My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic [Season 3]

Friendship-Magic-3Having a now three year old girl, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a reality in my life. She has a Rainbow Dash hooded towel, about 5 mini ponies, two massive ponies, lots of DVDs, and they’ve all been gifts. Everyone knows that little girls love them so they’re like a standard gift, so I don’t think you can go wrong with this DVD if you’re planning on buying it for a little girl. My daughter is so hooked she watches crazy women on Youtube opening boxes full of My Little Pony “blind bags”, she’d do this for hours if I let her.

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Moomins on the Riviera

Moomins

Created by Finnish writer/illustrator Tove Jansson in the late 1940s. The Moomins are a family of eccentric, oddly-shaped creatures slightly resembling Hippopotamuses that inhabit Moominvalley along with Snufkin, Snork Maiden, My Little and the Hattifatteners, among others. Initially published as a series of books that lead to a regular comic strip, TV show and eventually films that have been translated into various languages and gained a worldwide following.

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The Fall [Series 1 & 2]

The-Fall12The Fall is a show that focuses on a serial killer who is committing sexually violent murders in Belfast. When he’s not killing young women he is a bereavement counselor, a husband, and a father.  Metro Police Superintendent Stella Gibson is a senior investigating officer who is sent to assist the Belfast police department as they’ve been unable to solve the case.  Being an outsider Stella faces a lot of hostility from the local detectives but she knows serials killers and is good at her job. The show essentially consists of the two hunting each other which makes for an interesting dynamic.

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Deathgasm

DeathgasmDVDDeathgasm began life as a competition entry. The second year of the New Zealand “Make My Movie” competition specialised in horror and the winning pitch was from Weta digital effects man Jason Lei Howden. As a result, he had $200,000 and a shooting schedule of less than three weeks to make it. The results are a minor miracle.

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Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going-ClearI guess nowadays most sane people are of the opinion that those Scientologists are wacky folks. Many have seen the viral video of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch all hopped up on the ‘tology or are aware that John Travolta is a longtime member of the church. But did you know that Scientologists believe 75 million years ago a galactic ruler named Xenu imprisoned the population, put them all into boxes which he then dropped into volcanoes and subsequently detonated H-bombs sending society’s souls flying all over the place. These souls (known as thetons) now cling to our human bodies and it is only through paying a lot of money to the Church of Scientology that we can learn the secrets to rid ourselves of them. That’s some zany sci-fi shit ain’t it? Nope, that’s a billion dollar religion.

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Going Clear exposes some shocking truths about this church of “science” that will have you picking your jaw up off the floor. Relying chiefly on archive footage and the testimonies of eight ex-Scientologists we are taken behind the scenes of this utterly bizarre cult.

To begin with we learn the background of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of dianetics and the Scientology religion. Essentially a Science Fiction writer who created a grand mythology around himself and found a tax-free way to sucker folks. Using a pseudo-scientific combination of Freudian psychology, hypnosis and a lie detector, Hubbard’s dianetics blew up in the 1950s as the new wave of psycho-therapy. After losing the rights to the name he quickly invented a new religion, Scientology.

The ultimate aim of a Scientologist is to get “clear”. This involves regular “auditing” wherein the subject attempts to bring forth and analyze any traumatic life events or suppressed memories and afterwards no longer feels weighed down by this emotional baggage, thus “clear”. And by paying larger & larger sums you move up the ranks eventually earning access to all the highly secretive science fiction knowledge.

Everything about it appears cultish, from the insular view that any outside media relating to Scientology is forbidden to the dictum that if you leave you are “disconnected” from everyone you know and harassed/stalked/publicly slandered (this actually forms a part of their doctrine called Fair Game). Then there’s the humiliation tactics and occasional bit of torture for good measure.

The most intriguing part of all this is that as a rule Scientology tends to attract apparently sane, intelligent people. All of the “survivors” interviewed, which include actor Jason Beghe (Californication), and various higher-ups in the organization, marvel at how completely indoctrinated they were to blindly swallow whatever was put in front of them regardless of how twisted things got and in spite of multiple signs they should get out.

Being a fan of many of Gibney’s previous documentaries (Silence in the House of God, Gonzo – The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), I had no doubt this would be a quality film but was blown away by some of the facts raised. This isn’t some scandalous exposé but a thoroughly researched (being in part inspired/based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name) condemnation which examines in full the dark side of this celebrity-endorsed religion.

Extras:

A five minute interview with director Alex Gibney.

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Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

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Loosely based on an urban legend linked to the 2001 death of Takako Konishi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter tells the melancholy tale of 29-year-old Kumiko, a solitary introvert working as an Office Lady in Tokyo with an unhealthy obsession for the 1996 Coen Brothers film, Fargo.

Due to her non-conformist lifestyle in relation to homogeneous Japanese society – unmarried, no job ambition, lives alone with her pet rabbit Bunzo – she is routinely humiliated and viewed as an outcast by her co-workers, boss, and even her own mother. At the end of every monotonous workday, she returns home to a pot of noodles, Bunzo and her severely degraded Fargo VHS to watch and re-watch the scene wherein Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase of cash in the snow.

Believing Fargo to be a true story, Kumiko makes meticulous efforts to map out the location of the money. Finally tired of her empty life in Tokyo, she absconds with the company credit card and hops on a flight to Minneapolis in search of her treasure.

She is ill-equipped for the harsh winter that greets her upon landing and wanders the highways encountering various characters who attempt to help this misguided Japanese tourist on her way to Fargo. After showing the DVD (her VCR eventually chewed the tape) to a kindly policeman he tries to explain that it’s a fictional film, to no avail. Kumiko hitches a taxi to her destination and wades headlong into a snowy forest-scape of oblivion.

Upon reading the synopsis for this film (and never having heard the urban legend it’s based on) I have to admit the premise sounded quite original. And indeed it is. With very little dialog, we essentially follow an uncommunicative Japanese woman on a bizarre little journey. The pace is painstakingly slow and the tone meditative, even mundane. Despite Kumiko’s apparent insanity, most of the time there’s not much action on-screen. But this approach fits the overall mood, Kumiko is downtrodden yet determined to reach her mythical fortune.

The last three-quarters of the film are particularly impressive visually with beautifully shot barren stretches of snow, ice and impenetrable forests which perfectly capture the atmosphere of Fargo. As does Kumiko’s oversized red hoodie she wears in very scene, no doubt a tribute to William H. Macy’s ubiquitous orange puffer jacket in the film.

For those interested in the real life case of Takako Konishi, Paul Berczeller’s short documentary This Is A True Story is compulsory viewing.

Extras:

A short interview with lead actress Rinko Kikuchi and the director(s), a behind the scenes featurette which details the great lengths they went to cast the perfect rabbit in the role of Bunzo and a few deleted/alternate scenes, one of which is entitled ‘a grim ending’.

Jonathan Creek Series 5

Jono-Creek-5Order DVD

There’s a few things I have come to like thanks to my mum: Jamie Oliver, Days of Our Lives, Revenge (TV series), fruit cake and Jonathan Creek. “Boring old English lady crap” I hear you say… no it really isn’t. It’s not amazing but it’s not shit either and after 5 series I’ve still never guessed the outcome of a single mystery. My lateral thinking skills suck.

Granted it has lost a bit of its charm over so many series and specials, this series should really be the last. It’s just not that good. I think this has to do with the normalisation of Jonathan. He’s not quirky anymore. Gone are the days of living in a windmill and being the brain behind a camp-y magician’s tricks. He had a crush on a chubby woman and now he’s got an office job and a hot blonde wife, Polly (Sarah Alexander, whom I loved in Green Wing). I wasn’t a huge fan of Maddie (said chubby woman played by Caroline Quentin) but they had chemistry whereas Polly and Jonathan don’t seem to have much at all. Polly also seems like a total killjoy. The lack of sexual tension between sidekicks from previous seasons is really noticeable as instead of acerbic banter we get boring husband/wife dynamics.

Another problem over the last few seasons/specials is that so many mini mysteries are crammed into each episode and it can sometimes be confusing or they simply feel like filler material. Alan Davies has said in an interview that the budgets have been cut severely and that he doesn’t enjoy playing the character due to harsh work schedules and lack of money and I think it shows compared to the earlier seasons especially in the quality of writing.

In this season Polly and Jonathan move to Polly’s recently deceased father’s massive house in the countryside. As soon as they arrive Jonathan is called upon to investigate an attempted murder of an actress and the new village they are in provides plenty of “mysteries”. Although in a bizarre move the first episode of the series solves the crime in the first ten minutes…and why do we need to watch the rest of the episode? Don’t change the format!

There’s still the odd bit of dark humour, a stand out “mystery” that was pretty funny was when a robot vacuum cleaner was responsible for vanishing human remains. Really only one episode out of three was good and I’d barely call it great.

Totally worth it for hardcore Jonathan Creek fans but the census among fans seems to be that the show has gone downhill since series three. I enjoyed the odd episode since then and loved Adrian Edmondson being in the show but it’s just not as good as the early shows. If you like the show for the mysteries then you’ll be satisfied, I still couldn’t guess any of them. My plea to David Renwick – Keep Jonathan weird. Bring back the magician.

Over Your Dead Body

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Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the classic Japanese ghost stories. Written in the 19th century as a kabuki play, it has been filmed over 30 times. The tale centres on Iemon, a masterless samurai and his wife, Oiwa. When an opportunity to marry into a wealthy family appears, Iemon conspires to poison and then murder his wife, only for his guilt to mean he is haunted by her ghost. Finally, mistaking his new love for his wife’s ghost, he kills her, too and vengeance is served.

Over Your Dead Body sees a variant on the re-telling. The focus here is on actors Kousuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki), a couple who are starring in a play of ­ you guessed it ­Yotsuya Kaidan.

As rehearsals progress, tensions raise between them and the story of the play begins to bleed and echo in real life. Miyuki suspects she is pregnant, while Kousuke starts an affair with their co-star…the actress playing his new love in the play.

Over Your Dead Body is directed by Takashi Miike, the enfante terrible of Japanese cinema who found global fame with extreme pieces like Ichi The Killer, Dead or Alive and Visitor Q. But Miike has always had many sides to him, directing everything from colourful childrens’ films to sombre introspective pieces like The Bird People in China.

This appears to be cut from the cloth of the latter, but in fact it is more like his classic Audition…a slow­burn that erupts into blood and violence. This is, without doubt, a horror movie at the end of the day.

One of the most impressive things in Miike’s extensive resume is that while his films are often very stylish, he never settles on one particular style. Over Your Dead Body is another extension, the lavish production design of the theatrical sets and sleek, modern ‘real world’ houses creating space for the languid pacing of the film. The camera-work matches, all slow moves and deliberate framing. As reality and fiction wind together, so the filming becomes more unsettled as close-­ups, hard cuts and off­-kilter shot selection reveal the shakiness in the mental state of the characters.

The effectiveness of the movie lies in the subtle build-­up of the character work. Miyuke’s mental state crumbles under the combination of her suspicions and seeing the possible result of these suspicions play out in the theatre. The problem is that this reservation carries too far ­ when the impacts are required at the end, events feel somewhat distant.

The coldness comes from not only the shooting style, but also from Ichikawa’s impassive performance. It is so hard to see chinks in his emotional armour that the film loses the intimacy it needs to fully absorb.

The result is an interesting film with a lot to recommend about it. That it never fully hits home is the key element holding it back from real greatness and a place in the “best of” section of Miike’s filmography.

Extras:

The extras are simply trailers for other Madman Eastern Eye titles coming out. Although it is testament to how prolific Takashi Miike is that two of the films promoted are also his!

Ju-on: White Ghost / Ju-on: Black Ghost

White_Ghost_Black_Ghost_DVD

There have been few horror properties in the past decade as prodigious as the Ju-on series. From the Japanese originals, to American remakes and even video games, it is a surprising proliferation for a film with a seemingly limited core concept. Even six years after the last Japanese film in the series, the concept has been revived for two new films in the form of Ju-on: White Ghost and Ju-on: Black Ghost.

Around the turn of the century, the J-horror boom was just starting to hit. The cerebral works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa had garnered interest on the festival circuit, along with the more visceral films from Takashi Miike, but it was Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring that truly ignited things.

When Ring came out in 1998, Takashi Shimizu was a young assistant director attending a filmmaking class conducted by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kurosawa subsequently invited Shimizu to contribute a couple of short films to an anthology made-for-TV project called Gakkô no kaidan G. Shimizu’s contributions would be Katasumi (AKA In The Corner) and 4444444444, two simple one-scare three-minute pieces that would introduce the two key ghosts of the JuOn milieu and set the template for all of the films to follow.

What did follow was the surprise V-cinema hits Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2 which would then be conglomerated and reworked into a theatrical version called, Ju-on: The Grudge. This release would also be successful to the point that a sequel, Ju-on: The Grudge 2 soon followed. Then Hollywood came a-knocking and tapped Shimizu to remake his own work into the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring The Grudge.

The US version would itself spawn two sequels, but Shimizu was no longer involved. When two more Japanese films were announced in 2009, Shimizu was on board, but only in an advisory capacity. The results were the hour-long pieces, White Ghost and Black Ghost.

White Ghost continues (loosely) the tale of the Ju-on Saeki house where Takeo murdered his wife Kayako and child Toshio. Years later, the rage locked up in the house infects another family, resulting once more in mass-murder and a new wave of ghosts who take vengeance on any unfortunates straying too close.

The movie continues the Ju-on structure of a series of chapters, each titled after a different protagonist. These are always told out of chronological order, serving to create a satisfying narrative from what is usually (and again in this case) a pretty threadbare plot. Ultimately, a Ju-on film stands or falls on the quality of its scares; this is very much a set-up that is like a theme park ride – a succession of tense build-ups followed by a sudden fright.

In this capacity, White Ghost is a mixed bag. It has terrific moments (a creepy cassette that plays by itself stands out), but some choices may result in laughs, rather than scares. Electing to make one of the ghosts an old woman is a valid choice, but when it is apparently portrayed by a child in a cheap rubber mask, the effect is badly undercut. This is not helped by having this particular ghost always carrying a basketball.

Black Ghost takes a very different approach and in fact, aside from a fan service nod by having a cameo by Toshio, this does not feel like a Ju-on film at all, rather a generic ghost story with no connection to the mythos. In this story, a young girl named Fukie is committed to hospital suffering from an apparent cyst. Naturally, this turns out to be the remains of her unborn twin…who is angry for not ever being born.

Events progress is a fairly pedestrian manner, bringing neither quality scares nor anything that hasn’t been done in numerous horror films before. It is telling that, even at only 60 minutes long, Black Ghost feels stretched too thinly.

The results are an uneven pairing. White Ghost is a worthy addition to the Ju-on pantheon, being somewhat of a middling entry, but Black Ghost is arguably the worst in the series, possibly even including the dire American The Grudge 3. A mixed bag and really only one for Ju-on fans.

Extras:
  • Trailer

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Nightcrawler [Blu-Ray]

NightcrawlerThe opening shot of Nightcrawler is of a blank Los Angeles billboard. It is the perfect metaphor for the message of the film, a vacuum existing just to sell to people. A gaudy, dominating monument to marketing.

This is the world of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Bloom wants success. Success as Western capitalism teaches it. He’s not interested in improving the world, family or helping people. He wants career goals and money. He is modern ambition incarnate. A void of humanity, brought up on inspirational messages and business acumen one-liners.

We first see Bloom as a petty thief, but when he witnesses a video cameraman (Bill Paxton) filming the aftermath of a car accident to sell the footage to local television news, he believes he has found his calling.

Another theft gets him enough cash to buy a camera and a police scanner and he is off and running. Part of an underground of cameraman hunting news stories in the dead of the Los Angeles night, flocking to crime scenes like vultures. Bloom quickly learns that his lack of caring for ethics, people or their feelings makes him ideally suited to the work…and so his meteoric rise begins.

Nightcrawler is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and it is a spectacular debut. Gilroy’s previous screenwriting credits are underwhelming (the likes of Freejack, Real Steel and The Fall hardly boasted top tier scripts), but this is a superb piece of work.

The satire as vicious and the whole is reminiscent of Martin Scorcese. The dark streets, the vitriol directed at American capitalism of Wolf of Wall Street, the Taxi Driver-esque anti-hero in Lou Bloom.

But the true cunning of Nightcrawler is how it makes you root for Bloom. Part of this is down to the script, part down to the tense filming and part down to the clever score by James Newton Howard that provides revelatory, heroic tones even when Bloom is carrying out the most deplorable acts.

Gilroy pulls few punches with his attacks. Bloom spouts cheerful platitudes like, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” in between quoting self-improvement lines. Local TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) tramples over broadcasting standards in the rush for ratings, explaining to Bloom that what really sells is minorities committing crimes against whites in affluent neighbourhoods. There is no interest, she explains, in the poor preying on the poor.

All of this social commentary would be wasted if the film failed to engage – but boy, does it. Bloom’s escalations from indiscretions (moving a corpse at an accident into better light) through to orchestrating violence for his camera are riveting. All are shot beautifully and edited superbly, culminating in a high-speed car chase the equal of any action film.

Towering over it all is Gyllenhaal. As Bloom, he never convinces as an actual human being, but that is not his goal. His performance is hugely charismatic, his Bloom reptilian and ever-grinning with a smile that never touches his eyes. Gyllenhaal lost 28 pounds for the role and the result is a gaunt, skull-like figure that bristles with energy and barely-contained menace.

A terrific film that delivers on all fronts, Nightcrawler is a modern urban masterpiece. Unmissable.

Extras:

The extras include some interviews with Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo, plus a fluff featurette mixing those interviews with footage from the film. A second featurette is a little more candid, but also quite superficial and brief.

The main addition on board is a commentary track. This is a breezy and highly-informative track featuring writer/director Dan Gilroy, his brother Tony (producer) and his other brother John (editor). As brothers, they are at ease throughout and discuss a wide-range of topics from the shooting style to the casting of Gyllenhaal through to their use of technical advisors for both the late-night camera operators (known as “Nightcrawlers” or, more common, “Stringers”) and the police in order to lend as much authenticity to the film as possible.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.