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by Mike Schiller

22 Dec 2008

Know what I’ve been doing this weekend?  Well, while I really wanted to be playing all the latest games and delivering some top-notch journalism action to you, the readers, I was actually shoveling and snowblowing all damn weekend.  As with any major snow event, the coverage on CNN starts with Buffalo, so go ahead, follow the link, and feel sorry for me.

How is this relevant?  Well, as it turns out, shoveling your driveway would be more productive than paying much attention to this week’s release list.  The Wii’s putting out a couple of games on WiiWare, but I’ll be honest, they’re both dwarfed by the release of Phantasy Star IV on the virtual console, one of the better Sega Genesis RPGs out there, but still dwarfed by Phantasy Star II.  Those who picked up Phantasy Star II back when it got “Virtual Consoled” are probably still working on it anyway, so it’s hard to recommend another huge classic RPG download.

I suppose if you’re a new-release junkie and you just have to pick up something new, Mystery P.I. is a decent way to kill some time.  It’s an expansion of an online release which is basically a big Where’s Waldo experience, and the take-home versions for the DS and PC look to be more of the same.  Want to give it a go?  There’s a one-hour demo download of the New York edition of the game, which may well be all of it you need to play.  I had fun for my hour, and I’ll also be OK if I never see it again.

Moving Pixels is going to be quiet for a while after this, so enjoy your holidays, all.  The full release list is…well, it’s right here:

Nintendo DS:

Dreamer: Horse Trainer (23 December)
Dreamer: Puppy Trainer (23 December)
Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


PC:

Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


Wii:

Fun! Fun! Minigolf (22 December, WiiWare)
Phantasy Star IV (22 December, Virtual Console)
Tiki Towers (22 December, WiiWare)

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2008

The Coen Brothers remains the most predicable unpredictable artists in Hollywood. You can be guaranteed that the minute you think you have them pegged - post-modern nostalgists, retro Hollywood revisionists, kings of meta-mainstream quirk - they turn around and surprise you. They move so easily between genres, exploring film types and formats that should be overly familiar (crime dramas) or elusive (black comedies) to work. And yet here they are, following up their Oscar winning take on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men with another brilliant slab of their slightly surreal satire. Burn After Reading may be second tier Coens at its core, but when you’re dealing with the pair of talents this massive, average remains outstanding.

When he’s demoted to a desk job, CIA field agent Obsourne Cox decides to quit, and simultaneously blow the lid off the bureau with his tell-all memoirs. His wife, Dr. Katie Cox, has been having an affair with tacky Treasury man named Harry Pfarrer and she wants a divorce. Her paramour, on the other hand, is too busy playing the Internet field to commit. Meanwhile, a pair of oddball gym employees - personal trainers Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke - stumble across the CD with Osbourne’s “secrets” on it. She wants plastic surgery to recapture some of her youth. He just wants to help. So it’s time to extort some cash. When Pfarrer finds out that someone is sneaking around, trying to blackmail the Coxes, he takes matters into his hot headed, horndog hands. While Chad and Linda think everything is simple and straightforward, they are unaware of the involvement of forces both friendly, and fiendish.

There is nothing more satisfying than seeing A-list actors working without a safety net of familiarity, and Burn After Reading (now available of DVD from Focus Features) offers such precarious performance pleasures. Where else but in a Coens comedy would we find a sheepish CIA agent, a mean-spirited (and incredibly selfish) Treasury representative, a plastic surgery obsessed gym employee, her dimwitted co-worker, and a series of ancillary individuals who accent and expand on each one and the main players. And when you consider the cast the brothers bring on - Oscar winners George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, along with Academy nominated accomplishes Brad Pitt and John Malkovich - you just know you’re in for a rollicking good time. And indeed, Reading lives up to its reputation. It’s fast, witty, weird, unexpected, grim, clever, and above all, expertly made.

Clearly, the Coens see Washington DC and all its blatant bureaucracy as the stuff of comedy gold. Yet unlike their How to Sort of Succeed in Business By Being a Butthead send-up The Hudsucker Proxy, the US government never loses its War on Terror sheen. This is a post-modern mess of incomplete policies, overtired executives, and a bottomless pit of possibilities when it comes to covering up the flaws in same. The battle between Malkovich and his superiors, Pitt and McDormand and the various glass tower threats, and Clooney and his own innate and ever-growing paranoia are a joy to behold. These stars sink their teeth into the script, wringing laughs out of lines that would seem like nothing but standard federal doubletalk without their efforts. Yet the Coens aren’t beyond moving into areas both uncomfortable (Clooney’s crass sex addiction) or unexpected (the last act bursts of violence) to up the ante.

Indeed, as the Making-of material included as part of the home video release, we see a group of highly paid, often praised professionals clearly working within the confines of a cinematic stage of one-upmanship. Pitt and Clooney are the two biggest clowns, their Oceans 11 - 13 familiarity responsible for more than a little of the onset rowdiness. But Swinton and McDormand are not beyond being goofy. Each one has a history with various members of the cast and crew, and the links allows for a looseness and a camaraderie that clearly shows up onscreen. The Coens make it clear that they like to work with actors in a “theater company” style approach. They have faith they can pull off the differing roles being assigned to them, secure in the knowledge that they are the rights ones to realize their aims.

All throughout Burn After Reading, such strategies clearly complement the narrative. As with many Coen films, the McGuffin-esque element at the center of the story - the CD with all the supposed secrets - is really just a catalyst for conversations, confrontations, and calamities. It allows the inner facets of everyone’s personalities to become manifest, to make the desperate even more frantic, the clueless even less enlightened. This is especially true of Malkovich and his cronies. In a post-millennial world where America has lost its international espionage touch, the bumbling, Keystone cop kind of way these officials flounder around, looking for answers, is just one of Burn After Reading‘s many resplendent charms.

Just be aware that this is Coens coasting at its very best. We’re not talking about literal masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, or Fargo. It’s not even the clever cult epics of films like The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou? Instead, this is proof that, when not dealing with ideas outside their control (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), the Coens can come up with a quasi-classic, even in their sleep. It was decades before the duo was finally given the credit they so richly deserved. Amazing how, in one fell awards season swoop, they went from outsiders who were lucky to get financing to auteurs with outsized expectations from both audiences and critics. Burn After Reading is clearly not their best. But even in a lesser state, the Coen Brothers are still astonishing.

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2008

Complex and intricate stories usually don’t lend themselves to sequels. By their very nature, however, they should be ripe for revisiting. After all, so many divergent factors make up their effectiveness that pulling a few out for a second (or third) go round not only seems logical - it feels mandatory. Franchise creators rarely look at the source in total, though. They pick and choose through the various elements, honing in on ones they can easily repeat, readily manipulate, and hopefully expand upon. The end result usually looks nothing like the multifaceted and meaning original. Pulse 3 is the third take on material featured in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s sensational Kairo. Now Westernized and shuttled straight to DVD, what worked as a mesmerizing take on the meaning of life is now a holding dock for dull horror clichés.

Seven years after her mother tried to kill her as part of a worldwide techno-spirit plague, young Justine can’t shake the fact that she doesn’t belong as part of some failed foster family in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome survival camp. She longs for something more, and finds it when an illegal computer ends up in her hands. Chatting with an unknown man named Adam, Justine is compelled by visions of her mom and messages from beyond stating that she must help the far off stranger. So she decides to head out into the wilderness, her sights set on the big city. But in this vast wasteland inhabited by the spirits of the dead, our heroine may not make it - and what she finds once she arrives may not be what she anticipated, either.

The problem with Pulse 3 (new to home video from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and Dimension Extreme) is instantly recognizable. It makes itself known the moment actress Brittany Finamore finds a forbidden laptop - technology being verboten in her post-apocalyptic shanty town - and starts cyber-flirting with a man who makes her feel more mature. That’s right, it’s the same old rebellious teen tripe enhanced by the possibility of frequent paranormal cold showers. Naiveté vs. the standard adolescent angst. All throughout the opening of this unnecessary sequel, Justine pouts and preens like she’s the only person to lose a loved one in the phantom Armageddon, and the writer/director Joel Soisson decides to indulge her. The he takes on a routine road trip, just to make matters more aggravating.

During these slow, somber cross country treks, Pulse 3 goes from mildly interesting to horrifically dull. Ms. Finamore is not a compelling presence, and her voice-over conversations with Adam are standard juvenile gal, suave lothario stereotypes. When she turns up at Caleb Wilke’s farmhouse, we anticipate the standard stalk and slash. And after a weird late night inference of something more…sexual, the truth about the man’s intentions is made clear. There are times when Pulse 3 plays fair with our expectations. When Wilke tries to satisfy his dead wife’s death wish, the repeated F/X of her shotgun suicide are very effective. And later on, when Justine must confront a Houston overloaded with specters, the atmosphere is tense and unsettling.

But Soisson makes the typical mistake of most low budget filmmakers - he substitutes speeches for scares. When a forgotten plotpoint individual from Pulse 2 returns to discuss the nation’s “nuclear” solution to the ghost problem, the science-psycho-babble actually sounds solid. But then we get the typical ranting villain variation on fear, and we grow weary of all the yakking. Even worse, much of the explanation for how this will all work (think electronics and EMP - duh) gets tangled up in what are supposed to be shades of psychosis and incomprehensible motives. All throughout Pulse 3, things happen without the necessary context to make them real, or scary, or interesting. Even the finale is filled with cheap tricks, a foot chase, and a couple of low brow “boo’s”.

All throughout the course of his DVD commentary, Soisson, along with actress Finamore, producer Mike Leahy, and Editor Kirk Morri discuss their approach to this project, and in some instances, you wonder exactly what movie they are talking about. They’ve got masterwork on their minds. The use of greenscreen, so effective in creating an otherworldly ambience in Pulse 2, looks cheesy and unnecessary now. The behind the scenes featurette gives the standard slap on the back look at how a movie like this is made, and overall, there is a pride and a sense of satisfaction that just doesn’t gel with what we see onscreen. Indeed, much of the added content plays like people trying to convince us of a failed projects inherent worth. It doesn’t work.

Frankly, not much in Pulse 3 does. This is a clear letdown from the previous Soisson helmed sequel, and a massive move away from the genius that was Kurosawa’s original. In Kairo, the main theme explored life and the value (or lack therein) of living. As the few survivors wandered an ever desolate landscape, how they clung to what little they had left and how they validated trying to carry on became something almost epic. The American version was all about cellphones run amok. Thanks to the miniscule budgets involved in both, Pulse 2 and 3 could not explore such electronic spectacle. Soisson is stuck trying to tingle your spine with what is in essence, a character study. Instead of going to a big bang end of the world, his film goes for the small and personal. It’s a literal case of too little, too late.

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 (new to DVD from Focus Features). Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.

Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match that magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.

No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.

It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.

And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 

If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. Much of the material on the relatively basic DVD - commentary, behind the scenes feautrette, deleted sequences - centers on it. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.

Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008

Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being restructured to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness. 

In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.

Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race (new to DVD in an “Unrated” version from Universal) taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the year’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.

Don’t think this was some project pulled out of a bored executive’s yoga-toned behind, however. As part of the Unrated DVD experience (note, of the five added minutes of material, very little do with sex and/or violence), Anderson is one hand to provide a fun and spry commentary track. He indicates that he’s wanted to tackle Death Race ever since famed indie producer Corman bought the rights to his first film Shopping. That it’s taken 14 years from greenlight to gear box is something Anderson laments, but he’s also glad that it took this long. The special effects necessary to realize his over the top aims would have been far less spectacular than in 1994.

Speaking of Roger Dodger, all those with fond memories of the Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less give away all the possible plot twists, what happens during the each and every race is fairly obvious.

Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage that Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.

Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.

Equally out of place, for different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - make dat mon-ey - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.

Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) turned into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lighting and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. For someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.

The DVD itself spends most of its bonus feature cache on the aforementioned commentary. It also plans to get a lot of digital context goodwill be offering the Rated and Unrated versions. Again, don’t be fooled by this plot - studios often inject unimportant material back into a movie to thwart the original MPAA determination, even if the new stuff is just boring exposition. Here, we get a few more seconds of human combustion, but that’s it for the gore score. Everything else is added plot ticks. The two making-of featurettes are fun, since they give the cast and crew an EPK-lite ability to wax poetic about a big, dumb car crash film.

Thankfully, most of the major quibbles with this film drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a year of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. Death Race refuses to take itself seriously - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 

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