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Friday, December 28, 2012

2013: Year of the Zombie

Written by Kyle Slagley

By now you should be finished rolling your eyes, groaning, banging your head against the wall, or whatever else you do when subjected to an onslaught of really, really bad puns.

Yesterday, I presented the idea that 2012 was the year of the vampire, and today I would like to posit the theory that 2013 will be the year of the zombie. Here’s a look at what’s in store.

World War Z (Released June 21) – Based on the New York Times bestselling book by Max Brooks, this film stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, a U.N. employee tasked with stopping a deadly pandemic that turns the infected into deadly zombies. The book is written in journalistic style as Brooks compiles his fictitious historical account of the outbreak that nearly wiped humanity off the planet, complete with testimonies from faux witnesses. The movie, on the other hand, is an edge-of-your-seat war/action thriller packed with adrenaline.

Warm Bodies (Released February 1) – It was only a matter of time before someone dreamt up a zombie romance. Nicholas Hoult stars as a zombie who becomes involved with a human girl, and their romance, as it turns out, could change the game for zombies all over the world. Based on the breakout novel by Issac Marion, this film offers a lighthearted twist on an otherwise dark fascination.

Evil Dead (Released April 12) – A remake of the famously low-budget film from 1981, a group of friends take a trip to a remote cabin in the woods where they discover the Book of the Dead and accidentally release a zombie hoard. Sam Raimi probably had no idea what he was unleashing when he made it, but fans of the original film and the two sequels, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, rank this trilogy among the most “Awesomely Bad Horror Films” of all time. It was so awesomely bad, they even made an off-Broadway musical about it!

R.I.P.D. (Release July 19) – Based on a Dark Horse comic, a “recently slain” police officer joins the rest of the undead cops of the Rest In Peace Department and tries to discover who murdered him. With actors like Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges, and Mary-Louise Parker in the cast, this one will definitely be worth seeing.

The Walking Dead – If you don’t watch this AMC drama, you’re missing out on one of the best shows on cable. This series doesn’t just cash in on the zombie craze; it redefines primetime drama. With a slew of awards, this series will most likely finish out the third season as strong as ever, leaving fans anxiously waiting for a fourth.

In the meantime, be sure to prepare yourself in case the zombie apocalypse does descend upon us. The Zombie Combat Manual and The Zombie Survival Guide are good places to start, and if you need inspiration for how to fend off attacks, look no further than the ordinary-yet-above-average folks of Lake Woebegotten, Minnesota.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: Year of the Vampire

Written by Kyle Slagley

At the risk of sticking my neck out, I’d say this was a monster year for the vampire fad. Audiences everywhere thirsted for the numerous movies and TV shows that were featured. Leave it to Hollywood to stake their claim on the trend-du-jour.

Vampire films accounted for a big bite of this year’s box office numbers, but here are a few to sink your teeth into.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – The premise, although different and maybe a little twisted, is nonetheless quite simple: Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, hunts and kills vampires throughout his entire life. I read the book first and wondered how the heck they were going to make a decent movie out of it. A couple weeks later I decided to see what all the fuss was about, so I borrowed the DVD. I must say I was surprised at just how entertaining the movie was! This may be one of the few cases when the movie was better than the book.

Hotel Transylvania – The vampire (and other monsters) craze bled into kids’ entertainment with this one. When Dracula invites the entire who’s who of monsters to his daughter Mavis’s birthday, nobody was expecting the human Jonathan to stumble onto the party. With a cast of voices that looks like one of Tinseltown’s best all-star lists, audiences will be dying to get their hands on it when the DVD streets on January 29.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II: Who could forget the most successful vampire film of the year? The final installment of the record-breaking movie series inspired by Stephenie Meyer's bestselling books sparkled in theatres, ranking number four overall in box office sales with $282M. Although BD2 was supposedly the final film, the coffin lid may not have completely closed. At Comic-Con this year, rumours began to pulse that a spinoff focusing on the Wolf Pack and/or Jacob and Renesmee may be on the horizon.

Vamps – This one is on my list of movies to see. Directed by Amy Heckerling and starring Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter, this film was in theatres a whole week and a half before being released on DVD. Silverstone and Ritter play Goody and Stacy, two vampires addicted to the club-hopping party-girl life in modern-day New York. Although this film won’t be the one to raise Heckerling’s career from the (un)dead, it has the same campy charm as Clueless, providing a tongue-in-cheek take on vampire romance.

Television networks rode the vampire craze all the way to the blood bank this year too. HBO’s summer series True Blood had a successful fifth season and has already been renewed for a sixth. Being Human, originally a BBC series, finished its second season on SyFy in 2012 and is set to begin season three in January. Last but not least, the CW continues to lure in audiences with the successful drama Vampire Diaries.

Even though audiences were drawn by bloodsuckers in 2012, with the Twilight franchise finished (at least for now), the popularity of vampires may not continue. I predict a different creature will sit on top of the supernatural heap in 2013, which is fine with me because coming up with all these vampire puns is a real pain in the neck.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gilliam's Brazil Comes to Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

For Terry Gilliam fans, December brought an early gift in the form of the long-awaited Brazil on Blu-ray. Criterion’s deluxe package, with its lovingly restored high-definition transfer of the 27-year-old film, is one holiday present that will not disappoint.

Having co-written the final Monty Python film, 1983’s The Meaning of Life, and directed its ambitious and clever Crimson Permanent Assurance short, Gilliam, the most twisted and comically dark mind of the famed comedic group, still clearly had Python on the mind when he dreamt up Brazil. This Orwell-inspired tale of a paranoid city government sometime in our near future, muddled in inefficiency and paralyzed by bureaucracy while its population of grim and desperate citizens toils away to no real purpose, features brilliantly absurdist Python-esque gags and scathing commentary that echoes the best of the troupe’s work.

The protagonist is Sam Lowry, played with marvelous befuddlement and an eventual sense of derring-do by Jonathan Pryce, a happy cog in the bureaucratic machine who is jolted out of willful complacency when he encounters the woman of his dreams — literally — while attempting to correct a major government error not of his doing. These two disparate events yank him out of his placid life and place him in a position of danger, as an emboldened fugitive rebelling against a broken system who is motivated by love and justice.

In Brazil, Gilliam achieves a tricky thematic balance to his film: warnings of an impending Big Brother-like state (note the government propaganda posted on signs throughout the film: “Suspicion breeds confidence,” “Be safe — be suspicious”) and of the dehumanizing — and failing — technology that makes such a world possible; a brilliant dark comedy that happens to be set in dystopian world; a terrific science-fiction universe filled with stunning art direction; and an old-fashioned love story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy does everything he can to get her back.

To the latter, Gilliam and fellow screenwriters Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard cooked up a rather stunning and bleak conclusion to the film in being true to the stark mood of the story; however, the American studio behind Brazil, Universal, balked at the dark twist in favour of a more audience-friendly “Love Conquers All” version, which also chopped nearly 50 minutes from Gilliam’s submission. And thus began a contentious war between a filmmaker driven by artistic vision and a studio motivated by box-office receipts. It was Gilliam who ultimately prevailed, but only after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded his version of Brazil as its top film, as well as awards for director and screenplay. Universal relented, and released a 132-minute “compromise cut” of the film, which included Gilliam’s original ending.

The Criterion Collection release includes two of the three versions of Brazil: disc one features Gilliam’s 142-minute director’s cut, while disc two features the studio’s 94-minute version of the film. Also included on disc two is the fascinating documentary The Battle of Brazil, detailing Gilliam’s struggles with Universal; What Is Brazil?, Rob Hedden’s on-set documentary; and the production notebook, consisting of interviews and video essays. The two-disc set comes with an informative essay booklet by film critic David Sterritt on the importance and merit of Gilliam’s master work.

While Brazil won no Academy Awards — nor was it nominated for any of the major categories save Best Original Screenplay — it nevertheless remains one of the great films of the 1980s and the unquestioned high point of Gilliam’s mostly brilliant and occasionally maddening film career. As important, Brazil stands as a testament to a director who battled the system…and, unlike the fictional world he created, won.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Les Miserables in Theatres Christmas Day

Written by Kirk Baird and Kyle Slagley

There have been a dozen or so film versions of Victor Hugo’s beloved French historical novel, Les Miserables, from 1862, but the latest adaptation is arguably the most anticipated. Based on the acclaimed musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables features a starry cast – Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried – a big production, and an Oscar-winning director, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).

Even before its Christmas Day release, there’s big buzz for this period musical, including acting nominations by several awards groups for Jackman as the redemptive Jean Valjean and Hathaway as the tragic Fantine; her touching and powerful performance, in particular, resonates long after the film is over.

Set during the years between 1815 and 1832, Les Miserables shares the woeful fate of several French men and women and their connection to each other: Valjean as a petty criminal turned successful businessman who is wanted by the law; Javert (Crowe) as the dogged police inspector who is obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice; Fantine as a sad soul searching for good fortune to save her and her young daughter, Cosette; and an adult Cosette (Seyfried), who has fallen in love with one of the  members of the doomed Paris Uprising.

Cooper and the film’s art directors seize their opportunity to expand the stage production’s scope to a spectacular, massive scale that brings justice to Hugo’s epic story. The dreary set design and costumes are a character unto themselves, casting an appropriate melancholy on the plight of the unfortunates of the story. Just as impressive are the “live” performances of the cast, who sang onset to the camera, rather than record their songs later in a studio. The technique lends naturalism to the actors’ performances, with Cooper often drawing the camera in closer to heighten the immediacy of the moment.

The music of the show conveys many different emotions, but perhaps one of the most difficult to convey is that of pure desperation. These are the songs in this film with the most punch, and the live performances allow the actors to really get the emotion across to the audience.

Hathaway’s performance of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” is the prime example of this. Rather than being the grand operatic spectacle that so many stage performances seem to have, it is rough and gritty. Her sobs interrupt the notes and at times it seems as though she is on the verge of going completely mad because she is so overcome with emotion. It would have been extremely difficult to replicate that depth of emotion in a studio recording.

As with previous musicals-turned-films, fans of the stage show should remember that film is a different game than the stage. Because stage shows are limited in ways films are not, music theatre fans often zero in on the vocals and consider other elements second. This film is as much about the visual spectacle as it is about the music, and although many of the stars are actors first and singers second, they each bring the characters to life in a way that makes this movie worthy of all the hype.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hills Are Alive, Y'All!

Written by Kyle Slagley

I’ve been sitting on this topic for a couple weeks, and I confess my reactions are no less conflicted than they were when I heard the news for the first time. On November 30, it was announced that Carrie Underwood would star as Maria Von Trapp in a live NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music, scheduled to air sometime in 2013.

Go ahead and take a minute to process that. I’ll wait.

That’s right, the Oklahoma-bred country music princess will be playing the prim and proper Austrian nun-turned-governess-turned-wife and I for one was left wondering who the heck made that casting decision.

About half of your theatre buffs will say Maria Von Trapp is the most loved nanny in all of musical theatre; the other half will say that honour goes to Mary Poppins. Both characters were immortalized in the 1960s when Julie Andrews played them on the silver screen – Mary Poppins in 1964 and Maria Von Trapp in 1965.

It therefore goes without saying that the shoes Carrie Underwood has to fill are about as large as the interior of Mary Poppins’s handbag. In a circle of friends full of movie buffs, trained opera singers, and general theatre snobs, I’m the odd one out that says Carrie could do a decent job. Notice how I said “could.”

In order to succeed in this role and leave the dissenters behind her, Carrie has to walk into it and keep repeating two simple things: Maria Von Trapp is not Carrie Underwood, and Carrie Underwood is not Julie Andrews. That may sound like some existential “method actor” concept, but I assure you it’s not.

Let me explain. Maria Von Trapp is not from Oklahoma and certainly isn’t going to “take a Louisville Slugger to both headlights” of a Nazi Mercedes Benz. Carrie is going to have to leave all of her down-home American girl mannerisms at home; hence, Maria is not Carrie.

Secondly, you don’t find stars like Julie Andrews anymore. For 60 years, she’s been classy, charming, and with her four-octave vocal range at age 77, still astoundingly talented. Carrie has got to realize that if she goes into this role trying to be Julie, she’s setting herself up for failure. If she can harness that country-girl determination, take the role by the Do-Re-Mi, and make it her own, then there’s a very real chance for her to shine in her own right.

It’s a fine line, to be sure, but Carrie showcased her ability to adapt to different styles when she won Season Four of American Idol back in 2005. Moreover, her rendition of the title song “Sound of Music” on CBS’s Movies Rock! broadcast in 2007 was by no means bad.

Carrie’s success may lie heavily on how well she clicks with whomever is chosen to play Captain Von Trapp, as even the most experienced stage veterans know that chemistry between actors is crucial to a show’s success. Who will be chosen? Hugh Jackman? Liev Schrieber? A yet-to-be-discovered media blogger?

Oh well, a guy can dream…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Movies for the Apocalypse

Written by Kirk Baird

The End is Nigh.

At least, that’s what some believe the Mayans gloomily forecast for us 1,300 years ago by having their ancient calendar end at Dec. 21, 2012.

Experts, of course, tell us otherwise. But since when did facts get in the way of a good story? Certainly it’s never stopped Hollywood and its ability to find creative ways to demolish humankind and our precious planet.

We’ve been smashed by asteroids and other planets, wiped out by global floods, and killed by strains of mutant viruses. Oh, and in one strange twist, our species faced extinction because we were no longer able to reproduce.

To celebrate our impending demise, here are several ways the movies have tried to wipe us out.

Melancholia (2011): Lars von Trier’s moody and disturbing end-of-the-world drama features what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance by Kirsten Dunst in a beautifully shot film that, in typical von Trier fashion, polarized audiences and critics.

The Last Wave (1977): Richard Chamberlin stars in Peter Weir’s strange tale of an Australian attorney plagued by end-of-the-world visions after he takes on the case of defending five Aborigines on trial for a ritual murder.

Take Shelter (2011): Michael Shannon’s gripping performance as a husband and father increasingly obsessed with prophetic visions of a coming apocalyptic storm anchors this brilliant film with a much-discussed ending.

2012 (2009): Director and co-writer Roland Emmerich throws out all the CGI stops in this ultimate big-budget Earth snuff film starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover as the president, and Woody Harrelson as — wait for it — a paranoid hippie.

Deep Impact (1998): This loose remake of 1951’s When Worlds Collide features an all-star cast led by Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Elijah Wood, and Morgan Freeman struggling to survive the horrific impact of an asteroid and plan for the future.

Twelve Monkeys (1995): Terry Gilliam’s mind-twisting sci-fi posits a doomed future Earth that sends a convict (Bruce Willis) into the past for clues to save humanity from near extinction by a mysterious virus. But is it all in the mind?

Children of Men (2006): In Alfonso Cuaron’s beautiful drama, the end of the world comes not through the violence of humanity or nature, but in our inability to reproduce, with a pregnant woman named Kee as our one hope, and Clive Owen as the man who must protect her.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012): Strong performances by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley elevate this comic and dramatic story, as a husband loses his wife but gains a friend and much more in the final days before a giant asteroid collides with Earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Detroit Film Critics Society Best of 2012

Written by Kirk Baird

The Detroit Film Critics Society announced Friday its Best of 2012 winners in 10 categories, with writer-director David O. Russell’s romantic-comedy Silver Linings Playbook leading the way.

The dramatic and funny story of two emotionally crippled people who find love and coping mechanisms, Silver Linings Playbook received nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Russell), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), and Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro).

The film stars The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper as Pat, a schoolteacher who suffers a mental breakdown after he discovers his wife is having an affair, and Lawrence as Tiffany, a neighbourhood woman who helps Pat rebuild his life by offering to reconnect him with his estranged wife.

De Niro and Jacki Weaver play Pat’s parents, who have issues of their own, including his father’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s a wonderfully honest film, anchored with a terrific cast from top down, though Silver Linings Playbook did not win for Best Ensemble. Steven Spielberg's Civil War epic Lincoln took that category, along with Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor for his towering performance as the 16th U.S. President.

Anne Hathaway won Best Supporting Actress for her haunting turn as the tragic Fantine in Les Miserables.

Breakthrough was awarded to Zoe Kazan for her lively fresh script and funny-turned-heartbreaking performance in Ruby Sparks, the story of a woman literally written into being, and Best Documentary went to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the enchanting appreciation of an 85-year-old culinary artist who has devoted his life to making sushi.

The Detroit Film Critics Society was founded in 2007, and consists of 17 film critics who write or broadcast in the Detroit area, as well as other major cities throughout Michigan and northwest Ohio. Each critic submitted his top five picks in the 10 categories.

Here’s the full listing of nominees:

  • ARGO








Friday, December 14, 2012

2012 a Good Year for Documentaries

Written by Kirk Baird

By mid-2012 it was looking like this was to be at best a so-so year for documentaries. Other than the beautiful and thoughtful Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there simply wasn’t much in the way of documentaries to elicit excitement.

But that’s often the case with Hollywood films in general through much of the year. The studios save most of their prestige titles for the big holiday sprint at the end of the years so that these films remain fresh in the minds of awards voters.

Documentaries, though, are typically on a different roll-out schedule, which is to say the films don’t really have one. They first appear at Sundance and other buzz-worthy festivals, and gradually play to word-of-mouth and limited release dates, hoping to build enough notice that mainstream audiences will seek them out once they’re on DVD.

And so it went with the documentaries this year, and what appeared to be a rather unremarkable year for these films proved to be anything but.

Here’s a list of the best of the crop I’ve seen so far this year. Many of these are not yet out on DVD, but should be available soon.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A fascinating and occasionally moving documentary of the life of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, this rather quiet film explores Ono’s near lifelong dedication to his culinary craft, and the impact he’s had on those around him — especially his two sons, who followed the same career path, but in different directions. Director David Gelb’s first documentary is wisely understated in its unbiased dissection of Japanese culture and traditions — particularly with Jiro and his family — while offering a feast for the eyes in its celebration of the beauty of this world-class cuisine. Jiro Dreams of Sushi lingers in the mind long after the movie has ended.

Searching for Sugar Man: Rodriguez was a promising folk singer in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with a knack for channeling the dark side of urban life into his music. He was supposed to be Detroit’s answer to Bob Dylan, but after two records failed to generate audience support, Rodriguez was quickly and quietly dropped by his label and instead became yet another voice of a generation cast aside and forgotten. At least, that’s the way it was in the United States. In South Africa, though, Rodriguez became a musical phenomenon in the 1970s, a superstar bigger than Elvis, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. Naturally, there were questions about Rodriguez from his biggest fans in South Africa, who had long exchanged rumours of the singer’s suicide on stage. And by the mid-1990s, two of Rodriguez’s fans decided to learn the truth. And that is only part of this amazing story as captured by director Malik Bendjelloul. And the less you know about his film going in, the better.

The House I Live In: Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) offers a searing rebuke of the war on the drugs, and how the U.S. government’s decades-long battle created a cottage industry of businesses and individuals dependent on this costly fight, from the construction crews needed to build new prisons to those employees needed to run them. Even more sobering, though, is the decimating impact this war has had on young black males, who are being imprisoned at an alarmingly higher rate compared to whites and Latinos. Jarecki offers up the opinions of many caught up in this never-ending war — cops, federal judges, wardens and prison guards, inmates, journalists, a Lincoln historian, and even David Simon, a former newspaper crime reporter who later created HBO’s acclaimed The Wire. And they all point to a system made not to succeed, but to control.

The Imposter: If Bart Layton’s documentary were a fictional movie, it would be laughed at as ridiculous — even by Hollywood’s standards. His film is about the incredible deception pulled off by a Frenchmen named Frederic Bourdin who fools a grieving Texas mother and her family that he’s her missing teenage son. But one FBI agent and later a private detective are not convinced, and their doubts and investigations lead to several dramatic twists and revelations. Layton keeps the film moving at an effective pace and audiences continually guessing what will happen next. He blends the dramatic reenactments surprisingly well with the rather candid interviews he had with the real-life subjects. The Imposter is a well-crafted and engaging documentary that, even if you remember this true story from the late 1990s, proves you don’t know the full story.

The Queen of Versailles: The Great Recession hasn’t only affected the poor and the middle class. Billionaires have also been hit hard by the crippled economy, especially David Siegel, founder of the world’s largest time-share company, Westgate Resorts. Siegel and his third wife, Jacqueline Siegel, a former Miss Florida, had it all, including eight children and a 26,000 square-foot mansion. But they wanted more, and set out to build the largest home in the United States, Versailles, an Orlando mansion modeled after the French palace. And that’s the documentary Lauren Greenfield set out to make — until the real estate bubble burst, and the bank’s cheap money that drove Siegel’s business was cut off. As the family’s financial empire begins to crumble, Versailles sits unfinished, abandoned, and for sale, and the once-happy Siegel marriage begins to wither under stress, Greenfield wisely turns her focus from a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous film to an economically cautionary and relatable tale of a family in crisis.

Room 237: Some filmmakers simply lend themselves to grand interpretation more than others, but few, if any, more so than the secretive and brilliant writer-director Stanley Kubrick. Room 237 takes that theme to crazy new and unexpected places as a funny, quirky, and utterly fascinating look at a handful of Kubrick fans who say there’s some serious subtext and hidden messages — from the Native American genocide to the Holocaust — lurking in his 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining. Room 237, incidentally, is the hotel’s haunted room. Whether Kubrick intended any of these meanings — or none of them — doesn’t matter; Rodney Ascher, in his first full-length documentary, offers plenty of ideas to ponder and more than a few moments in which you’ll want to pause and rewind the film. At the very least, when you’re finished with Room 237, you’ll want to reach for Kubrick’s The Shining and judge for yourself.

Two other documentaries I haven’t seen, but which have received significant notice, are director Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, an exploration of intelligence operations by Israel’s Sin Bet security agency, and director Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, a chronicle of National Geographic photographer James Balong’s attempts to capture the shrinking Arctic glaciers through the years.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zahn Expands Star Wars Universe

Written by Jon Williams

For a period of time following the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars phenomenon went into hibernation. Fans who wanted more than the movies provided didn’t have many options.

That changed in June of 1991 with the publication of Heir to the Empire, the first in a trilogy of new Star Wars novels. Acclaimed sci-fi author Timothy Zahn picked up the story five years after the films left off, continuing the story of the familiar heroes and pitting them against a ruthless new enemy. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia are trying to form and maintain a new government system when a military genius takes over the remnants of the Galactic Empire and sets his sights on re-establishing its former glory.

Fans and critics alike raved about the new story, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe was born. Since then, hundreds of novels have been published. The story of Luke, Han, and Leia has been pushed decades into the future following the events of Return of the Jedi. With the release of the prequels, other books have explored the era of the Old Republic, before the fall of the Jedi. No matter your taste, there’s bound to be a Star Wars book or series to your liking; a couple of recent titles (Death Troopers and Red Harvest, both by Joe Schreiber) have even introduced zombies into the mix.

Timothy Zahn himself has published several Star Wars novels since his first trilogy reawakened the slumbering beast, and his tales are consistently among the best that the Expanded Universe has to offer. On January 1, he returns to a galaxy far, far away with Scoundrels, a tale of Han Solo and Chewbacca that falls in between the events of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

With the recent announcement that more Star Wars movies are on the horizon, interest in the series is as strong as ever. Make sure you have plenty of Star Wars titles in your audiobook collection for patrons to check out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Edwin Drood and Famous Unfinished Novels

Written by Kyle Slagley

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of the most famous unfinished murder mysteries of all time. Charles Dickens died at age 58, leaving the novel close enough to completion that it would be a source of speculation for the next 150 years since Dickens didn’t live long enough to tell us all whodunit.

Other authors pounced on the opportunity to continue the Dickens story immediately, with the first continuation published less than a year after Dickens’s death. More recently, Leon Garfield and Charles Forsyte have each tried their hand at finishing the story, both publishing their works in 1980.

The story has regained attention this year as PBS released it on DVD as part of the Masterpiece Collection. Also, just last month on November 13, the revival of the Tony Award-winning production premiered on Broadway at Studio 54 – a show that takes full advantage of the cliffhanger ending.

Although popular, Edwin Drood is not the only unfinished novel to be published after the author’s death. Here are a few other prominent works left unfinished.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sandition by Jane Austen – Austen died at age 41, leaving behind three novels. The most complete of the three is Lady Susan, but Sandition offers a glimpse into what would have likely been a wonderful satire at a seaside resort.

The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain – This novel was written at irregular intervals during Twain’s life and, at the time of his death in 1910, existed in at least three different forms. Twain was an ardent opponent of organized religion, which is evident in this book. Following the failed initial publishing six years after Twain’s death, the book lay dormant until 1982.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer – There are 27 pilgrims listed in the prologue of this collection of poems. Each pilgrim was supposed to share two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way home, yet Chaucer only got 24 tales finished. Having read the entirety of the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, I can only imagine how long it would have taken to read had he reached his goal.

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway started writing this one a full 15 years prior to his death in 1961, and yet even at 800 pages it was still unfinished. It wouldn’t be published until the mid ‘80s after heavy edits that angered devoted fans.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – This story of protagonist Josef K’s arrest, “trial,” conviction, and execution is rarely thought of as unfinished – considering the final chapter is arguably one of the most famous in classical fiction, that’s not exactly surprising. In fact, the book is a collection of manuscripts that were unfinished and that Kafka had ordered to be destroyed after he died.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Strong Performances Worth Checking Out

Written by Kirk Baird

While watching the comedy-drama Take This Waltz, I was reminded again of the importance of casting. The film by writer-director Sarah Polley is good if unexceptional as a whole, but it’s elevated into the must-see category based solely on the terrific lead performance by Michelle Williams as a happily married woman who falls for a tall, dark artist who lives on her street. Williams is funny, sad, tragic, and by film’s end what you remember most about Take This Waltz. It will hopefully be remembered come Oscar time.

I felt similarly about Williams’s Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s My Week with Marilyn, which also featured an Oscar-nominated turn by Kenneth Branagh as a witty and exasperated Sir Laurence Olivier.

Williams, oddly enough, lost the Oscar to Meryl Streep and her tremendous performance in The Iron Lady, another flawed film that succeeds on the back of its two lead performers (Jim Broadbent as Thatcher’s husband Denis being the other). The Blind Side was a big hit, but it was an OK movie with a career-best performance by Sandra Bullock.

Richard Gere as a morally bankrupt hedge fund manager in this year’s the people vs. Wall Street drama Arbitrage leaps to mind as well. He takes a less interesting Gordon Gekko character and bends him into someone we may not like, but care enough to watch. And while Russell Crowe won his Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator, a better role comes as the troubled mathematics genius in A Beautiful Mind, a performance that transcends what is a rather unexceptional film.

The Master is brilliant and confounding at times, but no matter the response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s brave misfire, the lead performance of Joaquin Phoenix is stunning, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman in the supporting role. And check out Benicio Del Toro’s riveting and menacing enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel in Oliver Stone’s Savages.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Five Great Christmas Movies

Written by Kirk Baird

The Christmas season is all about traditions, especially when it comes to holiday films. In addition to those annual viewings of classics including It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story, here are five other holiday treats worth the time.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): In this warm holiday tale, Barbara Stanwyck is a food writer sorely lacking culinary and housekeeping skills whose deception may be exposed when her boss and a returning World War II soldier invite themselves to her home for a Christmas Day feast.

Nutcracker with Rudolf Nureyev (1968): This filmed performance features perhaps the greatest male ballet dancer in peak form in a celebrated interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet masterpiece and holiday mainstay.

The Ref (1994): Denis Leary plays a cat burglar who breaks into a home on Christmas Eve and then must play mediator to a warring couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) and their family in this painfully funny R-rated dark comedy.

Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) (2008): Catherine Deneuve stars in this acerbic French comedy-drama about a highly dysfunctional and feuding family that gathers at the parents’ house for Christmas and learns the strong-willed matriarch has leukemia.

Arthur Christmas (2011): Santa’s clumsy son Arthur alternately ruins and then saves Christmas in this wondrous holiday classic. While audiences missed the film in theatres, Arthur Christmas deserves to be a staple of the season for years to come.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Arthur Christmas a Worthy Holiday Entry

Written by Kirk Baird

Arthur Christmas is a charming holiday film that deserves a place among the classics of the season. This animated tale is as joyous as the season it celebrates, with a warm message for Christmas about the spirit of giving.

The story concerns the silly and sometimes clumsy son of Santa, Arthur (voice of James McAvoy), a good-natured soul who spends time working in the letter department at his dad's North Pole facility. Arthur loves Christmas, but his taskmaster brother Steve (voice of Hugh Laurie), who runs Santa's workshop and the gift deliveries, treats the holiday as a business. He's transformed Santa's workshop into a high-tech business to ensure children worldwide receive their Christmas gifts on time.

But when a little girl is inadvertently passed over, Steve focuses on how well the operation went otherwise, with only a tiny percentage point of error, and convinces an old and rather worn down Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent) that he shouldn't worry about the happiness of a single child out of a billion. Arthur feels differently, and with the help of his Grandsanta (voice of Bill Nighy), who retired from the family business long ago, as well as a gift-wrapping elf, he sets out to make things right, leading to a rash of problems and important life lessons along the way.

Arthur Christmas eschews most of the conventions of today's animated films. There are no cute, talking animals, and only a few scattered pop culture references. In that respect, Arthur Christmas, like its message about losing some of the magic of Christmas with high-tech gadgetry, is a throwback. The computer animation is well done and the 3-D subtle but effective. The cast, led by McAvoy and Laurie, are spot on. McAvoy brings a quirky and fun sensibility to Arthur, and Laurie makes Steve stern but never overbearing. Steve is as close to an antagonist as the film provides, but he's really not that bad — just a bit misguided about the importance of Santa.

Arthur Christmas was directed by Sarah Smith in her feature-film debut. Smith also co-wrote the script with Peter Baynham (Borat and Bruno). Arthur Christmas was overlooked by audiences during its holiday run last year. Now out on DVD and Blu-ray, here's hoping holiday history won’t be repeated.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Random House Teases "Surprise" Release

Written by Jon Williams

Something big is coming. Random House sent a notice this week to alert distributors about a major new title to be released on December 6. They're keeping a tight lid on exactly what it is, though: referred to only as Untitled, even Random House employees are being kept in the dark about the project's nature. It is being called, however, a "major media event."

What could this top secret title be? Your guess is as good as ours. All we know is that it’s billed as a “wonderful surprise” that’s “bound to become a classic.” Feel free to post your speculation in the comments section below.

CVS Midwest Tape will bring you the details on this intriguing new title as they become available. Keep an eye on our blog and our company homepage for up-to-the-minute information.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia Even More Stunning on Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

Lawrence of Arabia sets the new standard for Blu-ray releases, as this miraculous 4K high-definition transfer brings stunning life to one of the truly great and influential works of cinema. An epic in every sense of the word, the sprawling desert landscapes of Lawrence of Arabia is why theatres exist, while this is undeniably the definitive version for the home, with a polished print so clean it’s doubtful the film has ever looked this beautiful.

Based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence with a script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia is the tale of an extraordinary British man (an impossibly handsome Peter O’Toole, whose blond hair and blue eyes brighten the screen as never before) who fights ancient allegiances, armies, and himself in an effort to unite Arabia under one rule during World War I.

Director David Lean’s triumph took seven Oscars in 1963, including Best Picture, though the Academy failed to reward O’Toole for what is essentially his stunning debut film performance. Considering his competition that year — Jack Lemmon for Days of Wine and Roses, Burt Lancaster for Birdman of Alcatraz, Marcello Mastroianni for Divorce Italian Style, and winner Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird — such an oversight is forgivable, though no less tragic.

The magnificent cast includes Alec Guinness as a prince sheik (it’s a testament to his acting that his performance is so commanding, despite a fake black beard and tan makeup), Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and Jose Ferrer. The film also picked up Oscars for Freddie Young’s gorgeous cinematography and the lush score by Maurice Jarre – who was the fourth choice to compose the soundtrack and who had only six weeks to write it and record it once hired by Lean.

The nearly four-hour movie takes up one Blu-ray, with several extras packed on a second Blu-ray disc, including a delightful recent interview with O’Toole as he reminisces about the film and his colleagues on the set.

Lawerence of Arabia is an enduring classic, universally praised as one of the greatest films of all time. And on Blu-ray, it finds a release worthy of its fame.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Science TV Provides Drama and Knowledge

Written by Kyle Slagley

Science and drama have long been partners in mainstream television. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy hire consultants to advise on the medical aspects and shows like Homeland hire military consultants, all for the sake of being more realistic and believable. Sometimes the advice is taken; other times the consultants are ignored because, hey, is the audience really going to know if the intern doctor breaks sterile while trapped in the elevator with a dying patient?

Recently my girlfriend discovered the series Lie to Me, a show that ran on Fox from 2009-2011. In the show, lead character Dr. Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) is a leading expert in deception and lie detection. Lightman and his three co-stars work run the Lightman Group, which is contracted to help with crimes from missing persons to national security by – you guessed it – discovering when people are lying.

Lightman does all this by detecting what are called ‘micro-expressions’: instinctive flashes of emotion that appear on your face when you’re lying before you have a chance to hide them. The micro-expression method is grounded in scientific fact, and thanks to this show my girlfriend has decided that she is now an expert in lie detection and, well, let’s just say it’s led to an interesting discussion or two.

Even though I do find Lie to Me entertaining, I tend to prefer my science straight up and take my drama separately. Luckily, there are quite a few series out there that are almost purely science. Here are a few of my favourites.

How It’s Made – Since 2001, this series has been showing viewers how manufacturers make everything from stuffed olives (yes, they’re stuffed by hand) to golf balls. Each of the 250 episodes shows the process for making three or four different items. You can’t get any more real than this.

Top Shot – Your standard competition-elimination reality show, this series takes highly skilled experts in all manner of weapons and pits them against each other in contests that are based in legend (like severing a burning fuse with an old-western six shooter) or fact (a 1,000-yard shot with a .50 caliber sniper rifle).

Man vs. Wild – Adrenaline junkie and former British Special Forces Operative Bear Grylls takes on some of the most treacherous locations and life-threatening situations on Earth. The circumstances of his feats are by no means realistic, but as an outdoorsman with rudimentary survival knowledge myself, I can tell you his tips and advice are great if you can remember them.

Survivorman – If Bear Grylls is a superstar adventurer, Les Stroud is his everyman counterpart. In my not-so-humble opinion, Stroud is more awesome than Grylls because he adventures completely on his own. There are no camera crews, no medical team, no “take two,” and no lush hotel at the end of a hard day of filming. He plunks down by himself in extreme locations for five days at a time, films every shot himself, and only activates his SOS beacon in extreme emergency.

Doing Da Vinci – A disappointingly short series, this show tasks two teams with the creation of full-size, working prototypes of some of Da Vinci’s more ambitious inventions out of only materials that would have been available in the inventor’s time. Throw a few conflicting personalities into the mix for flavour and you’ve got six episodes that are a must for any history buff.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AC/DC Comes to iTunes

Written by Jon Williams

It’s been a while since we made note of artists whose music isn’t available via iTunes. Since then, a number of heavyweights have decided to get on board with digital distribution. The biggest of these, of course, was the Beatles, who came to iTunes with much fanfare in November of 2010. Others have joined with less notice, such as Eagles member Glenn Frey, who released most of his solo catalog digitally along with his latest solo album, After Hours, in May of this year. Then there are artists like Kid Rock, whose latest offering, Rebel Soul, is available through the digital distributor, but not his back catalog (although rumour has it that it may be coming soon).

And then there’s AC/DC. Perhaps the biggest remaining holdout has finally reversed course, making their entire catalog available digitally as of November 20. The classic hard rock band was reluctant to offer their music as individual tracks as opposed to complete albums; however, the continued, expanding popularity of iTunes (it may account for up to 29% of U.S. music sales) was too strong to continue their resistance.

That said, here are a few remaining iTunes holdouts:

Def Leppard: Like Kid Rock, their latest release, Mirror Ball, is available on iTunes, but not their back catalog. Unlike Kid Rock, it seems unlikely that the situation is going to change anytime soon.

Bob Seger: Seger released two live albums with his Silver Bullet Band to iTunes in 2011, as well as a greatest hits compilation. Fans looking for more than that, however, will be disappointed.

Black Sabbath: Yes, there actually are quite a few Sabbath albums on iTunes. None of them, however, features Ozzy Osbourne on vocals. Those albums, essential to classic heavy metal fans, are nowhere to be found.

King Crimson: Exactly one King Crimson track (“The Court of the Crimson King”) is available on iTunes, and you can’t get it individually. You have to purchase the entire Children of Men soundtrack to get it.

Tool: Unlike the artists above, absolutely no music from Tool is available from iTunes. Like AC/DC did, they prefer their music to be available in album form only.

Garth Brooks: Taking over for AC/DC as probably the biggest remaining holdout, the country star also takes issue with selling songs as individual tracks, as well as iTunes’ pricing structure.

Make sure your patrons have access to the music they crave by stocking albums by these artists on your library shelves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Watchmen Better at Home Than in Theatres

Written by Kirk Baird

Given his box-office success with the graphic novel-turned film 300, Zack Snyder was a wise choice to shepherd the long-in-development Watchmen to the big screen as well. One of the most influential graphic novels of all time, Watchmen offers an alternate universe where men and women dressed as superheroes rise up to maintain order in society, and that’s not a good thing. The heroes have changed the course of our history, and by 1985 are used as offensive agents by the U.S. government, vilified by the police and the media, and feared more than respected by the general population.

It got so bad that the federal government outlawed the masked vigilantes in 1977, which effectively ended the reign of Watchmen, the best-known and most powerful group of heroes. Years later, as they have tried to return to a semblance of a normal life with varying degrees of success, an unknown, powerful assailant is tracking down the older heroes and killing them, giving the Watchmen cause to reunite – if they can stand each other long enough.

There are other problems in the world besides masked heroes being offed. Richard Nixon, now in his fifth term as U.S. president, has the United States on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a hostility fueled in part by the government using the godlike Doctor Manhattan as a weapon of fear. The graphic novel, written by Alan Moore, is rich in subtext, scope, and depth, and when released in the mid-1980s, almost immediately helped change the possibilities of comic books to come. There’s also a lot going on within its hundreds of pages, which is why many filmmakers struggled with bringing Watchmen to the big screen, and many, many more fans hoped that they wouldn’t.

Snyder essentially places himself in the proverbial no-win situation with his adaptation, co-written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Moore scoffed at the film even as it was in production, and the notion of successfully porting the graphic novel into anything less than a miniseries frustrated fans, who felt too much of Watchmen would be sacrificed in a film – even at two hours and 42 minutes in length. They were right. Watchmen as released to theatres in March, 2009, was incredibly ambitious and just as shallow, an attractive movie with fantastic parts that never amounted to much as a whole – certainly not when held to the high standards set by Moore’s work. The film also was nearly unintelligible to anyone who went into the theatre having never read the graphic novel.

But the Collector’s Edition, with its three-hours-and-35-minutes cut, helps resolve that issue. Known now as the Ultimate Cut, this new Blu-ray set is Snyder’s director’s cut version along with Watchmen’s Tales of the Black Freighter sub-comic now incorporated into the main narrative, instead of a separate DVD as it was originally released. This should please Watchmen fans, who missed having the separate features packaged as one entity, as in the graphic novel. This Ultimate Cut release and its animated segments also effectively break up the real-world story into chapters, and provide jarring subtext and allegory to the Watchmen storyline. Warning: These animated segments are as graphic as the hyper violence in the main feature, including a raft made of the decaying bodies of dead sailors.

While the Ultimate Cut resurrects quasi-important character – and narrative – development moments originally left in the editing room, it also benefits substantially from the less-heightened expectations of seeing the film at home, rather than on the big screen, which magnifies a film’s weaknesses. In other words, Watchmen simply works better at home, which gives further credence to the fanboys who thought the graphic novel should have been a miniseries all along.

The Ultimate Cut also features two commentaries by Snyder and graphic novel co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons, and on separate Blu-rays 11 video journals and four featurettes, a Watchmen motion comic, featuring the entire graphic novel in 12 chapters of limited motion, voice, and sound, and the original theatrical cut on DVD. The set also features DC Comics’ first-ever hardcover edition of Watchmen, featuring the recoloured pages found in Watchmen: The Absolute Edition.