Avatar: The Special Edition review

Avatar Special Edition banshees
A new hunting scene for the Special Edition

As you all know, AVATAR is back on the big screen, showing exclusively in Digital 3-D and IMAX 3-D engagements. As you also know, this release is billed as the “Special Edition,” because writer-director James Cameron has restored nearly nine minutes of footage, expanding the already lengthy film’s running time to nearly 170 minutes (the maximum capacity for analog IMAX 3D screenings). Is the new special edition truly all that special, or is this just a cynical money-grab?

The answer is: neither. Despite the new scenes, AVATAR remains much the film it was before: a blockbuster entertainment of magnificent proportions, lacking subtlety while proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve – when it’s not blasting away bad guys with all the over-heated enthusiasm of THE EXPENDABLES. Yes, 20th Century Fox’s decision to re-issue the film was based on bottom line considerations, but in this home video era, we should appreciate the opportunity to re-experience the film on the big screen: AVATAR had still been doing good business when it was pushed out of 3D venues by ALICE IN WONDERLAND last March, and since then, ticket buyers have been ripped off by a succession of 3-D post-production conversions (CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PIRANHA 3 D) that were almost enough to permanently sour discerning viewers on the process. A return trip to Pandora is enough to eclipse those bad faux-3D memories

The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.
The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.

The real reason to see AVATAR again is to remind yourself what 3D looks like when done right. Although Cameron avoids gimmicky images of objects projecting out of the screen, he uses the process to great effect in flying scenes: separate from the background, all those copters, banshees, and floating jellyfish truly seem to be suspended in mid-air. Also, the clear separation of objects in the foreground from objects in the background allows Cameron to load the frame with details that would seem cluttered in a 2D rendition (all those virtual monitors, view screens, and lab equipment start to look like a jumble if you close one eye and watch the film flat).
The additional footage, which represents just about 5% of the total running time, is not enough to make a substantial difference in the film overall. Some of the extra minutes fill in expository details that only sharp-eyed fans would notice:

  • A trip to a school house, riddle with bullets, gives a good clue why Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s Na’Vi outreach program is not going so well.
  • Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) reveals her full name to Jake (Sam Worthington) in the scene wherein she introduces him to her tribe (so now we know how he knows her name).
  • Jake’s narration explains why the legendary floating mountains of Pandora stay airborn.
  • We see the aftermath of a Na’Vi attack on some bulldozers that were smashing down trees. It’s obvious that the Earth forces can use this “provocation” as an excuse to justify action they wanted to take anyway: namely, attacking the Na’Vi’s tree-home.

avatar_special_edition_movie_image_01Other footage adds more action or simply expands on scenes that already existed:

  • Early on we glimpse some dino-size creatures we had not seen in the previous cut. Later, Jake in his avatar-body joins the Na’Vi’ as they fly on their banshees, hunting down these large creatures.
  • The “mating” scene between Jake and Neytiri is a bit longer but not at all explicit – unless you count the shot of their braid tendrils intertwining which is a bit suggestive of…something or other.
  • In this version Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) does not die from his fall during battle. He lives long enough to pass the leadership baton to Jake, who then, according to Na’Vi ritual, puts Tsu’tey out of his misery with a stroke of his blade.

This new footage does little to expand on the plot or themes, nor does it address any of the reservations I expressed about AVATAR during its initial release (such as the absurd use of the word “unobtanium,” which should have been explained away as a joke). It’s nice to have the little narrative gaps filled: I had always wondered why Dr. Augustine’s outreach program was faring so poorly; now we know it was sabotaged (whether intentionally or inadvertently) by gunfire from the company mercenaries. And the burning bulldozers (along with the dead human crew) make it more understandable why the company drones are convinced that military force – not peaceful negotiation – is the only option.

The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence
The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence

Mostly the new scenes give us more of Pandora, which is for usually worth seeing. Sometimes, however, the extra minutes make themselves felt. The hunting sequence, for example, offers some nice aerial thrills, but it also expands the weakest portion of AVATAR: Jake’s learning the ways of the Na’Vi is a necessary plot point, but it could have been conveyed in a brief montage; instead, it virtually becomes the second act – a lengthy series of scenes that does little to advance the story but does give Cameron more opportunities to show off the beauties of Pandora.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the re-release is the opportunity to see AVATAR post-backlash. A second time around, the heavy-handed message and the one-dimensional villains seem simply like part of the film’s texture – not great virtues but hardly the fatal flaws that detractors would have us believe them to be. The movie’s strengths are more than enough to eclipse its weaknesses, which seem more and more like trivial nitpicking. Though far from perfect, AVATAR emerges victorious – a film with a Sense of Wonder as wide and beautiful as the skies of Pandora.

Eyeborgs: DVD Review

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click to purchase
It may seem to have “ScFy Channel” written all over it, but EYEBORGS turns out to be a well-acted film with an intelligent story and a topical message.

When I sat down to watch EYEBORGS, I was expecting nothing more than a SyFy Channel-level flick with crappy f/x, a silly one-note story, and wooden characters. And why wouldn’t I expect that? The movie is about surveillance cameras, originally designed to protect us, attacking and killing people – it has “SyFy” written all over it. I was in fact wondering why this hadn’t aired on that channel. But after watching for only 10 minutes, I  realized that EYEBORGS is well-acted with an intelligent story that has a very topical message. In short, I was pleasantly surprised.

We’re told that after another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the government initiated a wide-reaching and intense surveillance program by which every camera in the U.S. is linked to a single network called O.D.I.N (Optical Defense Intelligence Network). In other words, the U.S. government has created Big Brother – no, not that shitty reality show but the Orwellian society in which everyone is being watched at every point of the day in every thing they do. It’s the United States of Fascist America!! The always good Adrian Paul (from the HIGHLANDER TV show) plays R.J. Reynolds, an agent for Homeland Security. Along with a reporter (played by Megan Blake) and Jarett (Luke Eberl), the nephew of the President, they become entangled in a plot to assassinate President Hewes (Mark Joy). It seems someone has hacked into the O.D.I.N system and is programming the surveillance cameras (some are small; others look like huge spiders) to kill people who are getting too close to the truth. I can’t go too much more into the story without giving away some spoilers, but I can tell you that nothing is as it seems in this surprisingly layered story. Think CHOPPING MALL with elements of RUNAWAY with a tiny sprinkle of THE TERMINATOR and you come close to EYEBORGS!

Danny  Trejo
Danny Trejo

EYEBORGS is at times hindered by some made-for-TV-level acting and action, but you’ll overlook this as you find yourself getting sucked into the plot. Genre favorite Danny Trejo pops up as G-Man, the owner of a guitar shop who is also part of an underground resistance fighting the ever-increasing loss of freedom. Or is he? He may be involved in the plot to kill the president – or he might just be a patsy. Writers Fran and Richard Clabaugh (Richard also directed) do a fantastic job of making you think you have everything figured out – and then completely twisting the plot in a different direction. And they do this two to three times. The “twists” are inherently logical to the overall story and don’t feel at all forced.

EYEBORGS features some pretty good visual effects. The surveillance robots range from cute-looking little mobile cameras straight out of a Disney flick to some bigger, intimidating Volkswagen-sized spider-looking cameras that have somehow been fitted with weapons. Overall, the CGI is pretty good and the scenes with the humans and robots interacting are well-done.

There’s not much by way of extras on the EYEBORGS DVD. We get six deleted scenes, the trailer, and a “Behind the Scenes” feature which includes a “Making of the Eyeborgs,” a blooper reel, and “How to Make a Robot in Three Minutes.”

EYEBORGS is not perfect, but it will keep you involved – and guessing – until the final scenes. The strength of the film is definitely the story. We get a solid movie with a very timely message that asks, “How much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe?” But this isn’t some preachy sci-fi flick that’s all talk. There’s a boatload of action here; some of it effective, some of it that misses the mark. But the final battle between the humans and robots is exciting and has you cheering the “good guys” on. The ending is also refreshing: We get a pretty dark and depressing conclusion in which things go from bad to worse for humanity. Good stuff; I recommend this one.

Eyeborgs (2009) robot

EYEBORGS (2009; released on video July 6, 2010). Directed by Richard Clabaugh. Written by Fran CLabaugh & Richard Clabaugh. Cast: Adrian Paul, Megal Blake, Luke Eberl, Dany Trejo, Tim Bell, James Marshall Case, Dale Girard, Julie Horner, Mark Joy, Huyen Thi.

Eyeborgs (2009) victim


[REC] 2: Better Than the Original

[Rec] 2 (2009)
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In 2007, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza took the horror world by storm with their film [REC] – which proved you could still jolt some life into the zombie genre, and you didn’t need a big budget. The writer-director team took the simple idea of a group of people trapped in an apartment building after a highly contagious virus breaks out, and they ran with it. Hell – they sprinted! [REC] was so successful, in fact, that a remake, QUARANTINE (2008), was competed even before the original reached the U.S. With all this success, it’s no wonder that two years later [REC] 2 has been released (first on MOD/VOD and now in limited theatrical engagements). But the question stands: is it a worthy follow up to the original? I won’t leave you in suspense; [REC] 2 is scarier, darker, and overall better than the first one. That’s right people, as amazing as the first one is, [REC] 2 is better in every way. Ok, I got that off my chest.

[REC] 2 resumes immediately the ending of the first film. We even see reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) being dragged off into the dark room. We then  join a four-member SWAT team as they are on their way to the quarantined apartment building. As the leader says, “Record everything,” and that they do! The SWAT team is joined by Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor), and their job is to contain the outbreak and report on how bad the threat actually is. Well, that’s what they think their mission is.

[REC] 2 (2009)Writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (as well as writer Manu Deiz) don’t waste any time here. The new group is inside the apartment complex within the first five minutes; the action, horror, and blood start immediately, never letting up. Balagueró and Plaza take all the elements that made [REC] so amazing and injected some hardcore steroids into them. What we get here is not so much a sequel but a continuation of the first film. (I actually watched both REC films back-to-back and they flow beautifully together.)

We also get an explanation as to the cause of the virus (don’t worry, I’ll let you find out on your own) within the first fifteen minutes. The directors take a small aspect of [REC] and make it a major plot point here (the major plot point actually). The virus has a religious cause, and the key to finding a cure lies with the little girl Niña Medeiros (Javier Botet), from the first film. Just wait till you hear the cause of the virus! At first I wasn’t too pleased with the explanation, but as the film moves along (at a very fast pace) the explanation made more and more sense; it was in fact pretty damn original and unique. If you are well versed in your 1980s Italian horror films, [REC] 2 will remind you of Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS and DEMONS 2 (which is a huge compliment).

[REC] 2 (2009)No character is safe here, and the infected tear through the new group so quickly that the writers needed to include more victims, so about half way through we are introduced to three 20-somethings who manage to get caught up in the action and suddenly find themselves in the quarantined apartment building. When we’re introduced to the new characters, it does slightly interrupt the flow of the movie, but the directors don’t waste any time getting back to all the fun. This time out we get to see the infected up close and personal, with a good view of the effects. The infected are pretty horrifying, and there is enough gore here to fill two sequels.

If you’re a fan of the first [REC] and hate the f*cking terrible remake QUARANTINE, then get out and see [REC] 2!! Most of the time the best we could hope for would be a sequel that doesn’t completely suck; here we get a faster, gorier, scarier, better movie than the first. This is an extremely easy review to write – a no-brainer, in fact. Go out and see [REC] 2; I loved every second of it.

[REC] 2 (2009). Directed by Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza. Written by Jaume Balguero, Manu Diez, Paco Plaza. Cast: Jonathan Mello, Manuela Velasco, Oscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso, Pep Molina, Andrea Ros, Alex Batllori, Pau Poch, Juli Fabregas, Ferran Terraza, Claudia Silva.


Micmacs (2009)

The latest surreal confectionary from supreme stylist Jean-Pierre Jeunet is occasionally poignant but not as wonderfully whimsical as intended.

French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s collaborations with Marc Caro – DELICATESSEN (1991) and CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) – established him as a purveyor of visually arresting cinefantastique that was occasionally deficient in drama. Since going solo with his Hollywood effort, ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997), Jeunet has moved away from outright fantasy, but his imaginative visual sense remains intact, providing a view of the world that looks fantastical even when the situations are recognizable occurrences; e.g., the pet goldfish that is released into a river in AMELIE (2001) – and makes eye contact with its former owner before disappearing beneath the rippling surface. Jeunet’s latest effort, MICMACS, continues somewhat in this vein, often to good effect but without the consistent charm  of AMELIE. Art house audiences and fans of the director’s visual style will find much to amuse them, but more general audiences will not find the story fully engaging.
MICMACS (fully titled Micmacs a Tire-Larigot [“Non-Stop Madness”] in its native France) follows a young boy who is orphaned when his father fails to disarm a land mine; later, as a young man, Bazil (played by Dany Boon) is hit in the head by a stray bullet, losing his apartment and his job. Living on the streets, he hooks up with a group of social outcasts and misfits living in an underground hovel carved out of a garbage dump, where they craft amazing tools and sculptures crafted from discarded junk. While out collecting some raw materials, Bazil stumbles upon the offices for two arms manufacturers: one responsible for the land mine that killed his father; the other responsible for the bullet still nestled close to his brain. Appalled by one manufacturer’s casual indifference to the human toll of his product, Bazil decides to bring both corporations to their knees, with the help of his motley friends.

Bazil (Dany Boon) images an orchestra playing dramatic music in his head.

MICMACS is at most borderline cinefantastique. Trading romance for satire, Jeunet uses the occasional surreal flourish (such as a character imagining the orchestra playing the dramatic music we in the audience are hearing) to juice up a story that is occasionally poignant but not quite as wonderfully whimsical as it is clearly meant to be. On some level, Jenuet intends MICMACS as a satire about the powerless getting back at the powerful, about bringing some kind of accountability to people who become rich off the misfortune of others. This lends some genuinely touching pathos, as when a tear trickles down Bazil’s cheek while he listens to an arms manufacturer deliver a jokey, self-congratulatory speech at a ritzy party, both figuratively and literally miles away from the impact of his product.
More often than not, however, MICMACS is more spoof than satire, a sort of playful French variation on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, with Bazil and buddies using subterfuge to outwit their more powerful opponents. It’s as if the sub-plot from AMELIE (in which she drives a pompous boss crazy by sneaking into his home and rearranging furniture, changing locks, etc) had been expanded into the main narrative. The result feels a bit like Dashiel Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (by way of  YOJIMBO and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), as if it had been staged by the Marx Brothers.
The script strings together zany episodes like set-pieces from a silent comedy; unfortunately, these amusing capers are only so amusing. Jeunet can be funny, but the explosive slapstick seen here simply isn’t his forte. Unlike Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST, the stunts and gags don’t build to a climax with an outrageous series of “can you top this” escalations; instead, they hit a plateau and proceed a steady altitude until a much-needed third act complication finally adds a small dose of suspense.
Meanwhile, there are occasional hints of romance between Bazil and a contortionist girl; they’re a nice touch, but they’re squeezed in like glue between the cracks in the comedy hijinx. With the focus firmly on the revenge caper, the lead characters are sketched too thinly to fully warm our hearts. Bazil is given little beyond the motivation of his back story – which is enough to make us want to like him and see him succeed, but not enough to make him tremendously compelling. In fact, the script can’t even be bothered to resolve his central problem: we’re told that the bullet wedged near his brain could kill him at any time, but this worrisome problem is simply forgotten – without so much as a deus ex machina.
Thankfully, Dany Boon’s sad-sack performance goes a little way toward helping us overlook the writing deficiencies, which don’t affect the rest of the cast as much. Neither are the supporting characters sketched in great detail, but the rag-tag gang of charming eccentrics hold their own on screen because they needn’t carry any emotional weight; their individual quirks (talking in cliches, accurately sizing up up distance and dimensions at a glance) are more than enough.
The story ends with a clever twist, and everyone pretty much gets what they deserve, but the effect is slightly hollow. To its credit, MICMACS mixes in some seriously dangerous characters without feeling as if they wandered in from another movie, but the overall mixture of pathos and humor never hits critical mass. With its little guy taking on big business, MICMACS feels a bit like a fictionalized version of a Michael Moore documentary; unfortunately, even with his superior visual skills, Jeunet cannot match the laughs and the tears of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.


MICMACS (Micmacs a tire-lairgot [“Non-stop Madness”], 2009). Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Jean-Pierre Jeanet & Guillaume Laurant; dialogue by Laurant.  Cast: Dany Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrie, Omar Sy, and Dominique Pinon.

Giallo (2009)

Marked by unpleasant violence and quesitonable humor, Argento’s latest thriller sees the director following his own dark muse, regardless of whether the audience tags along.

Giallo (2009) Dario Argento’s films have always divided critical and audience opinions. To his supporters, he’s one of the cinema’s supreme visual stylists, his work further marked by a constant willingness to experiment with new technologies and techniques. To his detractors, there’s little substance to his films, which are also commonly accused of being badly written and acted and marred by gratuitous violence. Since around the time of PHENOMENA (1985) the detractors have assumed the upper hand, with even many of the director’s avowed fans asserting that his work just isn’t what it used to be.
They are right, but whether this represents an actual decline or the continuing creative evolution of Argento’s filmmaking is another matter. Much of the reason Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1995), The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and The Card Player (2004) do not appeal to fans weaned on the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) is that they do not conform to the expectations established by these early works. Take The Card Player: Amongst other things, it is deliberately, even excessively, restrained. The violent set piece, a main stock in trade of the director, is avoided to concentrate our attentions on the consequences of violence instead.
GIALLO (2009) is not going to settle these debates one way or the other. It does, however, fit with their general pattern – the main exceptions being the latter day crowd-pleaser Sleepless (2001) and would-be crowd-pleaser The Third Mother (2007) – by seeing Argento take his own dark path without paying much heed whether an audience is following.
The first thing about the film that must be addressed is its title. As is well-known, Giallo means “yellow” in Italian and has come to refer generically to a particular kind of horror-thriller, of which Argento’s earliest films established him as the leading practitioner. Given this and the highly self-referential approach taken by later works like Tenebre (1982), Opera (1987) and Do You Like Hitchcock (2005), we might expect GIALLO to offer more in the way of comment on the form than it does, perhaps even being prefaced by an explanatory definition of what giallo is in the manner of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, GIALLO is the nickname of the obligatory maniac. The name derives from his disfiguring skin condition, one that has left him fuelled with a hatred for beautiful young women. His modus operandi is to abduct them in his taxi, take them to his lair, and slowly mutilate them to death.
The other key dramatis personae are Celine (Elsa Pataky), Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody). Celine is Yellow’s latest victim, Linda her sister. Avolfi is the enigmatic Manhunter-type figure assigned the case on a kind of ‘it takes one to know one’ or ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ basis; the Thomas Harris reference seems appropriate given that the production company behind GIALLO is Hannibal [as in Lektor] Film.
GIALLO’s key traits are violence and unpleasantness (arguably bordering upon the ‘torture porn’ variety), and humour. It is a rather uneasy combination, especially since it is not always particularly well signalled whether we are supposed to be laughing. In general, I feel that we are, that the film is intended as something of a self-parody. But even if this is the case, it is clear that Argento’s failure to make this crystal clear is detrimental to GIALLO’s overall effectiveness.
Two points of comparison come immediately to mind. The first is the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera, notable for Julian Sands’ mask-less, “rock star” Phantom and the general hostility it invoked among fans and non-fans alike. The second, suggested by Seigner’s presence, is Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) – another of those “Is it intentionally ‘bad’, or just bad?” films.

Actor Adrien Brody and director Dario Argento
Actor Adrien Brody and director Dario Argento

There is some evidence for the ‘in-quotes’ position, though the fact that we have to look for it again points to the more fundamental problem. In particular, Brody’s ‘bad’ work has to be considered in the light of his Oscar-winning performance on Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), as a strong indication that he is one of the more capable actors Argento has collaborated with. And collaboration is the operative term here. Amongst Brody’s other roles was that of Executive Producer on GIALLO. As such, he and Argento had to have agreed upon the seemingly paradoxical over-the-top yet dead-pan way he was going to play things, for better or worse.
If a returning-the-favour reference to Juno is a throwaway, those to Japanese culture (a pre-Celine tourist victim; the hentai-type manga used by Yellow to fuel his perverse imaginings, and the more up-market volume of Araki art-or-porn photography purchased by Avolfi) may point to Argento’s growing interest here, as previously seen in the J-Horror, Gothic Lolita witch of The Three Mothers (2008). Or these references may be a way of trying to ensure distribution for GIALLO in Japan, traditionally an important marketplace for the director. Again, it’s up to the viewer to interpret, positively or negatively.
Visually, the film is middling Argento, more imaginative and stylish than most directors but hardly comparable to a Suspiria, Inferno (1980) or Opera. Aurally, it is less distinguished, with Marco Werba’s score lacking the memorable qualities of Ennio Morricone, Goblin or Claudio Simonetti’s work.
In sum, GIALLO is very much of a piece with the majority of Argento’s films of the later 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in its personal, take-it-or-leave-it nature. I took to it, but you may not. Whatever the case, hopefully you are at least in a position to make a better informed decision than a few hundred words ago.

Yesterday Was A Lie (2009)

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A Film Noir SF Parable
Took the screener DVD of YESTERDAY WAS A LIE for a spin last night—and a dizzying ride it was, indeed. The black and white film from writer-editor-director James Kerwin takes the form of a film noir detective story, but it’s really more like an extended discussion of ideas of time, causality, and reality.
We begin with Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown), who is some kind of detective. Police? Private Eye? It’s not clear at the outset, and expect no revelations on this subject as the film progresses. She’s looking for answers about an elusive theorist (John Newton) and a WWII-era notebook about researches into the nature of time.
Wearing my critic’s hat through the first 15 minutes or so of the movie lead to frustration, so I had to switch to a more passive viewer mode. Seeming inconsistencies and anachronisms increase and become more obviously intentional as the film moves along, as do numerous references to non-linear time, alternate realities, left/right brain theory, and memory.
DEEP SPACE NINE’s Chase Masterson (who also produced) plays a mysterious and nameless singer, a doppelganger for Hoyle, with a strong suggestion that she is really another aspect of the lead character. Information that she and others supply further questions Hoyle’s own point of view and independent existence.
Doppelganger or projection of the Anima?
Doppelganger or projection of the Anima?

Physics, Philosophy, and Jungian Psychiatry lie at the heart of this film, along with bits of T.S. Elliot. Which is one of YESTERDAY’s flaws: there’s too many ideas and theories, some of them (arguably) simplified and distorted to fit the movie’s premise: “The most powerful force in the universe lies within the depths of the human heart”.
While a valid artistic viewpoint, all of these items left me feeling at times that I was watching an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, padded out to feature length with a bunch of related and very interesting, but possibly non-essential elements. (For example, STAR WAR’s Peter Mayhew appears as a silent and menacing figure that adds to the noir-ish mood and performs one important action. Yet the character is nothing more than a device to provide those very functions, adding nothing of essential value to the storyline.)
What YESTERDAY lacks in the end is a powerful dramatic punch or emotional pay-off. There is a coda that suggests a balance has been reached (and could be read more than one way), but it’s not all that satisfying from a conventional standpoint.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie. I found the actors attractive and engaging, and the photography is outstanding. Shot in high definition color video by D.P. Jason Cochard, it’s been regraded & desaturated into a beautiful approximation of that silvery, luminous way post-WWII pancromatic B&W film stock and lighting tends to looks onscreen.
So while I can’t recommend the film to the casual viewer looking for a fun Sci-Fi adventure, I think it’s very much worth watching by the SF fan looking for an interesting and challenging film experience.
The DVD contains a number of interesting bonus features, including an eight page preview of the YESTERDAY WAS A LIE graphic novel.
Helicon Arts Cooperative
Available Now
Rating: PG
Running Time: 89 minutes
SRP: $24.98
Catalog #: E1E-DV-6717

I Sell the Dead (2009) review

I Sell the Dead (2009)This episodic horror-comedy, which appeared in a handful of art house engagements last year before arriving on home video this March, doesn’t quite hold together for its entire length, but its amiable approach will win you over with its good intentions, which include nostalgic nods to horror classics of yesteryear: atmospheric bits that echo Universal Pictures 1930s’ output are mashed up with Hammer Films-style gore, all of it mixed in with enough modern mayhem to create an amusing off-kilter vibe.
I SELL THE DEAD is structured around imprisoned grave-robber Arthur (Daniel Monaghan), telling the story of his long association with fellow grave-robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden)  to the attentive Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). The result is less a feature-film narrative than a vaudeville-style series of comedy routines, with Arthur and Willie nervously encountering a series of supernatural complications during their illegal late-night activities.
Although the individual episodes are fairly amusing, the loose story structure never works up any narrative steam, leaving I SELL THE DEAD to coast along from one set-piece to the next. At least the script neatly weaves one continuing thread (a rivalry with other grave robbers) into the wrap-around story, tying it all up with a nice surprise twist or two.
The humor is fairly broad, but I SELL THE DEAD is not really a genre spoof. The familiar cliches are served up without contempt or camp, the laughter arising from the characters’ reactions to the vampires and zombies that cross their path. Monaghan and Fessenden make an enjoyable comedy team, their working-class protagonists grumbling and struggling to get by whatever weirdness they dig up. Although the obvious comparison is to Burke and Hare, the characters actually come off more like a pair of bit players in a Hammer horror classic, who somehow managed to wander into starring roles in their own film (a la ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD).
The cast and crew of the low-budget production acquit themselveswell. It’s nice to see Angus Scrimm (PHANTASM’s Tall Man) back on screen, and Perlman is always a welcome presence.  Atmospheric photography, enhanced by judicious digital work, captures a convincing flavor of old-school British horror (even though filming took place in America). The monster makeup and effects are deliver the requisite zombie attacks and severed heads with gruesome glee – and with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Definitely worth a rental, especially for fans seeking a good-natured tribute to old-fashioned horror.

I sell the dead
Daniel Monaghan and Larry Fessenden

I SELL THE DEAD (2009). Written and directed by Glen McQuaid. Cast: Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman, Larry Fessenden, Angus Scrimm, John Speredakos, Eileen Colgan, Brenda Cooney.

Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus

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click to purchase
If ever there was a film that seemed designed with MYSTER SCIENCE THEATER 3000 in mind, MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS is it.

See Prehistoric Beasts released from an ancient iceberg! See the Primordial Monsters lay waste to the seven seas! See the ultimate battle between megalodon and cephalopod! See your video rental money go down the drain, wasted on this salt-water-soaked bilge!
The truly truly ridiculous sci-fi sub-epic is almost bad enough to be hysterically funny – almost; in fact, if ever there was a film that seemed designed with MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 and/or RIFFTRAX in mind, this is it.
The story of MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS has two prehistoric monsters – yes, the titular “Mega Shark” and “Giant Octopus” – released when global warming melts an ice berg. The two were apparently frozen in mid-battle millennia ago, but instead of finishing their fight, they split up, their being more than enough ocean for both of them to terrorize. A tiny team of oceanographers (a mere trio, to be exact) is forcibly recruited by the “feds,” in order to deal with the situation. Several botched attempts leaves us wondering which is worse: the bad planning or the bad execution. Finally, they hit on the brilliant idea of luring the two monsters back together and letting them kill each other off.
In order to fill the length longeurs  between the meager shark and octopus footage, the script tosses in a swelling romance between two of the marine biologists, one of whom is played by Deborah Gibson; apparently a former pop music star, she makes the least convincing scientist since Julia Roberts donned a pair of glasses to look intellectual in FLATLINERS. Meanwhile, DTV perennial Lorenzo Lamas works up a sweat delivering macho intensity that explodes off the screen – or maybe not so much.
Presented with a straight face, MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS, delivers cliched characters, bad dialogue, and laughably unbelievable special effects, all wrapped up in an absurd story that plays like an unofficial remake of KING KONG VERSUS GODZILLA (the melting iceberg unleashing a prehistoric menace, the human plan to pit the two monsters against each other). The main differences are that KING KONG VERSUS GODZILLA was an intentional comedy, and even though the rubber-suited monsters may not have been convincing, at least the actors inside could really mix it up during the climactic battle.

The Golden Gate bridge bites the dust.
The Golden Gate bridge bites the dust.

The closest we get to that sort of must-see movie madness in MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS occurs when the Mega Shark leaps hundreds of feet into the air (or perhaps thousands – the scale is not clear) and  gobbles up an airplane flying overhead.* For the most part, the monster action is dreary, low-rent CGI, with disappointing digital effects that look, well, disappointingly digital. The lifeless shark fin cutting the surface as it zeros in on a helpless battleship (of the videogame class) is a particular delight, and just in case you can’t believe your eyes that something so bad made it into the final cut, the shameless filmmakers repeat the footage during a second attack scene.
Perhaps we should credit MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS as a “green” film that saves resources through recycling. And speaking of recycling, working on the theory that one control room looks pretty much like another, you will see different groups of anonymous bit players aboard several ill-fated ships whose interiors suspiciously resemble each other. If all of this recycling (combined with the global warming theme) sounds like evidence of liberal bias on the part of the filmmakers, don’t worry: the script reserves its real contempt not for carbon fuel industries but for the federal government, who are derisively dismissed as “the feds” at several points, as if they are somehow to blame for everything that’s going wrong.
Maybe that’s not unreasonable when you thing about it. After all, in this film there is a more than enoughblame to go around.
DVD NOTE: Amazon.com informs potential buyers of the MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS DVD, “This product is manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media. Amazon.com’s standard return policy will apply.” So, is there some guy in a basement somewhere, burning these discs on his computer one-by-one as the orders trickle in?
MEGASHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS (2009). Written and directed by Jack Perez. Cast: Deborah Gibson, Lorenzo Lamas, Vic Chao, Jonathan Nation, Mark Hengst, Michael Teh, Chris Teh, Chris Haley.

  • This escalates the well-established tradition of enmity between sharks and flying machines, which also includes shark attacks on helicopters in JAWS 2 and GREAT WHITE.

Zombieland DVD Review: looking back on last year's hit

Often it is all too easy to be swept up in the excitement of the moment, giddy with glee over a new discover – only to find, after sober reflection, that the initial rush of joy was a bit over-stated. The passage of time has a way of lending perspective missing from the initial encounter, and that seems to be the case with ZOMBIELAND, which was a big commercial hit when it opened last October. The success is easy enough to understand: the film has a likable cast of characters carefully crafted to appeal to the target demographics; the basic premise is promising; and the combo of horor and humor is appealing. In a theatre full of eager fans, primed for the Halloween season, it is easy to imagine that the post-apocalyptic zombie scenario – loaded with bloodshed and action, but leavened with a tongue-in-cheek tone to prevent the scares from being too disturbing – would leave audiences as thrilled as horde of cannibal zombies at a train wreck. However, after the initial excitement wears off, a viewing of ZOMBIELAND on home video reveals that the film is enjoyable but hardly brilliant. Mildly enjoyable throughout, it has only a handful of must-see moments that would justify a second viewing, and almost all of them are available in previews and clips you can watch on YouTube. This is truly a film that has a hard time competing with its own trailer.

Coumbus (Jake Eisenberg) avoids zombies.
Coumbus (Jake Eisenberg) avoids zombies.

What ZOMBIELAND has going for it is the amusing idea of an apparent loser nicknamed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who has managed to survive a plauge that has turned most of the world’s population into “zombies.” Far from the typical movie hero, “Columbus” lives by a series of rules (superimposed in subtitles throughout the film (rather like the GUI effects in STRANGER THAN FICTION) that prevent him from making obvious mistakes; for instance, he always “double taps” the zombies he kills (meaning he delivers a second shot to the head, just to make sure they stay down). 
Columbus forms an unlikely partnership with Woody Harrelson’s Tallahasse (“I’m not the easiest person to get along with, and I”m sensing you’re a bit of a bitch”), and the two soon encounter a pair of young con-women (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), who steal their vehicle before eventually having a change of heart and teaming up. Showing a vestige of the script’s origins as an intended television pilot, the storyline is less about zombies than about forming a surrogate “family,” because even though the Reaganite ’80s are long gone, family values are still a safe way to achieve mass audience appeal.
Stone and Breslin are adequate, and Eisenberg is reasonably funny (if occasionally a bit too convincing) as the geek. But Harrelson is the one who comes closest to achieving ZOMBIELAND’s full potential. He can do the tough-guy hero stuff, and he can tell a joke; he can also handle the film’s occasional attempts at pathos.
It is to ZOMBIELAND’s credit that it tries to blend several tones, but occasionally the mix is muddled or downright silly. In the low point, [SPOILER AHEAD] Bill Murray makes a cameo as himself: having survived by making himself up to look like a zombie (zombies do not attack each other), he for some reason thinks it would be a very funny joke to sneak up on a pair of well-armed characters, who mistake him for the real thing – with predictably disastrous results. You see the joke coming from so far away that it makes Murray look like a moron. After this kind of idiocy, it is difficult to work up much of a lump in one’s throat over the story’s sentimental moments.
A clown zombie played by stuntman Derek Graf
One of the "zombies," played by stuntman Derek Graf

It is also a bit disappointing that ZOMBIELAND features no actual zombies. These so-called zombies are not the walking dead but all-too-living victims of a ghastly plague (like the one in 28 DAYS LATER). This is basically a writer’s device that makes the script easier: humans can turn into “zombies” quickly (without having to actually die); the “zombies” can run (because they’re not dead so they are not decomposing); and they can be easily killed without having to worry about the head-shot that has been a tradition since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968.
This may seem like a small point, but it’s symptomatic of the film’s take-the-easy-route approach: go for the broad, multiplex-safe approach. As long as you don’t expect too much, ZOMBIELAND works well enough in an amiable, funny-scary kind of way, but the film could have been even better with a little more bite – if not literally, than figuratively and satirically.


click to purchase
click to purchase

The DVD presentation of ZOMBIELAND offers a solid widescreen trasnfer and good sound, along with numerous bonus features: trailers, featurettes, audio commentary, and more.
Theatrical Promo Trailers: There are five of these, which consist of Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg doing stand-up routines, pretending to answer viewer questions about zombies:

  1. Bounty Paper Towels
  2. Bowling Ball
  3. Buddy System
  4. Skillet
  5. Swiss Army

Visual FX Progressions: These are four brief bits, featuring before-and-after footage from ZOMBIELAND’s visual effects scenes – first the live-action as filmed on set or location, then the computer-generated enhancements. It is interesting to note that most of the blood was added via CGI, and scenes of zombies being clobbered were achieved by having actors swing only the handle, for example, of a baseball bat, with the rest added in post-production. The four scenes are:

  1. Washington
  2. Seat Belts
  3. Banjo Zombie
  4. Falling Zombie

Deleted Scenes: These are mostly brief snippets rather than complete scenes. One specifically states something unspoken in the film, that these zombies are plague victims, not walking corpses. Another scene explains the change of heart that the two young women undergo after scamming our two heroes – a plot point that is taken for granted in the final cut. The deleted scenes are:

  1. Ziploc Bags
  2. This Did NOt Just Happen
  3. Mom and Dad Would Have to Wait
  4. The Joke’s on Them
  5. The Slow and the Weak
  6. Girls Play at  Park
  7. You Always Think of Something

Featurette: “In Search of Zombieland”:This is a standard promotional featurette disguised as a making-of piece, combining interview soundbites with footage from the film. It’s no worse than most – except for the stupid gag of having one of the zombies give a talking-head interview that consists of inarticulate grunts and growls.
Featurette: “Zombieland Is Your Land”: This is a much more informative look behind the scenes, focusing on the use of set design, locations, and art direction to convey a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Jake Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson
Jake Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Woody Harrelson

Audio Commentary: Director Ruben Fleischer, stars Harrelson and Eisenberg, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick get together to chat about making their film. Like most audio commentaries recorded too soon (i.e., while the film is still in release), this one suffers from a lack of perspective on the work, with everyone in full-bore promotional mode, repeatedly mentioning that ZOMBIELAND is currently numero uno at the box office. If you can stomach the continual back-patting (“We are very self-satisfied people,” Fleischer notes repeatedly), there are some interesing tidbits, such as the fact that the “Zombie Kill of the Week” concept (so prominent in the trailer) is a vestige of the script’s gestation as a pilot for a weekly television series – which would have included a “Zombie Kill of the Week” in each episode.
Woke Up Dead” is a weird, four-minute comedy episode about a guy hit by a truck who wakes up on the coroner’s table. It has no connection with ZOMBIELAND; although presented as a bonus feature, it is basically a promo for a later DVD release, which will presumably include many more episodes.
ZOMBIELAND (2009). Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, Billy Murray.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Blu-ray Review

True to its title, FANTASTIC MR. FOX is an absolute astonishment of a picture, seamlessly merging the literary sensibilities of author Roald Dahl with the droll, urbanite wit of Wes Anderson.  Ironically, it was the participation of Anderson that initially worried us; the director’s recent films have been polarizing, to say the least, and we found his arch, hyper-finicky visual style in THE LIFE AQUATIC (and especially THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) to be at odds with the development of any real emotion.  Maybe puppets are Anderson’s preferred medium.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) a reformed-chicken-thief-turned-columnist lives a safe, if boring, life with wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  Tiring of living in a hole (figuratively and literally), Fox enlists the aid of attorney Mr. Badger (Bill Murray) to purchase a grand new abode in a tree located perilously close to the industrial farms owned by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the latter, Michael Gambon). The proximity poses too great a temptation for Fox, who is soon breaking the promise made to his wife years ago to abandon his produce-stealing ways.  Enlisting the aid of tree superintendent Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Fox’s nephew Kristofferson (Wes’ brother Eric Anderson), Fox embarks on an – at first – stunningly successful round of thievery at the farmer’s expense; soon, however, their luck catches up with them at the hands of Bean, and all the animals in the area pay the price for Fox’s recklessness.
Anderson showed amazing promise with his 1998 debut, Rushmore, because at the center of the film was a carefully observed friendship between a pair of seemingly desperate characters.  Unfortunately, Anderson’s two subsequent efforts – The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – seemed to abandon emotional truth in favor of increasingly fussy cinematics, with both characters and situations existing only as representational ciphers.  The Darjeeling Limited was an encouraging departure, but it felt a bit half-baked, almost as if Max Fischer was attempting a Wes Anderson tribute.  Fortunately, there appears to be something about the medium of stop-motion animation that has brought out a tenderness in Anderson’s work that we haven’t seen in a decade.  All the trappings are still there (the elaborate framing and overlaid inter-titles, the all-around drollery of the humor, Owen Wilson), but here they find themselves at the service of a story that didn’t originate with Anderson.
Roald Dahl has one of the most instantly individual voices in the world of children’s literature.  Dahl, who passed away in 1990, understood that the young people need a bit of darkness in their stories and, until now, only Nic Roeg’s film The Witches has been able to tap into that darkness with success.  In Fantastic Mr. Fox, written in 1970, Dahl created a fanciful universe in which the creatures exist in typical ‘animal’ surroundings but with human attributes – but it is also a world of danger, with the possibility of a violent death at the hands of humans lurking just on the other side of the prose.  The ultimate success of the Fox family isn’t total victory, but merely surviving for another day. 
Anderson captures this underlying theme beautifully; the film is photographed in gorgeous amber hues, evoking fall – a season of death – as well as any film we’ve ever seen.  The particular brand of stop-motion puppetry used for is a bit jarring at first – it hasn’t the well-sanded edges of other stop-motion like Coraline or James and the Giant Peach (interestingly, another Dahl adaptation).  The textures of the individual puppets are a bit rougher, but combined with Anderson’s careful compositions and the superb, erudite vocal work of the cast (Clooney especially is outstanding here, effortlessly conveying Fox’s cocky but ultimately flawed character), they become yet another memorable component of one of 2009’s best films.
Fox’s Blu-Ray (20th Century, not Mr.) is the optimal presentation for the film, with the 1080p picture conveying the myriad colors and textures of the world – and here’s where the use of actual sets, costumes and actors (well, puppets, anyway) comes into play, as these things just can’t be replaced by computer animation. 
The disc also wins in not overloading the viewer with the typical EPK ballast that weighs down so many popular films.  There’s a single, long-form documentary Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (presented, as are all extras, in HD) that can be watched in pieces or as a whole. The documentary goes into the laborious stop-motion process in fascinating detail.  Bill Murray acts as a tour guide for a good chunk of the footage, and it’s great to see him so tuned-in by the process.  We also learn about the impression that Dahl’s home made on Anderson and learn the fate of the actual tree that inspired Fox’s swanky home. 
There’s also a brief but humorous breakdown of the rules of wack bat (which isn’t that much more stupefying than cricket) and the original trailer.  Fox has also taken the increasingly popular route of including a separate DVD edition of the film with each Blu-Ray set (at least in the initial pressings) alongside the more common digital copy.
 Highest recommendation.