10/31/2008

The Good Life (2007)




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Skateboarding champion turned writer/director Steve Berra's feature film debut begins with an ominous blend of voice-over narration and imagery as the troubled young protagonist Jason Prayer (Mark Webber) coolly discusses the impact of bullets as he walks down a wintry Midwestern street, packing a gun in his hand as he makes his way to a gathering crowd. While we aren't sure just what has transpired after a gunshot rings out, the haunting start stays with us, lingering in our minds as the film chronologically moves backwards in time to weeks earlier.

Quickly we become better acquainted with Jason-- an outcast in his Nebraskan football obsessed town-- who seems to be the type of individual who prefers to stay in the shadows or in corners, self-conscious about his outsider status partially as someone just not into the community's pastime and also with an immune disorder that has prevented him from growing any hair. Wearing a wig, hats, or hooded coats in public to prevent stares, he's nonetheless the unlikely and irrational target of the mean-spirited older Chris Klein, an athlete who seems to be permanently stuck in the past recounting his glory days whether or not anyone wants to listen.

After Jason's police officer father dies, he once again sets his mind on escape from his dreary surroundings but out of loyalty to his best friend and second father (Harry Dean Stanton), the dementia ridden, elderly owner and manager of an old movie theatre that specializes in screening films from Hollywood's Golden Age, he holds off. While his family life isn't much better, especially considering his bullying and obnoxious hyper male stereotype brother-in-law Donal Logue (who is essentially playing a second version of Klein's character), a ray of sunlight enters Jason's life when he meets a beautiful young woman who arrives out of the blue to witness Judy Garland's Harvey Girls on the big screen.

Calling herself Frances and discussing a troubled past as a girlhood singing sensation, Zooey Deschanel's Frances inspires, engages and tantalizes Jason, although anyone who has even more than a passing knowledge of Garland's biography realizes that she may not be exactly whom she claims to be. And sure enough, when things begin to spiral out of control in Jason's life, he begins marching towards the path that he took at the beginning of the film.

Yet Berra is intelligent and astute enough to pack a few twists into his movie, which prevents it from falling into the overcrowded realm of independent cinema chronicling the angst of young white males wanting to be anywhere but there in search of something better. However, it's safe to say that Berra hasn't cornered the market of what I prefer to call the "Gus Van Sant Genre" and the bleak and dreary The Good Life is bolstered by some bright spots including Zooey Deschanel belting out "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

And although it features a riveting performance by Mark Webber, the film-- nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival-- isn't exactly one you'd probably find yourself wanting to watch more than once. Not to mention the fact that the endless sea of indies about death, suicidal depression, and coming-of-dysfunctional-age are beginning to wear on viewers' patience, yet this one fares better than most since it seems to come from a more nostalgic and heartfelt place.

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TV on DVD: The 4400 -- The Complete Series (Review Part 1; Seasons 1 & 2)







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An Introduction



Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment and CBS DVD were kind enough to send me the gorgeously packaged, 15-disc epic box set of The 4400: The Complete Series. As I'm new to the show, I'll be bringing you coverage in installments as I view so we'll kick off Part 1 with this review of Seasons 1 and 2 of USA Network's 4 season, 45 episode science fiction drama, The 4400 which aired from July 11, 2004 to September 16, 2007.


Season 1



Viewed by roughly 7.4 million people, the two-hour pilot episode for USA's series The 4400 quickly became the "most watched" basic cable premiere since USA's other science fiction based series debut of The Dead Zone. Created by Scott Peters and Rene Echevarria (who has gone on to work on NBC's The Medium), The 4400 was originally pitched to FOX who passed on the prospect. When USA stepped in, it originally aired as a five-part miniseries with a major spoiler revealed in the final episode that originally the producers had intended to save for the fifth and final season of the series.

Still, creatively the writers proved they had much more to offer and more stories they wanted to tell, despite its obvious similarities to both Steven Spielberg's science-fiction channel miniseries Taken and the iconic 90's series The X-Files. So as a loyal fan-base began tuning in and the show, also produced by American Zoetrope garnered three Primetime Emmy nominations, USA announced it would return. Peters, who has admitted that the premise of the show was "loosely inspired by the events of 9/11," helped craft an old-fashioned style series with a premise and feel right out of The Twilight Zone, relying more on character, atmosphere and mood than gore, which is apparent from its initial pilot.

After a mysterious introduction finds several characters suddenly vanishing into thin air over the past sixty years, we move to present day where a near catastrophic event quickly ensues. The employees of The National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC), a fictitious division of Homeland Security, brace themselves for the worst as a comet careens towards Earth and suddenly changes course, slowing down over the"Cascade Range foothills...near Mount Rainier, Washington," where it morphs into a ball of white light over Highland Beach. Suddenly 4400 humans who have been abducted over the past 60 years find themselves returned, completely disoriented, having not aged in the slightest and with no memory of where they've been or what has happened.



Feeling as though they just disappeared yesterday, the series chronicles the challenges encountered by the returnees, later dubbed "The 4400" as they try to return to some semblance of a normal life (although a large majority have nowhere to go or remaining relatives living) along with the two NTAC agents assigned to their case once they're released from quarantine. Immediately indicative of Agents Scully and Mulder from Fox's X-Files, we meet the clean-cut yet no-nonsense workaholic Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and his scientific minded colleague Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) as they attempt to handle unexplainable phenomena when some of the 4400 begin to exhibit signs of supernatural and superhuman abilities.



With a marriage on its last legs and his son Kyle (Chad Faust) in a coma ever since his cousin Shawn (Patrick Flueger) was "abducted," Tom strives to leave his personal connection out of the case, yet when Shawn begins to manifest evidence of a healing power, he tries to encourage him to help awaken Kyle. While Shawn's storyline in season 1 is overly reliant on a love triangle with his brother's girlfriend, some of the most fascinating material comes directly from following the adventures of the returnees whether it's in a heartbreaking, melancholic episode that follows an elderly man who realizes all that he'd worked for in the 1970's has vanished or in the best episode of the first batch, "The New and Improved Carl Morrissey."

Starring Sex and the City's David Eigenberg (who played Miranda's husband, Steve the bartender) and Gilmore Girls star Kathleen Wilhoite, we find grateful returnee Carl, a meek fish store clerk quickly discovering he has a knack for self-defense which he uses in becoming a vigilante to help clean up his dangerous neighborhood. Although this leads to tragic results, similar to the overwhelming tenor of the first season and a half which finds the 4400's targeted as outcasts, freaks, or Satanic as they struggle to control abilities they don't understand, it also begins to hint at a "ripple effect" that possibly the returnees are meant to inspire goodness in others.

While it steers clear of preaching and avoids overtly religious overtones, it's an intriguing idea as other characters begin to find second chances at improved lives as former African-American World War II hero Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) finds love where he least expects it, with the living granddaughter of his true love, Lily. Also named Lily (Laura Allen), Richard is amazed to learn that in the twenty-first century he's finally able to walk hand in hand with a white woman and the two quickly form a family which is expedited upon Lily's shocking discovery that somehow during the time she was away she became pregnant. While it ends with a genuine shocker, revealing that it was humans from the future who abducted the 4400 to stop mankind from destroying itself, the series really found its footing in its second season, after an admittedly long and clunky start.

Season 2



Picking up right where it left off, we find Lily, Richard and their baby on the run in an overly long subplot that borrows a little too heavily from The Fugitive. Having fled the mysterious charismatic yet sinister self-proclaimed 4400 leader Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell) who has developed his own 4400 center with residences for returnees, they are gradually brought back into the fold after realizing that their daughter, Isabelle has a terrifying ability to ward off evil, destroying those who would harm her parents. Yet, the show also offers a second "freaky child," plot with the youngest (yet chronologically oldest) returnee, the adorable Maia (Conchita Campbell), whose ability to predict the future has scared off everyone so much that she's been taken in and officially adopted by Agent Skouris.

While some of the episodes seem a bit superfluous and predictable, following the same paradigm of meeting a new returnee each week who self-destructs or causes chaos unknowingly due to their power, the show's arc really begins to take shape as an "us vs. them" conspiracy theorist program, especially considering Collier's cryptic seemingly cult inspired, Scientology-like 4400 Center (or if you will, the show's version of Angel's evil law firm Wolfram and Hart). Using Shawn's ability to heal to turn a profit "for the good of the center" in the form of pressured donations, Jordan manipulates his new protege and claims that anyone can tap into the same type of power if they come to the center, open their pocketbooks and move from one level to the next attending seminars to unlock their potential.

With a wicked plot twist involving an assassination and a shooter one wouldn't be able to predict, a breath of fresh air being served up by added cast members as Diana gains a sister and Tom gains an unexpected wife not to mention a fully functioning son fresh from his comatose state, and Maia predicts that "mommy's bosses" will pay as a virus takes over, you find yourself willing to put up with some of the redundant baggage just to see what will happens next.



While it builds towards a payoff that doesn't quite feel worthy of the set-up in a rushed final episode, it drops a few breadcrumbs along the way and beginning to make excellent strides in its storytelling ability. And by replacing some of the melancholy and soap-opera subplots with riveting suspense and mystery, it foreshadows far greater things to come. But will it follow through? I'll return with the second installment as I make my way throughout the series.



Although it's relatively light on special features save for some interesting audio commentary, a few deleted scenes and extras, the picture and sound quality is extraordinary, which is extremely beneficial given the cinematographer's fondness for dark tones and quieter, conspiratorial dialogue.



RocknRolla (2008)






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I could begin one of two ways-- with the phrase “open mouth, insert foot,” or by crafting an open letter of apology to Mr. Guy Ritchie. Ritchie, whose tendency towards ADD hyper cuts, cliched gangster speak, and Scorsese, Tarantino, and Coppola rip-offs evidenced in his last few films irritated me so much that the phrase Guy Ritchie-esque or Guy Ritchie-like has been used more than a handful of times in a negative connotation when critiquing hyper-stylized violent films of the last decade.

However, I certainly wasn't alone in my distaste for the overrated writer/director whom Americans just didn't get as much as the Brits (despite my enjoyment of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the far too similar, redundant but entertaining Snatch), especially considering that the horrific remake of Swept Away starring his soon to be ex-wife Madonna was widely known to be one of the worst films ever made. Yet, after viewing his latest opus, RocknRolla, I realized he's made his finest film since Lock, Stock.

Yes, it's still filled with his uniquely hyper visual style but this time it works exceptionally well to add an impressionistic subconscious level to the film, bringing us deeper into the story such as when we see the events inside and outside a nightclub where a musician performs and junkies beat the bouncer or in one of the finest alternatively epic and ridiculous chase scenes of the last few decades of filmmaking (right up there with Raising Arizona) as our anti-heroes led by Gerard Butler try to out-run, out-chase, and out-maneuver a group of Russians whom they'd just ripped off.

He fills an increasingly complicated plot with so many characters you fear that Ritchie should've supplied us with a cheat-sheet to keep them all straight, but luckily he adds at least one clever attribute to differentiate between the overwhelming lot whether it's the guy who always asks stupid questions or the one who likes Jane Austen movies, we're riveted by his attention to detail.

In a film that the press release reveals was inspired by the property boom occurring in London , Ritchie notes that he “wanted to take a humorous look at the consequences of the new school pushing in on the old school,” since he adds that “it goes without saying that because there's so much money involved, there are a lot of people taking advantage of the situation.” To this end, the film introduces us to several levels of players involved in the real estate market and those who are linked by mere association with the colorful group he creates.

The film is headed up by London's number one mobster and red-tape remover, Lenny Cole (the brilliant Tom Wilkinson) as the type of guy who argues that, “there's no school like the old school and I'm the f***in' headmaster." Of course, like all amoral kingpins, Lenny wouldn't be half the criminal he is without his sidekick, Archy (Mark Strong) who teaches his subordinates the art of the perfect face slap “to transfer” those they rough up back to their childhood. Additionally we're also introduced to the ambitious lower-level underworld group called “The Wild Bunch” (Gerard Butler, Idris Elba and Tom Hardy) looking to get into the property racket for themselves.

Thrown into the mix we encounter “the very gifted and financially creative” accountant Stella, played by Thandie Newton who sizzles with sex appeal (not to mention as a woman-- the miraculous ability to sashay her hips without breaking them with each entrance and exit). It seems that Stella's dull life crunching numbers and living with a gay husband sans children finds her all to eager to seek adventure among The Wild Bunch. Using confidential information from her newest client and Lenny's newest acquaintance, the Russian billionaire, Uri (Karel Roden), Stella interferes, leaking details of bags filled with unprotected cash to Butler's Wild Bunch.



Predictably, violence ensues, supplanted by both financial greed as well as the whereabouts of a much coveted painting which Uri travels with and lets Lenny take for a while in the hopes it will bring him luck. When Uri's lucky painting brings unlucky incidents to everyone whose hands it falls into as it changes owners and wall-space throughout the entire movie (although like the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction-- itself an homage to Kiss Me Deadly-- we're never quite sure what it looks like), all involved become desperate to track it down.

Also missing is Lenny's rumored-to-be dead junkie rocker nephew-- Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) who is not only alive but hiding out for maximum profits via the third erroneous “death report” of the year. Spending his days scoring dope, listening to Joe Strummer while his record sales skyrocket and avoiding his American music producers (Jeremy Piven and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Quid becomes embroiled in his uncle's scheme when the painting falls into his hands as well.

As producer Susan Downey aptly describes the situation in the press release, the film contains all of Ritchie's loved trademarks or more specifically “the eclectic mix of characters, the interweaving storylines that dovetail in ways you didn't see coming, the fascinating ensemble cast, the energy, the distinct visual style...But I also think it has an unexpected emotional layer and depth that I think sets this film apart.”

Similarly, I would add that there's a level of maturity and a tongue-in-cheek or rather less-pretentious air about the film than some of his “boys only club” pictures prior to this one as one character reveals his crush on Gerard Butler in a great, unpredictable scene and we meet a hoodlum who loves to watch Merchant Ivory productions like The Remains of the Day while parked in the neighborhood in his SUV.

Balancing out the surprises is his love of shock and awe whether it's Ritchie's torture device involving American crayfish or poking gentle fun at his countrymen via a robbery so polite that Butler has no problem asking for the keys to a getaway vehicle. Likewise, he uses cinematic references throughout as one junkie unexpectedly misquotes Julie Andrews's much loved tune “The Sound of Music” with the phrase, “the streets are alive with the sound of pain.”

More tightly focused than Ritchie's recent work such as Revolver which was so impossible to understand and over-the-top that I quit watching after only thirty minutes, it's more modern and relevant than his other work in depicting the current state of London as Ritchie described as “the middle of the world in the sense that it's often the last place you go on your way to America, and it's the first place you arrive before you get to Europe.” With a skyline “that's been altered beyond recognition,” as Ritchie continued in the press notes that “if you go to the top of any tall building all you can see are cranes... it looks as though the cranes are breeding...” he decided he wanted to portray the way the “Eastern Bloc nations have gained capital and influence... [thereby changing] the rules of business... [and] the rules of engagement.”



While of course, it's a humorous and off-the-wall look at the situation where extremes and exaggerations serve to up the entertainment ante, it's a much more fascinating scope for the picture from the point-of-view as an American, which is one of the things that turned Piven onto accepting the role as revealed in the release. Intriguingly, in a fictitious landscape of crooked businessmen, mobsters, rock stars, politicians, and thieves, ironically the most innocent characters are the two American record producers trying to get make a name for themselves in the music business who only serve as a gateway from one group of characters to another.

Fast-paced, highly energetic and inventively shot by multiple award-winning cinematographer David Higgis (Cambridge Spies) and chopped by editor James Herbert (Black Book and James Bond's Die Another Day), the high-class look of the film is also aided by talented production designer Richard Bridgland (who began designing stage-work at American opera houses) and former graphic designer and fashion couture gown specialist Suzie Harman who was responsible for costuming the extraordinarily diverse cast.

Much better than I thought it would be-- intriguingly, this week finds two directors striving to return to form as Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri fails to capture the humor and freshness of his 90's work and Guy Ritchie not only reminds us why we were drawn in by him in Lock, Stock but also proves us how much he's grown.

A damn fine achievement and one where the ending reveals plans for a possible sequel, with a screen that names the characters still left standing who may return. Whether or not it's truly in the works is left to be discussed but if so, I for one am in the unique position of actually (for the first time ever) anticipating what's next from Mr. Guy Ritchie.

And man, I can't tell you how nice it is after years of studying film to be legitimately surprised by those who prove us wrong. A bloody-brilliant and jolly good show, as they say in England or as we'd probably say in the states, not only does it not suck but it also manages to kick a little ass at the same time. Rock on, RocknRolla.


Zack and Miri... (2008)





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You'll never look at the "Hello, I'm a Mac" kid in quite the same way again. Following Justin Long's great turn as the nerdy kid in the unfairly canceled David Letterman executive produced TV show Ed (note to NBC Universal: please release the DVDs already), the Vassar College graduate has begun quietly appearing in some downright hilarious cameos in Frat Pack related comedies of the Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow variety. With mini but memorable roles in The Break Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Long has become one of the filmmakers' MVPs in the same category as other frequent go-to funnymen Paul Rudd and Danny McBride.



Yet, it wasn't until he appeared in a brief but memorable role in Kevin Smith's new comedy Zack and Miri... that you realize just how damn funny that Mac kid really is. As a gay actor in adult films who accompianies his boyfriend to his ten-year high school reunion in Pittsburgh, Long completely steals the film away from its leads, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks in a scene so hysterical, shocking and profane that I found myself wishing we could've followed around his character for two hours instead of the affable but less-than-truly-inspired Zack and Miri.


Although, this being said Zack and Miri's premise alone is priceless. The film centers on two lifelong platonic friends-- co-under-achievers who've become roommates in debt-ridden existence-- who find themselves so broke that after losing the water, power, and with the threat of being forced onto the Pittsburgh streets, make the unlikely decision to construct their own "home-brewed blue movie," as the press release promises. The characters, comprised of the beautiful Miri (Elizabeth Banks, gamely joining the boys club and underplaying her wholesome image) and goofy Zack (Seth Rogen) enlist the support of Zack's unhappily married coworker (The Office's Craig Robinson) to use his "flat-screen TV money" to fund their project as a producer, with the perk of being able to cast the shapely women who will star, including notorious real-life performers Traci Lords and Katie Morgan.




However, Kevin Smith's film never fully lives up to the comedic potential of neither its title nor premise as it unsuccessfully tries to marry raunchiness with romantic comedy by predictably revealing that deep down, the two friends have always felt more than a passing attraction to one another. Or, to quote the far more blunt Rogen in Entertainment Weekly's "The Fall Movie Preview," he noted that "I feel like a lot of people want to f*** their friends. That's always relatable." While that probably sends a warning call to all of Seth Rogen's female friends, in the same token it also seems to be the 2008 version of the more subtle evaluation of the same tricky situation mined by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner in When Harry Met Sally.



Yet, in roughly twenty years, have American values shifted so much that filmmaking and romantic comedy has moved to When Harry Met Sally Make a Porno? I truly hope not and while I was game to laugh at the situation itself and have enjoyed some of Smith's films in the past including the unfairly maligned Jersey Girl, the sweet yet raunchy Chasing Amy, and Clerks, in this one Smith tries to outdo not only himself but Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers by stockpiling as many toilet jokes as he can possibly imagine to fill his 101 minute running time.


And while you know going in exactly the type of dialogue you've come to expect-- Smith in his heyday was the Bard of explicit conversations that would make the women of Sex and the City blush-- this time it just feels stale and Rogen is reigned in to become more of an "actor" than the far more natural qualities he's exuded in more recent works like Pineapple Express. While he reveals in the press release that his earliest Hollywood ambition was "to be in a Kevin Smith movie," the fact that he also shared that he and his girlfriend approved the script before fully committing did make me think that perhaps deep down, he knew it wasn't up to the usual level that would have normally made him dive in right away.



The chemistry between Rogen and Banks (whom he'd recommended to Smith after working with her in The 40 Year Old Virgin) is wonderful as Banks even joked that onscreen "we have been cursed with the 'adorable stick'... beating adorable over the head," as their home movie's big sex scene becomes a big (nicely fully clothed) love-scene instead, revealing their true feelings about one another. Yet they're especially good bantering back and forth early on as they walk and talk, drive and talk, falling into a familiarity old friends easily have. In fact, they're so great together that I wanted to pull them out of this film and cast them in an altogether different romantic comedy-- one with more of Rogen's improvisation and free-wheeling humor that doesn't simply hit plot point A and B, thudding along and hoping we won't notice the obvious 3-act marks by distracting us with enough jokes about fecal matter and having Zack's ultimate "I Love You" confession occur when Miri is on the toilet.


While comically, I get that some scatological humor works, honestly, I've always thought that it's an easy way out and a cheat. And while it worked fine in There's Something About Mary because the script and performances were so strong that we didn't care about a few off-color hair gel jokes here and there, ever since then it's just been the old-standby, lowering audience standards film by film as it shows up far too often in everything from trite movies like Along Came Polly to better written ones like Tropic Thunder that suffer because of it.



While I get that we're in a different place cinematically than we were in the era of old "oh my gosh, I dig my friend," movies of yesteryear and one wouldn't want that from Smith, it's a lazy way out. And perhaps by removing even half of the jokes about bowel movements, the fimmakers would've actually surprised us by showing that Smith and Rogen can make a sweet romantic comedy about making an adult movie instead of simply trying to shock and gross us out (particularly in one sight-gag I'm still trying to erase from memory nearly one month after seeing the film) that would've been worth even half of what I can only assume is the astronomical price-tag of the advertising campaign launched by MGM Films and The Weinstein Company.



Unfortunately as it stands, there's not enough there to recommend Zack and Miri, except for a killer scene featuring Justin Long that rivals both Tom Cruise's wickedly hysterical cameo in Tropic Thunder and Jason Sudeikis's performance in The Rocker.

10/27/2008

New on DVD for the Week of 10/26






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Together Again for the First Time (2008)





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In the world of filmmaking, the dysfunctional family is mined for both comedic and dramatic gold but ever since the beginning of the 90's ushered in a new era of cynicism, a new sub-genre emerged-- namely the dysfunctional family holiday movie. Whether it provides slapstick and ridiculous fodder for Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid to play off of in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation , the multicultural Thanksgiving film What's Cooking? or in the wickedly painful Christmas dramedy The Family Stone, it's become a popular formula for box office success.

Likewise, at least two upcoming theatrical releases-- Four Christmases starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn and Nothing Like the Holidays with Debra Messing and John Leguizamo are taking a similar approach. And while those have the benefit of the Hollywood marketing machine and A-List talent behind them, I was a bit more skeptical when I received a review copy of another dysfunctional holiday film, director Jeff Parkin's Together Again for the First Time.

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However, I couldn't have been more surprised or delighted by this cute little indie film that begins on similar terrain but builds into a moving climax and above all, remains far more likable than the cruel Stone. Based on a play written in 1985 which debuted at Brigham Young University by author Reed McColm, the origins for the film version of the play began to take shape when McColm and his good friend Jeff Parkin were pursuing advanced degrees at USC.

Although it is set in Spokane, Washington in the dead of winter, it was filmed in Provo, Utah in the middle of summer. This Christmas comedy about the blended Wolders-Frobisher family comprised of people who as the box promises "don't like each other very much," finds everyone coming together after seven years for an old fashioned family Christmas, after having avoided each other since their parents' marriage.

We first see our main character Roger (Kirby Herborne) narrating from a bus terminal in what we realize will be the middle of the the film as he takes us back to the roots of what was obviously a horrific reunion, which began when he and his British girlfriend Brenda (Larisa Oleynik) fly in from college. According to Roger, the only reason he's bothered to return home is out of concern for his younger brother Jason (Blake Bashoff), a sensitive boy who serves as the go-between between his mother and stepfather and may have turned to drugs while trying to hold his family together.

Although Roger aspires to persuade his brother to leave home and join him and Brenda, any hope of a serious conversation between the brothers is thrown out of whack with the arrival of the three Frobisher girls-- Roger and Jason's step-sisters. And despite the fact that their stepfather Max (wonderfully played by David Ogden Stiers) is as gentle and easy going as they come-- even though he's constantly ordered around by his Martha Stewart like-wife, Audrey (Julia Duffy), a radio DJ dubbed a "benevolent dictator... who vomits Christmas"-- Max's three daughters are as unpredictable as Disney stepsisters.

While the lovely but dim youngest daughter Chinelle (Lauren Storm) arrives at the house first with the announcement that she's become engaged to "the most wonderful man in America," quickly celebration by her parents are halted when they realize that her fiance Carey (Joey Lawrence) was the ex-boyfriend of her meanest, self-involved older sister Sandra (Kelly Stables). Sandra and her less cruel and often overlooked sister Kaye (Michelle Page) arrive in town like a hurricane, with Sandra commandeering her stepbrother's car, insisting that if she doesn't drive she'll be carsick.

Upon stepping inside Audrey's over-decorated home, the family slowly begins to simmer to a dangerous boil that explodes in the second half when Audrey springs an unwelcome surprise on everyone wherein, instead of presents being unwrapped, their frustrations are all revealed in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. While admittedly, the film as a whole hasn't quite shaken its stagy feel as it's slightly predictable and a few major conflicts seem resolved a bit quickly (given its 85 minute running time), much to its credit-- some of the arguments and truces do feel believable. Moreover, it's much easier to empathize with the Wolders-Frobisher clan than it is to relate to most hyper-real, nearly cartoon like characters with whom we're usually presented.

Harmless and consistently entertaining-- Together is also benefited by the fact that its release on DVD shelves and for sale on Amazon.com tomorrow from PorchLight Entertainment beats the similarly themed upcoming major releases Four Christmases and Nothing Like the Holidays. But more importantly, Together Again for the First Time is sure to garner great-word-of-mouth among those who scour the shelves for something off-the-beaten-path and also when it arrives on cable television, where it should do quite well.





It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
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10/26/2008

DVD Review: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl


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In honor of October 28th's DVD & Blu-ray release of the heartfelt family film, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, I'm offering you an insider's view of the DVD that Warner Brothers was kind enough to send my way. However, before I go into the DVD features, first I'll serve up a reprint of my original review (with bonus photos) published for its theatrical run back on 7/2/08.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
Director: Patricia Rozema

As every parent knows, all kids ask “why” but while most are satisfied enough by succinct replies to end their fleeting curiosity there, precocious ten year old Kit Kittredge (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) doesn’t neglect to ask the other five questions that go along with it-- namely the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how” which all meld together to illuminate the bigger picture of whatever pops into her fascinatingly inquisitive mind.



An ambitious newshound, when Kit isn’t spending time with the three other members of her adolescent feminist Treehouse Club complete with photos of idols Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt given places of honor on the wooden walls, she wears out her shoe leather and typewriter ribbon in her ardent quest to become a full-fledged journalist for the local Cincinnati Register. Despite her youth, the tireless self-starter investigates every lead at her disposal, knowing how to handle a source with confidentiality, work a piece from a new angle, always be cautious of burying the lead, endlessly checking her facts and similar to the way that Nancy Drew was known as a “girl detective,” Kit Kittredge--to whom she’ll no doubt draw comparisons-- is a truly gifted “girl reporter.”



Based on the successful American Girl series of books from Kit author Valerie Tripp made popular in my own adolescence, Mansfield Park director Patricia Rozema’s earnest, unabashedly nostalgic and sweet-natured film which was penned by Chronicles of Narnia scripter Ann Peacock announces its aims towards offering something positive for women proudly from the start over opening credits which reveal that in addition to the writer and director, there were an uncharacteristically large amount of female professionals associated with the movie including executive producer Julia Roberts, whose own niece Emma had coincidentally starred in the most recent version of Nancy Drew.

Given the outstanding production value of not only Drew but especially Kit, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic that the film won’t be buried in the wake of ultra-violent, special effects driven summer blockbusters and that it will not only earn a steady following increased no doubt by positive word of mouth but will also inspire more intelligent fare for young knowledge hungry audiences as impressively Kit seems to be a film entirely apart from what could’ve had excellent product placement potential, standing on its own as superlative and overdue family fodder.

Set during the uncertainty of the Great Depression, we find Kit’s initial goal of trying to break into print journalism through the connection of her brother’s friend who erroneously assumed the young woman simply wanted a tour of the big, bad, masculine newsroom led by domineering editor Wallace Shawn, placed on the back burner when the effects of the trying economy and era hit home as her caring father (played by Chris O’Donnell) finds his car dealership taken over by the bank and he’s forced to venture to Chicago to find work to support his wife (Julia Ormond) and family.



Not content to sit back and wait, Kit and her mother take in eccentrically zany boarders such as a husband hunting, flirtatious dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), Joan Cusack as a buttoned-up mobile librarian who’s a terror behind the wheel, and a part time magician and full time ham played by Stanley Tucci. When the gregarious and trusting Kit befriends two young hobos (Jumper’s Max Thieriot and Willow Smith) whom her mother employs to contribute in odd jobs in exchange for food, she encounters class prejudice after a series of robberies hits her sleepy neighborhood and all fingers point towards the hobos, inspiring Kit to once again rely on her budding reporter’s intuition and skills to sleuth out the case on her own in discovering the true culprits and helping to clear not only her friends’ names but also try and prevent her home from foreclosure.

Although the primary audience will most likely be young girls and their mothers, this G rated feature packs a great punch in offering viewers a surprisingly complicated mystery—including one that does admittedly seem to confuse slightly in the final rushed act when clues are revealed far too quickly. In addition, it’s filled with important historical information that definitely echoes today in our struggling economy not to mention messages of loyalty, perseverance, tolerance, justice and friendship which make it ideal for viewers of both genders, if parents can manage not to mention the American Girl book series connection in getting their sons into the theatre.



And speaking from the perspective of a girl who, much like Kit was far too eager to jump into the professional realm in her adolescence (and in my case trying to join Seinfeld’s writing staff at the age of eleven), it’s a wonderful celebration of childhood innocence and the reminder never to diminish a child’s dream, especially when like Kit, they’re more concerned with intellectual pursuits rather than begging for trips to the mall to buy toy tie-ins to other summer blockbusters. Although in the case of Kit, as an aunt, if my niece were just a few years older, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase her a Kittredge doll in lieu of Barbies and Bratz.



DVD Features:

Winner of the Heartland Award certifying Kittredge as a "Truly Movie Picture," the DVD offers 3 formats for your viewing pleasure-- the original widescreen aspect ratio which preserves the theatrical version and is enhanced for widsecreen televisions, a full-screen edition which is modified from the original but formatted to fit the shape of your screen, as well as a digital copy you can download to play on your Mac, PC, Video iPod or other portable video device.

Featuring a gallery of of trailers from the other American Girl Movies that went straight-to-DVD and can be purchased below by checking out the Mini-Amazon American Girl Collection Slideshow I've provided, Kit's DVD also boasts features that are enhanced for DVD-ROM equipped personal computers. Additionally, the film provides English and Spanish subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired as well as crystal clear Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound.

Hands down the best live action (or non-animated) children's film I've seen in 2008, Kit Kittredge is one you should definitely introduce to the women in your life-- whether it's your grandmothers who may recall the time period firsthand, your mothers, or for the next generation and its target audience of children and grandchildren. An extraordinary, underrated gem-- follow along with Kit and stay on the case until you bring this highly recommended disc home on DVD or Blu-ray.



TV on DVD: Long Way Down





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Having completed a 20,000 mile motorcycle journey from London to New York in 2004 with the successful television series, Long Way Round, most people would've believed that riders Ewan McGregor and his best friend Charley Boorman had had if not the adventure of a lifetime than had earned themselves a nice, long break to relax with their families for a few years. But, speaking as the daughter of a man who has the motorcycle bug himself, that's just not how bikers operate. It's always the next trip, the next experience, and the next adventure that entices and while most average bikers are fine trekking around these fifty states, McGregor and Boorman still have that boyhood twinkle of mischief in their eyes and one instantly knows that they won't be content to just ride around the U.K. and wave at passersby blasting "Born to be Wild" on their iPods.

No, instead, they made plans for a second international journey and while one initially thought it was wise they were dropping the mileage down 5,000 miles to a 15,000 mile route, I can only imagine the look of shock on the faces of their family and friends when they announced that their follow-up adventure, entitled Long Way Down would find McGregor and Boorman traveling through as many as 20 countries making their way from John O'Groats, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, "descending through Western Europe and Africa before arriving at the southern most tip of the continent," as the DVD box explains. A journey throughout the whole of Africa and the kicker is, the duo have never been there before.



Re-teaming with the same group with whom they worked alongside for Long Way Round, Down finds the two riders as well as Claudio Von Planta (cameraman and head director of photography), cameraman Jimmy Simak, producers Russ Malkin and David Alexanian, a medic and security man, and of course the latest BMW model in the Adventure bikes series-- namely the R1200GS Adventure-- all ready for action.

View the Promo




Beginning their trek on May 12, 2007 and concluding on August 4, 2007-- the 10 episode series which has been played on the BBC during its production and here in the states on the Fox Reality Channel this past August, is finally making its way to DVD shelves in this incredible digital transfer onto a 3-Disc set, loaded with extra material including previously unseen footage, interactive route maps, a photo gallery, and McGregor and Boorman's African documentary entitled The Missing Face.



Following the men from the initial planning stages (check out the map here) as they set up shop in London and begin to try and tackle all of the foreseeable hurdles they'll encounter including one woman employed for "visa" patrol in ensuring the eight-men crew can make roughly twenty border crossings uninterrupted but in the end, the American members are denied access to certain countries. Additionally, they undergo strength and conditioning work, survival exercises as well as a hostility training course to face the human threat of a continent where people frequently go missing and machine gunfire is a regular occurrence.



Following an intense hostage training exercise where Charley learns the hard way not to ever try and abandon his group, they end up contemplating body armor or bullet proof glass on their SUVs before disaster strikes at home when Ewan cracks his ankle on a routine motorcycle ride in his neighborhood. However, eventually the journey begins and this time, they're in for yet another surprise when Eve, Ewan's wife who's never climbed aboard a motorcycle in her life, makes the decision that not only will she learn to ride but she wants to meet up with the guys in the eighth episode when they cross into Tanzania and head onto Malawi.

Although Eve, like Ewan and Charley had undergone some bike training before the journey, there's discussion in the first episode regarding the safety of having two parents in an unpredictable landscape together should disaster strike whether it's in the form of violence or a simple accident on the sand and viewers are left as nervous and apprehensive as some of the show's producers about the decision.

With eight men traveling together, there are stretches when they begin to wear on each other's nerves and a few instances when some are barely speaking as an ultra-tense Charley, still on edge about his ill wife who insisted he leave on schedule, is detained at London Gatwick Airport after mentioning the word "bomb" and must meet up with the men later. However, throughout the journey, it's the lure of adventure and the importance of working together (whether it's when vehicles are stuck in the mud or when the elements attack) that make them put aside any petty grievances.



An excellent and gorgeously photographed travelogue that shows not just the majestic beauty of Africa but also its tragic history as the men deliver goods on behalf of UNICEF and also visit the genocide museum and site of other horrific tragedies, yet the one area where Long Way Down falls short is one with which I think our riders would wholeheartedly agree. With a breakneck three month schedule of 15,000 miles, the men end up having to do so much riding that they're unable to take in enough of the landscape and perhaps get a far more accurate picture of life, instead of constantly being forced to zip by along the endless sandy roads.

Filled with self-deprecating humor by the leads, especially when McGregor and Boorman tour the set of the original Star Wars (now a makeshift museum) and McGregor isn't noticed by any tourist there (which is an amusing blow to the ego) as well as some truly moving scenes as we meet the child survivors who'd been abducted and forced into Ugandan armies, it's an effective, high quality documentary series on a number of levels.

Far richer than most "reality shows," I hesitate to give it such a label that would place it in the same category as Wife Swap and Wipe Out, but best experienced as a humanistic documentary, the 3-disc set of Long Way Down is currently available in select stores and via Amazon along with a companion book, soundtrack and other materials from the original Long Way Round which started it all.

Ewan & Charley's Journey: An Episode Guide