DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

In my quest to find a fight film to unseat Raging Bull as the greatest movie of all time (everybody take a drink—podcast joke people, come on!) I stumbled upon the 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Originally titled “Master Killer” when it was released in the USA on VHS at some point after its Asian theatrical release in 1978, the film follows the story of San Te, a young student who is naïve about human nature and man’s domination of man; his insulated upbringing gives him no understanding as to why the Manchus wish to dominate the Han Chinese.

However, eventually he has no choice but to understand—his teacher is a revolutionary, and challenges them to understand what it means to be dominated and why one should fight to be free. Later, when San Te publicly remarks that Han Chinese rebel crucified in the town square was a hero, he—under the threat of being imprisoned himself, has to apologize to the Manchus for his transgression.

This event strikes him to his core, and he begins to ask questions. He involves himself in the revolution as an errand boy. During this short period, his teacher remarks that if only the Shaolin would teach kung fu to the people, they could fight the Manchus.

Soon, San Te’s teacher becomes the target of the Manchus—fellow students are killed, and even San Te’s own father becomes the victim of his associations with Han rebels.

On the run, San Te is determined to get to Shaolin temple to learn kung fu, and seek refuge from the Manchus hunting him.

What has been summarized thus far is roughly a half-hour of exposition mostly to serve the purpose of the rest of the film—to show the world of martial arts training, self-discipline, and self-discovery.

While the story is relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, it achieves a remarkable technical realism. This is thanks to Lau Kar Leung, the director more famous for Jackie Chan’s “Legend of Drunken Master,” who keeps his comic sensibilities to a minimum here to weave a no-nonsense tale for the very purpose of introducing people to authentic Hung Gar training, discipline, and values.

Fans of extremely realistic films will enjoy this picture—even in spite of its 70’s Hong Kong set-piece feel. The realistic aspects of the film have everything to do with the execution of martial arts and what training is involved. It is said that Lau Kar Leung wanted to make a film that actually showed martial arts training in its entirety–not the five minute sequences training occupied next to sequences of kung fu fantasy in films by earlier Hong Kong directors like Chang Cheh.

The film is uncompromising in achieving this vision, which may make non-martial arts enthusiasts yawn, but is deeply rewarding for viewers seeking films about martial arts, films about fighters in general, or even the psychology of fighting.

Fight films are few and far between. Good fight films are even fewer. “36th Chamber of Shaolin” is in that small pantheon of fighter-flicks that deliver.

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: Genre TV Movie Classics from The Warner Archives

Awhile back, Warner Brothers announced The Warner Archives, a new division that put a lot of Warners-owned movies out for either download or DVD-on-demand release, basically, you won’t find these in stores and other than through illegal means, the only ways I’ve seen at present to get them are either through Warners themselves or Deep Discount, and you’re best bet is through Warners directly because Deep Discount charges even more for them.

There’s a lot of good stuff available through them, but recently, I saw it pointed out through the Geek Radio Daily messageboards that the original pilot film for NBC’s Man From Atlantis was being offered there. Now I was intrigued, but not quite ready to pull the trigger on that right away, but checking into their selection, I found four things that I just couldn’t say no to… these were all pilot films from the early 70s, all of which were real staples of mine back in the day. I caught them when they were originally aired and re-aired on the networks, and then again when they’d show up on a couple of St. Louis stations which at the time were not affiliated with any networks. These stations used to show things like Abbott & Costello movies, Bowery Boys movies, Tarzan movies and a smorgasbord of various classic horror and science fiction films, all of which seem to be gone now, except for the occasional thing that might show up on either Turner Classic Movies or Fox Movies.

The four movies are:

Genesis II
Planet Earth
Earth II
City Beneath The Sea

Warners offered a deal on buying both Genesis II and Planet Earth together and I managed to find a discount code that got me a further $5.00 off the whole order, so I pulled the trigger. Within a week, everything was delivered, and I had a small thing that happened with my billing in the end. I e-mailed Warners about it, and within the hour, I’d been replied to and everything was taken care of to my satisfaction, so a thumbs up for their service.

Now here’s the deal on the movies:

Genesis II and Planet Earth both come from the fertile mind of Gene Roddenberry who of course will be eternally known for giving the world Star Trek. Genesis II originally aired on CBS back in 1973 as a 90 minute pilot film. At the same time, CBS was enjoying some terrific ratings for showings of the Planet of the Apes movies, and thus this pilot was passed on, with CBS opting for a Planet of the Apes series and using the reasoning that it could only have one sci-fi show on the air at a time. The main protagonist of this is a scientist from the year 1979 named Dylan Hunt (played by Alex Cord, better known for his work on Airwolf) who’s working on a new cryogenics system designed for astronauts in deep space travel. He uses himself as a test subject for the process deep in scientific complex located in Carlsbad Caverns, and of course, an accident happens and Hunt finds himself trapped there, only to be discovered in the year 2133 by a completely new society called Pax. Amongst those of Pax who discover Hunt, is a recent new addition, a mutant female known as Lyra-A (with the last part pronounced Ah) who has her own motives in retrieving Hunt. And of course hijinks ensue. Of note here was the fact that Lyra-A was played by actress Mariette Hartley who turned up all over the place back in the day, but was better known for being James Garner’s “wife” in a series of commercials for Polaroid and Ted Cassidy as the Pax member Isiah, who was better known for playing Lurch on The Addams Family. CBS, as I said above, passed on the pilot, but they aired it at least twice in primetime and again when they had a late night Friday night movie series. I still remember how they promoted it, in particular showing off Lyra-A’s mutation being dual navels! As a kid this was great stuff, and seeing it now again after all these years, it’s still a lot of fun, though it’s certainly stilted in a lot of it’s dialogue, and low budget in it’s look and so ripe in being made fun of, but at the same time pleasing in seeing what we used to get in a simpler time…

Planet Earth was aired by ABC in 1974 and it was Roddenberry selling Genesis II all over again- it’s the same premise but with some significant changes, I’m figuring that ABC wanted the show to more resemble Star Trek. John Saxon was cast as Dylan Hunt, and I always figured that if William Shatner never played James T. Kirk, John Saxon was probably the guy next in line to play him (Saxon was in all sorts of movies, but in my estimation is probably best known for co-starring with Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon). Two of the other planned recurring characters were also re-cast (though Ted Cassidy was retained). In Genesis II, Pax was a society based underground, but the setting was changed for ABC. And more sci-fi-type of uniforms were given to the Pax team. The story here actually grew sort of from a throwaway bit in Genesis II involving another society on this future earth in which women were overtly dominant over their men. Basically a member of Pax is shot on a mission and the only person who can immediately save him is another Pax member who was last seen infiltrating this female society- now Dylan Hunt and his team have to find this guy, and in the process bring a different sort of “enlightenment” to this female society, headed up by actress Diana Muldaur. These series probably represent Roddenberry at his free-wheeling horniest, though he was always trying to be a little on the saucy side with the original Star Trek as well. Again, like Genesis II I thought this was and still is some great fun, though some of that fun now can also be had playing with this in an MST3K style. ABC passed on this and went with The Six Million Dollar Man instead…

Earth II was originally broadcast by ABC in 1971 and was very much influenced in a small screen way by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Earth II tells the story of a multinational space station, called appropriately enough Earth II, that is it’s own sovereign nation in respect to the other nations of Earth. As this starts, the three astronauts who are in charge of Earth II are beginning their first steps in it’s construction, being launched in space and flying over the United States and by scanning the lights left on at night, determining if the nation favors Earth II becoming it’s own sovereign nation. Well, of course they get the green light, and so our scene shifts to the constructed Earth II, and how one man Frank Karger who helped with those opening steps is now bringing his family to live to Earth II. Frank has his own ideas about what they should be doing there and can’t wait to get cracking, though he’s meeting with some resistance from the original founders. This all gets accelerated though when Red China launches it’s own orbital nuclear missile launch platform, threatening the entire world with World War III. Earth II was proudly stating how scientifically accurate they were trying to be at the start of the show and I do believe they were trying their level best. Again, lots of 70s mainstays in this, Gary Lockwood (from 2001), Scott Hylands, Hari Rhodes and Gary Merrill serve as some main principals with Tony Franciosa playing Frank Karger and Mariette Hartley (yet again- see you couldn’t trip over anything in TV in the 70s without coming across Mariette Hartley) as his wife. Fun stuff and probably the best story of the four that I ordered.

City Beneath The Sea aired in 1971 on NBC and was from another icon in science fiction and disaster movies, Irwin Allen. Out of the four of these, visually, this was the most ambitious at least to me. It’s 2053, and Admiral Michael Matthews has been ordered by the President of the United States to re-assume his old job as the leader of the underwater city of Pacifica for a couple of different reasons and in addition a meteorite is headed straight to Pacifica’s location and threatens it’s destruction unless drastic action is taken! This is pure Irwin Allen schlock but also a lot of fun- lots of things come in from other Allen series, including the flying sub from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, actor Richard Basehart (also from Voyage) and actors Robert Colbert and James Darren from The Time Tunnel. Stuart Whitman stars as Matthews, and he’s rock-solid here, and the cast also includes Robert Wagner, Rosemary Forsyth and Joseph Cotten. probably the coolest part though was a character named Aguila, played by actor Burr DeBenning. Aguila was a mutant who could breathe and speak underwater, and DeBenning actually plays him with quite a bit of conviction. Fun stuff all around…

Now I don’t necessarily think these would fly with an audience that’s more weened on movie and TV after 1980, but for those that do remember these, it’s at least good to know that they’re still out there, and it certainly gives me hope that a few other things from the day might manage to make it out someday, in particular for me, two of Gene Roddenberry’s other failed pilots The Questor Tapes and Spectre.

As to the physical releases themselves, well the picture quality is actually pretty good here, probably the best that these have ever seen. Genesis II, Planet Earth and Earth II are all full frame, but City Beneath The Sea is in anamorphic widescreen. Both Earth II and City got international theatrical release, and near as I can tell, those are the versions shown here. In addition for both Earth II and City the disks also carry theatrical trailers for both movies.

For my first experience with the Warners Archives, this was a pretty good one, so for those that have been interested in trying them out, they certainly get a big thumbs up here.

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: Ashes of Time Redux

I relish the golden age of cinema we live in.

Many may disagree, longing for the 60’s or 70’s. But honestly, where else can you get the ultimate vision of every director for almost any film you’ve ever taken seriously? The answer is only in DVD-land.

As a result, we now have Lucas’ THX 1138 in its fullest form, Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of Blade Runner, as well as even a restoration of Coppola’s Apocalyspe Now, a film which had no reason critically to be recut and re-released, as it has been treated as a masterpiece since the film first hit audiences.

Director’s cuts, reduxes, lost versions, restorations of nearly-lost films—and these days they all come in the mail and you keep them as long as you want… can anyone argue with what we’ve been blessed with? It’s like being in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and the future all at the same time. Could you EVER have watched Umberto D forty times (and if you have, I both envy and pity you) when it was made?
Such access and analysis would have been simply impossible.

Speaking of time, Wong Kar-Wai has released “Ashes of Time Redux,” a re-working of his 1994 cult wuxia classic, for American release in arthouse theatres and now the first American release on DVD. The result is stunning.

I’ve never seen the original Ashes of Time. Indeed, just as with other films in the pre-DVD era, access to the film as a Westerner would have been almost impossible prior to now, unless one could get a bootlegged VHS. But even as a novice, I can tell the film has been reworked, because it features an enhanced score recently recorded by Yo-Yo Ma and the time-marking storytelling style that Kar-Wai explored frequently in 2046. As the seasons change, we are reminded by a visual cue that it is Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter. Only, we are not told necessarily what year it is—just as in 2046 when we are told what the year is but not necessarily what the reality is. In this way, “Ashes of Time Redux,” even though the original was made ten years prior to 2046, is a pleasant sequel for the Western viewer, because to those of us who are seeing it for the first time, it is an appropriate sequel to the themes of love, regret, and time explored in his last Mandarin film.

Ashes of Time Redux also benefits from being released to a Western audience that helped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gross millions of dollars. That film probably was the singular moment the mainstream Western audience embraced the “wuxia” picture, which is essentially a kung-fu/medival/fantasy hybrid, much like Lord of the Rings might be to a Western audience. In wuxia pictures, there is good and evil, magic powers, and warriors adhere to an ancient code. This is the meaning of “Wu” (from Wushu [meaning ‘martial arts’] perhaps? Or maybe the province ‘Wu?’) and “Xia” which together somehow translates as “Martial Honor” or “Martial Code,” if I understand it correctly.

The only difference between this Wuxia picture and everything else the West has seen in the post-Crouching Tiger era is that there is little honor in the main protagonist at all. Actor Leslie Cheung’s (who passed away 2003, may he rest in peace) character Ouyang Feng is a bitter, isolated swordsman whose job it is to “solve problems” for people. He meets warriors that will appear in a Chinese series of novels called the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” by Louis Cha (the modern Lord of the Rings epic in the East) and during the seasons he watches them change and discover things about themselves that they never knew—but Leslie Cheung’s character, sadly, does not change at all–and according to a synopsis of the “Eagle Shooting Heroes” novels that I read, might end up ultimately turning evil (that is, if the Kar-Wai character is even the same Ouyang Feng.)

I have read that the film’s elliptical references and prequel-esque story to the Eagle Shooting Heroes’ novels is scant and reconstructionist at best, and you don’t need to have read them to understand what is at the heart of the film. I agree—but I can’t speak with the authority of someone who has read the novels. Suffice it to say I enjoyed the film without them.

The film is ultimately the best wuxia film we’ve seen stateside. It delves deeper and more realistically into its characters than any other wuxia film I’ve seen—in some ways it betrays the traditional form, which traditionally has always been about being exciting, daring, and chivalrous. “Ashes of Time Redux” exhibits none of those characteristics. It is contemplative, introspective, and its main character betrays the trust of the audience. It has more in common with a Martin Scorsese or (later) Stanley Kubrick character than any honorable warrior from traditional wuxia storytelling.

It is ironic then, that this film both predates Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the year it was filmed, but post-dates it stylistically. This only further evidences the gifts of director Wong Kar-Wai, who’s films supposedly haven’t made a dime in theatres, yet continue to have artistic life on DVD releases because of their thematic longevity. It wouldn’t be fair to fans if Kar-Wai had filmed a lighter, more action-oriented wuxia picture (though technically–get ready to get really confused–he did! He filmed a companion comedy piece called “Eagle-Shooting Heroes” with the same cast over the same period, though I don’t think it has been made available to us since I can’t find it yet.) It isn’t in Wong Kar-Wai’s nature to give us a character the stature of Chou Yun-Fat’s “Li Mu Bai” or Jet Li’s “Hero.” Kar-Wai’s vision of broken warriors consumed with regret and lives that intersect both thematically and relationally is more Dickensian than anything traditional wuxia pictures have had to offer. “Great Expectations” comes to mind immediately, as does the long-running show “Lost,” where people are tied by their unknown and unrequited love/associations once-removed from one another. It is in these relationships Kar-Wai offers, that some characters find redemption, and some do not. Redemption is not in flying or swordfighting—though there is a little of both in the film.

It is difficult to say how tall in stature the film resides along side other films of Kar-Wai’s career. It’s my second favorite after 2046, and quite a relief after his American film disaster, “My Blueberry Nights.” It may not be a new film, but so omnipresent are Kar-Wai’s themes that one feels all of his films are somewhat interchangeable chronologically. Therefore, it is an appropriate thematic sequel to both “In the Mood for Love” and 2046, even though chronologically it is not literally true.

DVD Review Text Reviews

Instaflix Review: Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón

A while ago, I saw a trailer on a DVD for Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón and immediately thought, “That looks like a Latino Ocean’s 11.” Turns out I was wrong. It’s more like a Latino Ocean’s 13. For me, that’s a very good thing.

The plot revolves around two thieves in L.A., Emilio, who is recently returned to the U.S. by way of a coyote, and Alejandro, a successful DVD pirate. The two, played by Miguel Varoni and Fernando Colunga, are working on a plan to rob Moctesuma Valdez (Saúl Lisazo), a millionaire infomercial guru who made his fortune selling bogus miracle cures to Latinos.  When their usual crew proves unavailable or unwilling, Alejandro and Emilio recruit a group of fellow immigrants to help with the heist.

The opening scene establishes what a sleaze ball Valdez is, and also helps distinguish Ladrón from the Ocean’s series.  Ocean’s 11 rarely had anything deeper than the heist going for it.  In theory, Ocean’s 13 was about punishment for breaking The Code  (“You shook Sinatra’s hand!”), but it was really all about the money, in the end.  Ladrón mixes social commentary in with the heist, and it gives the picture a satisfying weight.

Granted, the movie does get a little heavy handed in places, and it’s extremely L.A.-centric, but that never detracted from my overall enjoyment of the movie.  The message is couched within an immigrant’s point of view, but the themes are universal.  The characters feel ignored, denigrated and exploited, and anyone who’s worked retail or food service can relate.

It also helps that the characters are a lot of fun.  Rafa, the middle-aged, lead-footed valet.  Rafaela, his hot-headed, tomboyish daughter.  Miguelito, a Cuban-refugee, wannabe actor.  Anival, a pretty-boy, smarter-than-he-looks construction worker.  None of them are particularly deep characters, but they’re all a lot of fun.  The actors play their characters with such enthusiasm and humor, it’s infectious.  Even Moctezuma is despicable and intimidating in the best of ways.

Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón isn’t going to win any awards or start any revolutions, but it’s a lot of fun with just enough weight to feel substantial.  If you enjoy heist movies at all, check this one out.

DVD Review Text Reviews

Movie Review: 9 Songs

Remove the live concert footage and the nonessential (I hesitate to call them gratuitous) sex scenes, and 9 Songs ceases to be a movie and becomes a film short.  There’s not a lot of story here.  I can’t even call it a character study, because we barely learn anything about Matt and Lisa, the couple around whose relationship the movie revolves.

9 Songs, written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, is more of a love-affair snapshot, a memory vaguely explained via brief bits of voice-over.  This shouldn’t be taken necessarily as a complaint.  The boy-meets-girl story is one that can survive some extreme paring.  Still, you get the sense that you’re not seeing anything close to the full picture.  And if you’re the kind of person who likes a little conflict in your stories, there is practically none here.

Really, writing about the story is rough.  Matt, played by Kieran O’Brien, is a geologist working on climate studies in the Antarctic.  He fills his hours mulling over Lisa, played by Margo Stilley, an American foreign-exchange student he met at a concert in England.  As the movie progresses, the couple goes to a lot of concerts and has a lot of sex.  We never see them fight.  We barely even see them have conversations.  There is one moment in a strip club that provides some tension, but even that is mild, at best, and then gone.

Part of me wants to write this movie off, call it boring, slow and uninspired.  Move on to bigger and better things.  Pick an easier movie to review.  The other part of me, though, sees something more here.  There’s an honesty to the relationship, a reality that pervades the entire movie that I can’t just discount.

Certainly, it’s not difficult to see where some of that feeling of reality comes from.  All of the concert footage is live.  So are all of the sex scenes.  This is pretty raw, and not for the easily offended.  There is no fade-to-black, or conveniently placed shrubs.  I’ll spare you the details, but know that the movie doesn’t.

There’s more to it than that, though.  The actors pull off a kind of quiet comfort that you expect from a couple who’s been together a while.  And the sex scenes are more than just physically revealing.  A few of them give more insight into Lisa’s character than all of the dialogue combined.  Unfortunately, not all of them do, and most drag on far too long.

Ultimately, I feel like this is a movie that needs to have papers written about it.  Symbolism and hidden truths, philosophy and psychology, lit and art theory.  Throw all that at the movie, but I wouldn’t call it entertainment.  Watch it to see if real sex adds to or detracts from a movie.  Watch it to see if you agree with how much story a narrative can have stripped away.  Watch it with a purpose in mind, because the film doesn’t provide you with one.

DVD Review Preview Text Reviews

DVD Review: Caprica

The long-awaited pilot for this prequel series to Battlestar Galactica is finally here, a year before the series is set to debut and this provides quite a meaty appetizer for hopefully what is to come in the full series.

Taking place about fifty years before the start of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series and before the unification of the twelve colonies, Caprica follows the lives of two men in particular, super-industrialist Daniel Graystone and lawyer Joseph Adams (Adama), the tragedy that brings these two together, and what will give way to the conflict to come and the birth of the Cylons.

This is quite a bit different than what might be expected, and at least in the pilot, doesn’t rely on some of the more crowd-pleasing aspects that Galactica did, being primarily the gung-ho action of that. But what’s here, is some really powerful drama, and a lot of great ideas that should lead to something that has the potential to be just as special as Battlestar Galactica is.

This film is directed by Jeffrey Reiner, who’s best known for his work on Friday Night Lights and apparently producers Ron Moore and David Eick have been trying to get Reiner involved in Galactica for quite awhile, with Reiner having turned them down as far as the main series goes, but having finally jumped on board by getting an opportunity to be more at the main helm (I guess along the same lines that Michael Rhymer was with Galactica) and getting to shape a new series rather than being an important cog in an existing franchise. Reiner’s a good choice here, and he certainly does bring something different to the table with a different look to this series as well as a greater emphasis on the personal drama.

Eric Stolz and Esai Morales head up this cast, respectively playing Graystone and Adama, and man, they’re both just absolutely terrific here, individually for sure, but in the scenes that they’re in together, having some real nice chemistry. They’re just great, and offer up a lot of weight, and yet they’re almost outshone by two young actresses, Alessandra Torresani and Magda Apanowicz, who play Zoe Graystone and her friend Lacy Rand, who are both just as instrumental in the future to come. Both of these young ladies are really tremendous here, and they certainly hold their own with the bigger names of the cast.

I watched this film and was just immediately taken with it, especially after a certain key moment happens, that’s basically the catalyst for what’s to come, and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest, and if this way-early release of the pilot was supposed to get you further fired up for the new show, well then, it certainly did it’s job with me, and though it might seem that knowing the ultimate end of what’s to come could hamper this for some, I’ve got enough faith in Moore and Eick, to think that they’re going to make this a hell of a ride along the way and probably nowhere near as conventional as it could be.

The DVD extras include four video blogs, a handful of deleted scenes, an episode of Ghost Hunters and a commentary track from Moore, Eick and Reiner. I’ve watched all of the extras except for the Ghost Hunters episode, which doesn’t really interest me. The blogs are basically fluff, but certainly inoffensive as well. Better though are the deleted scenes and the commentary track, and seeing the deleted scenes after watching the whole movie, I certainly can understand why they were deleted, though they are good scenes. The commentary track is excellent, and there’s a lot there talking about the behind-the-scenes, the philosophy of the new show and hints at things to come.

For Battlestar Galactica fans, this is must-viewing and I think for most it will get you fired up for the new series, even though it’s still a year away from premiering. For those that were more casual viewers, well, I still think there’s a lot of meat here, though it doesn’t have the action/adventure trappings (yet) of the prior show, but still worth you’re time if you want to watch some very smart science fiction. Caprica is the good stuff, and highly recommended.

DVD Review

DVD Review_Veronica Guerin (2003)

Written by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue, Directed by Joel Schumacher 

Bravery is shaping up as my theme of the week over at Girls with Glasses.  And this woman tops them all, hands down.  Joel Schumacher (“Lost Boys” and “Batman & Robin”) directs and Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Pearl Harbor”) produces this serious, personal story of a journalist who refuses to let the mobsters of 1996 Dublin beat her into submission…wait.  What?


I know.  Crazy but true.  These two classic Hollywood hams helmed the telling of this fantastically small (by their standards), true story.  Okay, so they had some help from the Irish – writers, crew, and all the actors, with one notable exception – their Aussie lead, Cate Blanchett.  Here she plays Veronica Guerin, the courageous woman in question.  Per usual, Blanchett is perfect, but I don’t mean in a distant, professional way.  Yes, she shows Guerin’s bravado, but this is also probably the most likeable character I’ve ever seen her portray – no queens or Elvish ladies in sight.  Just a soccer fanatic with a penchant for talking to people in deep trouble (as well as the folks causing it), and doing it with a disarming lilt and infectious enthusiasm.  (Blanchett received a ten minute standing ovation at the Dublin premiere, a city which considers Guerin a national hero, bordering on sainthood.) 

What I really enjoyed about this film was the toned-down honesty of it.  It’s not a glammed-up, brochured Ireland, but the Dublin I remember visiting several times in the early 1990s.  Very unlike its popular carefree image, Ireland then was suffering its worst poverty in a century.  The British students at my Welsh university joked that it was the Third World nation of Europe.  Bus trips across the country revealed entire villages that had been abandoned, and our Dublin hostel staff warned us to hide our money well from the gangs of street children roaming the streets – in all parts of the city.  Ninety percent of Ireland, they told us, lived in Dublin, and over half of it was dead broke.  No wonder mobsters came to rule the roost.  (Northwest readers might be interested in seeing how meth had already established itself in Dublin, at the same time it was just taking hold in northern California, Oregon and Washington.) 


Unlike many an indie flick dealing with drug use and council flats (see “Trainspotting”), though, the audience isn’t trapped in this grey hopelessness.  We move, just as Guerin does, between this world and the cozy, stone-walled country house she and her very middle-class, very happy family share.  Speaking as an American living in comparative middle-class comfort and security, I needed these scenes as a pressure valve.  I don’t want to feel I can’t escape, not just out of bourgeois guilt (though of course that’s there, too), but because otherwise, what’s the point?  If you can’t change a thing, if you aren’t trying to make it better, then why wallow?  Misery is so much easier to depict than a way out of it.  Despair is easier to earn on film than hope.  But I don’t want to watch it.  No worries here.  It’s not a Hollywood ending, but I did experience joy, resolution and inspiration along with the honesty. 

Of course, none of these high ideals or artistic integrity mean anything in the end if you fall asleep halfway through the movie.  I think this is why we’re all so suspicious of Important, Nominated Films.  Yes, they’re serious, well-acted, etc., but…well…it looks a little boring. 


Not a bit here.  Greasy mob insider and brothel-boss Ciarán Hinds (Julius Caesar in HBO’s recent “Rome”), an excellent supporting cast and quick cuts all keep the pace lively and the voyeur in us all engaged.  Even Colin Farrell shows up for a good-natured cameo.   

Great movie – popcorn would be perfect.  Maybe Bruckheimer and Schumacher knew what they were doing after all.

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review: Ghost in the Shell

Howdy!  To all regular (and not-so-easily-categorized) readers of “Back Seat Producers,” I send greetings!  Tony and the gang have invited me, Melanie Young, on as an estrogen-heavy contributor of DVD reviews.  I’ll be attempting to post here a couple times a week, though I also post daily over at my regular blog: – which I welcome you to visit!

I’m attempting to review 365 movies in 365 days as my 2009 resolution.  So far, I’ve done well – until this week.  I’m two movies behind, but gaining.  That’s why I post which day it is, and which film I’ve made it to in my Quest, as in Day 1, Film 1 (the memory of which is fading quickly).

Be forewarned:  Tony picked me up after reading my “Godfather” review – in which I bemoaned any woman ever being anything but bored by the thing (ask your wife).  So, if you’re a guy, we might not always see eye to eye.  Rest assured, I adore many movies these guys like.  I think Joss Whedon walks on water, and that the new “Battlestar Galactica” is the best thing TV has produced in 20 years.  I’ve got no specific agenda or axe to grind, I’m just trying to give an honest, modern American woman’s view on film.  Since only half of American newspapers even bother printing reviews by women, it might be something you’re unprepared for. 

Many, many thanks to the guys at Back Seat Producers for taking the plunge.  And I do have a treat for you today…comment away!

 Day 22, Film 20:  “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)  (Japan)

Written by Kazunori Ito based on the manga by Masamune Shirow

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

So I’ll admit I hadn’t ever made myself actually watch “Ghost in the Shell” until now.  If you live outside the sci-fi/fantasy worlds, you’ll be wondering why this is a big deal.  If you travel inside them, as I often do, you’ll be shaking your head at my audacity.  Especially if you’re a male cybergeek of a certain age – this film essentially put manga on the world map.  I hear it referenced with awe at both sci-fi and movie conventions – a sort of breathless wonder at the purity of the manga form (Japanese comics). 


I personally am not a manga girl (I won’t be reviewing the sequels), but it doesn’t take one to see the appeal of “Ghost” – nipples.  Robot nipples, skin-toned nipples, buffed-out, straining nipples; wet ones, arched ones, thrashing ones, falling-to-certain-death ones, even electrified ones…you get the picture.  Who couldn’t?


Yes, there’s some pretty cool animation throughout.  Tonally, it’s “Blade Runner” animated; the rain never stops falling.  And subject-wise, there are some deeper questions being discussed – what makes us human?  Is it merely self-awareness?  In a futuristic world peopled by humans modified extensively by technology and Cyborgs, this becomes a hot political topic – one worth killing for, covering up (with never-ending expositional speeches) and engaging in gratuitously violent chase scenes.  There’s some cool technology – especially the ‘cloaking’ type devices that most of the villains and heroes employ.  Funny how only the male ones get to keep their clothes on to use it. 

But the beautiful Japanese folk music isn’t enough to cover clunky dialogue or add any real meaning to the random wind-swept profile shots.  There’s way too much backstory being told instead of seen, and the deep introspection of the often-naked female lead evaporates alongside a male scientist’s 14-year old joke, “I wonder if he [the male voice inside a naked, prone female Cyborg body] has a girlfriend?”  Just in case you needed guidance to any porn-lite fantasies you weren’t already having.  At least this first installment features the faces of fully-grown women, versus the follow-ups, which obviously devolve into the normal 12-year old schoolgirl fantasy (somehow retaining the chest of a 22-year old pinup).

All I have to say to those holding out this film as evidence of a deeper sensibility in the sci-fi world is: get over yourselves.  You dig the naked chicks.

DVD Review Preview Text Reviews

DVD Preview: Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born Again

Gonna Change Your Way of Thinking

Joel Gilbert’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s sudden conversion to Christianity is an authentic, detail-oriented and thought-provoking work. It is a must see for fans and casual viewers alike. The subject-matter alone is fascinating and remains, thirty years from its occurrence, a little told story about the already mythic and mysterious artist. 

On November 9, 1979, Bob Dylan shocked San Francisco (and America at large) by performing nothing but new songs from his gospel album titled “Slow Train Coming,” and other then-unreleased gospel songs written by the rock poet. The fans, expecting his hits, classics, or the man they have created in their mind as a result of all of his previous records, is nowhere to be found.

When presumably being asked something about why he didn’t play any of his old songs at the concert or why he may have changed his music’s message, Dylan speaks in archived footage from the era “The old stuff’s not gonna save them and uh… I’m not gonna save them. Neither is anybody else gonna save them. They can boogie all night. It’s not gonna work.”

The purpose of the first-half seems to be orienting the viewer with the world Dylan was entering at the time: The Vineyard Movement, a decentralized and individualistic approach to Christianity—progressive at the time. This viewpoint, coupled with the perspective of Messianic Judaism, or, Jewish believers in Jesus as the foretold Messiah, frames the manner in which Bob Dylan, of Jewish descent, considers and then pursues his own journey to Jesus Christ.

The second-half of the film covers the most controversial music Dylan had made since he went electric in 1965.  Alienating his fan base once again, Dylan pursued this journey of personal discovery as his primary artistic expression for two and a half full-length albums and four years of touring, after which fans and critics alike remain, I would argue, mostly confused about where his belief system stands today. We are treated to samples of Dylan’s preaching at the concerts, and interviews with the band, and there is, at the heart of the film, a serious discussion of the seemingly contradictory dichotomy between religion and rock ‘n’ roll and whether Dylan was able to reconcile the two.

The film is helmed by Joel Gilbert, and released by the company Highway 61 Entertainment. Gilbert and the company seem to be offshoots of a professional Dylan tribute band called “Highway 61 Revisited.” Gilbert dresses like Dylan, and passes as a shadow of someone who might have been a version of Dylan in “I’m Not There.”  Gilbert’s appearance is a bit distracting—it makes the film seem wholly subjective from the jump. But Gilbert asks the right questions about this period of life, challenges his interview subjects from different perspectives, and is a competent and informed interviewer.  It also does an excellent job of bringing in voices of contempt for Dylan’s work during that period, most notable of which apparently was Joel Selvin, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Selvin really gives the music industry, critics, and disenchanted fans, a voice in this film.

I would argue that the only weakness of the documentary is that the entire affect of the film, in the aggregate, seems to be sympathetic to Dylan’s conversion. But, in truth, the film spends a lot of time trying to understand what Dylan was converting to, rather than promoting or discouraging why he converted.

In the end, the film ends on a different type of note than it began, takes a somewhat surprising turn, and attempts to reveal what the film feels Dylan has always been trying to get at in his never-ending search.

As a fan of Dylan, my greatest acclaim for this film is that it covers a great deal of unchartered territory, to my knowledge, for the very first time on film and uses primary sources. It may be the most important source on Dylan’s Christian music to date, period. Only “Behind the Shades Revisited,” a book on Dylan’s life, has adequately shed some light on Dylan’s work in this period to my knowledge, besides the few interviews Dylan has given himself.  For enthusiasts and analysts of Dylan’s work, that makes this film very important.

I highly recommend this film for both people who love Dylan and casual viewers who may not have even been aware that this period of Dylan’s music existed.

No matter what conclusion one draws about what Dylan’s life or music means, your perspective is limited prior to having seen this documentary if you had not been deeply involved in Dylan’s music during this period or are not a huge fan of it. It will change the way you think about Dylan’s music, and perhaps his life. If you’re measuring Dylan’s artistry through metrics that do not include an analysis of this period, it will create a different set of rules to do so.

DVD Review Text Reviews

DVD Review – Nim's Island

Movie Poster

Children’s movies normally aren’t my thing. I’m not a kid (although some people might disagree), I don’t have any kids, I don’t hang out with any kids, so the movies aren’t marketed towards me. I hold no disdain towards kids movies, but normally the films I watch demand more from me as a viewer.

Nim’s Island came out on DVD yesterday, and I had the opportunity to watch it instead of work. Which I did. In all honesty, I was glad I took the opportunity to do so.

Nim’s Island is about Nim and Alexandra. Nim (Abigail Breslin) lives on a volcanic island in the South Pacific with her father, marine biologist (and occasional contributor to National Geographic) Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler). Jack homeschools her, and she pals around with a sea lion named Selkie, the pelican Galileo, and a marine iguana she dubbed Fred. Jack goes away for a couple days to gather plankton from a nearby atoll, leaving Nim behind to help a sea turtle lay eggs and to read a new adventure novel. They talk by satellite phone for the first day, but a storm damages Jack’s boat and breaks the phone.

On the other side of the world, in San Francisco, agoraphobic adventure writer Alexandra Rover (Jodie) is having one heck of a block. She writes a series of books featuring an Indiana Jones-esque character named, oddly enough, Alex Rover (also played by Gerard Butler). She’s written herself into a corner, giving Alex over to a volcanic sacrifice, with no way to get him out. After discussing the matter with the version of Alex that lives in her head (Butler), Alexandra searches for information about volcanoes and comes across one of Jack’s National Geographic pieces about living on a volcanic island. She sends Jack an e-mail (signed Alex, not Alexandra), Nim answers (thinking that Alex Rover is the action hero, not the author), and the story is off.

I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie, but needless to say it’s a lot of fun. No real scary bits, and the story clips along at a nice pace. A couple times Alexandra vomits (motion sickness) but it’s offscreen. There’s a lot here for the kids, but a few scenes (particularly one in an airport) that the parents/adults can relate to. The acting is good; Breslin in particular shines in some scenes. Jodie Foster is great, giving us the impression that she really is an agoraphobe, and overcoming her illness feels like a real process rather than a switch being flipped. Butler is less impressive, better as the fictional action hero than intrepid scientist.

The plot’s pretty simplistic, but I wasn’t expecting much. There’s no underlying political message here, just a good story about self-sacrifice and heroism. A great fart joke, as well. At around 90 minutes, it’s probably the perfect length for a children’s movie. If you’re looking for a movie with a convoluted plot and intense character drama, this ain’t it. This is a fun, easy movie to digest for both kids and adults.