DVD Review – Dreamworks Holiday Collection


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(special thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy!)

Well, here we have four reasonably delightful and entertaining short holiday-themed films from Dreamworks. They’re based around the Dreamworks movie franchises of Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung-Fu Panda. Despite having only seen two of the four franchises, I found all four movies to be enjoyable. Let’s look at them each.

Madagascar – I know basically nothing about this movie franchise. The story here concerns Santa’s sleigh crashing and animals teaming-up to get the presents delivered for Christmas. There’s some amusing North Pole/South Pole confrontations between the reindeer and the penguins and a few amusing moments. I’m sure children will get a kick out of the talking animals, if nothing else.

How to Train Your Dragon – A young boy (with, I notice, an artificial leg, which is nice to see in a kids movie), lives in a village full of dragons and Vikings, because why not. One day, the dragons all fly off, and the town is left wondering why. The boy spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what happened. This was a bit more entertaining, and I did really enjoy the different dragon designs. I also liked the central message of “if you love something, set it free”. Overall entertaining.

Kung-Fu Panda – I saw the first movie and thought it was decent. This video is pretty much more of the same, only this time concerning an epic feast that is being prepared. Jack Black is always fun, and the video was about as good as the movie. If you liked the film, you’ll probably like this, too, and I’m sure little kids will enjoy it regardless.

Shrek – Ah, here we go. The gem of the set. I saw the first two movies and really liked them. This film is more of the same, showing Shrek and Fiona trying to have their first Christmas as a family. It then goes a bit wild when Donkey shows up and starts interfering, as he does. Then it ends with a pretty decent message about how flexible the word “family” can be. I really liked this story. It was funnier than the others, and it was really helped by having all the regular movie cast members reprising their roles. Definitely a worthy successor to the movies.

So there you go. Four decent movies, four stars, and an excellent package for anyone who likes these franchises.

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DVD Review – The Lone Ranger: Collector’s Edition


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(special thanks to the publicist for providing me with a review copy!)

Well, then. I’ve had exactly zero access to or contact with the Lone Ranger and his adventures. I had a mental image of something vaguely square and outdated, almost as much as using the term “square”. I saw that a new movie was coming out with Johnny Depp playing Tonto and rolled my eyes. What could possibly be in this franchise that was at all worthwhile?

Then I got my hands on this set, and goodness. It’s so much better than I expected! Yes, it’s a western, a TV show, black and white, and very old, but it’s still got a certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s the extreme sincerity of Clayton Moore, a man so “into” the role that he did his level best to live up to the Lone Ranger’s code, even long after he stopped playing the character. Whatever it is that he does, he does it incredibly well. He really is compelling on screen and brings the character to life.

Now the reviewer copy that I got didn’t come with the book or anything else, but I will say that the episodes themselves look great! I don’t know if they’ve been edited or remastered or anything, but they look and sound probably better than they did when they were broadcast back, way back, in the day. You get 30 DVDs at a reasonable price, and that’s pretty nice, too. This is also something that I’d feel quite comfortable leaving even younger kids in front of. They’ll enjoy the heck out of it.

Really, I can’t recommend this set highly enough. It’s well made, vastly entertaining and very much worth your money.

DVD Review – My Week with Marylin


There’ve been other actress. Others who were better looking. More talented. Certainly there have been plenty more stable actresses. But there has never, in the history of film or TV, been any other actress who was more magnetic; who was more “made” for the medium than Marylin Monroe. Even in the earliest role I’ve seen her in, “All About Eve”, she manages to capture and hold the audience like no one before or since. She really was the physical embodiment of the term “star power”. She was also, according to most people who worked with her, somewhat challenging at times, and it’s both aspects of her that come to play in this movie.

My Week with Marilyn stars Michelle Williams who channels Marylin expertly, playing her as she comes to England to film a movie with Lawrence Olivier, played by noted actor/director Kenneth Branagh. She’s somewhat difficult to work with, which is like saying light moves a little speedily. Eventually she acquires/chooses a handler in the form of young third assistant director, Colin, played by Eddie Redmayne. The two bond and start to become close. Very close.

This was a really excellent movie. Williams embodied Marylin in all respects, right down to being so blinding on screen that her mere presence almost washed-out every other person in the frame. Everyone else does well with their roles, too, including Redmayne, who has a very daunting task playing against Williams.

The only complaint I can really level about the film is that the pacing felt a bit off. It dragged in places. Not severely so, but enough that I was checking the clock a few times.

That aside, this is a wonderful movie, and I highly recommend viewing it and reading Tony Curtis’ book, The Making of Some Like it Hot, which also details much about Marylin and her life and personality.

DVD Review – Vasermil


(special thanks to Film Movement for providing me with a screener!)

Israel is, this movie reminds us, something of a melting pot. We have three young male characters we follow through this story, and each is a different nationality. We have Sholmi (Nadir Eldad), who works as a pizza delivery boy for an extremely unpleasant man and who is also captain of his local soccer team. Then we have Dima (David Taplitzky), a Russian immigrant who works for some shady types dealing drugs. Finally there’s Adiel (Adiel Zamro), a student who is either Ethiopian by birth or just of Ethiopian ancestry. One interesting side effect of this cast of characters is that the movie is in three different languages: Hebrew, Russian and Amharic.

The movie begins with a rather bored-looking Dima stealing the scooter Shlomi uses for doing deliveries. This appears to be just a random act and not targeted at Shlomi in particular. He then spends some time riding around his hometown as Shlomi has to explain to his unsympathetic, violent boss that the scooter was stolen. Dima eventually dumps the scooter where it’s found by Adiel and a friend of his as they walk home from soccer practice. They aren’t sure what to make of it, but certainly know what to do with the pizza they find inside the scooter’s cargo box. Unfortunately, as they’re enjoying their new-found tastiness, Shlomi and his brother find them, assume they’re the ones who stole the scooter and beat five kinds of snot out of them.

We then spend some time following each of the three boys through their lives. Dima’s home life, we learn, is very unhappy. His father is unemployed, verbally abusive and holds out dreams of moving to Germany. Dima himself seems fairly directionless, and skips school a lot. Adiel has a significantly better family life, and has a brother he dotes on. He’s got dreams of playing soccer, but doesn’t think they’re realistic dreams. As for Shlomi, well, his family life is right between the other two and he clearly wants to play soccer professionally.

And soccer is, in fact, what winds up bringing the boys together, as all three end up on the same team. Dima initially is the towel boy, but quickly winds up being recruited to play goalie when the regular goalie is injured. He proves to be very good at this, and within a couple games, the three boys, who had all initially disliked and distrusted each other, are well on their way to becoming life-long friends. That is provided that the rest of the world doesn’t get in the way…

I liked this movie. It was nice to see a film about Israel that has nothing to do with tensions between Jews and Muslims, but instead is about tensions between different groups of Jews. It was also very nice to see a film that really didn’t have that much to do with religion and had nothing at all to do with terrorism. I was very interested in the three boys and their fates, especially Dima’s. All the young actors do a great job in their roles and I liked seeing their stories develop and intertwine.

However I must complain about one thing, and that is the fact that the film doesn’t so much end as it just kind of stops. We have a moment that was largely inevitable, I suppose, and then nothing but the closing credits. That was a little irksome, but that complaint aside this was a good, entertaining film.

== SHORT FEATURE ==

This month’s short feature is a twenty minute documentary about African refuges living in Israel and attending a Hebrew language class. Yes, it’s news to me that there’s African refuges in Israel, but there you are. The movie mostly pays attention to a man named Kokou who is a refugee from Togo and seems to be very bitter about the way the Ministry of the Interior is treating him.

This was an interesting little “slice of life” film, but ultimately nothing really great. I think it could make for a much more interesting full-length documentary, however, and that’s something I’d like to see. As it was, well, it was ok.

DVD Review – The Colors of the Mountain


(special thanks to Film Movement for providing me with a screener!)

Growing up anywhere isn’t really easy, especially once you hit the age of nine or so. At that age, you’re starting to understand that there’s a greater adult world that you don’t have access to, and that doesn’t intersect with your own, except for certain horrible times. Hard though being at that age is anywhere, I can only imagine how much worse it must be to be a child and grow up in a war zone. That’s the situation in which young Manuel finds himself in The Colors of the Mountain.

The story centers around a picturesque mountain village in Colombia. It’s a place where families scrape by, earning what they can by farming. You know, the standard salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They ask nothing from life and get even less.

Manuel lives there with his mother, farther and little baby brother. His biggest passion in life is soccer, though he also enjoys drawing and loves hanging out with his friends Julian and Poca Luz. He even loves going to school, though at least in part that seems to be due to him developing a crush on a girl there and on his teacher.

Not all is well in Manuel’s world, though he’s not really aware of that fact. His village is in an area where rebels are fighting the national military; each of whom seem to be worse than the other. Manuel’s father walks a narrow line of not supporting either, and, well, you know what happens with people like that in wars like this.

Manuel is vaguely aware of these things happening, but not really. The war is something that doesn’t matter to him. Or at least it doesn’t matter until his birthday rolls around and he gets a soccer ball which winds up in the middle of a minefield…

This really is a wonderful movie. It’s very touching and at times very funny. The performances all around are excellent, especially by Hernan Maurico Ocampo, who plays Manuel.

Also, the film is flat-out beautiful, showing the lush countryside of the Colombian mountains. Like most Americans, those mountains are something I’m really only accustomed to seeing in news reports about the ongoing drug war. It’s nice to see them in a somewhat more pleasant way.

And I must say, I found myself really caring about the characters. There’s at least a couple whose fate is left up in the air at the end of the movie, and I’d really like to learn what became of them (though I suspect the answer is “nothing good”).

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and it’s one that I’d have a tough time recommending for younger children. But it is a beautiful, well-acted and generally wonderful film and for any adult audience, I highly recommend it.

=== Short Film ===

This month’s short film is a Cuban film called “The Swimmers”. It’s about a determined swim coach who wants his young charges to be the best swimmers around. The fact that their pool is currently devoid of water is something he seems to view as merely a minor setback.

This was a good film, and quite funny in parts, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the main feature. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth picking up the disc just for this movie.

DVD Reviews – Doctor Who – “The Gunfighters” and “The Awakening”


Many Doctor Who fans have somewhat less than fond memories of “The Gunfighters,” a First Doctor serial that aired from April 30 – May 21, 1966. I hadn’t seen it until this DVD was released, but I’d heard about it long before from people who really disliked it.

I am therefore happy to report that it’s actually pretty decent! Not great, by any means. It’s not even “Great for a First Doctor story” or “Great for a historical”. But it is acceptable and it is enjoyable.

The plot concerns the Doctor, Steven and Dodo arriving in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 just a day or two before the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. When they arrive the Doctor is complaining of a toothache. Naturally with access to dentists everywhere in space and time he decides to go with Doc Holliday in the Old West. The fact that appears as a viable option may be commentary on the state of British dentistry in the 1960s…

Almost as soon as the TARDIS trio set foot outside the stable where they’ve landed, they’re accosted by Sheriff Wyatt Earp, who warns them about the place and offers them his protection. They then split up, with the Doctor looking for Doc Holliday while Steven and Dodo pretend to be vaudeville stars (yes, you read that right).

While this is going on, Ike Clanton and his gang are preparing for trouble, planning to corner and kill Doc Holliday as part of their sinister plan to do… I don’t know what, really, but it’s all quite exciting! Holliday gets wind of this and, after treating the Doctor, dresses him to look like Holliday himself. Before long the troubles build up, the Doctor gets arrested (for his own safety), Steven nearly gets shot, Dodo gets taken hostage and through it all there’s singing. Endless singing.

I was somewhat surprised at how enjoyable this story is. It’s nicely paced, well-acted (especially once you get past the attempted American accents in part one), and establishes the Doctor’s very strong dislike of guns in no uncertain terms. The sets were also really good and the whole thing was nicely atmospheric, and a little more adult than the show usually was.

On the other hand, there’s the historical accuracy, which is minimal. Even worse, though, there’s… that song… “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”. It’s not horrible, but it is constant. Every three minutes or so you hear a line or two from it, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s an ok song, but not so good that I want to hear it endlessly.

As usual with the old series DVDs, there’s more extras here than you can shake a Colt .45 at (sorry, sorry…)! You get the expected commentary with actors Peter Purves (Steven), Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper), David Graham (Charlie), and Richard Beale (Bat Masterson), and production assistant Tristian de Vere Cole, all moderated by Toby Hadoke, best known for “Moths Ate my Doctor Who Scarf.” The commentary is vastly entertaining and quite amusing at parts, as should be expected.

Additionally you get the First Doctor version of “Tomorrow’s Times,” a new series on the discs that shows contemporary media coverage of the program, with this version hosted by Mary Tamm (Romana I). You also get a photo gallery, PDF materials and an excellent documentary called “The End of the Line.” It talks about the problems the series had during its third year, and includes interviews with Purves as well some of the other actors, including Maureen O’Brien (Vicki). And for people like me, who’ve always wondered, you get some insight into why Jackie Lane left the series (short version: she didn’t look young enough on camera and was written out while her first serial was still airing).

The Gunfight at the OK Corral has made its way into Western mythology like almost nothing else, and that’s a surprise considering just how short it was. The whole thing lasted only 30 seconds, but from that we’ve gotten this story, the third-season Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun,” and numerous movies and books. It’s really quite amazing the industry it spawned.

Ultimately I recommend this disc, but really only for the fans. If you’ve got someone you’re trying to get interested in the series, there’s probably better choices. But for what this is, it’s pretty decent and far better than the detractors would have you believe.

——————————————————————-

Ah, historical war recreations. Here in the States we get them in the form of people who dress up in grey and wander about playing soldier while shouting, “The South shall rise again!” In the United Kingdom, at least as far as this video is concerned, you get them in the form of people who take over small villages, ride around on horseback and intend to burn a woman at the stake.

Frankly, the British version sounds more interesting.

The year is 1984, and the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Turlough (Mark Strickson, who later became a producer and went on to discover Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. Seriously!), turn up in the town of Little Hodcombe, arriving smack in the middle of a historical reenactment of a battle that happened during the English Civil War. They are there because Tegan wants to find her grandfather who, it turns out, has gone missing.

The Doctor starts to figure out quickly that things aren’t exactly as they seem when he runs into Will Chandler, a boy from 1643 (Keith Jayne). Soon the Doctor discovers that one era is leaking into the other and that the war gamers are being controlled by an evil alien force that’s about to make the game more real than anyone expected.

This was an odd story. First off, it’s two parts, which wasn’t done very often in Doctor Who back in the day and when it was done, you got stories that were pretty good, like “The Sontaran Experiment” and stories that… well, weren’t, like “Black Orchid”. This story is good, but it’s confusing. I never quite understood what the Malus, the previously-mentioned evil alien force, was doing or what its motivations were. It was just sort of there, hanging out behind a crack in the wall.

Speaking of cracks in the wall, one thing I will say about this story is that it very much “felt” like a new series adventure. Switch it around so you have the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory, trim about five minutes and you have something that would fit well with modern Who. Heck, even the notion of going to visit a family member seems almost lifted from the modern stories.

On the other hand, despite the odd story, the acting is especially good, particularly from Jayne and other guest actors like Polly James and Dennis Lill, all of whom are entertaining enough they might serve to distract you from the flaws in the story. Also, as you’d expect from a BBC historical production, the costumes are all top-notch.

2 Entertain have crammed their usual list of special features onto this disc, and those add value far more than the story. You get commentary by the director, Michael Owen Morris, script editor Eric Saward and comedian Toby Hadoke, who I really hope they utilize more in these commentaries. It’s a decent commentary, though the absence of Davison is felt keenly. I was reassured to note that even the director wasn’t entirely sure what the Malus was doing hanging out behind the wall.

Other extras include “Return to Little Hodcombe,” a “making of” feature with the director, Fielding and Jayne, “Making the Malus,” about the SFX behind the story, “Now and Then,” showing what the locations look like today, some extended and deleted scenes, a photo gallery, an isolated music score, PDF files and something called “The Golden Egg Awards,” which was really quite amusing.

Like this month’s other DVD release, “The Gunfighters,” this one is not really for the casual fans or the people who are entirely new to the series. But if you’re even slightly more than a casual fan, you might want to pick it up. In the States it’s sold apart from “The Gunfighters” and at only about $11. A decent price for a decent DVD!

DVD Review – How I Ended This Summer


There lived a certain man/In Russia long ago...

(special thanks to Film Movement for providing me with a screener!)

Ah, Russia. Land of vodka, cold weather, dour poets, cold weather, beautiful women who turn into withered peasants seemingly overnight an very freaking cold weather. You ever wonder why they sold Alaska to us? Because who needed even more cold land?
This latest release from Film Movement takes place on a remote island in the far North Eastern part of Russia. The island is home to a small weather monitoring station maned long-term by Sergei and short-term by Pasha. Sergei is a man in his fifties who seems to be made of rock and Pasha looks like your basic graduate student living on the tundra to accumulate life experience. That they are not a great match is something of a given.

One day Sergei receives word his wife and young son are flying to a nearby area to meet him. He’s cheerful after this news and decides to go out fishing for a day. While he’s gone, Pasha receives unhappy news that comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen a movie before. This news would be devastating to Sergei, so Pasha tries to hide it, first out of an effort to spare the man’s feelings, and then out of simple fear. Needless to say, he’s not able to keep this news secret forever and soon things take an unpleasant turn…

This was a very good movie. I’ve not seen much Russian cinema, basically only this and Russian Ark, but I really liked it. The director did a very good job of showing the coldness, isolation and uncertainty on an island where at any minute you can be eaten by a polar bear or freeze or starve.

I do feel that the director could have trimmed 10 – 15 minutes of shots from the film and tightened it up considerably. There’s a shot that takes about three minutes that’s nothing of a man walking into a gradually clearing fogbank, and while that was great for setting the scene, it did go on a bit. And while there were certain things in the film that I didn’t really understand (like the presence of a large, radiation emitting device that doesn’t really get explained), I still really enjoyed the movie.

Like I said, I haven’t seen much Russian cinema, but if much of it is like this, it sounds like I have a lot of catching up to. A really great film!