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Swingtown – The First Season

Swingtown - The First Season DVD cover

“Open and honest doesn’t always mean easy.”
-Tom Decker (Grant Show) (‘Puzzlerama’)

1976, America celebrates its 200th anniversary as its people celebrate their own awakening via the sexual revolution. Swingtown explores the clash of 1950s innocence with the tumultuous 1960s as both eras struggle to shape the dawn of the country’s third century.

Bruce Miller (Jack Davenport) moves his family from their roots and their longtime friends, the Thompsons, to suburban Chicago. There, they move in across the street from Tom (Grant Show) and Trina (Lana Parrilla) Decker. They learn early on that Tom and Trina are into swinging and the Deckers, for their part, are interested in bringing the Millers into “the lifestyle”, which clashes early and violently with lilywhite Janet Thompson (Miriam Shor).

The show explores not only the swinging lifestyle, but the times that spawned it, the people that live it and both the good and bad that it can do to relationships. The Millers struggle not only to find themselves, but to keep the family together as their kids go through their own growing pains. The Thompsons, for their part, struggle with the loss of their friends and the changing times. The Deckers may be the most well-adjusted of the lot.

Swingtown does a fine job of tackling a racy topic in a network television format. Nothing gets more provocative than the average daytime soap opera, but the points are communicated nonetheless. Fans of shows like Desperate Housewives will find this show worthwhile, but Swingtown has a purer heart and tells better stories about its characters, who in only one season are all very well rounded. The show is also better done than a lot of the other “period piece” shows, like Mad Men, with a catchy 70’s soundtrack and a look and feel that remain impressively consistent throughout.

CBS, sadly, cancelled the show after its inaugural season, although a vocal fan base still pushes for its return. It would be a shame to lose a show like Swingtown from network television, but in the meantime you can pick up season 1 on DVD and get up to speed for a hopeful return.

-Late

Swingtown – The First Season

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Shrek the Halls

Director: Gary Trousdale
Cast: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy
Runtime: 22 minutes
CARA Rating: NR

“My mama used to always say, ‘Christmas ain’t Christmas till somebody cries!’ Usually that someone’s me.”
-Donkey (Eddie Murphy)

 

So, the holiday season is here and Shrek just isn’t feeling it. Will you be in the holiday mood, like Donkey, after watching Shrek the Halls?

Shrek the Halls finds Shrek and Fiona with their first Christmas together with their little ones – their first holiday season as a family. It’s a change that our lovable ogre just doesn’t seem to be prepared for. Donkey has more than enough holiday cheer to go around, but Shrek just isn’t buying it. Until he sees how badly Fiona wants this to be a wonderful time for their new family, of course.

Shrek sets about all of the last minute preparations that we’re all so familiar with, with the added complication of being clueless as to just what it takes to make a good and joyous Christmas. With some help from Fiona and the kids, he’s able to put together a truly ogrish Christmas. Donkey, Pinocchio, Gingy and the rest of the gang show up to add their own brand of cheer which brings out the grinch in Shrek, but ultimately he sees the true meaning of the season and, as you’d expect, they all live happily ever after.

It’s strange that a movie franchise that’s so new can somewhat feel traditional, but that’s what Shrek the Halls does. The characters are as timeless as the story. The downside to this film is its length; the DVD chimes in at a sparse 22 minutes. So although the story certainly doesn’t feel rushed, you’re definitely left wanting more and feeling sort of cheated.

The DVD includes the usual special features to try to make up for the brevity, but these are lacking. The “jukebox” is basically commercials for other Dreamworks films, the “Gingy Dunking Game” is simply a dull matching game, the “Shrek Carnival Craze Video Game Demo & Cheat Code” is just that – a demo with a cheat code to convince your kids that they want you to get them the game and the “12 Days of Christmas” and “Deck the Halls” sing-a-longs are fun for the kids the first time around but won’t bring you back for more.

Shrek the Halls is a cute story and is as much fun for the family as the full-length films. The kids will enjoy the characters as well as the story and there are enough grown-up jokes in there to make it enjoyable for mom and dad as well, but this DVD is just too short for the money. Use a gift card for it or, better yet, record it when it’s on TV this season and pick up one of the full-length films if you haven’t already.

-Late

Shrek

Shrek the Halls

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 2.5 stars
**1/2

Asylum

Director: David R. Ellis
Cast: Sarah Roemer, Mark Rolston, Cody Kasch, Jake Muxworthy, Carolina Garcia
Runtime: 93 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Srong horror violence and terror, disturbing images, language and brief nudity

“Give me your suffering!”
-Doctor Burke (Mark Rolston)

Another day, another standard fare horror film. Asylum goes from a film that seems to have something to say to a film that simply regurgitates what other films have already said better pretty quickly and disappointingly.

Asylum begins with the all-too-common opening sequence from our heroine’s childhood to explain to us, without any actual explanation, that her father was crazy and killed himself. Since Madison (Sarah Roemer) would later recap all of this to one of her classmates, there’s really no point to the scene. But, then, a good deal of this film is gratuitous.

Madison heads off to college. We learn that this is the same college where her brother also committed suicide. This is apparently an attempt by Madison to both overcome the memories of her father and brother and also prove to herself that she is not also predestined to lose her mind. Attending a college that is located next to an old abandoned asylum, then, is laughably ironic. There, she meets the exact cast of characters that we’d expect her to: the creepy janitor who seems to know something, the campus security cop who is convinced he’s far more than that, the jock, the outcast weird kid, etc. All parties involved turn in performances just as memorable as their characters. We then discover that the asylum was home to the twisted Dr. Burke, a huge proponent of performing lobotomies on teenaged patients, who was killed in a patients’ revolt, vowing revenge – of course.

The students in the dorm, of course, fall prey to the spirit of Dr. Burke one by one. At times here, the film borders on an intelligent revisit of Nightmare on Elm Street, in its personalized attacks that seek out each victim’s weaknesses, fears and past traumas. It then abruptly shifts gears and quickly devolves into a mindless revisit of the later Elm Street sequels, though, with the evil doctor hamming his way through his “treatments” and seeking to skewer his victims with his orbitoclast ice picks while seeking revenge on “the creepy janitor who seems to know something” who, it so happens, was a patient of the doctor’s years ago. Why he returned to this place, of all places, for a job and why he and the doctor never previously crossed paths while he was there are never explained.

This movie had a strange bit of promise to it. If you let your mind wander, the hodgepodge of filming styles, lighting changes and other ambient changes throughout the film could easily place our cast into a nightmare world of Burke’s devising, but that may be giving the film too much credit and ultimately only serves to introduce more holes into an already thin plot. Sadly, one is left feeling that this is just another knockoff attempt at the slasher genre that started with a semblance of moody, original thought and then got lost in the padded walls of its own asylum.

-Late

Asylum

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 1.5 stars
*1/2

Shutter

Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Rachael Taylor
Runtime: 90 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for terror, disturbing images, sexual content and language

“Why all that effort if you don’t have something to say?”
-Ritsuo (James Kyson Lee)

 

Following in the footsteps of the many Asian horror films that have been remade and imported to the West comes Shutter, based on the widely-acclaimed 2004 Thai film of the same name. Coming after an award-winning original which billed itself as scarier than The Ring and The Grudge, would this westernization fare better than other contemporary remakes?

Shutter is more or less standard ghost story fare. Photographer Benjamin Shaw (Joshua Jackson) and his new bride, Jane (Rachael Taylor), travel to Japan for an important job shortly after their wedding. Early in their trip, they are involved in an auto accident that appears to lead to the death of a young woman. The mystery begins when the young couple and the authorities are unable to find any trace of a body or even any sign that anybody else had even been there.

The two eventually make their way to Tokyo to proceed with his job and the rest of their trip until strange lights begin appearing in his photographs, lights which we come to find out are “spirit photography” – essentially the spirit of the young woman from that night on the road haunting the couple. From there, the movie treads the familiar ground of our heroine trying to unravel the mystery before her while the tension, as well as the mysterious assaults on her, her husband and his friends escalate. The twist at the end seems, at first, wholly predictable but is then compounded with a second twist just when the viewer is sure that they’ve unraveled the mystery.

Despite some uneven pacing and acting, Shutter is a creepy movie that is good for some moody moments, if somewhat lacking in real scares. Definitely worth checking out one dark night when you’re in the mood for a good shudder or two of your own.

-Late

Shutter

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 3.0 stars
***

Drillbit Taylor: Extended Survival Edition

Drillbit Taylor DVD cover

“Now in addition to the Chinese Kung Fu we’ve got a little Mexican Judo, as in ‘Judon’t know who you messin’ with, homz.'”
-Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson)

From the guys who brought you Knocked Up and Superbad comes Drillbit Taylor, a timeless tale of bullied teens trying to make their way through the awkward years of adolescence in the face of insurmountable odds. By “timeless”, I mean that we’ve seen it more times than we can count. While there’s nothing new here, Drillbit Taylor does ghet by on some solid performances and good writing that very nearly makes one overlook the obvious holes in the story.

Our two heroes spend the night before their first day of high school gearing up for the big event and making grandiose plans for the coming year. Predictably, things get off to a horrible start and only roll downhill from there as they find themselves befriended by the class nerd and squarely in the sights of the school bully and his crony.

Ultimately, the guys decide to pool their resources and hire a bodyguard, settling after some hilarious interviews on “Drillbit” Taylor, a man who is less than he seems…and even less still than he claims to be.

“Drillbit”, as it turns out, is a homeless beachbum who is AWOL from the Army. More to the point, their newfound bodyguard is a pacifistic conman who is only planning to string them along long enough to get together the money to skip up to Canada.

Overall, this is a good movie. The story is predictable and formulaic, points of the plot require massive amounts of “suspension of disbelief” and the bullies, of course, are the sort of completely psychotic bullies that only exist in movies. The jokes are hit or miss as some moments of the film become clumsy, but are more than offset by some laugh-out-loud moments. Owen Wilson’s awkward charm carries the weaker parts of the film surprisingly well. The movie is done in the same spirit as The 40-Yera-Old Virgin but deals with less adult subject matter and its similar brand of humor is less offensive than Superbad making it a good family-oriented alternative to fans of those films.

The Extended Survival Edition DVD features the usual DVD extras: commentary, deleted scenes, gag reel and some behind the scenes featurettes. The DVD also features writers Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen reminiscing about the making of the film in a much freer style than the typical voice over commentary allows. There’s nothing earth-shattering in the extras, but definitely a few hidden laughs as a good half of the deleted scenes could have very easily made their way into the final cut.

-Late

Drillbit Taylor

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 3.5 stars
***1/2

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