Saturday, August 29, 2009

On DVD: "Ripped Off: Madoff and the Scamming of America"

In the streamlined (if somewhat simplified) opening of Ripped Off: Madoff and the Scamming of America, it is noted that "he puts a face on what we've all been feeling." It's a succinct and accurate characterization of the man who ran an elaborate, decades-long Ponzi scheme, bilking countless private investors and charities out of an estimated $65 billion dollars. The disclosure of his fraud, in the midst of the worst economic landscape since the Great Depression, grafted the face of a real-life villain onto the greed and excess of the Bush years--it's hard to personify (or even understand) a credit default swap or a NINA loan, but this was a guy that we could point at and say, "Him! Get him!"

The History Channel's short documentary examination of the Madoff scandal utilizes interviews with journalists, historians, and victims, in addition to some excellent archival footage (particularly those chilling tapes of Madoff holding court in the late 1990s as a wise elder statesman of the financial world). The special contains some valuable biographical information, not only of Madoff's humble beginnings as a Queens-born stock broker, but of Carlo Ponzi (the namesake of the Ponzi scheme) and other con artists who operated in Madoff's style, though perhaps not to his excess.

There's plenty of solid information to be found here--how the lure of the Madoff investment was its exclusivity (he didn't let just anyone throw away their money with him) and it's slow steady performance (one victim notes, quite convincingly, "this was not a get-rich-quick scheme"); the tale of Harry Markopolis, the financial analyst who attempted, for the better part of a decade, to alert the SEC that Madoff was a crook; and the tragic story of Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, the hedge fund operator who responded to the news that his fund's $1.4 billion investment with Madoff wasn't worth the paper it was printed on by slashing his wrists in his Manhattan office.

The documentary moves a breakneck pace, a flurry of images and definitions and images and soundbites, though for all of the information it contains, it occasionally sacrifices nuance for the sake of a quick pulse. The misfortune of Ripped Off is that it follows Frontline's superior examination of the scandal, The Madoff Affair, into the marketplace; that program was simply stronger, with better access to more people on the inside and a more in-depth analysis of the Madoff story. Taken on its own terms, however, Ripped Off is a solid, if less than spectacular, television documentary program.

The History Channel has been kind enough to include an entire bonus documentary (though, to be fair, if we were being asked to pony up twenty clams for just the 47-minute Ripped Off, the title might take on some extra dimension). Crash: The Next Great Depression? examines the causes and consequences of our most recent economic breakdown, all the while comparing and contrasting with the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression. It's a thoughtful, enlightening show with some excellent analysis (in fact, probably a slightly better program than Ripped Off) and an excellent addition to this disc.

Ripped Off: Madoff and the Scamming of America is a little thin, and suffers in comparison with other, more in-depth documentaries about the Madoff swindle. But it is still worth seeing, and the DVD's bonus documentary provides additional insight and context for this con man who became the recipient of bile and loathing from across the nation.

"Ripped Off: Madoff and the Scamming of America" is currently available on DVD. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 8/28/09

Halloween II: ASTONISHINGLY, the week's biggest new release was not screened in advance for critics. (I know, right?) As a Myers afficionado since my teenage years, I was on the fence about Rob Zombie's first "re-imagining" of the Halloween franchise; it had some genuine scares and a strong visual sense, but his tin ear for dialogue and obsession with hillbilly hee-hawing pretty much sunk the first half (to say nothing of his misguided notion to "explain" a villain whose entire persona was that he was evil, pure and simple). The second half, his compressed remake of the Carpenter original, was stronger and more interesting, but the studio-influenced tacked-on ending went on forever. At any rate, I'll wait to hear if this one ends up being any better.

Taking Woodstock: You know who's a moron? Whoever set the release date for Ang Lee's seriocomic behind-the-scenes look at the famed music festival. The fest's 40th anniversary was two weekends ago, so some genius clearly looked at the August calendar and said, "No, no, if we released it that weekend, we'd get all kinds of free, extra publicity when all of the news shows are doing anniversary stories and the music channels are doing retrospectives. Let's wait until two weeks later, when everybody's over it." Anyway, I'm antsy to see it (I'll see anything Ang Lee does); Ebert likes it, while DVD Talk's Jamie S. Rich is underwhelmed.

The Final Destination: I hope you're sitting down for this news-- they didn't screen the latest Final Destination movie for critics either! Will the shocks never end? At any rate, they've pulled a reverse here-- instead of doing like Fast & Furious, which flogged the dead horse of a never-entertaining series by taking the "the"s out of the title of its fourth go-around, this fourth film adds a "the" in! See, they flipped it up on us! Hollywood creativity at its finest!!

Big Fan: There's no bigger fan of Patton Oswalt's stand-up than me; I've seen the guy live many times over and consider him to be perhaps our finest working comic. But I've read enough of his online writings to know that he's a big-time film buff and serious about acting (and filmmaking), so I'm looking forward to his collaboration with The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel (making his directorial debut). Brian Orndorf gives it high marks, as does Variety's Todd McCarthy.

I'm in the midst of a move, so as much as it pains me, Big Fan and Taking Woodstock will have to wait; they're joining Cold Souls, It Might Get Loud, and World's Greatest Dad on my mental queue. Oy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On DVD: "Sugar"

There’s a moment about 80 minutes into Sugar when something miraculous happens. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, but suffice it to say, the story has been moving in a fairly predictable direction (albeit in a subtle and interesting way), and then, in a manner that is unexpected but not a cheat, it takes a sudden, hard turn. I literally sat up in my chair, and leaned forward. That’s a great moment as a moviegoer—most of the time, even at good pictures, you’re watching a movie you’ve already seen. When this film takes its third act turn, we smile and get excited, because it has just become a movie we’ve never seen before.

Sugar is written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed the miraculous 2006 film Half Nelson (frankly, their names alone were enough to pique my interest in this film, and I had the too-infrequent experience of watching it without knowing anything about it). Sugar shares that film’s low-key, lived-in feel, as well as its ability to rethink and work out from what sounds, in both cases, like a terrible, formulaic storyline.

Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) hails from the Dominican Republic, where major league baseball teams run training camps, hoping to find the next Sammy Sosa. Sugar is a pitcher, and his knuckle curve captures the eye of a visiting scout for Kansas City, who sends him to the States for spring training. From there, he is assigned to the franchise’s single-A team in Iowa; he lives with a couple of team boosters, develops a crush on their granddaughter, and becomes something of a local celebrity, until… well, I’ll just leave it at that.

The story of the young, talented innocent and his rise to fame and fortune has been told so many times (both within and outside of the world of pro sports) that it is easy to presume that Boden and Fleck were going for a more commercial narrative this time out, based at least on the broad strokes of the story. It follows a very traditional three-act structure, with the first act focused on his home life, home town, and home base at the training camp, and the second concentrating on his time in Iowa. The general recipe for these sections is familiar, though made more interesting by the additional ingredient of Sugar’s immigrant experience, as well as Boden and Fleck’s lean, efficient sense of storytelling.

Even in its more conventional segments, their screenplay never plays it too easy; there’s no obvious exposition, no amped-up conflict. The picture isn’t rushed or pushy—it rolling along with grace and ease, and when it comes to a pat sequence (like Sugar’s first big game), it underplays the tension with no-nonsense, hard-cut editing. The rising-star montage is, presumably, a necessity in this kind of story, but when they indulge in one, it’s scored with TV on the Radio and kept tight with a restless camera and some unconventional framing. Throughout the film, they’re skilled at compressing action, jumping into a scene as late as possible and leaving at the first available moment, and they can tell a full story in a brief, compact sequence or even a single shot (as when we find out what’s become of his girl back home).

But it’s only when we reach that remarkable third act that we realize how ingeniously the script has been constructed, how shrewdly the duo has turned our expectations of a sports-driven yarn inside out. This is not a film that traffics in rags-to-riches clich├ęs, and its logical and moving yet entirely unpredictable third act is just plain riveting. It’s a film that sneaks up on you, working up considerable affection and empathy for its protagonist without straining for it, right up through its warmly melancholy final notes (which are held ruefully for just the right amount of time, and not a moment longer).

“Remember,” Sugar is told, “life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one.” What is most remarkable about Sugar is that it is a film about life, not baseball—there is no “big game” and no “moment of truth”, none of the hackneyed sequences that we’ve come to dread from sports stories. It’s a film about the myriad of opportunities, not just the one.

"Sugar" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 1st, but a warning: word is that it's been re-cut from its original R rating to a PG-13 version for its standard-def release. While these alterations are certainly minimal (a few isolated profanities and a quick shot of a porn movie playing on a hotel television), the PG-13 version does not represent the film as it was released to theaters; its creation is apparently an attempt to open the film up to a family audience. At any rate, the good news is that the Blu-ray disc presents the film in its original, unaltered form.

Today's New DVDs- 8/25/09

It's been feast or famine lately--mostly lame releases for the last couple of weeks, and then today, two of my favorite films of the year hit DVD and Blu.

Adventureland: Greg Mottola's follow-up to Superbad is a quieter, more deliberate and complex film--it's got its share of big laughs (many of them thanks to Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig), but it's also a well-crafted tale of longing, maturity, and fear of impending failure. Top-shelf performances across the board, particularly from Kristen Stewart (she's never been better) and Ryan Reynolds, who is growing on me.

Duplicity: Writer/director Tony Gilroy followed up 2006's brilliant character drama Michael Clayton with a sharp, 180-degree turn--this bubbly, playful, snappy romantic comedy/industrial espionage thriller, featuring stellar supporting performances by the always-reliable Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, and sunny movie star turns by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.

Fighting: It's predictable as hell, but Dito Montiel's off-kilter direction and sure sense of time and place help keep this formula tale interesting.

Rudo y Cursi: Carlos Cuaron's repairing of Y Tu Mama Tambien stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna starts off well, but quickly degenerates into the kind of contrived sports-movie narrative that we've seen a million times before.

Scrubs- The Complete Eighth Season: Zach Braff and the Sacred Heart crew make the transition from NBC to ABC fairly painlessly, and much of the most recent season is solid and funny. But its attempts to introduce new, uninteresting characters fails, and the decision to keep the show going past its perfect finale (included here) is shameful.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: I don't know about you, but I've been clamoring for the Blu-ray release of Donald Petrie's 2003 classic-- the first pairing of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, the Doris Day and Rock Hudson of our time! It's that one movie about the guy and the girl and the bet, and when she finds out about the bet, she's so mad! But they live happily after anyway. (Oops, spoiler alert!) You should see it! Or you should stab your fucking eyes out. Either one's good.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On DVD: "Scrubs: The Complete Eighth Season"

The news that Scrubs would migrate from NBC to ABC at the end of its seventh season certainly sounded some alarm bells among fans of the quirky comedy, which already seemed to have passed its prime. A network switch is seldom a sign of a new lease on sitcom life; most comedies, whether good (Taxi) or bad (Diff’rent Strokes, Family Matters, Step by Step), have been booted from their networks for good reasons (falling ratings, expensive production, diminishing creative returns) and a new home seldom fixes the problem (all of the sitcoms above limped through a single season on their new networks).

Scrubs seemed a good fit in the NBC Thursday night schedule for 2007-2008, where it was surrounded by other single-camera, laugh-track-free comedies (The Office, 30 Rock, and My Name is Earl). But rumors ran rampant that NBC hadn’t promoted Scrubs as heavily as the other shows, due to the series’ ownership by ABC Studios (why ABC didn’t pick up the show to begin with is a mystery). When creator/show runner Bill Lawrence was reportedly dissatisfied with NBC’s handling of the seventh season (originally intended to be its last), a deal was struck to move the show to ABC for season eight—which would then be the show’s last. (More on that later.)

As before, the setting is Sacred Heart hospital, and the primary character/narrator is J.D. (Zach Braff), a doe-eyed innocent who begins the series as an intern, working his way up through the seasons to attending physician. He works with (and, for several seasons, lives with) his best friend Turk (Donald Faison), who, over the course of the series, dates, weds, and starts a family with head nurse Carla Espinoza (Judy Reyes). He also maintains an occasionally romantic, occasionally plutonic, and often strained relationship with neurotic, high-maintenance fellow intern (later private practice physician) Dr. Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke). J.D. also idolizes his senior attending physician, Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), and works his hardest to get close to him. Other characters include Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins), the hospital's now-retired chief of medicine (who continues to hang around the hospital and insult his previous underlings); the antagonistic Janitor (Neil Flynn); and Jordan Sullivan (Christa Miller), hospital administrator and Perry's sometimes-wife.

Perhaps because the show was changing networks but not production facilities or behind-the-scenes staff, the eighth season of Scrubs doesn’t have the misplaced feel that sometimes infects shows that switch nets; the changeover is seamless and successful. The trouble is, the program is still operating at the second tier, at least compared to its early seasons. The show still works, and some of the eighth season episodes are outstanding—the second show, “My Last Words,” is both heartbreaking and funny, while J.D. and Elliot’s return to couplehood in “My Happy Place” is thoughtful and entertaining. The romance of lawyer Ted (Sam Lloyd) has an awkward sweetness, and Courtney Cox does a sharp three-episode arc at the beginning of the season as Kelso’s replacement. And frankly, even the show’s weakest episodes (like the Sesame Street-inspired “My ABCs”) still have some chuckles. (For what it’s worth, there are no all-out turkeys like the season seven closer “My Fairy Tale.”)

Where the show stumbles, and badly, is in its attempt to bring in characters of new interns. Intellectually, it’s not a bad idea (create a cyclical quality for the final season—the new kids that we started this show with are now the teachers of these new kids), but the new characters are thin and one-note, and the actors aren’t terribly memorable (the only one who makes an impression—comic Aziz Ansari—split halfway through the season, presumably for a better role on Parks and Recreation). And their storylines are repetitive—how many episodes do we need to see about Denise (Eliza Coupe), nicknamed “Jo” (after The Facts of Life), and her lack of bedside manner?

From the beginning of the season, there were reports that these new characters were being introduced in case the show went into yet another season—yes, this would be the last season for Braff, the show’s main character, but maybe we could just go on with the supporting characters? That’d work, right? Of course it would, as those several successful seasons of The Sanford Arms prove.

The season’s final episode, “My Finale,” is outstanding. J.D. decides to leave Sacred Heart in order to be closer to his son, and a warm and funny double-length episode ensues; the final scenes are just wonderful, and bring the program to a near-perfect conclusion. Which makes the ultimate decision to beat the dead horse and bring back the show for yet another season all the more infuriating; they found a wonderful way to bring it to a close, and now they’re going to shit all over it with an ill-advised continuation/spin-off, retaining only Turk and Cox—and only one of those painstakingly-introduced new characters. So what was the point of that wonderful finale? And why did we spend so much time in that last season with Sunny and Katie and the rest of ‘em? And why are the powers-that-be behind the scenes insisting on doing another season, apparently in the style of AfterMASH?

These are questions I can’t answer. But I can tell you that the eighth season of Scrubs has much of what made the show so enjoyable: engaging performances from charismatic cast, energetic production and a snappy pace, inventive comic sequences and a singular, grinning charm. And it brings the series to a fabulous, pitch-perfect conclusion. My advice? Pretend like the show ends there—where it should.

The latest season of Scrubs offers more of the same—funny, often surreal character comedy, solid writing, sharp acting, and some warm moments. Touchstone’s decision to release these episodes in a modified 1.33:1 full-frame format is befuddling (unless, as has been suggested on the DVD Talk forum, they’re trying to get people to spring for the Blu-ray release later this fall), an unfortunate blight on a set that is otherwise blessed with a fine season and some first-rate bonus features.

"Scrubs: The Complete Eighth Season" hits DVD on Tuesday, August 25th, with a Blu-ray release following on November 17th.