All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

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+

TELEVISION: Extreme Sports Star Saved By Mascot Costume!

rob-dyrdek

Extreme sports star Rob Dyrdek has been working on a series of promotional videos for the Carl’s Jr. fast food chain. Apparently, not all of his stunts – performed in the Happy Star mascot costume – have gone as planned. Follow the link to see Happy Star save Dyrdek’s life:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24UmHjbrgnU

HOLLYWOOD INSIDER: Burn Notice’s Gabrielle Anwar Talks Guns and That Whole Michael & Fiona Thing!

Fiona 02

As the stunning [in more ways than one] and deadly Fiona in USA’s Burn Notice, Gabrielle Anwar finds herself playing a character whose first response to problems is to shoot them, or blow them up. During a teleconference call earlier today, she got a chance to talk about Fiona’s penchant for violence and… shall we say unusual… relationship with burnt spy, Michael Weston [Jeffrey Donovan].

Continue reading HOLLYWOOD INSIDER: Burn Notice’s Gabrielle Anwar Talks Guns and That Whole Michael & Fiona Thing!

MOVIES: Sleek, Stylish and Slightly Skeevey, Taken Delivers The Goods!

A retired spy’s daughter is kidnapped to be sold as a sex slave [the slightly skeevey part]. The ex-spy hunts the men who kidnapped her. As premises go, this one is simple, direct and a bit odd to find in a PG-13 film – but we are talking about a Luc Besson production, so maybe it’s not really a surprise.

Taken - Neeson

What is a surprise is that Taken, co-written by Besson [Leon, The Professional and The Fifth Element] and Robert Mark Kamen [The Karate Kid, The Transporter], and directed by Pierre Morel [District B13], is better than the premise suggests. This mostly because it takes a bit of time to establish that our protagonist, Bryan Mills [Liam Neeson] has retired because he wants to reconnect with his daughter, Kim [Maggie Grace]. We believe him because we see how disappointed he is when her mother, Lenore [Famke Janssen] and step-father, Stuart [Xander Berkley] upstage him at her birthday party [he brings her an expensive karaoke machine, but Stuart gives her a horse].

When she and her mother persuade him to sign a waiver allowing Kim to go to Paris, his warnings of danger fall on deaf ears and – sure enough – she and her friend are kidnapped. Then comes the phone conversation we saw in the trailer – followed by Mills taking action. Although Neeson is not a small guy, he does a good job of making himself seem ordinary as he begins tracking down the kidnappers, but once he swings into action, he becomes a force of nature.

Morel keeps the action up front and his pacing builds as Mills works himself up the chain of command – starting with the spotter who set up Kim and her friend. The usual ingredients of a Besson production are here – fights, chases, explosions – but because we buy into Mills as a father, there is a little more gravity, a little more at stake than usual.

Taken is entertaining but, ultimately, reliant on one performance. If you buy Neeson as Mills, then you’ll enjoy the movie. If not, you won’t. I did.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: Lost: You’re Gonna Love Jughead!

Well, sir… Lost [ABC, Wednesdays, 9/8C] is continuing on its roll!

Richard & Daniel

Among other things, we learn that Locke [Terry O’Quinn] was born in March of 1956 – and that ties into Charles Widmore [Alan Dale] in a supremely unexpected manner. It also figures in explaining why Locke was visited by Richard Alpert [Nestor Carbonell] as a child. The more you learn about this show – the more answers you get – the more questions arise.

Take Faraday’s mother… please! If you can find her… And just wait until you meet a certain member of Desmond’s family! And speaking of Faraday [Jeremy Davies], he gets to make a definitive statement – though not about the physics of the island [though he also gets to do some actual science stuff, too].

Latin. The dead language plays a role here, too. A small but pivotal part.

Locke’s tracking skills get a workout [see 1956]. We learn more about Faraday’s past [he seems like he’s come a long way from then, but with this show you never know]. Miles [Ken Leung] gets to use his special talent, though it doesn’t seem to help much. As for Charlotte [Rebecca Mader], I refer you back to her nosebleed in the season premiere. We even get a scene that suggests that Charles Widmore actually does care about his daughter, Penny [Sonya Walger]. Then there’s Charlie…

After screening three episodes of Lost, Season Five, I have to say that the pieces of the Cuse/Lindelof mosaic really are falling into place. As the season moves inexorably, but nimbly, towards its conclusion, you can kinda see the outlines within the Big Picture falling into place. Because You Left, The Lie and now, Jughead are all extremely well put together episodes. The scripts have been tight, well-paced and feature that odd mix of character and mythology that differentiates Lost from everything else on television. The direction has been, if anything, even crisper than in the past – these eps haven’t played like the three hours they’ve taken up in our schedules.

Finally, the cast of Lost continues to make us believe in these characters – all of whom are lost in one way or another and seeking to find themselves. It’s really only because of the well-developed characters that we can believe in the mythology of the show. If we didn’t care about Locke, we wouldn’t have been so worried when he faced the Smoke Monster in Season One. If we didn’t care about Faraday and Charlotte [and isn’t amazing how quickly we’ve taken to them?], we wouldn’t be worried about that nosebleed.

As long as the characters remain relatable, and the pace of the revelations [answers should soon begin to outnumber questions, judging by this week’s ep], then the show will continue to hold sway over those of us who still watch [whether in real time, or online, or whatever]. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of fun/drama/weirdness to come.

I can’t wait!

Final Grade: A

TELEVISION: The Closer: Suicide Is Painless – But Was This Suicide?

The winter premiere of The Closer [Mondays, TNT, 9/8C] is following a pretty hard act – it’s mid-season cliffhanger, and so we both learn the fate of Detective Sanchez [Raymond Cruz] and witness Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson’s [Kyra Sedgwick] reaction to Fritz’s marriage ultimatum. Even better, there’s an apparent case of suicide that coroner Dr. Morales [Jonathan Del Arco] won’t sign off on – and he’s extorting Deputy Chief Johnson into taking the case [or he’ll take it to another division, making her team look like idiots!].

Tenney, Sternhagen, Sedgwick

The deceased is a recovering drug addict and con man who seems to have gone straight – though that doesn’t jive with the recollection of his ex-wife which is, in turns at odds with the experience [or at least testimony] of his pastor [church in a slating rink!] and cancer-suffering girlfriend. Add in the after effects of the cliff-hanger’s two-pronged dilemma – and the presence of Brenda’s parents [Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen], who are visiting for a few days before setting out on a Hawaiian cruise – and you’ve got all the ingredients for a truly odd mix of confusion, misdirection and pathos. The episode, Good Faith, is also notable for actually having scenes that do not require the presence of DC Strong.

Upcoming episodes feature a body found in the trunk of a car, and a suspected rapist/murderer whose lawyer has a track record of successfully defending sex offenders.

As usual, The Closer is written well enough to give us a few moments pause over each ep’s mystery, but it remains most notable for giving us a strong lead character that continues to grow as a person – and as a high-ranking member of the Los Angeles Police Department. Though this is Sedgwick’s show, there are moments for several members of her team as well as J.K. Simmons’ Assistant Chief Pope [who gets some really good stuff in the premiere].

All in all, The Closer hasn’t yet lost a step. It remains one of the best [and most watched] programs on cable television.

Final Grade: B

TELVISION: Trust Me: TNT’s Workplace Dramedy Shows Promise!

When Trust Me [Mondays, TNT, 10/9C] premieres following The Closer, there will be a tonal shift of some magnitude. Whereas The Closer is a darker drama with humor, Trust Me is much lighter in tone, with a nearly equal amount of each.

McCormack, Cavanagh

The set up is this: Mason [Eric McCormack] and Conner [Tom Cavanagh] are partners in a creative group for ad agency Rothman, Green & Mohr. Mason is a bit uptight, a bit square and a draughtsman as opposed to an artist. Conner is sly, charming, talented but incredibly immature – and us brilliant at coming up with concepts and taglines.

When one of their biggest clients, Arc Mobile, wants to change their approach, Mason and Conner are pulled away from a cushy assignment to come up with something new – only their boss [Life on Mars’ Jason O’Mara] hasn’t been told. When he finds out, he retreats to his office and has a heart attack. The group’s creative director, Tony Mink [Griffin Dunne] promotes Mason to take his place. Conner has a fit of pique.

Trust Me’s first two episodes [Before and After, All Hell The Victors] deal with the ramifications of the client’s need for change and the fall out form Mason’s promotion – working a newly hired hot shot writer, Sarah Krajicek-Hunter [Monica Potter] who was promised “a window;” two junior copywriters, Tom [Mike Damus] and Hector [Geoffrey Arend] who think taglines are passé, and Mason’s wife Erin [Sarah Clarke] into the mix, along with all their unique arcs.

Between dealing with Arc Mobile and the inadvertent plagiarizing of a tagline from a potential employee, the first two episodes do a good job of setting up the characters and situations that will be the foundation for the series. If the ad agency stuff feels real it’s because series creators, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny have between them over twenty years experience in the field.

Trust Me wouldn’t be out of place on a major network [or on the “Characters Welcome” cable net, for that matter]. It’s hugely entertaining despite still needing a bit of work on the drama/humor balance and figuring out how to maximum effect out of its minor characters. It’s certainly a better than average series, but it has the potential to be much more.

Final Grade: B-