All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

MOVIE REVIEW: Bolt in 3D: Disney Closes The Gap On PIXAR – But Only a Little

Walt Disney’s Bolt is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of fluff with just the right amount of darkness and danger to give kids [and their parents] a bit of a scare before everything works out. In terms of animation, it’s almost to the level of PIXAR, though the storytelling isn’t as fluid. The 3D, however, works really well, and the film has more of a feeling of solidity than I expected – and the number of showy 3D sequences is much lower than I would have expected [and none that don’t actually serve the story].

Bolt, Mittens & Rhino

The movie’s conceit is that Bolt [agreeably voiced by John Travolta], a German Shepherd pup who was rescued from an animal shelter, and became the lead in a hit TV show – but since he’s never been off the set, he thinks his TV superpowers are real. When he accidentally gets mailed across the country, he has to get home to save Penny [Miley Cyrus], whom he believes to have been kidnapped by the show’s villain, The Green-Eyed Man [Malcolm McDowell]. He is aided by a streetwise cat called Mittens [Susie Essman] and a hilariously overeager hamster in an exercise ball, named Rhino [Mark Walton].

The second film from the Disney Animation Studios since Disney bought PIXAR, Bolt also went through a creative disembowelment at the hands of John Lasseter and seems to be the better for it. It’s much better than Meet The Robinsons on every level. The animation is first-rate [Dreamworks quality, if not yet PIXAR level]; the script is genial and genuinely amusing, and the voice cast works like a dream. If Bolt feels like a weird hybrid of Inspector Gadget, Super Friends and Homeward Bound, that isn’t really a bad thing.

Something to note: some of the scarier moments might be too much for really young kids. There were a few outbursts of tears and crying at the screening I attended. In a way, that’s a reinforcement of Bolt’s effectiveness as an entertainment – it does secure the emotional reactions it seeks. There are also more than a few laugh out loud moments [a few more than the scary darker moments] and, overall, the film does provide a number of giggles, chuckles and grins. Bolt is light entertainment, but it’s good light entertainment.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season – Experience One of the Most Influential Treks in Television History!

When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC, he described it as “Wagon Train in space.” Without Wagon Train, there might well have been no Star Trek – or any of its sequel [and prequel] series. But Wagon Train influenced Star Trek in more ways than simply trekking through space. The series, which had a nine-year run – of which, only the eighth was filmed in color – was, along with Half Gun, Will Travel and a handful of other westerns a series that featured high quality writing and productions values. Combined with a talented cast, the series often featured stories that delved deeply into its characters – both regular and, especially, guest cast. This DVD set includes all thirty-two ninety-minute episodes from season eight and sixteen classic eps from the series’ black white sixty-minute format. I’ll use two specific episodes that have similar basic situations, but totally different points, to illustrate.

Wagon Train

From the eighth season, I choose the season’s second episode, The Fort Pierce Story, and from the black and white classic eps, I’ll choose The Clara Beauchamps Story – in both of which an officer’s wife has a drinking problem.

In The Fort Pierce Story, Captain Paul Winter’s [Ronald Reagan] wife, Nancy [Ann Blyth], drinks because she’s the only woman in the fort and can’t cope with the thought that her husband might not come back from patrol one day. The situation is compounded by the arrival of Chris Hale’s [John McIntire] wagon train – and orders from Washington that the garrison is to maintain a purely defensive presence that means the army won’t be able to give the wagon train an escort through Indian territory. Only the cleverness [and hidden compassion] of the garrison’s commander, Col. Wayne Lathrop [John Doucette], manages to work things out for everyone.

In The Clara Beauchamps Story, from the show’s first season, Clara [Nina Foch] drinks because of frustrated ambition. All of her friends’ husbands have been promoted while her husband, Col. Beauchamps [Shepperd Strudwick] commands a fort in the middle of nowhere. Their situation is complicated both by the death of an Indian by arriving reinforcements and the arrival of Major Seth Adams’ [Ward Bond] wagon train. Clara’s actions nearly unravel a delicate balance the colonel has maintained with the Indians, and the episode ends in both tragedy and triumph.

Wagon Train was always about people, though each episode had to have a certain amount of adventure to keep people interested. Like the Trek series it influenced, though, these stories were about character and issues, however outwardly camouflaged. Another classic first season episode, A Man Called Horse, is more about a man’s search for identity – an identity that might be found when he is captured by the Crow Indians. The idea here is that sometimes a man can literally make a name for himself, and in so doing, find a home.

While the series always looked good – and drew top flight guest stars – the color season showed its location work to great effect. Some of the panoramic vistas wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford film. In any event, the DVD release of Wagon Train: The Full Color Season is cause for celebration. After decades of knowing, anecdotally, that the show influenced so many others [and especially Gene Roddenberry], there are now forty-eight episodes of the classic series available.

Because of the age of the series, and the varying condition of the archived episodes, there are some episodes that aren’t in pristine condition, but the quality of the series shines through.

The only features are half-hour interviews with two of the series’ most memorable stars – Robert Fuller [scout Cooper Smith] and Denny Scott Miller [Duke Shannon].

Grade: Wagon Train – The Complete Color Season – A

Grade: Features – C

Final Grade: A-

MOVIE REVIEW: Quantum of Solace: Vengeance is Mine, Quoth Bond!

If you’ve seen Casino Royale, then you’ve gotten all the character development you need to enjoy Quantum of Solace, the latest adventure of MI6 operative James Bond [Daniel Craig] – but it’s not all the characterization you’ll get before the film ends. This film, which begins twenty minutes after the end of Casino Royale is a sleek action flick that – while it may be influenced by what Paul Greengrass did with the last two Jason Bourne films – manages to use some of the handheld techniques from the Bourne trilogy without ever moving completely away from the equally kinetic but different style of the previous film.

Bond & Camille

Here, Bond is out to avenge the death of the only woman he ever loved. The problem, he learns, is that her killer is part of a global network dedicated to take over the planet by perverting the fight against global warming to their own ends. The film’s most visible antagonist is Dominic Greene [Mathieu Amalric], the front for an organization of alleged ecological crusaders. Complicating things is a woman who is after the man who killed her family – and is now working with Green.

Quantum, it turns out, is the name of this shadowy organization and their claim that they are everywhere is supported by an attempt on M’s [Judy Dench] life by her own bodyguard. Circumstances dictate that she cut Bond loose to do what he does best – while looking like she’s trying to get him to stand down. It gets even more complex from there though Bond’s ability to suss out information from the slimmest resources gets him through it in fine style

Marc Forster’s direction, as mentioned above is somewhat influenced by the Bourne films, but he skilfully weaves unexpected character moments throughout in a way that’s so invisible that many reviewers have found the film devoid of characterization. Such is not the case – though much of Quantum’s character moments come through choices Bond makes in the midst of action.

The action sequences are breathtaking throughout, but the bookends of the opening chase/fight sequence and the wall of destruction just before the film’s conclusion are among the best I’ve ever seen. The cast is excellent as well – especially Olga Kurylenko as Camille – the woman who, like Bond, has vengeance on her mind [her situation at the end may have something to do with her not sleeping with Bond, but that’s a subject for Bond fanatics to debate.

Amalric makes a good villain for two reasons: acting skill [and knowing when not to chew the scenery], and the fact that his eyes seem just a tad bit too large for his face [just enough to be creepy; not enough to be funny]. In terms of sheer presence, none of the other Quantum employees/conspirators matches him.

Overall, then, while Quantum of Solace won’t be making any top ten best films lists for 2008, it is in no way a bad film. Rather, it is one of the half-dozen best Bond films – and that’s not too shabby.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Ghost Whisperer: The Rumors Were True, So, Now What?

In last week’s episode of Ghost Whisperer [CBS, Fridays, 8/7C], the unthinkable happened: Jim Clancy [David Conrad] was killed, accidentally, when a police detective shot him thinking he was someone else. The episode concluded with Jim’s ghost appearing to his widow in his hospital room.

Ghost Whisperer - Threshold

Tonight’s episode, Threshold, finds Melinda [Jennifer Love Hewitt] unable to see Jim’s ghost because her grief is so strong that it’s interfering with her ability. When the ghost of a teenage girl begins to haunt her – breaking and throwing things – she thinks it’s Jim. Only Jim knows that it isn’t, so he approaches Eli [Jamie Kennedy] to help him figure out why the girl is haunting his widow. Things are complicated by Jim’s brother, who has been waiting for him so that the two of them can crossover together and rejoin their father.

Written and directed by John Gray, Threshold walks a fine line between genuine sentiment and being maudlin. For the most part – and largely due to the cast’s performances – it succeeds. Especially good is Conrad’s work as the increasingly frustrated Jim, though Hewitt gives one of her best performances here. I also have to give full marks to Camryn Manheim, whose work on Whisperer hasn’t really worked for me. Delia finally works as Melinda’s supportive friend and employee.

Naturally, with the complications that arise in Threshold, there are loose ends that will be left for next week’s ep, Heart & Soul – in which Melinda has to deal with a step-in, a man with amnesia and a very angry ghost who seems connected to her life in a genuinely unexpected way. I can’t say anything more than that – except to say that this ep concludes a storyline for Melinda and Jim even as it signals the beginning of an intriguing new direction for her.

Heart & Soul has a bit more trouble avoiding being maudlin, but long time fans of the series will find it to be both and unsettling [in a good way] and satisfying conclusion to the three-episode arc.

Final Grade: B

TELEVISION: Sanctuary Renewed; Series Keeps Getting Better!

With the announcement that Sanctuary [Sci-Fi, Fridays, 10/9C] has been renewed for a second season, perhaps those who those who don’t like to commit to a new series for fear it’ll be cancelled will now give TV’s first green screen series a chance. Two upcoming episodes are good examples of the kind of quirky quality that series is developing.

Sanctuary

Quick refresher courser: Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping], a one hundred fifty-seven-year old scientist has established Sanctuary – a home for “abnormals” [creatures benign and otherwise that are not of the perceived normalcy – mermaids, a missing link, children with unusual fear reflexes]. She provides homes – or cages if necessary – for these beings. She is aided by her daughter, Ashley [Emilie Ullerup], forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne] and tech wizard, Henry Foss [Ryan Robins] .

In this week’s ep, The Five, Magnus’ lecture to an underground group in Rome, on abnormals, leads to a meeting with Nikola Tesla [Jonathon Young] who warns her of an impending assassination attempt. Tesla has a few secrets, himself – the only one I can telegraph is that he sleeps during the day.

The episode is fast paced and smart, but has its moments of emotional truth that support the action. We get to see Magnus’ ability to improvise – and the rest of her team show initiative in the way they aid her from their home base. The CG sets and effects are improving and now have much more weight than early on. Even Tapping’s wobbly English accent is much more consistent.

On December 5th, Drs. Magnus and Zimmerman take a mini-sub to investigate the slaughter of a clan of mer-people and find an abnormal unlike any they’ve ever seen. Requiem is a bottle show – a one-set episode – and as such, relies on tour de force acting by Tapping and Zimmerman. Both actors are called on to run through a gamut of emotions in a situation where an unseen menace seems to be influencing their behavior.

Based on these two episodes, Sanctuary is deserving of its renewal and an even larger audience.

Final Grade: B+

DVD REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five

The story of how Po [Jack Black] becomes the Dragon Warrior – despite the skepticism of the Furious Five Masters, Crane [David Cross], Mantis [Seth Rogen], Monkey [Jackie Chan], Tigress [Angelina Jolie] and Viper [Lucy Liu] – is one of the year’s surprise hits, critically as well as at the box office.

KungFuPanda

The film’s DVD release is full of bonus features and, in a special two DVD package, includes The Secrets of the Furious Five. This twenty-five minute tale finds Po facing his greatest challenge – teaching a class of easily distracted young bunnies the art of king fu [Master Shifu, still voiced by Dustin Hoffman, seems particularly tickled by the situation]. To get the class’ attention, Po relates stories of how each of the Five – Crane [David Cross], Monkey [Jaycee Chan], Mantis [Max Koch], Tigress [Tara Strong], and Viper [Jessica Di Ciccio] – had to overcome such flaws as impatience [Mantis], Compassion [Monkey], control [Tigress], and so forth. Even Master Oogway [Randall Duk Kim] puts in an appearance.

Most of Secrets is filmed in the beautiful 2D style seen in the prologue to Kung Fu Panda, with CG used for scenes that feature Po and his class – and the clever cover art from the two DVDs is designed to be one larger picture when placed side by side.

There is a wealth of features on each DVD.

Kung Fu Panda: Audio Commentary by Co-Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne; Meet the Cast; Pushing the Boundaries [improvements in CGI]; Sound Design; Kung fu Fighting Music Video by Cee-Lo; Mr. Ping’s Noodle House [watch a master make noodles from a simple ball of dough]; How to Use Chopsticks [this time for sure!]; Conservation International: Help Save Wild Panda; Dragon Warrior Training Academy; Printables and Weblinks [DVD-ROM], and Dreamworks Animation Jukebox.

Secrets of the Furious Five: Po’s Power Play: Learn to Draw [Character animators show how to draw their respective characters]; Dumpling Shuffle [which bowl is the dumpling under]; Pandamonium Activity Kit [DVD-ROM]; The Land of Panda: Learn the Panda Dance; Do You Kung Fu [demonstrations of basic kung fu forms]; Inside the Chinese Zodiac; Animals of Kung Fu Panda [and how they relate to their namesake forms of kung fu], and What Fighting Style Are You?

Grade: Kung Fu Panda – A

Grade: Secrets of the Furious Five – B+

Grade: Features: Kung Fu Panda – A+

Grade: Features: Secrets of the Furious Five – B+

Final Grade: A

TELEVISION: Batman: The Brave and the Bold – ‘50s-Style Batman Teams Up Nicely!

When Batman: The Brave and the Bold premieres [Fridays, 8/7C], long time Bat-fans may be surprised to see a Caped Crusader who bears more than a slight resemblance to Dick Sprang’s version of the character which ran in the comics from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘50s. The stories will also remind of this period as they combine mystery with science-fiction, which leads to episodes like the series premiere, Rise of the Blue Beetle, where we are treated to two team-ups – Batman [Diedrich Bader] and Green Arrow [James Arnold Taylor] take down the Clock King [Dee Bradley Baker] as a warm-up to a galaxy-spanning adventure in which Batman teams up with the newest incarnation of the Blue Beetle [Will Friedle].

Brave & the Bold

In each instance we see a difference side of Batman – the friendly squabbles with Green Arrow, an equal to the Dark Knight, and a more mentorly approach with the Beetle. Each is appropriate to the partner involved, and each leads to unexpected action – especially in the Batman/Beetle clash with dreaded Justice League of America villain, Kanjar Ro [from all the way back in the original JLA #5].

Considering the amount of action and characterization contained in this episode, it’s amazing that it doesn’t feel overcrowded – but it doesn’t. Instead the quips fly fast and free; the action involved in taking down a rather mundane [for Batman] villain generates laughs, while the Kanjar Ro beef is considerably more serious [he’s found using a sentient lifeform to fuel his ships].

The writing on Batman: The Brave and the Bold is sharp and concise. It mixes a bigger dose of humor into the adventures, while knowing when to get serious. The animation is as series specific – and right for the series – as that of each of the previous Bat-shows. Plus, the series will find Batman working with a lot of interesting characters, such as: Red Tornado [Corey Burton], Aquaman [John DiMaggio], and Plastic Man [Tom Kenny]. Scriptwriter Michael Jelenic and director Bon Jones may have used Rise of the Blue Beetle to introduce the series to make it clear that it’s a different Batman series – if so, they’ve certainly succeeded!

Final Grade: A-

TELEVISION: Estate of Panic: Just a Bit Too Late For Hallowe’en!

By now, you, my loyal readers, will know that I tend to despise/loathe/abominate reality TV – which is why I am surprised when I find myself liking a reality series like Cha$e, where the format is more game show than anything else, and relies on contestants being capable of utilizing their intelligence [and some spiffy effects work]. Then there are the shows that stress endurance of the loathsome in the service of greed – like Fear Factor. Estate of Panic [Sci-Fi, Wednesdays, 10/9C] is such a show; a mix of Fear Factor and a haunted house.

Estate of Panic

Seven contestants are gathered in a spooky mansion where host Steve Valentine [Jordan’s Crossing] explains the rules as a Karloff-wannabe butler looks on. The rules are these: the contestants will enter three rooms/areas of the estate where they will find lots of money; these rooms/areas will be booby-trapped in some way and thus present a challenge to the contestants; the person with the least money and the last person in the room/area will be eliminated.

In the premiere, the tests/challenges/tortures are: snakes and flooding; walls and ceilings that close in on the contestants, while crabs and worms are freed from their aquaria by the ceiling dropping, and a garden area looped with wires that give the contestants varying degrees of electrical shocks. But wait! There’s more!

Following each challenge, two contests are dropped from the game [for the reasons described above] and the last person standing gets all the money collected – if they can overcome one last test – a vault with two hundred safety deposit boxes. There’s a timer that will lock the vault in a specified time, so the finalist must work quickly. As an added incentive to hurry, the finalist is shackled to the floor of the vault and must also look for keys or implements that help free them. There are also some less friendly contents in some of the boxes.

The challenges will, naturally, vary from episode to episode.

Estate of Panic might have worked as a one-off for Hallowe’en, but as a series, it would seem to be the logical successor to Fear Factor. If you like watching real people willingly being scared and/or tortured, this show will appeal to you. In spite of Johnson’s suitably creepy presence as the host – and Rupert, the butler – Estate of Panic revolted me. Not as much as Fear Factor, but close.

Final Grade: D

MOVIE REVIEW: Synecdoche, New York – What Does It All Mean?

It’s been several hours since I walked out of the theater and I’m still wondering whutinthehighholyhellwuzzat?!? If you’ve seen any of the films that Kaufman wrote previously [Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind], then you know that is the usual state of mind that follows a screening his work. It’s just that Synecdoche, New York takes things to a whole other level.

synecdochenewyork2

Kaufman lulls us into a state of false comprehension by opening with the family of small time theatre director Caden Cotard [Philip Seymour Hoffman] as they go about a depressing day – a day that seems to last forever and ends with his artist wife, Adele Lack [Catherine Keener] and daughter, Olive [Sadie Goldstein] leaving for a show in Berlin. The two-week separation becomes seventeen years.

In the meantime, Caden, following on the heels of a Broadway success with Death of a salesman, wins a genius grant of quite possibly billions and mounts a play that he hopes will bold and true and a bunch of other artistic stuff. What he winds up with is a scale version of New York – peopled by actors playing all the people in his life [however slightly or parenthetically]. But that’s all window dressing.

Besides being a pun on Schenectady [the Cotards’ hometown], synecdoche is a word that can mean “a part that represents the whole.” In terms of Kaufman’s film, this can mean any number of things – Kaufman himself says that it means what you take out of it. For me, the film is about Life. It grows and shifts in variations on a theme even as members of Caden’s cast quit and are replaced – even though the new actors are doing the same things as their predecessors, they are different because they are different people, much as we are different people at various stages of our lives.

Life, and Death, are both bigger than we are, and smaller. We can be replaced, though never exactly. We can be reproduced, though never exactly, in any number of media. In an odd way, Kaufman seems – to me at least – to be saying that life, the universe and everything is what it is. That can be both a comforting thought and a harrowing one.

Final Grade: A+

DVD REVIEW: M Squad – The Complete Series: Hard Boiled Cop Drama on Chicago’s Mean Streets!

What Dragnet was to Los Angeles, and Naked City was to New York, that’s what M Squad was to Chicago. The hard-boiled cop show starred Lee Marvin, in his first major leading role, as Lt. Frank Ballinger of the so-called M Squad. In Ballinger’s words, M Squad “is a special detail of the Chicago Police; we work on cases when requested by other departments, and when there are special circumstances.” Most of the show’s one hundred and seventeen episodes dealt with homicides. The Timeless Media Group collection of the complete series marks the first time the series has been released on any form of home video.

MSquad_Box Art

Although Lt. Ballinger had occasional support from various fellow detectives, the only other series regular was his immediate superior, Captain Grey [Paul Newlan] – as hands-on a boss as any cop could hope for. Ballinger’s cases ranged from deaths caused during escape from a robbery [caused by a cleverly disguised sailor hoping to get away when his ship sailed], to the case of a married businessman killed in an apparent robbery after breaking up with his mistress [the dead man’s wife was a friend of Captain Grey’s wife].

The series ran for four seasons and, beginning with the second, featured a theme composed by Count Basie. For all four seasons, the episodes’ scores were composed by jazz greats like Benny Carter and John Williams [who went on to score Star Wars]. Coupled with the stark black & white, noir-ish cinematography, M Squad was an effective combination of sizzle and substance.

Marvin’s Ballinger could be as brusque as Jack Webb’s Joe Friday, but was a bit on the empathetic side when dealing the victims of the crimes he investigated. He could be fooled by a pretty face, but not for long – and he had a very Sam Spade-like attitude to female criminals. He was smart and intuitive, and as perfectly capable of taking down bad guys with his fists as with a gun.

I could bore you with a list of guest stars who went on to bigger – if not necessarily better – things [among the ones listed on the box are two future Star Trek stars, a vigilante and a policewoman-to-be] but I’ll leave the fun of spotting them to you.

As for the quality of the set, it varies. Originally, Timeless planned a best-of set because they didn’t have access to all one hundred and seventeen episodes. The missing episodes were supplied by fans, making this a unique achievement. The result is something rare – a complete set of episodes from a groundbreaking, fifty-year old series that led the way in writing, direction, performance, production values and scoring.

There are no features included with the set – other than the liner notes that are duplicated on the back on of the slipcase and the interior foldout box, and a CD of Count Basie’s theme and jazz selections from the show’s score.

The variable quality of the episodes keeps the set from getting an A+ for content, but, as all episodes are definitely watchable, it doesn’t lose much.

Final Grade: A

TELEVISION: Cha$e – The Sci-Fi Channel Brings Video Games to Life!

With Cha$e [Tuesdays, 10/9C], The Sci Fi Channel adapts a highly successful Japanese game show format for American audiences. The rules are simple enough: ten runners must avoid capture by five hunters on a specified game zone for one hour – while finding devices to help avoid, misdirect or otherwise thwart the runners. Even the map of the zone is acquired through a test. Host Trey Farley explains the rules and gives the runners updates on various challenges – and the surprising nature of the fifth hunter – before eventually revealing the mystery exit point. Although runners must work together at times, only one can win – the prize is twenty-five thousand dollars.

hunters_800

There will be CG effects touches to make the show more closely emulate the feel of a video game. There are graphics that show the locations of the runners and the hunters; the hunters will be CG-enhanced figures [instead of just the already creepy men in black with designer sunglasses that appear on the screener]. Runners are shown in electronic “cards” each of which flashes their basic stats, and the equivalent of power gauging bars appear on the bottom third of the screen to show what devices the various runners have/have used/have failed to obtain. The actual gameplay is not especially exciting, though I expect that when all the CG effects are laid in, that will be an improvement.

What is interesting, though, is the way the runners think before, during and after gameplay. One losing runner says, “I thought I wouldn’t care, but I do” – another is quite expressly angry about having failed. Others are more philosophical.

In fairness, I should probably point out that – while Cha$e is based on the aforementioned successful Japanese game show format – the game should really carry an “inspired by” credit for the late Robert Sheckley, whose short story, The Seventh Victim, was adapted into the hit movie, The 10th Victim. With the exception that Sheckley’s hunters and hunted were a stand-in for large scale war – and the principles of his much more violent game [including being televised] are pretty much present here. Sheckley was right, too. The game makes for intriguing – if not brilliant – television.

Final Grade: B-