Before we begin this week’s adventure, I’d like to address the release of a couple of films that are very near to my heart. I missed their original release dates because one title was moved and one is an on-demand selection. Let’s take a look…

FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS

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Master filmmaker Chang Cheh’s joyous spectacle is a Chinese comic come to life, and a true must-own. Some time ago, I wrote at length about the majesty of this picture. Share in the love.

PRAY FOR DEATH

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Welcome to the Sho. The Sho Kosugi. Years ago, MGM released Kosugi’s two most well-known Golan-Globus films – Revenge of the Ninja and Rage of Honor (not to be confused with the Queensryche album of the same name). Now they’ve released his best film.

Pray for Death is not much more than a remake of Rage of Honor writ large and with goofy-hilarious comic book overtones. Sho plays an entrepreneur who moves his family from Japan to California in an attempt to start a grocery store. He buys a building from a sweet-natured but dimwitted elderly who doesn’t realize his long-disused property has been a dead drop spot for organized crime figures and crooked cops. When some ill-gotten gains go missing, the absurdly goonish mobsters target the geezer, then they bum rush the Sho. Naturally, the mob gets the jump on him and his children, and wipes out the transplanted family, crushing their American dream. The End.

Or…Sho takes the attack on his family personally, dons his tabi boots, loads up on shuriken, and goes after the group of gangsters lead by character actor Michael Constantine (looking for all the world like James Coco). But Constantine isn’t really running thaAAaaAAaangs – the power behind the throne is the amazing James Booth (who wrote the film – and a juicy and flamboyant hardass character for himself). That makes him the ninja’s prime target. One by one, Sho dismantles the mob – with the help of his children(!) – and those he doesn’t kill will pray for – well, you know…

The print is unblemished, the transfer is stellar – there are only a couple drawbacks:

In 1985, John “Joe Bob Briggs” Bloom saw the film at the Cannes Film Market and wrote a rhapsodic review. One year later, upon the occasion of Pray‘s stateside release, he did a fairly savage about-face, as he was disgusted that distributor TransWorld cut copious amounts of slasher-style ninja violence from the film. The uncut version is extremely rare; the only time I’ve ever seen it was on a bootleg of a VHS tape sourced from a Greek distributor. MGM has released the Theatrical version, not the uncut one. Boo.

Additionally, the film is only available on DVD – which is a shame, since it looked fantastic during its handful of late-night MGMHD airings.

Finally, the disc’s cover art looks a lot like the side of a fucking van. What in the flaming blue hell is that shit? Is that Gollum down there? Why didn’t they put a dragon on it? And is that fucking Papyrus?

Oh, man – I hate you MGM. I swear – if I didn’t love the film so much, I’d have held out for the inevitable Criterion release…

CHINATOWN

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It’s hard to write anything about a film that people have discussed for decades. It makes me feel small sometimes. I can tell you that, to me, this is a perfect film made at the perfect time. It’s formal in its presentation – which lends to its period feel, but it’s prone to displays of style that speak to the unrestrained virtuosity of 70s cinema. The subject matter is tawdry in a way that feels true to noir cinema – but with a moral complexity not possible during pulp/noir’s Hays Code-dominated heyday (there were, of course, films and filmmakers that turned smuggling subtext into an art form, but in the end, Crime Never Pays). Also – and this might be the most important component of the film’s success – this is a performance Jack Nicholson gave before he figured out how to play “Jack Nicholson” in everything. It’s a fantastic film.

WAR HORSE

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A novel concept for the stage becomes what I’d imagine to be a fairly conventional film. I’ve not seen it (despite my blind admiration of all things Richard Curtis), but I assume it’s the heartstrings-tugging, academy-baiting tale of a boy and his horse. His War Horse.

Sure-sure…of course I will check it out. But if you’re a fan of the beard, you’ll want to snatch it up immediately, so here you go.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO

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I can’t imagine what this movie is about. Maybe it’s a sci-fi film? I wish that it had like, an easy to digest logline – something that might explain the premise. What are they hinting at with that vague title?

Yeah…I’ll stop.

I like Cameron Crowe, but he’s not an infallible filmmaker. “Heart-on-sleeve” is a trait I adore, but Crowe tests the bounds. Most accounts say he exceeds them here. We’ll see.

Angels Crest
Beautiful Planet: France & Italy
Beautiful Planet: Spain & Portugal
Black Butler: The Complete First Season
Black Butler: The Complete Second Season
Chasing Madoff
Chinatown
Discover Planet Ocean
Disney WOW: World of Wonder
Girls Just Want To Have Fun
Great Expectations
London River
Madonna: Truth or Dare
Medal of Honor
Miracle of Marcellino
Okami-San & Her Seven Companions: The Complete Series
Pokemon Collection
The Prophecy Collection
Renaissance/Equilibrium – two good films on one BD 25. To add insult, they finally got the aspect ratio right. 2.35:1. Fuck you, Echo Bridge.
Shergar
Titanic
Titanoboa: Monster Snake
Torchwood: Miracle Day
A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures
War Horse
We Bought a Zoo
West Side Story – one of these days they’ll stop creating SKUs for this film. May that day soon come.

OF MONSTERS AND MEN – MY HEAD IS AN ANIMAL

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I suspect I’m not alone in reflexively expecting new pop music from Iceland to bear some resemblance to Sigur Ros. Which is silly, of course–that would like expecting New York bands of the 70’s to all sound like Television–but it’s hard not to generalize from experience. So let’s not even try and compare the pensive, moving, soul-shattering/soothing sounds of Jonsi and company to this pleasantly tuneful trifle of an album.

Certainly, it’s hard to picture the epic, contemplative sound of Sigur Ros rocking the local Battle of the Bands competition, but that’s evidently the genesis of Of Monsters and Men (Singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, co-singer/guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, lead guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, bass player Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, keyboardist Árni Guðjónsson, and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson), whose 2010 single “Little Talks” became something of a breakout hit in Portland. And “Little Talks,” with its chirpingly boisterous chorus, is one of the highlights of this album of tuneful folk-pop.

In fact, in some ways, My Head Is An Animal is nearly the polar (so to speak) opposite of the work of their country cousins, with introspection being less important to the creative process than an outward perspective that has Of Monsters And Men finding source material in places from the American West (“Six Weeks” is based on the true story of a frontiersman that survived a bear attack) to the legend of a whale with a house on his back, in”From Finner.” From light subjects to dark, Hilmarsdóttir is able to shape her narrative to bouncy refrains, catchy hooks, and choruses that always seem to find room for a high-spirited “Hey!” or two.

AL JARDINE – A POSTCARD FROM CALIFORNIA

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Al Jardine was the original replacement Beach Boy, and having taken over for David Marks way back in 1963, he was more integral to the band’s sound than other latecomers like Bruce Johnston or Glen Campbell. In some ways, he was the middle ground between Brian Wilson’s mad genius, Dennis’ ragged poet, Carl’s cool professional, and The Voice of Mike Love. With no blood ties to the others, Jardine always seemed to be able to take the long perspective, like a rudder periodically resetting the band to an even keel. But keeping the Beach Boy flame is a job for a listener more than a creator, and Jardine’s musical limitations weren’t an issue when someone else was turning out genius like “Heroes and Villains” or “Surf’s Up.” This solo album (an earlier version was available on digital download last year) has the warmth, and drawbacks, of a lifelong fan’s appreciation of the band’s music.

And being a serious fan, Jardine gets input from plenty of his heroes/contemporaries, including Brian Wilson and Mike Love, Neil Young, David Crosby and Steve Stills, Glen Campbell, Steve Miller, Flea, a couple of dudes from America (everyone makes mistakes), and…Alec Baldwin. Where Wilson and Love were usually focused on their spiritual or psychological relationship to California, Jardine was always more the “practical” environmentalist (“Don’t Go Near the Water”), and that side is pronounced here on tracks like “Lookin’ Down the Coast,” in which the history of the ravages of humanity on the beauty of California is depicted from the perspectives of the California condor, the grizzly, the whale, and the otter; it’s a classic hippie-era notion that is the sort of thing Jardine has always offered up at face value, and you can dismiss its dubious squishiness, or succumb to its genial sincerity (“I knew that I was doing good / They typed it on an Underwood“). Musically, most of the album recalls the high points of the Beach Boys’ slightly folkie 70’s (“San Simeon,” “California Feelin'”), which makes the revival of “California Saga” feel sort of pointless, but it also means that the refurbished unreleased 1978 Beach Boys track, “Don’t Fight the Sea,” feels completely at home, with Jardine, Love and Wilson once more harmonizing with the late Carl Wilson. And there actually is one remake with a point: Jardine’s greatest moment as a Beach Boy, “Help Me, Rhonda,” is here reimagined as a sprightly blues shuffle, with Miller on guitar and the late Norton Buffalo on harmonica, and it works surprisingly well.  I know that a full-fledged new Beach Boys album is due soon to coincide with the 50th anniversary tour, and this album isn’t much more than a warmup for that, but for fans of that sound, its pleasures are notable, if ultimately slight.

PACO DE LUCIA – EN VIVO CONCIERTOS

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I don’t know that flamenco is any more or less fitted to being “fused” with jazz than rock and roll ever was, but doing so is a fairly specialized undertaking, and after seven years away from the studio, Paco De Lucia has taken his first steps back into the mainstream with this latest album, recorded live in–you guessed it–2010. But his compadres this time aren’t fusion buddies like DiMeola or McLaughlin: this is flamenco at its purest and most eloquent.

The feel of the album is appropriately epic for the return of a musical giant: only eight tracks on two CD’s, virtually every one running over ten minutes, the selection giving a vivid retrospective of De Lucia’s career, with the bite and attack of players half his age. The titles are chosen to cover the range of flamenco styles, including the rumbas “El cafetal” and “Vámonos”;  seguiriya is represented by “Lagartijo” and “Zyryab”; and the tango appears under its namesake “‘Tangos con cositas buenas.” Variaciones De Minera” is the slinky, seductive opener, and throughout, De Lucia resists the temptation to preen in a live setting, favoring introspection and an intense eloquence, though sparks fly aplenty on “Lagartijo.” De Lucia is ably supported by a band that includes second guitarist Antonio Sánchez (De Lucia’s nephew), Cuban electric bassist Alain Pérez, harmonica virtuoso Antonio Serrano, and singers David de Jacoba and Duquende, who bring a rough, hand-hewn quality to “Lagartijo.” The sound is appropriately resonant, but never vague, with pin-drop clarity and plenty of air around DeLucia’s every note and phrase.

OTHER NOTABLE 4/3 RELEASES:

Bear in Heaven, I Love You It’s Cool
Candlebox - Love Stories & Other Musings
Adam Cohen & Leonard Cohen - Like a Man
Dr. John - Locked Down
Elvis Costello – The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook
It Bites – Map of the Past
The Lumineers - The Lumineers
Quantic & Alice Russel – Look Around the Corner
Roxette - Travelling
David Sylvian – Victim of Stars 1982 – 2012
Wilson Phillips – Dedicated

DEVIL MAY CRY HD COLLECTION (PS3, 360)

I’ve never touched any of these games, but these HD collections are a great deal. I probably couldn’t last ten minutes in a DMC game, but if they are your thing this a fantastic deal. Now hopefully Capcom will find it in their hearts to release a HD Clover collection so I can buy God Hand again.

KINECT STAR WARS (360)

Ugh. This has a dancing mini-game. I mean – It’s a Kinect game, so it’s all mini-games – but they literally ran out of things to do with the Kinect that were remotely related to Star Wars, so they added a dancing game. For things actually related to Star Wars, the game includes lightsaber battles and pod racing. This sounds like a game for six-year-old children with no imagination.

XENOBLADE CHRONICLES (Wii)

I softmodded my Wii for this game and then promptly put 100 hours in. This game is a beast, and easily the best JRPG of this generation. Originally published in by Nintendo in 2009, it looked like we were never going to get the game on these shores – but a large fan campaign somehow worked, and we’re finally getting the game. And it’s a treat.

Ignore the title; Xenogears was terrible and Xenosaga was terribly wanky, but Xenoblade is a completely different monster. It’s an evolution of the JRPG formula, which is something the stagnant genre has needed for a decade. Xenoblade innovates in large and small strokes, essentially eliminating the tedium of the genre in the process. The battle system is a variation on the auto attack and cool-down systems of many MMOs, with a emphasis on character positioning. It allows for fast-paced tactical battles with lots of options to either micromanage or let the AI handle. Questing is streamlined process; you don’t have to return to quest givers after the completion of a quest, rewards and loot are automatically deposited and the quest is resolved without the laborious return trip. The game will tell you if you happen upon an item for a quest you don’t have yet. The story is above average, but doesn’t really pick up steam until forty hours in. It’s a big commitment that can take easily 80 hours just to resolve the story. And it’s packed full of Monster Hunter-style side questing and looting. And it looks good. Even on the Wii and in slandered definition, the game’s beautiful art style and level design shine through. For an RPG fan this is a no brainier. But for the Wii owner looking for an excuse to dust off ol’ whitey before he gets retired, this is the perfect game. Because it’s damn-near perfect.

I really enjoyed playin’ with you guys…let’s play some basketball…

FIN.