaking Bad – The Complete First Season: Dying Chemistry Teacher Turns to Crime to Provide For His Family!

When Bryan Cranston won the Emmy for Best Actor, last year, it came as a surprise to most of the Awards show’s audience. After all, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm had all the buzz for that series going for him. That and Cranston’s Breaking Bad role, chemistry teacher Walter White, being a guy who decides, upon learning that he has terminal lung cancer, decides to provide for his family by going into the crystal meth business. The DVD release of the truncated first season [seven episodes, down from nine, bcause3 of the writers’ strike] shows that Cranston was consistently amazing throughout – but also that the entirety of the show’s cast is just as remarkable.

BREAKINGBAD

Walt has a nuclear family – him and his pregnant wife, Skyler [Anna Gunn] and son Walter Jr. [R.J. Mitte], a high school student who has cerebral palsy [as does the actor who plays him] – and a brother in law who works for the DEA, Hank Schrader [Dean Norris]. Hank’s wife [Skyler’s sister], Marie [Betsy Brandt] rounds out the family. Walt’s partner in crime is Jesse Dupree [Aaron Paul], a high school dropout whom Walt failed in chemistry.

The series is a black comedy that follows Walt as, bit by bit, he goes down the wrong path as his disease worsens. At first he hides his disease from his family as he starts up his meth lab [making the purest stuff Jesse has ever seen], but he eventually tells Skyler and the rest of the family persuade him to take chemotherapy. Along the way, Walt is faced with increasingly difficult choices – like what to do with a couple of dealers who try to horn in on his and Jesse’s set up – and, invariably, makes the wrong choices [though always from a place of good intentions…].

Series creator Vince Gilligan has created a darkly comic series that more than lives up to its intriguing title [Gilligan says that it’s slang for “raising hell”]. Even as we wonder what the heck Walt is thinking as he goes down the path into his personal dark side, we can understand his motivation – and even sympathize. Like the blurb on the box says, “…Walt will stop at nothing to make sure his family is taken care after he’s gone, even if it means putting all their lives on the line.”

Features include: Deleted Scenes on every disc; Audio Commentaries by Gilligan and Cast for the Pilot and Crazy Handful of Nothin’; Making of Breaking Bad; Inside Breaking Bad; Vince Gilligan’s Photo Gallery; AMC Shootout: Interview With Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston and Mark Johnson, and Screen Tests.

Grade: Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season – A+

Grade: Features – A

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – Not The Worst Videogame Movie By Far

You think I’d learn. Every time I check out a movie based on a videogame, I’m let down – sometimes to an extreme [like with Max Payne, DOOM and the original Street Fighter movie]; sometimes by the tiniest of margins. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is one of the latter.

streetfighter poster

Here’s a movie that features some of the wittier martial arts choreography to be filmed in the last few years, and there’s a clever – even wistful – parallel father/daughter arc that shows Chun-Li [Kristin Kreuk] to be treasured by her father [Edmund Chen], and Bison’s [Neal McDonough] daughter used solely as a repository for the last of the goodness in his soul.

Unfortunately, the film falls into the usual origin story knee-deep exposition and too little actual martial arts sequences. Performance-wise, the cast is pretty good. Kristin Kreuk is at least adequate as Chun-Li; Robin Shou gives Gen [her mentor] a combination of gravity and humor that works really well; Neal McDonough is suitably psycho as Bison, and the sly chemistry between Interpol agent Nash [Chris Klein] and Bangkok cop Maya [Moon Bloodgood]definitely adds to the mix. Only Michael Clarke Duncan [Balrog, Bison’s number one enforcer] doesn’t fit – more because of the script than Duncan.

Andrzej Bartkowiak’s direction is crisp enough but he simply has too much material to cram into the film’s ninety-six minutes. The result is a movie that does entertain on a basic level, but is missing the kind of pure excitement that it needs to reach the next level.

Final Grade: C+

DVD REVIEW: Christopher Titus: Love is Evol – Comedy is His Therapy!

“If you are in here tonight, never having contemplated suicide – you have never truly been in love,” states Christopher Titus as he opens his Comedy Central Valentine’s Day Special. “And if you are in here and have never contemplated murder,” he adds, “you have never been divorced!” Titus has become one of our premier comedians by turning his highly unorthodox life into comedy routines that leave “edgy” gasped in the dust. Love is Evol is no exception.

Love is Evol

Love is Evol deals with his divorce from his wife of fifteen years, that “demon slithering from the fiery depths of Satan’s anus – though for legal reasons, I have to call her Kate.” His detailing of the proceedings is without mercy – for both parties. It’s filled with sage wisdom on many subjects – including breast implants after five years, or more, of marriage. He also introduces a part of his character he calls his “inner retard” – which, when combined with his physical behavior, could be considered politically incorrect in the extreme. Then you listen to his inner retard’s musings and, as pessimistic as it is, it’s also at least as smart as Titus’ more “normal” self. At first you’ll laugh, then you’ll feel guilty, and then you’ll laugh some more.

The first half of Love is Evol deals with Titus’ divorce. The second half deals with his finding – miracle of miracles – his perfect woman and, even more miraculously, actually getting together with her in spite of his many and varied idiocies, which he describes in heart-stoppingly funny detail.

This DVD is not for the faint of heart, or the self-appointed arbiters of political correctness. Love is Evol could be injurious to their mental and physical health. For everyone else, it is quite possibly the funniest single comedy performance since his Norman Rockwell is Bleeding. And, as Titus would say, “No wussies!”

Features include: Titus vs. Cupid: Behind the Scenes at the Photo Shoot; The Fans Speak: Love on the Rocks, and Countdown to V-Day [Titus’ Valentine tips for guys].

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Coraline – Still Your Best Bet at the Movies!

When it was announced that Henry Selick was developing Nail Gaiman’s wonderful novel Coraline for film, it was probably not something that registered with most moviegoers. If they recognized the name at all, it was most likely from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – even Burton claims that all he contributed was the basic plot, lead character and a few hasty sketches. Selick did all the heavy lifting.

coraline

Coraline is a completely different story. Selick developed the film, both writing the screenplay and directing the film. Here, Selick’s genius becomes clear. He adds a character – the odd little boy named Wybie [voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.] – to add to the stakes, and provide a contrasting character for Coraline [Dakota Fanning]. He also makes a few other tweaks that give the film even more depth than that usually given by stop motion animation. Then he adds really excellent 3-D – not as a gimmick, though there are places where an action does pop toward the audience – but as a means of making Coraline’s unique world just that little bit more unsettling.

The story of Coraline is one of misunderstandings: Coraline’s parents [John Hodgman, Teri Hatcher] seem disconnected from her, disinterested – though they are really trying to make a deadline on a freelance job, producing a catalogue for a client; when Coraline finds her other parents, she really thinks they are genuinely interested in her – though she is merely a diversion for them [especially her Other Mother]; Coraline doesn’t understand Wybie, either, thinking him a pest when he’s really a very lonely boy who has no idea about how to make friends.

Her adventures in both worlds involve other minor players who contribute to the mood: Miss pink [Dawn French] and Miss Forcible [Jennifer Saunders] who appear to have been very naughty in their professional careers, and Mr. Bobinski [Ian McShane], who is an aging Russian acrobat who is trying to train mice as circus performers. These characters give the film world a little extra bite and reality.

Then there’s the cat [Keith David], who is the same in both worlds but can talk in the Other World. Gaiman does a smart-ass cat to perfection and Selick captures him just as well in the film [and doesn’t a good fantasy require a smart-ass cat?].

After taking in the boring for 113 minutes/exciting for 5 minutes so-called thriller, The International, it’s my firm recommendation that Coraline is the best film available for the smart movie buff this weekend, acing out the engaging Confessions of a Shopaholic by a nose.

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Accidental Metaphor!

Even though it was filmed before the global economy went south, Confessions of a Shopaholic is – however accidentally – definitely a metaphor for the recession on a personal level – and Jerry Bruckheimer’s anti-Bruckheimer film [the only explosions are those of an emotional nature] is a solid romantic comedy that nears, but doesn’t quite reach, screwball proportions.

confessions-of-a-shopaholic 1

Rebecca Bloomwood [Isla Fisher] loves to shop. When she shops, the world seems better, brighter somehow. Unfortunately, that feeling wears off and she has to shop again. Her life becomes complicated by a series of events: she loses her job; someone named Derek Smeath [Robert Stanton] is hounding her for payment on one of her twelve credit cards]; and she has to, somehow, feign glee at the bridesmaid dress she must wear to her best friend and roommate’s wedding.

A chance encounter at a hot dog vendor gives her her first lesson in finance and features a “meet cute” with Luke Brandon [Hugh Dancy], who will turn out to be very important in her transformation from credit goose to worthwhile swan. Brandon’s Successful Saving magazine will be Rebecca’s first stop on the journey from unemployment to celebrated columnist for the ultimate fashion magazine, Alette. Surprisingly, she turns out to have a knack for putting financial concepts into metaphors that make the subject fun – boosting Successful Saving’s impact, prestige and [it would seem] circulation.

At first, nothing seems to be able to stop Rebecca from shopping – not even attending Shopaholics Anonymous meetings. Like the money men on Wall Street, who kept spending as indicators grew telling them to stop, Rebecca carries on – until she gets precisely what she deserves in the most inconvenient manner possible. It’s here that the metaphor splinters a bit – because, even as we wait for the Wall Street folks to become responsible, Rebecca does indeed learn her lesson [the hows and whys of which you will not learn here].

There are two main plotlines to Confessions: Rebecca’s having to deal with her finances and the girl-meets-boy, girl-screws-things-up-with-boy, girl-gets-boy plot. For Confessions, the surprises don’t arise from the results as much as they do from the events that take place along the way [as when Rebecca has to decide between a stylish dress for a TV appearance and her bridesmaid’s dress].

The script [by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert] is light and breezy, for the most part, but knows just when to hit an emotional note. P.J. Hogan’s [Muriel’s Wedding] direction is best described as deft. He has a good instinct not just for laughs, but for secondary and even tertiary bits that support rather than detract from the film – and he gets just the right performances from his cast.

Speaking of the cast: Isla Fisher is marvelous as Rebecca; Hugh Dancy is the second coming of Hugh Grant as Luke, and Krysten Ritter is delightfully odd as Rebecca’s best friend, Suze. John Goodman and Joan Cusack are equally terrific as Rebecca’s supportive parents, and the members of the Shopaholics Anonymous group more than hold up their sections of the film – especially ex-NBA star John Salley’s D. Freak, and Wendy Malik’s [Just Shoot Me] Miss Korch.

Confessions of a Shopaholic may have started out as a standard, if well done, romantic comedy but has become – however inadvertently – a metaphor. It succeeds on both levels. Admirably.

Final Grade: B+