The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that was Much too Long

Long. Perhaps too much so – even for seasoned Lord of the Rings fans.

That about sums up The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the start of the newest trilogy from Peter Jackson. Although many viewers griped about The Hobbit’s 48 frames per second footage when it hit theaters, at the end of the day, every movie boils down to story. And this one just never seemed to end.

As a matter of full disclosure, I’m one of those Lord of the Rings fans who prefers watching the extended Blu-ray cuts of the LOTR trilogy. The extra twenty-plus minutes of additional footage affords me the opportunity to savor the world of Middle Earth for that much longer. However, The Hobbit has only 320 pages in novel form, whereas the LOTR trilogy has over three times the number of pages. Jackson may argue that he was aiming to expand on the appendices through this new trilogy, but he didn’t succeed in his attempt.

In truth, An Unexpected Journey is a lesson in excess. There are just too many meaningless scenes, none of which really offer much to expand on the LOTR mythos.

The film begins by bridging the gap between the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) we met in the LOTR trilogy and his younger counterpart, played by Martin Freeman. We start off in the Shire, just before Bilbo’s birthday. Bilbo plans to disappear with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and leave Frodo (Elijah Wood) his most precious possession. But first he must finish his memoirs. Cue the flashback and the start of our tale.

Once again, Gandalf shows up in the Shire and does what he does best – cause trouble for Hobbits. He marks Bilbo’s door so that Thorin Oakenshield’s dwarves can later use it as a meeting place. It is in this dining sequence where we are first privy to one of The Hobbit’s needlessly long, overindulged scenes. We watch Oakenshield’s dwarves make a mess of Bilbo’s home, while throwing food, plates and cutlery around like ninjas. The scene just never seems to end. Within the first five minutes, most viewers got the point. Dwarves like to eat and drink. It didn’t need to be ten minutes long and it didn’t need to feel like it was thirty minutes long.

Bilbo ends up going off with Thorin’s dwarves in an effort to reclaim the ousted-dwarves’ lost Kingdom of Erebor. There are a few good action sequences and we even get to see Radagast, the tender of beasts. Gollum (Andy Serkis) also makes his debut (or return as it may be). Serkis’ performance as the dual-minded Gollum is always great to watch – that is if you managed to stay awake long enough to make it to his scene. Seasoned fans will be able to labor through the film, but those who sit on the fringe of genre loving will easily let their attention wander.

Did I enjoy the film? Yes. The acting is great and so are the wonderful set pieces. But, unlike the first trilogy, An Unexpected Journey just isn’t as exciting to rewatch. Instead of an extended cut, it can really use a shorter cut.

The Blu-ray features behind-the-scenes footage from the movie and 10 video blogs from Director Peter Jackson. There will also be a sneak peak of the second movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, on March 24.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Blu-ray]

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott
Director: Peter Jackson
Studio: Warner Bros
Release Date: March 19, 2013

Rating:
7.5 / 10

Nightmare on Elm Street Collection – Freddy still holds the crown

“How sweet, fresh meat.”
When I think of Freddy, the first thing that comes to mind is this line from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. After that, a cascade of one-liners begins to ripple through my brain.

“Welcome to prime time, bitch.” – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
“Told you comic books was bad for ya!” – Dream Child
“Now be a good little doggy and go fetch!” – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

The list goes on. Freddy was funny. I had the full Freddy mask on Halloween. This dream demon wasn’t just a killer; he was also one cool-ass comedian.

But if I dig deep, past the dark recesses of my cobwebbed brain, I can’t help but remember a darker Freddy. There was a time when Freddy gave me nightmares – made me afraid to venture into my basement or any other. It was a sad point in my childhood, where I would sneak into my parents’ room and seek refuge on their floor. Yeah, I wasn’t allowed in the bed. Tragic. The next day, I would be in the schoolyard, acting tough as though I wasn’t scared of Freddy. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who hid his nightmare demons – just like Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) did in the original Nightmare.

The 80s were a different era of horror. We were more sensitive to violence. We didn’t need CG for scares, just good old-fashioned prosthetics and animatronics. But, when did the scares end and the comedy begin?

With the Nightmare on Elm Street 5-Disc Collection Blu-ray release, I had a chance to revisit the series from start to finish.

The first movie is a classic, simply for being the first. It introduced us to that great childhood tune, “1…2…Freddy’s coming for you.” Tina (Amanda Wyss) was the first to go. She got dragged up the wall and massacred, while her boyfriend watched. The scene conformed to the horror adage about teen sex: once you have sex in a horror flick, you die.

While the premise of a nightmare demon – that turns dream into reality – is a scary notion, the film as a whole isn’t scary. It doesn’t have those Exorcist or Poltergeist moments of horror.

Oddly enough, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge actually kicks up the scare factor for the franchise. Freddy has entered the real world and is trying his hand at possession. Unfortunately, the plot, details and acting don’t quite measure up.

In movie 3, Dream Warriors, the word scare is tossed out the window in favor of cheap laughs. However, they work. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her father (John Saxon) both return. We get a broader Freddy origin story. And we also get a nurse that spits out her tongue like a chain. Does Freddy get better?

Not really. By movies four through The Final Nightmare, you’re just waiting for the one-liners. They lose their momentum. You begin to expect each Freddy zinger as the films become more and more cliché. Perhaps that is because Wes Craven stepped aside from directing the franchise after the first film.

Needless to say, Craven thought the same way and eventually returned to the director’s chair in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The film mirrors the end of the first movie and is a nice change of pace from the litany of comedic films that were released after Freddy’s Revenge.

Instead of following Nancy, we start off in the real world with actor Heather Langenkamp. She discovers Craven is working on a new movie. Then, Freddy enters the real world. It’s a smart return to the first film, where Nancy brought Freddy into the movie’s real world. Plus we get to see Robert Englund play both himself and Freddy. The movie was released to commemorate Freddy’s 10th anniversary.

Overall, the Freddy Krueger franchise stands as one of the best horror franchises of all time. No horror movie’s premise and villain is as memorable as Freddy. Jason may have dominated the cinema with “a billion-and-one” movies, but Freddy always held the crown.

Nightmare on Elm Street Collection [Blu-ray]

Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: March 5, 2013

Rating:
7.5 / 10

Wreck-it Ralph – Flynn’s Arcade Comes Alive

wreck-it ralphSonic and Tapper and Q*bert, oh my!
What?! Q*bert?!

That’s right, Q*freakin*bert!

Wreck-it Ralph was Disney’s attempt to recreate the magic of Toy Story. The writers asked the question that every gamer has pondered since Pong – or Tron. What would life be like inside the video game world? If you traveled inside the digital realm of Flynn’s arcade, would you find The Grid or a subculture living it up like the Fraggles in Fraggle Rock?

The story follows the adventures of Ralph (John C. Reilly), a video game bad guy who just wants to be good. So what does he do? He tries to win a medal so that the people in his game finally respect him the way they respect their game’s hero Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer). Unfortunately, when Ralph decides to leave his game to go on a hero’s quest, his video game is marked Out of Order in the arcade. Now, the characters face the threat of deactivation. Felix tries to hunt Ralph down to restore balance to the video game “force.”

Along the way, Felix meets Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a potential love interest, and Ralph befriends a plucky, game-glitch outcast named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). Silverman does a great job adding playfulness to the story with her humor. However, there are times when the story starts to force rudimentary jokes. It feels a little rudimentary at times, especially since the game has such an existential opening. Instead of pushing all the way with a complex story, the writers get into a gag-of-the-week comfort zone, filled with booger and doo-doo jokes.

Perhaps the biggest gripe with the movie is its “know your place” message, which feels almost communistic. Ralph you’re a bad guy and that’s all you’ll ever be so live with it. Go to therapy for it. Just don’t try to change it. For a Disney movie, it’s a pretty disheartening message. Despite the downer message, Wreck-it Ralph is still one fun movie. And as an avid gamer, I loved seeing all of the game references that dated back to the 80s. Plus, Q*bert is there. How cool is that?!

The animated adventure harkened back to ReBoot, the first completely CG TV series that aired in 1994. However, instead of exploring a computer Mainframe through CG, Wreck-it Ralph was all about the video game. The film featured endless gaming references, some of which would only be noticed on the second or third time you watched the film. Thankfully, the playful story is worth a second watch, despite a few disjointed plot moments. The Blu-ray will give you the opportunity to check out all of those wonderfully geeky Easter eggs you missed on the first viewing. Chris Hardwick also shows up, during the patented Disney-Blu intermission, to help unravel some of the more abstract references.

Unlike ReBoot, which aired in an era where CG animation was especially expensive for a TV production, Wreck-it Ralph hit theaters in the golden age of CG. The resplendent visuals do absolute justice to every game. Whereas in ReBoot, the CG never felt like it could keep up with the technology it was trying to depict. Even Felix’s comment about Calhoun’s HD beauty in Wreck-it Ralph serves as a gentle nod to the advancement of CG animation.

Oddly enough Brave beat out Wreck-it Ralph and ParaNorman for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. While Pixar’s Brave did amazing things with the hair animation, it didn’t quite rival the story of Wreck-it Ralph or ParaNorman nor did it push the envelope on art design the way ParaNorman did. Alas, Pixar beat won because Wreck-it Ralph was too “gamery” and ParaNorman was too dark.

The Blu-ray release features alternate endings, the Paperman short, lots of behind-the-scenes featurettes and an intermission hosted by Chris Hardwick.

The Paperman short is phenomenal to watch. It’s such a smart, introspective piece. Paperman reminds me of those great Disney animated films from “way back,” which could capture your attention without uttering a word.

I’m grateful for the Hardwick tell-all. However, he mispronounces Ryu’s name from Street Fighter. Hardwick uses the Americanized misnomer instead of the actual Japanese pronunciation. It’s a little annoying to know that nobody was around to correct him on the actual pronunciation, which most gamers know.

Wreck-It Ralph [Blu-ray]

Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
Director: Rich Moore
Studio: Disney (Buena Vista)
Release Date: March 5, 2013

Rating:
8.5 / 10

Peter Pan is an irresistible Diamond release

peter pan diamondNo movie captures the essence of childhood dreams and wonder more than Peter Pan. Picture a world where flying was as easy as believing and at the end of each day, you don’t have to grow up. It’s like living in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory without the cavities or the oompa loompas. The 1953 Disney movie is filled with smart themes of betrayal, revenge and love, yet the subtly brilliant nuances of the plot never bog down the wonder of this fantastical story.

“All (of) this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Peter Pan is solid entertainment from start to finish. John and Michael Darling are playing make believe as Peter Pan and Captain Hook, while their big sister Wendy officiates for accuracy. Unfortunately, Wendy’s father wants her to grow up and move out of the nursery. Say it ain’t so, pop! When the parents leave, the real Peter Pan shows up. It just so happens that Pan’s shadow got left behind at the Darling residence the other night, when Pan was listening in on tales about himself. He’s a little vain, but boys will be boys – especially this one.

Wendy sews Peter’s shadow back to his feet and the two are reunited. Peter decides to take Wendy back to Neverland so that she can be mother to the Lost Boys. Unfortunately, Pan’s friend Tinker Bell isn’t too happy with Peter’s newfound friend, especially since Wendy tried to kiss Peter the moment she saw him. When you have a last name like Darling, what can you expect?

The opening scene in London is filled with movement and dialogue humor. The Darling pet dog serves as their Nanny, pouring their nightly medicine and fixing their beds. Michael, the youngest Darling, may easily the cutest cartoon kid you’ll ever meet. He scribbles a treasure map on his father’s tuxedo, totally oblivious to his wrongdoing.

The humor doesn’t stop in London and it actually gets quite dark when the group hits Neverland. You may think of Disney movies as sanitized, family friendly flicks, but Peter Pan doesn’t pull any punches. The first time we meet Captain Hook, we learn that Peter sliced off his hand and fed it to the crocodile. Now the crocodile follows Hook around waiting to finish the meal. It’s a little disturbing. What’s even more disturbing is that Hook actually shoots one of his pirates in his opening scene. I had completely forgotten the depths of Hook’s villainy. He’s like the Han Solo of the tale, shooting first (Original Star Wars before the Lucas edits). I was expecting to see the pirate pop back up, but that wasn’t the case. Hook made him good and dead with a single gunshot. You just won’t get that in Disney movies today. It’s dark humor that’s so good and surprisingly with G rating! I guess the censors let that one slip by.

There are moments when the movie tests the boundaries of political correctness, especially when the Lost Boys go to capture a few Indians. We find out that the two groups actually are good friends and they play these games all the time. Unfortunately, Hook captured the chief’s daughter. Thankfully, Pan is ready to play hero. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that his friend Tinker Bell is more than jealous of Wendy. And she’s not the only one. A few mermaids also upset that Pan brought back a rival girl to Neverland. You have to give it to Peter Pan; his green tights have ensnared the affections of every girl in Neverland.

The Blu-ray remasters the visuals with pristine color clarity. While the movie remains in its original 1.33:1 ratio, the color saturation has been improved in HD without becoming too overbearing. The audio is presented in 7.1 DTS-HD so you can enjoy all of those great Hook screams.

The Blu-ray comes with playful intermissions when the movie is paused as well as a Storybook app that your children will enjoy. There is also an alternate ending scene, presented through its original storyboard art.

Peter Pan is irresistible on Blu-ray and one of the finest releases of the Disney Diamond collection.

Peter Pan Diamond Edition [Blu-ray]

Starring: Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Paul Collins, Tommy Luske, Bill Thompson
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Rating:
10 / 10

Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is still jarring on Blu-ray

cabaret

Admittedly, I am a newcomer to Cabaret, the acclaimed 1972 musical that won 8 Tony Awards. When you hear accolades like that, your hopes for any musical immediately shoots through the roof.

However, when I first popped this Blu-ray in, I cringed at the loud, cacophony of cabaret tunes. Disjointed jump cuts and perpetual inserts kept me emotionally removed from the plot. Set in 1931 Berlin, Michael York moves up in Germany and finds Liza Minnelli, a cabaret performer with an extra room in her apartment. Thus begins an exploration of Nazism and its effect on the country’s people and their relationships.

It would be an intriguing story to digest in book form, on stage or just without the sporadic cutting for effect. Just like the tumultuous atmosphere in Nazi Germany at the time, the film is meant to keep you off balanced. Perhaps it does too good of a job. Most of the time, I wanted to skip past the cabaret tunes and just watch the film sans music.

It wasn’t until about 30-minutes in that I finally started to enjoy this movie. The developing relationship between Michael and Liza spins off in oddly intriguing direction, as their duo friendship becomes a gold digging trio. Coincidentally, “Money” is the only pure cabaret song that I can honestly say I enjoyed. My other overall favorite was “Maybe This Time,” but that could just be me gravitating towards the typical musical – which this is not.

The multi-layered story is filled with moments of foreshadowing and unique twists that eventually pay off. You will most likely see the twists coming, but they are delayed just long enough to catch you unaware. It’s reminds me of the end of Friday the 13th. You see the boat on the lake. It sits there long enough for you to think something is going to happen. Then, you continue to sit and nothing happens and you expect a happy ending. Finally, some more time passes by and then boom; the twist happens. Cabaret is a lot like that.

Liza self-destructs in a way that doesn’t require a downward depression into drugs and alcohol (she does mention in one scene however, that perhaps one day she will end up “disgracing” herself in a pub) to get the point across, a testament to smart storytelling. She’s starry eyed and confused, chasing a dream that is too far removed. The atmosphere of the cabaret is its own toxin.

I never did feel comfortable with the jump cuts to the cabaret. But such is the nature of this movie. Religion, sexuality, social class and political ideals all play out perfectly to the off-kilter story told by show tunes you heard just a few short scenes prior. The musical even culminates with a song entitled Finale Ultimo (“Life is a Cabaret”). Even though you know it’s the final number, there is still an abruptness to the end. The last scene closes with a Shakespearean ending on an empty stage. The credits don’t even have an audio/music bed.

Cabaret is innovative and startling in a different kind of way. However, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Cabaret [Blu-ray]

Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson, Fritz Wepper
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Rating:
7 / 10

Best of Warner Bros 20 Film Collection: Best Pictures – 90 Years of Gold

Last year, Universal Pictures celebrated its 100th anniversary by releasing several classic movies (such as Jaws, E.T., Scarface, The Birds and Back to the Future). The Anniversary year came with a long lineup of home video releases, some hitting Blu-ray for the first time.

This year, it’s Warner Bros turn to remind movie lovers of its long legacy of cinema magic. Now celebrating its 90th Anniversary, Warner Bros has released a twenty-film DVD collection that includes a phenomenal roster of Academy Award winners and pictures that are just downright memorable. From classics like Casablanca and Ben-Hur to modern day box-office smashes like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Departed, this collection has something for everyone in the family. My only nitpick is that I wish it were packaged with Citizen Kane or another stand alone film instead of The Return of the King. The final chapter of the Peter Jackson’s trilogy feels like an odd add-in without its peers to usher in the finale to Tolkien’s story.

The Best of Warner Bros 20 Film Collection Best Pictures comes packed in a gold box set, perfect for bookshelf placement. The cover is highlighted by small box pictures of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Return of the King, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Departed and Amadeus. Each movie title shows up on the front and spine of the gold box in light transparency. The set is broken up into three eras, 1929-1942, 1946-1959 and 1975-2006.

Here are some of my favorites:

Gone With the Wind

Who can forget those famed final words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Truthfully, many people can because more often than not, people replace “my dear” with “Scarlett” when they quote the line.

In 1939, Gone With the Wind captured the tragic romance of Scarlett and Rhett, amidst the Civil War. This film is filled with beautiful set pieces and some of the most emotional scenes in movie history. But most of all, I loved this film for its dark comedy. The movie is a non-stop game of chess between Scarlett and Rhett. Perhaps there is some over acting by today’s standards, but each moment of the 233-minute movie is captivating.

Casablanca

If you asked me on the spot, I’d probably rank Casablanca up there on my list of top five movies of all time. Sure, I love science fiction and comic book films, but few films have the dialogue depth that Humphrey Bogart brings to Rick Blaine. He’s a rogue, hero and tragic figure all rolled up into one. But, it’s the way he plays with words and the choices he makes regarding love that make him so compelling. Once again, for the uninitiated, you may look at Casablanca as a love story. However, this film is also filled with darkly comedic moments.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKzsjSe0Z80

In one scene, Captain Renault closes down Rick’s café with the utmost urgency and seriousness. When Rick asks how the Captain can close up his business. Renault replies, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Then a croupier hands the captain his winnings from having just gambled, and Renault says, “Oh, thank you very much,” without missing a beat. You’ll find that kind of humor throughout the movie. Casablanca is also one of the most pilfered movies when it comes to modern day clichés and catch phrases.

Ben-Hur

Although most people think of Moses when they hear the name Charlton Heston, I remember the actor most for Ben-Hur. This tale of politics, social class and religion is arguably the greatest movie epic of all time. From Prince Judah Ben-Hur’s rise in status as a Roman officer to his fall into slavery and life, this film’s tale is as poignant as any novel.

Ben-Hur took won Best Picture of 1959, along with ten other Academy Awards. It sits as one of the cornerstones of movie history.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

When it comes to talent, this film has an over abundance. Jack Nicholson, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd serve up the wildest tale of crazy you’ll ever witness. Nicholson plays McMurphy, a convict who feigns mental illness for a less restrictive sentence at a mental hospital. Unfortunately, his gambit backfires when they try to keep him longer than he expected.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-3sWN1c3Hw

This film is a tale of odd and bizarre. Production used a real mental hospital to film this movie and you get the sense of being trapped in this off-kilter world as you watch McMurphy’s tale unfold. This is an unsettling movie that shifts between humor and disturbing. It offers a nice change of pace from the pre-1960s film included in this set; it also sets the tone for the next seven movies that follow.

Driving Miss Daisy

I still remember Morgan Freeman as Vincent the Vegetable Vampire on The Electric Company. However, it was probably Driving Miss Daisy that really catapulted him into fame as the sage voice of reason in movies.

Driving Miss Daisy is the delightful tale of Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy), an old Jewish woman, and Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman), her African American chauffeur. The film delivers a touching story of their evolving relationship, while deftly interweaving comedy and race issues. Although the film takes place during the Civil Rights movement in the south, race is used more to pepper their personalities – showing pockets of goodness within a tumultuous time in American history.

Unforgiven

What would an all-time DVD collection be without a western? Unforgiven is one of the last great westerns, filmed in 1992 by Director Clint Eastwood, who also starred. Perhaps this movie deserves accolades simply because Eastwood is helming the genre that made him famous. This film is nicely offset by Million Dollar Baby, a non-western Eastwood-helmed movie that is also included in this collection.

The Departed

The Departed sits as one of the top films in Martin Scorsese’s distinguished movie-making career. It’s also the only film Scorsese ever took home an Oscar for in the category of Best Director.

This film is filled with several nice twists so I won’t spoil too much of the plot details if you haven’t seen the film yet. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg. The film centers on men going undercover in the Massachusetts State Police and the Irish mafia. Lines get blurred and all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of great moments in this film and it’s easily a movie that can be rewatched over-and-over.

I had forgotten that this was under the Warner Bros roster and it’s a perfect addition to this collection.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

I love this film. I love the trilogy. But, I honestly don’t think this movie has a place on this collection since it can’t sit with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Yes, you can argue that it’s the best of the three films. However, if you’re going to watch it, you need to watch the others first in order to get the right build up.

There are only seven movies on this collection that came out after 1980. The Return of the King is one of them. If you buy the collection, and don’t have the other two movies in the trilogy, then you can’t “really” watch the final LOTR film alone without picking up the other two films separately.

It’s a slight miscalculation in an otherwise superb set.

Full List of Films on Collection:

· The Broadway Melody (1929)
· Grand Hotel (1932)
· Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
· The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
· Gone with The Wind (1939)
· Casablanca (1942) – 1943 Academy Award® Winner
· Mrs. Miniver (1942)
1946-1959 (The Golden Years)
· The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
· An American in Paris (1951)
· Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
· Gigi (1958)
· Ben-Hur (1959)
1975-2006 (The New Classics)
· One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
· Chariots of Fire (1981)
· Amadeus: Director’s Cut (1984)
· Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
· Unforgiven (1992)
· The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingTM (2003)
· Million Dollar Baby (2004)
· The Departed (2006)

Best of Warner Bros 20 Film Collection: Best Pictures [Blu-ray]

Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: January 29, 2013

Rating:
9 / 10

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I is a welcome anime reboot, despite its brevity

For newcomers to Kentaro Miura’s Beserk, The Golden Age Arc I – The Egg of the King will be a delightfully gory anime adventure. The first installment of the three-part series mixes middle-age architecture with fantastical elements drawn from Greek mythology. It’s one of the more serious anime on the market that doesn’t waste time with silly jokes and puns. There are even a couple epic siege scenes that appear to be inspired by Lord of the Rings – and one scene that reminded me of the siege on Kings Landing in Game of Thrones.

From the moment you begin watching it, you’ll relish in the brutal actions of Guts, a mercenary who feels more like a samurai gone rōnin. Even when the Arc I slams to a close, without any definitive ending, you’ll still be anxious to see part 2. Unfortunately, if you’re a fan of the manga or the original anime series, you’ll feel a little cheated by this reboot of sorts. The story is missing several scenes that would help to round out Guts’ otherwise stolid personality. Also, cell shaded animations often feel like they were whipped up ten years ago, rather than in 2012. Regardless of where you fall on the Berserk spectrum, seeing Miura’s work is an utter joy – even if the first installment runs a tad short.

In the beginning of Beserk: The Golden Age Arc I, we are introduced to Guts, a member of a mercenary group that is helping to lay siege to a castle. When the mercenaries begin to back down against a giant opponent, Guts decides to have a David and Goliath moment and take down the massive opponent one-on-one. It’s in this scene that we’re first introduced to Guts’ giant sword. He fights recklessly and manages to win. This win garners the attention of Griffith, the leader of another mercenary group, called Band of the Hawk, that showed up to the battle just a few moments too late.

After taking Guts into his camp, Griffith and Guts engage in a duel that eventually leads to Guts swearing his fealty to Griffith. It’s here that we learn about Griffith’s true ambition – to have a kingdom of his own.

The story jumps forward three years later and we see that Griffith and Guts have become close. Are they friends? It’s not clear, but we do see that Griffith’s ambitions are slowly becoming a reality.

For eighty percent of the feature, the animation is a pristine mix of CG and contemporary animation. However, there are times during the battles where details are washed away and bland. I was impressed by Zodd’s scene. When he transforms into what can best be described as a giant minotaur with wings, you really get a sense of threatening this character can be. Good use of smoke and contrasting shades of grey help to bring this scene to life.

As for the sound, it lacks a strong audio mix to really bring the fight scenes to life. There are enough fight sequences to warrant a 5.1 surround mix. As for the dialogue, the English voice acting was surprisingly good. I typically prefer Japanese voicing – especially when it comes to anime with more comedic scenes – but the English voices were able to sustain the intensity warranted by Miura’s series.

When Part I ends, it kind of just slams to a close with Guts having a pseudo epiphany. There’s no definitive conclusion and if you’re not prepared for it, you’ll end up in a long spoiler session for Part 2. It’s a little annoying. The short 76-minute movie just cuts into a montage of scenes from Part 2. This kind of odd transition happens throughout the movie. You constantly get the feeling as though things are being cut out and dropped so that the creative team can rush into the next “big” sequence. Unfortunately, those small nuances that were dropped really make the series and would clear up minor pits of confusion. This is a movie that could have easily been 90-minutes, but it was compressed to focus on the action scenes. Truthfully, if Part 2 is around the same length, then the studio could have just combined it into one piece – or found a way to split the difference with part 3 (scheduled for 2013).

Overall, Berserk is a welcomed reboot. There are too many anime series out there that are afraid to stay the course of a serious drama throughout. Seeing Berserk spread its gory wings feels refreshing. Hopefully, future installments will give the story more room to breath. Guts deserves it.

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I – The Egg of the King [Blu-ray]

English Voice: Hiroaki Iwanaga, Takahiro Sakurai, Toa Yukinari, Carolyn Keranen, Kevin T. Collins
Directed by: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Studio: Viz Media
Release Date: November 27, 2012

Rating:
8 / 10

Blu-ray: HBO’s Girls: A raw, honest cavalcade of emotional foibles

HBO’s Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, is a smart and boisterous take on four 20’s women navigating their way through New York City’s treacherous emotional landscape. It’s a cavalcade of awkward humor and misbegotten decisions that all seem “right” in the moment. Flirting with your older, married boss may give you a few fleeting laughs, but that’s only until he shows up at a party with a bottle of wine hoping for an intimate evening. Then, there are those unfortunate incidents where an innocent girl accidentally smokes crack and ends up running through Williamsburg half naked. Sure, reality is bent and heightened at times for comedic effect, but these Girls are truth. This freshman season is filled with nonstop fem-foibles that only get funnier with each viewing.

The Blu-ray release collects the ten episode series and bundles it with a few fun bonus features as well as a tweet booklet from Dunham.

In the Pilot, we meet Hannah (Dunham), an aspiring writer who has been living off of her parents post college. When they cut her off financially, Hannah has to figure out what do with her life next. Like any young professional artist, her mind is a jumble of conflict. She needs a job to stay afloat, but she needs free time to write. Stuck in between, Hannah blames her parents for her professional limbo.

When Hannah isn’t trying to pay her bills or figure out the meaning of life, she is daydreaming about a monogamous relationship with Adam (Adam Driver). She may be sleeping with him regularly, but he remains a mystery to her. Does he want to be her boyfriend? She doesn’t really know, but at the same time she doesn’t really ask him. Adam’s her bedroom sounding board for all of life’s quandaries that she can’t take to her girlfriends.

Similar to Sex and the City, Hannah has three compatriots: Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Marnie is Hannah’s roommate. She has a relationship rollercoaster of her own to deal with when she’s not trying to serve as Hannah’s on-call, makeshift psychiatrist. Her boyfriend is a bland yes man, who redefines monotony. Jessa is the flower child, free spirit. She has embraced her sexuality, but little else. She doesn’t know what she wants out of life and that leads her to one misstep after another. Shoshanna is Jessa’s cousin, the 20’s virgin who makes every awkward, innocent moment an instant laugh.

The Blu-ray comes with an interview between Dunham and Executive Producer Judd Apatow. The two discuss Dunham’s first call with Apatow after Dunham’s Tiny Furniture movie made the film festival circuit. Although it’s just a regular behind-the-scenes interview, seeing the awkward jokes between the two give you a sense of how their projects must come to life – with real world experience.

Girls is the first series of its kind to capture this demographic and social environment with such raw honesty. Be warned: the sex scenes can be egregious and painful to watch at times. However, the story stays delightfully fresh throughout each episode and will make you eager to see Girls return to HBO in 2013.

Girls: The Complete First Season [Blu-ray]

Starring: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Adam Driver, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet
Directed by: Lena Dunham, Jesse Peretz, Jody Lee Lipes, Richard Shepard
Created by: Lena Dunham
Studio: HBO
Release Date: December 11, 2012

Rating:
8 / 10

Level E: Anime succeeds when it’s a conspiracy comedy, but fails otherwise

Level E is an anime series that you want to love. The story setup is reminiscent of Men in Black. Aliens have been living on the planet for centuries, but Earth’s population doesn’t realize that these aliens are living amongst them. There may not be any secret organization governing alien activities, but there are several aliens who are dressed up in humanoid skin. While the backstory and the grim Twilight Zone narration might suggest a more serious X-Factor-esque series, comedy begins to take hold of the story once Baka of the planet Dogra shows up.

The thirteen-episode anime is based on Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga series of the same name. Togashi was the creative mind behind Hunter X Hunter, but the lead character in this whimsical series stands in sharp contrast to Hunter X Hunter’s loveable Gon.

The first three episodes in Level E center on Baka and a high school baseball player, named Yukitaka Tsutsui. When Yukitaka moves into his new apartment, he discovers Baka already living there. Their initial meeting is a smartly comedic. Baka isn’t only living in Yukitaka’s apartment, but he’s also wearing his clothes. From there, a mysterious conspiracy plot begins to unfold. Baka is really a prince and apparently people want to kill him. There is also a government agency that may want to take him in for questioning in relation to an explosion. Baka appeals to Yukitaka’s good nature and the young baseball player decides to protect him.

At the end of the three-episode arc, the conspiracy is explained in a rush of details that you’ll have to watch twice to understand. However, it sets up a great relationship between Yukitaka and Baka that you’ll want to see more of.

Unfortunately, that relationship is thrown entirely out the door for most of the series. The next seven episodes of Level E portray Prince Baka is portrayed as a major jerk who likes manipulating everyone he comes into contact with. There are still pop culture jokes, which are fleetingly humorous. For instance, Baka turns five teenagers into the 5 color rangers, a spoof on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and countless other series. There is also an episode, where the color rangers progress through the story as if it were an RPG game. However, the short episode arcs lack the intrigue established in the opening three episodes. There’s an awkward alien teacher relationship, a woman devouring alien and an alien Princess who seeks a mate so that she can put an end to all procreation on Earth. Throughout all of these mini story arcs, Prince Baka becomes more and more irritating to watch. He’s the lead character that you just wish would shut up and die. By episode 11, when Yukitaka – the only truly endearing character on the series – returns, your motivation to continue watching may have worn out.

Thankfully, the last three episodes bring back more of the mystery, conspiracy comedy of the first three episodes. Several characters, such as the color rangers, make return appearances. But, now there is actually someone to reinvest your attention in – Yukitaka.

Level E has its moments, but it is an off-balanced series. When Level E is trying to blend mystery and comedy together, it’s great. However, when we’re forced to suffer through Prince Baka’s puppeteer pranks, the series can also be mind numbingly painful.

Level E [Blu-ray]

English Voice: Vic Mignogna, Jason Douglas, Micah Solusod, Ian Sinclair
Studio: Funimation
Release Date: December 11, 2012

Rating:
6.5 / 10

Blu-ray: ParaNorman is an unsung animated gem

There was a time when I was in love with stop motion animation. It was the era of Gumby, Rudolph: the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without A Santa Claus. However, over the past two decades, CG has slowly nudged stop motion out of mainstream family entertainment.

When you think of the top animated movies of 2012, Brave or Wreck-it Ralph probably come to mind. Superb CG and the Disney distribution label made these films household names. Yet, in the trenches of cinema, where only the most audacious viewers dare to go, another feature was the unsung animated gem of the year. Laika’s ParaNorman coupled a delightful voice cast with a layered story that was chock full of spooky twists. This thrilling adventure is filled with wonderful, hand-made character models and smart comedy. Thanks to the team at Laika, the beating heart of stop motion lives on.

EDITOR’S PICK: ParaNorman – Stop Motion with a Whole Lot of Ghoulish Heart

ParaNorman centers on a young boy, named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee). Much like many children or adolescents, he feels estranged from his family and peers. However, unlike most children, Norman is the oddball out because he has the very real power to see and speak with the dead. When the dead start to rise, like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead, Norman is the only person who can save the day.

Right away, this premise probably signaled red flags with adults who were looking for more family friendly movies to see with their children. While there aren’t any gruesome deaths in this film, zombie limbs do get severed. Also, the underlying witchcraft tale delves into the unnerving part of colonial history that Arthur Miller explored in The Crucible.

The well-rounded voice cast does a terrific job of capturing small town paranoia. Jeff Garlin voices Norman’s dad, a working class father who just wants his son to be normal. Anna Kendrick voices Norman’s sister, a character who starts off with the blond cheerleader stereotype then grows into something much more once her brother is in danger. Her bubbly personality is offset by her love interest, Mitch, who is deadpan voiced by Casey Affleck. Tucker Albrizzi does a great job as Norman’s endearing outcast friend, Neil, while Christopher Mintz-Plasse shows us he can play the role of an animated bully just as well as an awkward live-action teen. The dynamic John Goodman lends his talent to voicing the town crazy, Mr. Prenderghast.

The Blu-ray special features are abundantly packed with special features. Seven feautrettes explore the making of ParaNorman as well as additional behind-the-scenes footage. These include detailed footage of how each character model was made and how most of the complex scenes were animated. Aspiring stop-motion animators would do well to use this as a roadmap in creating their own stop-motion features.

ParaNorman quite possibly ranks up there as one of the best stop motion features to date. This spirited tale of undead wonder and small town paranoia will surely be a staple Halloween film for year’s to come.

ParaNorman [Blu-ray]

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Casey Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and John Goodman
Directed by: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Writers: Chris Butler
Studio: Focus Features
Release Date: November 27, 2012

Rating:
8 / 10