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by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2009

What, exactly, were people expecting from X-Men Origins: Wolverine? After the incessant bellyaching that followed the announcement of Brett Ratner as director of X-Men: The Last Stand, (and the resulting, subpar film) Fox went out and hired Oscar winning director Gavin Hood (responsible for Best Foreign Language Film Tsotsi) and offered up a cast of considerable talent including returning action man Hugh Jackman, as well as Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Ryan Reynolds. They mined the comic for favorite characters (Gambit, Deadpool) and reset the franchise to follow the adventures of James Howlett/Logan during his years in pre-Dr. Xavier exile.

And still the fanboys kvetched. They complained and argued over faithfulness to the source material, use of computer generated F/X, and a scattershot focus that weighed heavily on the psychological and not on the spectacle. And this is a year which saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra get by on substantially…SUBSTANTIALLY…less. So it’s interesting to hear Hood’s commentary track as part of the newly released, Blu-ray edition of the film. For him, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a story of siblings. It was a look at how being different, exiled, and unwanted creates unusual bonds of brotherhood, and the mounting mental quandaries of having to live outside the norm. As a South African native, he could relate to the basic mutants vs. humans segregation and wanted to concentrate on the personal as well as the pyrotechnics. He did indeed deliver the big stuff. But for him, it was the small details that mattered.

Sequences like the opening, when a young Logan learns of his parentage, his biological link to the sinister Victor Creed (soon to be Sabertooth), and his own deadly physical mutation. Gifted with seeming immortality, the two half-brothers participate in major world events, like the Civil War and Vietnam. It is there that Victor’s anger gets the best of him, and when he attacks a superior officer, the two men are condemned to death. When the firing squad can’t kill them, a shady military man named Major William Stryker recruits them as part of a secret mercenary group. Their goal? Seek out and secure as much of the interstellar metal Adamantium as possible. When Logan balks at their brutal ways, he quits. This sets up the first of many conflicts between our hero and his sibling as well as with the Major and his prized recruit.

To delve into the narrative more would give away several of X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s best moments. Suffice it to say, our lead learns of his physiological abilities, gets an impenetrable metal skeleton, and comes face to face with a horrific scientific creation bent on destroying the mutants one by one. For Hood, all of this is required of the wannabe blockbuster, built into a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. But he is far more interested in the personality beats between Logan and Victor, about how the notion of being different translates into a psyche that stands alone against the world - for good and for bad. He also tracks the growing abandonment issues within the dynamic, illustrating how almost everyone Logan loves either dies or is indirectly destroyed, while Victor’s horrific temper seems propelled by his need for another like him.

Sure, this is heady stuff, but that’s part of X-Men Origins’ charms. It’s the reason comic book fans favor a set-up storyline when beginning a series. The previous films had Wolverine suffering from intermittent flashbacks, mere glimpses into what happened to him in Stryker’s lab. Now, we get the whole picture, painting in strokes that don’t smash you over the head with their obviousness. It’s interesting how fan embraced The Dark Knight for its various complexities, its more “realistic” take on the superhero standard, and yet X-Men Origins gets condemned for basically attempting the same thing. Yes, Hood is no Christopher Nolan, and he doesn’t have iconic elements like Two-Face and The Joker to work with, and we are dealing with ideas far outside Knight‘s vigilante against crime syndicate scenario, but with properly pegged expectations, this is a very good film. It’s entertaining, exciting, and an excellent example of what can be done when visionary individuals - not journeymen - sit behind the camera.

This is clear from the content packed product Fox provides. The Blu-ray format really celebrates Hood’s compositions and framing, the 1080p/AVC encoded transfer doing a terrific job with the 2.35:1 image. The colors pop, the various locations look epic, and aside from the occasionally forced F/X shot (some greenscreen sequences are rather obvious), the movie looks amazing. It really does recreate the theatrical experience in scope and visual wonder. As for the sound situation - get ready to have your subwoofer suffer from a massive bombast overdose. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 turns every explosion into a nuclear blast, every car chase or fight sequence into an Olympian battle between formidable aural gods. Even the smaller sonic situations, like the clank of Wolverine’s metallic claws, come across in crystal clarity.

Along with the aforementioned commentary track, the Blu-ray is packed with plenty of additional production insights. There’s another alternate narrative track with the producers (good), deleted scenes with option Hood discussion (interesting), a play along trivia track with lots of X-Men goodies (fun), and a discussion of each character and the difficulty of bringing them - and their abilities - to life (insightful). We also get an extended look at Hugh Jackman’s dedication to the role as part of a “Complete Origins” featurette, an overview of the character with Stan Lee and Len Wein, and a glimpse of the world premiere. One of the best bonus features however is the Ultimate X-Mode BONUSVIEW option, which provides three separate picture-within-a-picture choices (along with the trivia track) that allow you to immerse yourself in all facets of bringing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the big screen, including connections to the rest of the franchise, casting choices, and a look at the film’s pre-visualization.

And yet one fears that no amount of bells and whistles will convince the already angry fanboy to change his mind and embrace this movie. Hood may have been a radical choice, but he brings a level of compassion and innate understanding to the mutant situation that few other filmmakers could - and he can definitely handle the bigger, popcorn movie mandated material. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for what the devoted demand of their beloved fantasy figures. Maybe the leaked bootleg version almost a month before did do some damage. Maybe there was nothing Gavin Hood could do to satisfy some. Whatever the case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is truly a cut above the standard Summer blockbuster - it’s just a shame too few thought so. Maybe home video will resurrect its flailing fortunes. Unlike many of the season’s shoddy adventures, this one deserves a second chance.

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009

It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report (or revisit it again on home video), many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. Perhaps Warner’s new DVD and Blu-ray can solve that problem.

Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to every viewer…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

What makes this all the more unusual is that Hill genuinely believes in his movies’ motives. The new Blu-ray disc has a picture in picture commentary track find the director sitting with his two main leads (Rogen and Farris) and together, they find subtext and psychological complexities that the actual film fails to address. Some of the additional scenes included do flesh out the characters, and all the Making-of material really supports the conclusions being proffered. As for the presentation itself, the 2.41:1 1080p image is excellent, giving a clear consumerism crassness to the New Mexican location. In addition, Hill’s ear for aural complements really works within the loseless Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 mix. Songs like “It’s Late” by Queen and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band really come alive with speaker sparking goodness.

And even a good digital reproduction might not help. When placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Sarah Zupko

18 Sep 2009

Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul II
(Saguaro Road)
Releasing: 29 September

Patty Loveless has long been a favorite singer of mine. She’s firmly rooted in the musical traditions of her native Appalachia and sings with the pure, haunted, melancholy of a person who has witnessed truly harder times. Still, Loveless can add some Nashville sheen to her music to drive hits and yet never lose sight of where she came from and always maintain an element of that pure country edge in every one of her tunes.

Loveless made a career in the Nashville hit factory and churned out numerous popular singles and albums throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, but she always retained a love for the bluegrass music of her roots. Loveless is in fact the Kentucky daughter of a coal miner and grew up the Appalachian hills that birthed so many of those wrenching bluegrass lyrics and virtuosic musical pickers.

In 2001, she paid tribute to those roots with Mountain Soul and it quickly became one her most beloved works, earning her new legions of fans from the alt-country side of the fence. She’s always had the classic “high lonesome” in her voice that’s perfect for a bluegrass melody. On what is becoming the best day of the year for roots music fans, September 29th sees the long awaited release of Mountain Soul II. We’ve got the online premiere of “Busted” for you, as well as a bunch of videos after the jump.

The project will also be highlighting and supporting the important work of the Christian Appalachian Project, which helps people still living in poverty in this rich country. Find out more about the important work of the Christian Appalachian Project at www.christianapp.org.

SONG LIST
01 Busted
02 Fools Thin Air
03 A Handful of Dust
04 Half Over You
05 Prisoner’s Tears
06 Working on a Building
07 Friends in Gloryland
08 [We Are All] Children of Abraham
09 Big Chance
10 When the Last Curtain Falls
11 Blue Memories
12 You Burned the Bridge
13 Bramble and the Rose
14 Feelings of Love
15 Diamond in My Crown

Patty Loveless
“Busted” [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009

Believe it or not, there was a time when the name Wayans didn’t instantly incur the wrath of comedy fans everywhere. From I’m Gonna Get You Sucka to In Living Color, Keenan Ivory and his rotating band of relatives produced biting send-ups and celebrated spoofs, all with an unusual (for the time) African American slant. To call them trailblazers would do their innovations a disservice. At a time when TV and the mainstream media saw all black people as either Huxtables or hoodlums, the Wayans crew walked the fine line between stereotype and satire brilliantly.

Then…something happened. Like those stories from our youth about falling in with the wrong crowd, the various members of Wayans nation saw commercial success blind their abilities. Where once they were funny, they flopped. Where once they delivered high brow burlesque that functioned as savage social commentary, they spewed cinematic scat like Scary Movie, White Chicks, and that most miserable of motion picture experiences, Little Man. In fact, when it was announced that the formerly talented team was taking up the movie mantle of films like Step Up and Save the Last Dance, audiences and critics groaned in disbelief. Apparently, they thought they knew what was coming next.

Luckily, the next generation of Wayans seems ready to return the family to greatness - or at the very least, likeability. Their first attempt at resetting the clan’s commercial fortunes is Dance Flick, and while not a perfect comedy by any stretch of the imagination, what we do have here is something fresh, inventive, exciting, and most importantly, fun. Instead of throwing every tired pop culture riff at the screen, desperate to see what sticks, the latest members of the Mad Magazine influenced crew use the classic ZAZ formula for funny business and wind up delivering something every bit as good as Airplane! or the Naked Gun films.

After her mother’s untimely death, Juilliard wannabe Megan travels to the big city to live with her deadbeat dad. There, she meets up with several standout members of the Musical High School class, including 21 year old unwed mother Charity, her talented if slightly stuck up street thug brother, Thomas Uncles, his best friend A-Con, prissy white chick Nora, and incredibly flamboyant (and very closeted) Jack. While she dreams of a life as a dancer, the tough streets of her new urban environment constantly remind her of the struggle ahead. All that changes, of course, when overweight mobster Sugar Bear demand money from Thomas and A-Con. Naturally, their only chance of getting it is via a big time ghetto wide dance off - with Megan and the rest of Musical High as the “crew”.

While it may sound like an excuse, it is important to note that comedy, like horror and musical taste, remains a very subjective standard. Just because you think something is funny, scary, or the second coming of The Beatles doesn’t mean a group consensus will support you position. We all have private favorites and fixations, pleasures that may be unexplainable but make you feel happy - and slightly guilty - for enjoying them so. That’s exactly what Dance Flick is, especially for a film critic who’s seen more than his fair share or suburban girl meets street tough scenarios. With its combination of cleverness and crudity, obvious gags and hilarious insider smackdowns, the movie hits more targets than it misses. Even better, the cast seems really invested in the story and the situations, unlike that god-awful junk that arrives under the various “Move” monikers - Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie - every six months or so.

There truly is an art to mixing narrative with nuttiness, avoiding the slapdash senselessness of someone like Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Sure, when Sugar Bear breaks into a Dreamgirls parody of the showstopper “And I Am Telling You…”, we recognize the obvious aside. But the other main song in the film (a sexually confused take on the original high school musical Fame) flows directly from the need to mock the omnipresent House of Mouse franchise. But it’s the dancing, including the numerous slapstick and physical comedy incorporated therein, that is truly wonderful, especially the moves of the incredibly talented Affion Crockett, Shoshana Bush, and Damon Wayans, Jr. A sense or reality is important to making a movie like this work and their believability as street savvy hoofers puts Dance Flick over the top.

Even better, the toilet humor and gross out stunts are kept to a minimum. Only Amy Sedaris pushes the boundaries of propriety with her leotard-challenged instructor, Ms. Cameltoé (gee, wonder what her issue is???), while other sexual or scandalous content is modulated to fit the teenage circumstances involved. Even the deleted scenes - present on the new DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film - don’t oversell the bile (for a wonderful drunken David Hassellhoff take-off) and other bad taste tricks to keep the humor happening. Still, even with the so called “Un-rated and Outrageous” edition of the film hitting home video, then new stuff is not that naughty. Instead, it’s the standard MPAA mandated labeling that occurs whenever a theatrical release is ‘embellished’ with material that did not make the final version that played in theaters.

And yet it’s hard not to argue with people who find this kind of comedy silly or stupid. Even in a wonderfully crisp, 1080p, 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray image and beefed up DTS, Master Audio 5.1 mix, there are always going to be viewers who cringe at this kind of kneejerk, football to the groin level of wit. In fact, format can’t make up for perceived personal shortcomings, which make grading something like Dance Flick a critical crap shoot. No matter the final judgment, someone is bound to take you for task. However, most written movie opinions also have an element of objectivity to them, and within the current crop of attempted take-offs, Dance Flick is definitely one of the best. While not quite damning with faint praise, one thing’s for sure - the new generation of Wayans have the comedy chops to resurrect their family’s lagging fortunes. 

by Faye Rasmussen

18 Sep 2009

With the September 15th release of his new album, Milky Ways, here and gone, French producer and remixer Joakim would like to get his fans involved with the video for one of the album’s highlights, “Spiders”. The winning video will be edited and integrated into the final video for the song.

The French musician is asking fans to create a video using their own personal interpretation of “Spiders”. Contestants are encouraged to be as creative as possible, or as Joakim put it on his website: “You may sing the song alone, with your sister, with your pet, play the song with a banjo or a trumpet, dance to the song, whistle the melody, do air guitar or whatever.”

The video formats accepted are MOV, AVI, MP4, and MPEG.  The video can be submitted via email to [email protected] or using YouSendIt, Megaupload or any other file sharing site.

The deadline for the contest is October 5th.

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