Vikings: Journey to New Worlds

The idea of watching an IMAX film in the comfort of your home has always confused me. These productions are meant to be seen in the large-format environment, surrounded by impressionable children, and admission prices that hover around pure insanity. Unless you’ve fallen in love with the picture and want to sustain the experience after the theatrical showing, I wouldn’t recommend a DVD first viewing for these mini-epics. Especially for a film that’s only mediocre to begin with.

“Vikings” is a terribly ambitious film. It’s a schoolroom lesson on the legendary society, hoping to encompass hundreds of years of history and myth in just under 40 minutes (and that includes opening titles!). That’s a pretty tall order, but director Marc Fafard puts forth an incredible effort to give the viewer a peek behind this historical curtain, shedding needed light on an often misunderstood culture.

Fafard doesn’t have much documentation to work with here outside of the Icelandic Sagas, a type of Viking oral history that is considered by many to be the best record of their existence. To combat the film droning into a college lecture, Fafard employs a host of period recreations to pad out the experience. Some are successful, and some look like a bunch of obscenely bearded ex-truckers hamming it up in front of a blue screen. Either way, the recreations tend to distract from the historical perspective of the film; they feel like filler in a film that doesn’t have time to be screwing around.

“Vikings” aims to debunk many common misconceptions. One of the more interesting revelations is the scope of their global reach, as the Vikings settled all over Europe, Russia, and the Middle East during their reign. Another is the whole Christopher Columbus “discovering America” mumbo jumbo; “Vikings” seems almost perturbed to note that these guys were traipsing around North America 500 years before Columbus and that his history-book-hogging behind stole the spotlight.

We learn a little about the iconic Viking longships that ruled the waters, a little about Eric the Red and his travels to Greenland with son Leif Eriksson, and the eventual disappearance of the Vikings from the land due to warring indigenous tribes. It’s interesting material, but truthfully you’re only getting scraps of information, leading to a fractured overview of a multifaceted society.

As with the best IMAX experiences, “Vikings” finds its beauty in the flyovers of Iceland and Greenland, where the natural beauty that enraptured the Vikings is given the royal treatment. This is where large-format films excel, and “Vikings” is no different. It’s gorgeous country, presented in immaculate detail with splendid color and crisp atmosphere. “Vikings” comes alive when it stops trying to cram history into narrow spaces and lets the vistas do all the talking. Only then does the viewer see what these legendary men spent their lives chasing after: utopia.

THE DVD

Video:

Well, it isn’t exactly IMAX proportions, but the image here is crisp and clear, displaying the clarity of a traditional IMAX production. Those with smaller televisions might have trouble reading the tiny subtitles, since they were created with the large format in mind, not home exhibition.

Sound:

“Vikings” features a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, matching the charging thunder of the title characters well. For an educational film, this disc rumbles nicely, and should give the average audio system a good workout. Also included is a DTS track.

Extras:

A 20-minute documentary (“The Making of Vikings”) covers the production, interviewing the cast and crew as they try to mount this ambitious IMAX film. Much like the feature, the doc is dry and measured, but if you found “Vikings” enjoyable, this short look at its creation will unlock some of its technical secrets.

A theatrical trailer for “Vikings” is included here, along with looks at several other IMAX titles.

Rating: C-
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MXC: Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (Season One)

THE SHOW

Airing on the Spike television network since 2003, “MXC” has come to be something of a cult show for all ages over the last three years. It’s a wild, unpredictable comedy program, combining elements of sports and bodily damage to create one of basic cable’s more engaging shows, constantly alternating between cheers and guffaws every week, and never, ever disappointing.

The premise is simple: commentators Vic Romano and Kenny Blankenship oversee a Japanese game show that has contestants sprinting through a series of outlandish obstacle courses, each one more intricate and bizarre than the last. They fight for victory, but mostly they fall on their face, much to the delight of Romano and Blankenship.

As its more vocal opponents will remind you ad nauseam, “MXC” simply recycles footage from Takeshi Kitano’s wildly popular “Takeshi’s Castle” Japanese television game show that ran from 1986 to 1989. “MXC” cuts and pastes the footage from “Castle” to suit their own needs, inventing “teams” to compete (such as Dairy Workers Vs. Automobile Workers), shortening the games, and dubbing over the whole thing with their own roster of Groundlings-trained cast members in the style of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lilyr”

“MXC” certainly doesn’t share the same sillyheart spirit as “Castle,” but it’s a fun sit due to the rapid-fire joke delivery mixing with the pure lunacy of the game show elements. With contests like “Log Drop” (unfortunate souls try to cross a series of rolling logs), “Boulder Dash” (suckers sprint uphill while styrofoam rocks are rolled down), and my personal favorite, “Sinkers and Floaters” (contestants race across a muddy lagoon covered with rocks; some are bolted to the floor, others are merely floating), laughs and the jaw-dropping horror over some of the more painful contestant eliminations are never in short supply.

“MXC” is goofy and perhaps disrespectful to the original creation; however, at the heart of it all is a tirelessly funny television show. The 13 episodes on display here show the birth of a wonderful program to come, and one that would go on for three more seasons (a fifth starts this month). I hope Magnolia Home Entertainment doesn’t stop exploring its DVD potential.

THE DVD

Video:

13 episodes of “MXC” are presented in their original full frame format.

Sound:

The show is presented in a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mix.

The Extras:

Included on three episodes are audio commentaries from the actors and producers that make up the “MXC” team. While informal, the tracks do reveal a bit of the working process that goes into each of these episodes; it isn’t just sitting in a recording booth and dubbing lines, that’s for sure. We also learn about the original 8-minute pitch reel made for “MXC” in 2001 for network shopping, the sexual proclivities of correspondent Guy LeDouche, and some tantalizing comments are dropped about the infamous “Almost Live” episode of “MXC” taped at Universal Orlando in 2004.

To appease the faithful, Magnolia has included a single episode of “Takeshi’s Castle” (#93). Offering the option of either English subtitles or some English narration to help explain what we’re seeing, “Castle” is 45 minutes of straight-up Japanese madness, akin to the spirit of “Hee Haw” and Benny Hill (but with more face plants). The original show isn’t nearly as fast paced or go-for-broke zany as “MXC,” but “Castle” puts the whole Takeshi world into proper context and is an absolute treat to see. For those that stand firm to the idea that “MXC” is a complete and utter bastardization of “Castle,” Magnolia has provided the proof.

On disc two is the Original Presentation reel for “MXC,” from November 2001. This 8-minute reel was used to sell the program to Spike, and features an extremely rough version of what we know as the show today.

Also on disc two is a short feature called “Kenny’s Blankenship’s Most Painful Eliminations of the Season.” Slapped together for this DVD, it provides an overview of the more bone-snapping falls of the season.

Final Thoughts:

Always remember: “Don’t. Get. Eliminated!”

Rating: A-
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Preserve Me a Seat

While Hollywood aficionados scream about film preservation, an equally important cause is often left in the dust: theater preservation. Across America, movie palaces are dying; killed off by old age, owner neglect, and that most evil of sins, greed.

The documentary “Preserve Me a Seat” details the fights to save these old dream factories, starting with the saga to protect the Indian Hills Cinerama Theater, located in Omaha, Nebraska, and chronicling similar struggles in Detroit (The Michigan Theater), Illinois (The DuPage Theater), Boston (The Gaiety Auditorium), and Salt Lake City (Villa Cinerama), where glorious architecture was about to meet the stinging kiss of a wrecking ball.

Director Jim Fields draws a very clear line on where moviegoing is headed with this film. A valentine to the days when taking in a motion picture meant a night on the town and a lasting, golden memory, Fields includes a brief history of the decaying industry to remind us all what’s being lost. Once upon a time, reliable presentation and a little stardust was all that was needed to make movies special, but soon the death of these luminescent theaters gave rise to the multiplex, and eventual decline into the cattle mentality and consumer disgust that permeates the industry today. To best illustrate the dissention, Fields includes interviews with proud home theater owners and footage of today’s multiplex at work; numbingly going through the motions to pack as many people into as many theaters as they can build. The sad truth is, as the years go by, fewer people are showing up for this absurd treatment.

That’s what makes “Preserve” such a pearl. Not only is this a chilling reminder of how history is so willingly steamrolled over to make room for homogeny, but it also takes the viewer on a trip back in time to observe long dormant footage of movie palaces in their prime. It’s amazing just how far the quality of exhibition has fallen.

The Indian Hills story is a compelling one of loss and misguided goodwill, and perfect for Fields to hang his film on. The most glorious of all the Cinerama theaters that sprung up in the 1950s and 60s (its sister complexes included Minnesota’s Cooper Theater, a cherished and frequently missed stomping ground of mine as a child that was bulldozed in 1991), “Preserve” records the fight to turn it into a parking lot by Nebraska Methodist Health Systems, and the grass-roots campaign by the ragtag Indian Hills Preservation Society to stop them. It’s David versus Goliath, but in this story, Goliath had some excellent lawyers, and the Indian Hills met its fate in 2001.

Fields encapsulates the clammy fury of the theater’s vocal fans vividly. They staged demonstrations, encouraged Hollywood stars such a Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston to write the city government asking them to stop the demolition, and eventually persuaded the powers that be to classify the Indian Hills as a historical landmark (a major focus of the third act). Of course, in America, this means absolutely nothing, further driving home the point that these theaters have no shot of surviving in a society that doesn’t consider these churches of the celluloid to be places of historical significance. For the children of cinema, it’s a horrible situation that’s difficult to change.

“Preserve Me a Seat” may not have blockbuster production values (it has a calming PBS feel to it), the “good guys” tend to act unreasonably melodramatic for the camera, and, well, there’s not a happy ending to cheer for. But any movie fan worth their buttered popcorn needs to make time to view it; to remind themselves that the enchantment of movies wasn’t always found in the product, but sometimes it was the venue that brought out the best of what cinema had to offer.

“Preserve Me a Seat” is not available in stores. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this gem at apartment101films.com

Rating: A-
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Brother Bear 2

Traveling to a feast of berries far away, bears Kenai (Patrick Dempsey) and Koda (Jeremy Suarez) are stopped by Nita (Mandy Moore), a human who Kenai once held love for when they were younger. Looking to break a curse that’s preventing her from marrying, Nita requests the help of the bears to cross the countryside. Along the journey, the connection between Nita and Kenai is reignited, leaving Koda to ponder if Kenai should really live life as a bear, or would he be better off as a human again.

Admittedly, it was an animated production glued together by scraps from other Disney hits, but 2003’s “Brother Bear” knocked me down in ways few of the Mouse House’s offerings have been able to do since I was 10 years old. It was a splash of thrilling autumnal colors, jubilant character development, and confident storytelling that ignored many Disney crutches (chiefly a villain, along with singing and dancing), and preferred to lead with its heart. Over the years I’ve revisited the film several times, and today find it to be one of the stronger entries in Disney’s towering animated empire.

While not racking up huge box office numbers in America, “Brother Bear” charmed enough on DVD to warrant a direct-to-video sequel, which is both a promising and lamentable idea. Where the first film was an animated feature, the sequel is simply a cartoon.

First and foremost, “Bear 2” is missing the majestic hand-animated woodsy vistas to backdrop Kenai and Koda’s adventure; the nuanced and trembling voice work from Joaquin Phoenix; the layered, widescreen score by Mark Mancina and pop song interstitials from Phil Collins (Melissa Etheridge substitutes here); and a penetrating story about friendship and the mystical wonders of life that elevated “Bear.”

What we’re eventually handed in “Bear 2” are elements that show a step down in effort from the first film, but still allows time to be spent with old friends. The film remains a charmer, even with a brittle acting job from Patrick Dempsey and a Saturday morning cartoon level of animation. “Bear 2” is a minor diversion, and the filmmakers have lightened up the material substantially to appeal to a younger crowd. Let’s put it this way: the original film took its time with the Inuit characters, respecting traditions (even the invented ones), and placing emphasis on careful animation to express the splendor of the spiritual world; “Brother Bear 2” brings in Wanda Sykes to play a village elder.

Regardless of the loosened standards, “Bear 2” still affects with its story of dormant romance, cleverly finding ways to challenge Kenai’s decision in the last film to become a bear. Agreeably voiced by Mandy Moore, the addition of Nita adds the only conflict the film needs. Again, the absence of a mustache-twirling villain is truly something praiseworthy. Equally hard to resist are returning moose Rutt and Tuke, played to the McKenzie Brothers hilt by Dave Thomas and the sorely missed Rick Moranis. Since the theme of love is in the air, the boys have their own objects of moose desire, played appropriately by some more “SCTV” cast members, Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara.

As money-grabbing animated product goes, “Brother Bear 2” rests nicely on a lowered expectation level, and is hardly an offensive affront to the first film. The texture and polish is deeply missed, but the characters are so strong and engaging, it still entertains.

Rating: B
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Jimmy Stewart – The Signature Collection

I love and adore Jimmy Stewart. Who doesn’tr As beloved and popular as he remains to this day, it’s safe to say he’s still a household name, like his co-stars in The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. His enduring popularity with generations of film audiences is a testament to his remarkably long career, which includes a staggering number of impressive performances in some of the screen’s greatest films of all time. Sadly, the titles gathered for the supposed “Signature Collection” do not reflect the true brilliance of his many achievements. In fact, the films presented here are unlikely to be recognized for any reason other than Stewart’s (and co-star Henry Fonda’s) participation, but rather are mere side notes to a remarkable list of credits generated by a single actor.

With the exception of The Naked Spur, this box set falls far short of justifying a special collection to be purchased as a whole. The additional titles, The Cheyenne Social Club, Firecreek, The FBI Story, The Spirit of St. Louis, and The Stratton Story are a group of rather uninspired choices from an otherwise illustrious career. One would expect a more well-rounded and higher quality selection to represent a body of work from such a Hollywood luminary. With so many other high profile pictures to choose from, one is lead to believe that these films were perhaps leftovers available to create a product that could be packaged and sold on the weight of the star’s impressive name alone.

This is not to say that these are bad films, unworthy of attention. After all, Jimmy Stewart is worth watching in just about anything at any time (such as his virtual cameo in Airport ’77). With the likes of some notable directors such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Sabrina), Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts, Random Harvest, Gypsy) and Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kings Row, The Pride of the Yankees), the talent involved in these particular movies cannot be overlooked. But these artists have all done better work in other more noteworthy productions too numerous to list in their entirety here.

So why not present some of Jimmy Stewart’s other films as part of a signature collectionr One doesn’t have to be a movie buff to come up with a more auspicious list of his films off the top of one’s head. Heck, you could do a number of themed collections based on directors he’s worked with (four with Alfred Hitchcock, eight with Anthony Mann and three with Frank Capra), actors with whom he frequently co-stared (three with June Allyson and four with Margaret Sullivan), Jimmy as the Young Romantic (Destry Rides Again, The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story) as well as the family-oriented films of his later years (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Holiday, Dear Brigitte, and Take Her, She’s Mine).

From early on in his career, Jimmy Stewart came to personify the Everyman, on and off the screen. It’s safe to say that with more than ninety film credits spanning fifty years, his universal appeal will remain unequaled for years to come. The regular guy, down to earth actor who relied on experience rather than acting lessons never failed to entertain audiences, regardless of the quality of the film in which he appeared.

When it comes down to investing your expendable income in an actual collection worth collecting there are better options out there for the Jimmy Stewart fan to consider. Any Alfred Hitchcock set would most likely feature at least two films starring the acclaimed actor and another Stewart collection called “The James Stewart Hollywood Legend Collection” contains five great films that reflect a greater span of the Jimmy Stewart legacy including Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, Harvey, Rear Window, and Vertigo.

Rating: C+
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World’s Best Prom, The

An appealing reminder that not all teenagers are horrible human beings, “Prom” is a bittersweet, slightly overstuffed, exceedingly good-natured documentary, and perfect for anyone in the mood to relive their golden moment of teendom. Maybe it’s my age showing, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I honestly think that MTV is evil. Leading the cavalry charge of disease is the morbid, screechingly awful teen show, “My Super Sweet 16,” which showcases young, rich girls cursed with unbridled sassmouth and zero respect for anyone who isn’t Kanye West or Mariah Carey.

“The World’s Best Prom” is a sweet, fleeting reminder that not all teenagers are horrible, ungrateful bastards. This documentary takes a look at life in Racine, Wisconsin, an archetypal Midwestern hamlet where factory jobs are scarce, people come from miles around to have a bite of a Kringle (a round pastry), and the prom is an event. Let me clarify: the prom is everything to this town. Starting back in the 1950s as a way to keep the local kids out of trouble, the Racine prom has exploded into a pageant of showoff cars, glittery dresses, and awkward personal expression, topped off with local television coverage and bleachers for the parents. It’s huge.

“Prom” tries to whittle down the experience into a manageable size by focusing on three participants: Dori is a Catholic high school student with big dreams and a taste for the chronic; Tonya is a young, intelligent African-American girl (cursed with the worst nervous laugh around) looking forward to the prom and college; Ben lives in the criminal shadow if his misguided older brother, and looks forward to challenges outside of school. While the doc is peppered with Racine’s youngest throughout the journey, the filmmakers keep their cameras trained on these three to guide the viewer through the rituals of prom.

“Prom” started life as a short film (which might explain why the doc covers the class of 2000), and was gently nursed to feature length through the inclusion of a historical background for Racine and diversions with the local, and impossibly loving, adults. “Prom” offers more information about Racine than anyone should rightfully know, but thankfully it doesn’t take long to get to the heart of the beast: the bonkers prom.

After a day of manicures, hair prepping, dress fiddling, and general anxiety, the kids finally make their way to the show. The first stop is the obligation to their school’s own function. After drinking in those tepid delights, it’s on to the Racine prom, herded in by the most outlandish assortment of vehicles one could imagine. Some come by limo or mom and dad’s tricked-out car, others by military truck (archival footage shows a couple atop an elephant); whatever it takes to wow the bystanders and top their peers is encouraged.

All the arrival pandemonium is captured by television cameras that send the evening out to the citizens of Racine (in homes and local bars) who can’t devote hours of their life to saving a seat on the bleachers. It’s stunning the amount of work and money (the city spends $30,000 for the night) that goes into such a simple, traditional mainstay of adolescence, especially in a town where, during filming, unemployment was on the rise. The prom provides a spark of glamour to a place not known for such luxuries, and gives these Midwestern students a taste of Hollywood-style attention that keeps them coming back year after year.

“Prom” gets a little clumsy trying to tie together an overall portrait of the event’s history and impact. The film is much stronger as a slice of high school life, complete with whiny angst, racial lines that are strictly adhered to, and embarrassing mothers. “The World’s Best Prom” taps into sentimental feelings with ease, and it’s lovely portrait of rural community glamour, concluding with an bittersweet epilogue for each subject interviewed as they struggle with the realities of adulthood (the lone benefit of having the film shot so long ago) and recall fondly their time in the spotlight.

More information can be found at: worldsbestprom.com

Rating: B+
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