Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Gorillaz: Phase One - Celebrity Take Down

Celebrity Take Down is, at heart, a companion piece to the debut Gorillaz album, offering closure to the first chapter in the band's existence as well as teasers of what's to come and hints of what might have been. Each of the faux-group's first four videos are featured in their entirety, from the still-life anti drama of "Tomorrow Comes Today" to the goofy, horror satire of "Clint Eastwood," and the audio is mixed brilliantly in Dolby 5.1 surround. It really is a whole new experience, taking these videos in with a crisp voice shouting from the front of the room, while the drums hit you from behind and the guitars ring on both sides.

Each video is accompanied by a variety of extras, including early-production versions of the computer graphics used in "19/2000," as well as storyboards and developmental sketches composed for "Rock the House." There's even a full storyboard for an unfinished video, "5/4," that's set to music and fits right in alongside its peers with an offbeat sense of humor and a great, imaginative premise. Rounding out the disc is a vast collection of promotional slicks and sketches of the characters "behind the scenes" at the various music video shoots, interviews with the fictional members of the band, five bizarre short films starring said band members and a lengthy mock-u-mentary about creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. The short films are fun to watch, if just to see more of the characters and Hewlett's visual flair, but lack the substance and dark, self-deprecating humor of the videos, and the documentary is more of the same. The extras are filled to the brim with slapstick comedy and silliness for the sake of being silly, while the videos never seem to force a joke and come off as much more refined and intelligent.

The interface is a little strange, breaking from the traditional "Play All, Hands Off" nature that dominates today's DVD market. If you ever visited the Gorillaz web site when the band was first starting to take off, this will look very familiar. There's no quick and dirty way to navigate the disc's contents, instead you must navigate between the various rooms of the band members, look for a television screen, open magazine or personal computer, and click on it. You won't know which video you're about to watch or what bonus material you're about to discover until you're already knee-deep in it. It's a clever idea, but I don't know that it works as well on the TV, where people are conditioned to sit and stare, as it did on the monitor, where you're much more familiar with forced interactivity. Some of the allure of the site is missing from this DVD interface, as the developers had to make it obvious which areas were interactive and which weren't, and overall the experience is somewhat disorienting.

Easily enough, this disc is a Gorillaz fan's dream come true. The audio mix and video quality alone are worth a look if you enjoy the band's gimmick in the slightest, which I do, and the attention to every detail of the videos' production is really nice to see. I can live with an underdeveloped interface design and a few out-of-place featurettes.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.3


Friday, March 4, 2005

The Hidden Fortress (Criterion Collection)

I'd heard rumblings about the films of the great director Akira Kurosawa for years before I finally got the chance to sit down and absorb some of his work. Famous directors, actors and critics sung his praises, credited him as an inspiration and labeled him as a legendary figure in film history. And, honestly, perhaps this is a film I'll grow to love after repeated viewings. Maybe I allowed all of Kurosawa's mystique to precede him, inflating my expectations to the point that they could never truly be met. Perhaps I'm overlooking the historical timeframe of the film, comparing it to 2005's feature-lengths rather than its 1958 contemporaries. All things considered, however, as my first exposure to the man's work, The Hidden Fortress was a bit of a let-down.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy the film, actually more to the contrary. This story of two greedy peasants, a stern, intelligent old warrior and a strong-willed young princess was generally very charming and entertaining. I found some of the translation to be a little awkward, especially in the way it integrated more modern phrases into what was obviously a period piece, (somehow I have trouble accepting the idea that anyone in feudal Japan would have casually spit out a phrase like "this sucks") but on the large the conversion from Japanese to English was done well and lacked some of the hiccups that are usually associated with an East-to-West translation. The plot is simple, yet not without intrigue; rumor has it that, years and years ago, a wealthy overlord hid his fortune of gold somewhere within his home. The tale is set near the end of a bitter war, and each character has a vested interest in recovering the secret stash and returning it to the safety of a non-warring territory. The first hour and a half moves fantastically, with the heightened tensions of the war, (and the uncertainty of every non-central character's loyalties) along with the constant inspections of occupying troops, really adding a touch of drama and tension to the journey. Had it not trudged onward for another hour, I'd have given it top marks. As is, it feels like the clean, simple main story was overrun with enough subplots and side stories to cover a whole trilogy. When it came to be time to wrap things up, the simple act of tying loose ends added another sixty minutes to the running time and just killed my excitement for both the story and the characters.

The disc is a little light on extras, including the original theatrical trailer (itself featuring a few clips of the film's production, nowhere to be found elsewhere on the disc) and an interview with George Lucas, along with the standard language and chapter selection tools. The Lucas interview, conducted especially for Criterion's DVD release of the film, barely gets rolling before it comes to an end and is largely disappointing. His acknowledgement that he borrowed a few ideas from Hidden Fortress in Star Wars isn't expanded into as much detail as I'd hoped, (considering it was that same remark on the Star Wars bonus disc that got me interested in this film in the first place) and he dances around the assumption that Princess Leia bears more than a few similarities to Princess Yukihime of Fortress.

The video looks spectacular for a film that's nearly fifty years old, but that should almost go without saying when Criterion is concerned. It's particularly telling to watch the Trailer, which wasn't restored, immediately before or after viewing the film itself.

All in all, I was largely entertained and plan to further investigate Kurosawa's work, but felt the length of Fortress was almost crippling.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.4

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

UFC: Ultimate Knockouts 1 & 2

Like eating an ice cream cone for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Ultimate Knockouts skips over the substance of these Mixed Martial Arts knock-down drag-outs and gets right to the flash, splicing one knockout after another in rapid succession. It's good fun that doesn't get old quite as quickly as you'd imagine.

I'm just now starting to gain my bearings in the MMA world, and found Ultimate Knockouts a welcome introduction to a lot of UFC's past and present stars, not to mention an entertaining two hours' worth of action. While there are very few matches in their entirety in either presentation, (naturally excluding the fights that last a minute or less) most chapters pick up a full minute or two before the actual knockout itself and as such provide a solid, albeit brief, backstory to each face-off. You've generally got enough time to gather, both from the announcers' descriptions and from the fighters' conditions, where the fight has been and what kind of an impact the big knockout is packing, just before the fight comes to its explosive conclusion.

Part one is loaded, start to finish, with uninterrupted fight footage. Each chapter is immediately preceded by a quick screen that names the competing fighters, but you're on your own to tell them apart if you're a fresh fan as I was. Once a fight ends, the coverage sticks around for a few minutes, presenting the announcers' immediate reactions, the winning fighter's celebration and a few replays, before jumping headlong into the next fight. It's a bit dizzying, really, as you're never given any indication of when and where each fight took place... you just madly fly from arena to arena, sometimes jumping into the middle of a brawl-in-progress, sometimes watching the ref's instructions. In the end, though, you're left hungry for more... the disc does its job and delivers the goods without hesitation.

Part two takes a little more time introducing each fight, as lead announcer Mike Goldberg and legendary fighter Chuck Liddell chat briefly about the competitors, the timeframe of the event and the strategy that led to each victory or defeat. Liddell doesn't really look like he wants to be there, and Goldberg often has to drag a response out of him, but the interludes are kept short and give viewers the chance to catch their breath that was missing from the first volume. Probably my favorite aspect of the second chapter is the inclusion of a timeframe for each fight, along with the decision to include knockouts from the earliest UFC events right alongside the beatdowns of today. By working their way up from the second and third UFCs to the present day, (or, rather, present day at the time of the disc's release) you really get a good idea of the path UFC as a whole has walked and how the sport itself has evolved since it was first conceived.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be no shortage of great material here. Part one is chock full of great fights and thrilling knockouts, and part two is more of the same. The quality never wavers, and I'm intrigued to see if they managed to stretch the concept through to part three without slowing down or padding it with weak footage. Worth a serious look, whether you're an MMA rookie looking for a primer or a longtime fan who wants to remember.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.1

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Monday, September 15, 2003

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Special Edition)

A jaw-droppingly good restoration of the quintessential offbeat comedy film. If you've laughed at Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, chuckled at the Kids in the Hall or have any sort of interest at all about comedy itself, this is worth your while

The very mention of this comedic masterpiece should be enough to bring a smile to your face. Widely regarded as the very peak of sketch comedy troupe Monty Python's career, The Holy Grail has nearly become as much of a religious establishment as the dark-aged deities it spoofs. There exist lunatics around the world who are able to not only directly quote lines from this film, but to recite the entirety of the script, from start to finish, without err. And, after just a single viewing, it's easy to find yourself tempted to join their ranks.

Featuring an unbelievably talented (and young) cast fronted by comedy legends John Cleese and Eric Idle, this is one of the few cases you'll ever encounter of a film that undeniably lives up to its hype. Even now, nearly thirty years after its debut, Holy Grail holds up better than the recycled, sitcom-esque crap that's flooding the theatres today. It's overflowing with the kind of offbeat, unexpected, blatantly bizarre humor that defined the Pythons, and speaking personally it's something that's always been right down my alley. I've been watching this flick since I was in elementary school, and as such might have a little bit of personal bias towards it. Then again, taking a quick glance at the sheer number of actors, comedians, directors and celebrities who cite this as one of their greatest influences, perhaps it'd be better to say the entirety of pop culture has become biased towards the earliest feature length effort from the British Pythons. I really can't do this film enough praise.

The story is simple enough, and yet manages to become intertwined and entangled within itself throughout the course of the brisk 89 minute run time. King Arthur, best known for his acquisition of the sword in the stone and subsequent leadership of the knights of the round table, is featured here as a blunt, modest man... oblivious to everything going on around him, and painstakingly patient through the most bizarre of circumstances. As the story unfolds, Arthur slowly gathers his knights, briefly visits Camelot and is charged by god to retrieve the infamous Holy Grail. The troupe embarks directly on their quest, without the slightest idea of where they're headed, and eventually runs into dozens of almost unrelated hurdles along the way.

In print, the premise sounds painfully unfunny... almost a joke unto itself. And, perhaps if they'd stuck to their guns about the whole "knights in shining armor" thing, that early judgment may have been partially right. But a great deal of what makes this so fun to watch is the way the characters interact with one another, address their environments and simply carry themselves. The Knights of the Round Table chat amongst each other in a very modern, almost twentieth century style. Formalities are few and far between, and supporting characters whose entire role in any other period piece would have been limited to "Yes, sire, I'll retrieve my master this very moment" are here given the chance to argue the finer points of foreign birds and migratory patterns. Unimportant lackeys dive into in-depth dissertations at the drop of a hat, spiraling off into a tangent with little or no provocation. The main characters generally respond by staring in disbelief, jaws agape, as they try unsuccessfully to bring the conversation to a close. Literally hundreds of medieval cliches are addressed and promptly disposed of throughout the course of the film, while simple, obvious visual puns are thrown out like darts at every moment. It's a film that anyone can enjoy, regardless of intelligence, age or demeanor. There's literally something for everyone.

Perhaps funniest of all, though, is the silent, serious nature with which Arthur portrays himself through body language. Played by a well-bearded Graham Chapman, Arthur simply excretes regality, thinking the world of himself. In his own mind he's a born leader, but to everyone else he looks like a scrawny white guy, prancing around with a very thinly-veiled homoerotic flair. He clutches his chest in surprise, he holds his wrists tightly against his upper body at all times, and he's indescribably funny throughout. Other characters attempt to accomplish this same bit of magic, (with John Cleese's portrayal of an odd, confrontational French soldier with an exaggerated handlebar mustache coming very, very close) but none manage to do so nearly as well as Chapman.

Perhaps the only problem I have with this movie lies within its conclusion, which seems rushed, inappropriate and uncharacteristically unfunny. After leading up to one moment through the entire course of the picture, the stage seems set for a climactic conclusion, but rather than using this whole head of steam to blast across the finish line in glorious fashion, the film instead runs head-on into a wall, derails and collapses. Maybe that's the true comedy of it all, and I'm just missing the boat. Regardless, it far from tarnishes the brilliance which shined so brightly before. Grading the film itself on a scale of one to ten, The Search for the Holy Grail gets a 9.7.

Immediately, only seconds after popping this DVD into your hardware and hitting the "play" button, something is going to strike you as a little bit odd. Something's different about this classic, but it's tough to put your finger on it until the murky opening scenes are in the past. Bluntly enough, this new restoration looks BREATHTAKING. One of the toughest things to endure about the film's earlier VHS incarnations was the god-awful quality of the video, the way everything had been overtaken by a sort of yellowish-brown hue, darkened and muddied. Seeing as how every copy of the video I'd ever seen looked like that, I merely assumed it had something to do with a bad matchup between the British PAL encoding and the North American NTSC. However, this most recent DVD release cleans up those long-standing visual stains with uncanny precision, revealing in its wake an entirely new motion picture. Wide shots of the infamous "Trojan rabbit" scene are awesome sights, now that the original color saturation is in place. It's honestly as though someone took a cloth and some Windex to my television screen and wiped away thirty years' worth of dust and muck. The restoration alone is worth upgrading the copy of Holy Grail in your collection from VHS to DVD.

Fortunately enough, though, the crews in charge of this new DVD didn't stop there. With a full two discs in the set, almost every base is covered... in addition to several spots in between. Naturally, the collection features the film itself, with the aforementioned high definition transfer and restoration of the original video, along with a less awe-inspiring 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. The discs also come fully equipped with two feature-length commentary tracks; one from directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and another from John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin. The commentary tracks are both thoroughly interesting, with the directors' chat a little more insightful and the actors' track more disjointed. Jones and Gilliam reveal a lot of obscure facts about the creation of the film that I hadn't realized, such as the involvement of rock bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the production, and is generally a much better listen than its partner track. It's strange, it almost feels like Cleese, Idle and Palin weren't even in the same room together when they recorded these audio tracks, and that various comments from each were merely spliced together at appropriate points throughout the film.

The Special Features section is overflowing with options, including but not limited to three sing-alongs (featuring full lyrics to the film's three notable song-and-dance numbers... if you ever wondered what they were trying to say during the incomprehensible verses of "We're Knights of the Round Table," today is your lucky day), a short film titled "How to Use Your Coconuts" (which comes off as very, very forced and very, very stupid), a cast directory (which shows just how many hats the actors wore throughout the course of the film; Michael Palin alone played nearly a dozen characters), photos and more. In addition, the second disc showcases two unique featurettes about the film; one which was shot on set in 1974 for the BBC, and another which reunites Gilliam and Jones in the year 2000, on the location of the main castle used throughout filming. The two short films couldn't vary more in terms of attitude and content, as the older video does a relatively good job of capturing the excitement and antsy nature of being on set with these guys and the newer film shows off an older, wiser couple of Pythons marveling at how much has changed in the area since they were last there. I preferred the second short, myself, due in large to the great number of tidbits and notes the two directors reveal about their budget, the set and the problems they had to overcome just to get the movie off the ground. I never realized that the half dozen castles Arthur and his knights visit throughout the film were in actuality filmed on one location.

There also exist tiny easter eggs and jokes hidden throughout the discs. An easily overlooked selection from the main menu offers aide "For the Hard of Hearing," and when clicked screams at full volume the five selections available from that page ("PLAY MOVIE!!! SCENE SELECTIONS!! AUDIO OPTIONS!!, etc...) I won't spoil them all for you, but rest assured the simple process of discovering these little bits and pieces, scattered throughout the two discs, will absorb hours completely on their own. And, unlike the short "How to Use Your Coconuts" feature I mentioned earlier, these tiny hidden jokes and one-liners are virtually all up to the quality of the old Python shorts and sketches. Good stuff.

Without exaggeration, I seriously cannot recommend this DVD any higher. It's not humanly possible. Whether you're a devoted, lifelong Python fan or merely someone with a passing interest in comedy in general, this is a worthwhile purchase. You won't find a better transfer of the film in your life, the list of features is almost overwhelming, the original team is represented nearly in full, through dual commentary tracks and several featurettes, and it's very affordable at the same time. Go out and buy this now, before you forget. Seriously. Now.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.9

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Sunday, May 12, 2002

Run Lola Run

In so many words, Run Lola Run is positively unique. While I see parallels between this natively German film and its 1999 American counterpart, Fight Club, the instances are only fleeting and probably have more to do with the fact that I saw the two films shortly after one another than they do with actual similarities. Or perhaps it's how both have taken a novel idea and let it run its course, flaws and all, producing something that's much stronger when everything has been said and done.

If the stranger who brushed past you this morning had walked an extra couple inches to their left, what kind of an effect do you think it might have had on the rest of your life? If the message conveyed by Lola is to be trusted, quite a bit more than you'd imagine. The storytelling here relies on three distinct variations on the exact same premise, each focusing on the main character's desperate search for a large sum of money in a short period of time, as well as her interactions with average, everyday men and women along the way. Each chapter begins in exactly the same place, under exactly the same circumstances, yet manages to unravel itself into a story completely separate from the others by the big conclusion. Early in each variation, one or two decisions are altered and the reverberating result to the big picture is examined in close detail.

One woman, mere scenery in any other film, goes from lotto winner to infant kidnapper to bible pusher after her chance encounters with Lola. And that's where the real strength lies here. More than anything else, this is a story about everyday life, and how conceivably miniscule changes can alter an entire lifetime. Despite the imaginative camera angles and Quentin Tarantino meets Guy Ritchie storyline, the real focus of the movie is the interaction with the regular Joe, and the ultimate result of that interaction. Honestly, it's the film's minor characters who really steal the show.

Sure, there are some scenes I'd have done differently. But like they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty and everybody becomes the world's finest director from their couch (or, in this case, from behind their monitors.) You'll notice a few rough spots, but the characters are there in full force and the possibly-complicated plot is handled extremely well, given the circumstances. Add to that the list of risky camera shots which paid off in spades, and you've got a healthy package. As a standalone, this film is highly recommended. The story is simultaneously detailed and complex, all the while maintaining a pace and progression that's easy to follow and simple to keep up with.

The DVD release isn't accompanied by what I'd call a stack of bonus features, but those that are present pack something of a punch. First, and most notably, is the option to watch the film as an English dub or in the original German spoken dialogue with English subtitles... which, if you've ever heard the American voice acting, you'll know isn't really that difficult a decision. Put plainly, the English dub blows. Go for German with the subtitles, and enjoy the original vocal inflections in all their glory.

The DVD is also accompanied by a feature-length commentary with writer / director / producer Tom Tykwer and Lola herself, actress Franka Potente. This one's a real goldmine, if you're into insightful audio commentary, as the two reveal bits and pieces the uneducated eye would have blown past without a second thought. This is really the definition of what a DVD commentary track should be, a polar opposite of the boring, unnecessary Mel Brooks commentary on the DVD release of his comedy, Spaceballs.

Finally, there are the prerequisite Theatrical Trailers, which are nothing extraordinary, and a music video from the picture's outstanding ambient soundtrack. Like the trailers, the music video is really nothing special... it's mostly just Potente mouthing along with the words of one of the few songs with a vocal track, screaming once or twice and looking a bit bizarre without the character's distinctly bright red hair. It's no surprise this single never really shook the charts, but the soundtrack as a whole is definitely worth a closer look.

All in all, a tremendous foreign film with notable cross-Atlantic appeal. A nice mix of action and an underworld crime theme with approachable, sympathetic characters and a very unique, yet easy-to-understand premise. A great flick, so long as you don't mind subtitles.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.4

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