The Ultimate Rabbit’s Favorite Christmas Gifts From 2008

Photo by Tammy Kenber

WRITER’S NOTE: As the title indicates, this article was written back in 2008.

“WAKE UP UNCLE BEN! I GOT A GUITAR! COME SEE!”

Those words were spoken to me by my niece who had bounded into my room in the morning. Only on Christmas Day does anyone dare to wake me up so early. I just hope they got a good night’s sleep. I remember finding it impossible to fall asleep the night before Christmas. These days, this holiday is more for the kids who wait in anticipation (and impatiently so) to open all the presents they got. Houses don’t get livelier than on Christmas it seems with my young niece galloping along my mom and dad’s infinitely varnished hardwood floor as she goes from one end of the house to the other in seconds’ flat. Do you remember when you had this much energy?

One thing I do have to say is as you get older, the number of presents you get decreases. Of all my immediate family members, I am more than convinced I got the least number of gifts this season, and I can’t quite get the feeling of jealousy and greed out of my head. It makes me miss being four and a half. But I certainly don’t want to appear ungrateful because I did submit a Christmas wish list to my family to give them an idea of what I was begging for, just to make shopping easier for them. In the end, I am very happy I got some of the things I asked for. So let us take a look at the best of the bunch, or maybe we can just look at the whole bunch of presents I got because they all are pretty cool.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” on Blu-Ray Disc

Alright! One of the best comedies of this past year now joins my every growing DVD/Blu-ray library. This made me laugh harder than just about any other comedy I saw this past year with the exception of “Tropic Thunder.” Looking at all the bonus features on the disc makes me all the more excited as it is filled with them. It is also a reminder of how I really need to check out the BD LIVE Center where I can download even more bonus features. With the last couple of Blu-ray discs I received or purchased, I get so caught up in the sharpness of the image that I watch the movies endlessly until I get sick of them, and it takes me forever to get sick of them. A year later, I will watch the disc again, and I might actually bother to watch the bonus features since I neglected to view some of them previously.

Anyway, the Blu-ray for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has got a visual commentary with the filmmakers and cast which should be fun to watch. This special feature seems to be an ever-growing function on many Blu-ray discs as it was featured on “Casino Royale” and also “Risky Business.” There is also picture in picture footage which plays throughout the movie with interviews, rehearsals and behind the scenes stuff. And, of course, there is a digital copy of the movie which you can download on to your iPod, iPad or whatever devices you use to watch motion pictures. Now I am just waiting for that 18-hour airline ride where all the inflight movies are crap and I will at least have this to watch, assuming I didn’t stupidly forget my damn iPod at home.

When it comes to making of documentaries about movies, the one for this film makes me especially interested because I don’t see many for comedies, and I would love to see how these filmmakers put up with the stress of making a comedy. Don’t ever let anyone convince you comedy is easy to do, because it is not!

The Criterion Collection edition of David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” on DVD

I got to see this earlier this year at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles where it was playing on a David Cronenberg double bill with “eXistenZ.” This DVD set is one I am really looking forward to checking out because I am curious to see how much Cronenberg’s movie resembles the actual book written by William S. Burrough’s. I haven’t actually read the book “Naked Lunch,” but I have heard it is one which is considered unfilmable. Watching the movie version of it, I am convinced Cronenberg is probably the only one who could have brought to the big screen at all.

What I really love about the Criterion Collection is they really do their research, and they always give you more than enough reason as to why they selected this movie for their special treatment. It features a London Weekend Television documentary about the film’s making, an illustrated essay about the special effects, and there is even an audio recording of Burroughs reading from the book as well. Criterion certainly paved the way for all these DVD special editions with audio commentaries and special features, and they still do them better than anyone else.

“Naked Lunch” is a movie I wanted to know more about ever since I saw it at the New Beverly, so you can only imagine how excited I am to check this DVD set out. I jokingly invited my niece to watch it with me, and she said:

“NO!!”

Very smart response for a young girl who is almost 5 years old (my how time flies).

A Calvin Klein black leather jacket

YES!! I have been meaning to get one of these for the longest time, but they always seem to be out of my spending range (and that’s even when I see them at Costco). Putting on the jacket, I suddenly felt a rather bizarre change of character as I walked around like I suddenly owned the world or something. When I first saw the big white box it was packaged in, I had a pretty strong feeling of what it was. This is probably the coolest of all the presents I got this Christmas. Hopefully the ladies will take notice.

Seriously, I always wanted a black leather jacket. My parents think I look like Brando in it. I’m pretty sure they are not talking about Brando in the later stages of his life. Maybe this jacket is giving me an over inflated ego, but let me dream for a while, okay?

$100 Macy’s gift card

Nothing says get some new clothes now more than a gift card from my parents to Macy’s. I just hope their prices are a bit lower than the last time I shopped there. Of course, in the sorry economic state this country is currently in, they will probably invite me to name my own price for whatever they are selling. I could use some new shirts for work since they won’t let me wear my “Evil Dead” or “Office Space” t-shirts there on a regular basis. Plus, it is getting scarier to witness how the colors on my shirts continue fading so quickly. Time to get some new shirts so I can witness how long it will take for the colors to fade on them.

Oh yeah, I could use some new socks as well. I once told my parents that socks are a pathetic gift to give anyone for Christmas, so you can imagine how they gleefully responded to this. But since they didn’t come through this year, it’s time for me to catch up in that department. Come to think of it, I could use a new belt too…

So, Christmas 2008 has come and gone, and the next one will be here before we know it. But the biggest gift I really should say I got was being with my family. I’m not sure how to say that without sounding annoyingly corny, but there you go. Seeing my parents react with excitement over the gifts I gave them was great. Watching my sister-in-law almost break into tears when she realized her dear husband gave her the iPhone she so wanted was quite the sight. Then there were my nieces, both excited about the dozens and dozens of presents they were getting, and both desperately trying to find one of the few gifts meant for me. Seeing my youngest niece jump up and down in sheer excitement over getting the things she ever so wanted brought a lot of contagious laughter to the household.

Of course, nothing could compare to the sweater my brother got my dad, and me silently pointing out to my brother how he forgot to take the price tag off of it. To his credit, my brother did snatch it away before dad noticed.

My niece also said she wanted to marry me. Without getting into a lot of detail, I politely informed her why this was not going to happen.

Merry Christmas everyone!

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As someone who considers “The Sopranos” the greatest television drama of all-time, I was supremely excited to check out “The Many Saints of Newark,” which is a prequel to the television series which captivated audiences from 1999-2007.  At the time, I did not have HBO, so I, unfortunately, didn’t catch the show on its original run. Upon working at Blockbuster, I was able to pick up the series on DVD.  I now own the entire series on Blu-ray, and it only gets better with multiple viewings as there is the family drama, the therapy scenes, the crime element, and even moments of comedy.  It’s a masterpiece.

With “The Many Saints of Newark,” we open up in the late sixties on a young Tony Soprano with his Uncle and mentor Dickie Moltisanti.  Dickie is played brilliantly by Alessandro Nivola in a performance that is perfect from start-to-finish. Dickie is part of the DiMeo crime family.  Other members of the family include Johnny Soprano, Junior, Silvio Dante, Paulie Walnuts, Pussy Bonpensiero, and Pussy’s father who is nicknamed Buddha. Some of the stand-out performers here include Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, Tony’s father. Junior is played by the versatile Corey Stoll. Buddha is also played by the always entertaining comedian Joey Coco Diaz.

If you have never seen “The Sopranos” before, you will probably have a very difficult time understanding what is happening in the film.  This is a film which was made for those who have watched “The Sopranos” and are familiar with the characters and all of their personality traits and even lines of dialogue. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the show, and it took me a moment to piece it together.  Once I did, it was a nice trip down memory lane.  Prequels can be hit-or-miss, and “The Many Saints of Newark,” for the most part, is a hit.  It left me looking forward to hopefully future installments, which I’ve heard have been talked about by series creator David Chase.

During this time in Newark, there are riots breaking out after an African-American taxi driver is killed by a white policeman. One of Dickie’s runners, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) is an African-American, and he’s getting sick and tired of being only a runner.  He’s also taking part in the riots as he wants there to be equal footing for African-Americans to be able to do business as well. Since Tony Soprano doesn’t have a great relationship with his father, he looks up to Dickie Moltisanti. Tony is getting in trouble by smoking, drinking and gambling at school.  It’s hard for him because his father is not exactly a model citizen, and his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) is never satisfied and incapable of showing any affection.

I could go into more detail with numerous backstories, but I don’t want to give away too much for those who are going into the film blindly.  As you can tell by reading my review, which only touches on certain aspects of the story, there is a lot happening at once.  In some cases, this is a bad thing.  It is definitely a tale of two movies.  The first hour of this two-hour movie is the weak link. When the film introduces us to teenage Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late, great James Gandolfini, it really starts to soar and take off.  If the entire film was like the second half of the film, it would have been perfect.

One of the things I did not mention in my review is the dual-performance of Ray Liotta, as both “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and as Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti.  The “Hollywood Dick” persona is loud, aggressive, and rude.  He marries a young Italian woman and treats her very poorly, which upsets his son Dickie as he saw the same behavior unleashed on his mother.  Salvatore, on the other hand, is in prison and full of Buddhist wisdom, which seems to be a great source of comfort for Dickie when he’s conflicted on what is the right thing to do in certain situations and scenarios.  Even though it’s the same actor, it’s two completely different performances.

In the end, “The Many Saints of Newark” is a film that almost reaches greatness, but the first half of the film is really hard to ignore.  However, the second half left me with goosebumps and reminded me of why I fell in love with the show in the first place.  The cast is also top-notch and incredible.  My personal favorite performance of the film comes from Vera Farmiga.  She really captures the essence of Livia and all of the drama and issues which came with her.  Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the performance by Michael Gandolfini.  He’s not mimicking his father as Tony Soprano.  It’s more about getting the little nuisances of the character and how he felt as a young teenager which led to his issues in the show as an adult mob boss.   Everyone is great here, so if I’m leaving anyone out, it’s not intentional.

I must also talk about the look of the film.  It’s shot perfectly with a great sense of time and place. Alan Taylor really gets the little things right.  It’s a gorgeous film to look at with its use of blue tones.  He left no stone unturned in making this film.  The outfits worn by the characters are even spot-on, which shows how much thought went into this production.  It was co-written by series creator David Chase.   Since he spent so much time with these characters, it’s obviously a very personal project for him. While “The Many Saints of Newark” is not perfect, the scenes and performances that work really stand out and will leave hardcore fans of the show quite pleased.  I think it will also leave them wanting more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.  It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.  It has a running time of 120 minutes.

Video/Audio Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” comes on a crystal clear 1080p High-Definition transfer, which is simply stunning and incredibly vibrant.  The audio comes in a few different formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

The Making of Newark

The Sopranos Family Honor

Deleted Scenes

Should You Buy It?

I really wrestled with whether I wanted to give this film three stars or three and a half stars.  I’ll put it this way: the first hour of the film is a two-star movie, and the second hour is a four-star movie.  I know four plus two equals six, so if you divide those two, you should get three stars.  However, the second hour is so impactful and mesmerizing, I broke the rules of math and gave it three and a half stars.  It left me with such hope and promise.  Once I heard that music play at the end of the film and saw the look in the eyes of Michael Gandolfini, I said to myself, “I want to see more of THIS.”  I imagine, as with anything which is popular and a prequel, the film is going to be polarizing to fans of the franchise. I completely respect that, as “The Sopranos” is a show which is very personal to a lot of people, myself included. As far as if you should buy the film, I would buy it if you are a hardcore fan of the show.  If you watched the show, liked it, and never thought about it again, you can probably hold off on buying it for a little while.  There are some decent special features here, but it seems like studios are really lacking with physical media special features these days.  I can’t remember the last time I listened to a commentary track on a physical release.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Gualala Video – The Last Store of Its Kind

Photo courtesy of The Press Democrat.

Blockbuster Video never opened a store in the small town of Gualala, California. Hollywood Video never did either, and Redbox never bothered to put any kiosks up at either of the two supermarkets there. Now a lot of this may have to do with Gualala having a population of around 2,000, and it is never quick to let many corporate giants like Wal-Mart into town as they love their mom-and-pop shops. But seriously, the real reason none of them set up shop here was because of Gualala Video which is, quite frankly, my favorite video store on the face of the earth. This store had over 27,000 titles to choose from on DVD, Blu-ray and VHS, and looking at the many selections made me happy I still own a VCR after all these years. If they didn’t have what you were looking for, then it was never made into a movie or television show in the first place.

Photo by Wayne Moore
Photo by Wayne Moore

But sadly, Gualala Video is now closed. Despite having survived the streaming wars and Blockbuster Video, it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic which seems never ending. While David Bradbrook, who has owned the store since 2003, did what he could to keep business going like offering curbside rentals, the rent and the overhead became too much for anyone to deal with. One big fan of the store did create a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise $5,000 to help David out, and while they have since raised over $3,100, it was not enough to prevent the inevitable.

Photo by The Ultimate Rabbit

Now the store closed some time ago, but I was in Gualala recently for the Thanksgiving holiday and it marks the first time I have seen it completely empty. There are some remnants like the store’s name on one of the doors and some stickers no one was able to completely remove. But to look inside this store and see everything gone really haunted me. Seriously, it had everything and anything you were looking for and then some. What is David planning to do with all these titles? Hopefully he has enough room for them at home.

Like another long-lost video store, Rocket Video in Los Angeles, California, Gualala Video had its movies arranged in categories such as by actor, director, and genres like science-fiction. My dad really loved the foreign section which contains films like “A Prophet,” and it had just about every Lars Von Trier movie you would ever want to bring a box of Kleenex to.

Here are some other categories movies were listed under (thanks to John Beck for the following photos):

Sometimes I didn’t even go in there to rent anything; I just went inside to look around and see what was available. Other times, I went in there to see what they didn’t have so I could ask David why this was the case. Like I said they had everything. David has said a lot of people did the same thing to where he wishes he had charged admission just to enter. Hey, Blockbuster would have done the same if it could, especially after their late fee charges were done away with.

If it wasn’t for Gualala Video, I am convinced I would not have seen certain movies for many more years. One of John Carpenter’s earliest works was his 1976 action thriller “Assault on Precinct 13” which he made before “Halloween,” and I could not find it anywhere. Not even another video chain which has long since been put out of business, Take One Video, had a single copy of it which stunned me. Gualala Video, however, did have a copy, and I did not hesitate in renting it right away. If not for this, I would have had to wait for the DVD release which would not happen for at least another five more years. Oh, by the way, “Precinct 13” was awesome and still holds up.

Then there was when my brother and I rented “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Neither of us had ever watched it before, and the manager looked at the VHS box and said:

“Man! We’ve made over $1,000 dollars off of this one video!”

“We’ve never actually seen it,” my brother said.

A blond teenage girl standing next to us was quick to reply:

“YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT??!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN???!!!!”

Having now watched “Willy Wonka,” I can clearly see why this particular VHS tape was so popular as there are few family movies quite like this one, and I still wonder how it managed to get away with a G rating despite the scary boat tunnel scene which featured an image of a chicken getting its head cut off.

The last time I was there, I rented not one but two films: “John Wick Chapter Two” and “Everybody Wants Some.” Now these were two flicks I should have watched when they arrived at my local multiplex, but work at the time prevented me from doing so. But seeing them on the shelf in Gualala made me realize I had put off seeing them long enough. “John Wick Chapter Two” showed how Keanu Reeves can handle knives and guns better than any other actor in Hollywood, and “Everybody Wants Some,” Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused,” made me wish I experienced my high school and college years in the same way he did.

And now Gualala Video is gone forever, and I cannot help but feel sad. It was one of the last of its kind, and there are probably none of them left (not in the East Bay anyway). Independent stores like these are wonderfully unique to where we don’t know what we will do without them. Personally, I can live without Blockbuster Video as its extinction was not a loss. While they had many copies of the newest releases, finding older films was ridiculously difficult. As for its dedication to providing a family friendly environment devoid of any movies rated NC-17, this did not stop them from putting exploitation flicks like “Stripped to Kill” on a shelf right near the children’s section.

This store was a film buff’s dream. You could discover those out-of-print videos and discs which were so hard to find, and no film had to be edited down to an R rating just to qualify as a rental. It is places like Gualala Video which made me remember how much I love movies, how wondrous they can be, of all the ones I still need to catch up on. Now, I can only hope and pray they are available to stream, and not everything is available to stream.

Nick Nolte once said there will always be change and there will always be resistance to change. While change is inevitable, there has got to be a way to preserve certain independent stores like this one. If Barnes & Noble’s annual 50% off Criterion Collection discs sale proves anything, it is that we are far from done with physical media.

And with that, I leave you all with a comment Stacy G. left on the store’s Yelp page:

“If I could burn down my local Blockbuster and replace it with Gualala Video, it would be a dream come true.”

Granted, Blockbuster Video is long gone but, all the same, amen!

Photo by The Ultimate Rabbit

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As of this writing, “The Shawshank Redemption” is the #1 rated movie on IMDB. I know it has been #1 many times in the past, and it has also been #2 right below “The Godfather.” It is based on a short novel by Stephen King called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”  This film is now 27-years-old and has not aged a bit.  It is the same with any great film. The more you watch it, the more you grow to appreciate it. The term “feel good” movie might sound overdone when it comes to certain movies, but this is one which does give the viewer hope and make you happy.  Hope, after all, is a big theme present in this film.

“The Shawshank Redemption” introduces us to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is serving two-life sentences in prison after being convicted of killing his wife and her lover.  He claims to be innocent, but one of the running gags in the film is everyone in prison thinks they are innocent. Andy, however, does not seem like the type of individual who would commit murder as there is something about him which does come off as snobby and rather cold to the inmates.  He does endear himself to Red, played by the great Morgan Freeman. Red is the guy who knows how to get things for people in prison.  If you need a pack of smokes, chewing gum, or anything else, Red is the guy who is going to get it for you.

Red takes an interest in Andy because he sees there is more than meets the eye with him.  Andy is smart, well-spoken and really takes in his surroundings. The two of them have great conversations about life in prison, life in general, and regrets. The film, of course, is narrated by Freeman.  His narration is not overdone, however, as it adds to the film and enhances the story.  The Shawshank prison is run by a warden who believes in the Bible and discipline, and he is played by Bob Gunton.  The warden is ruthless, but he sees the value in having Andy at the prison because he’s running the prison’s books, doing taxes for the guards and is a very good hand who works cheaply.

For Andy, it is a chance to be able to create a library for Shawshank, allow certain freedoms for the prisoners there, and a chance to pass the time.  Time is something which goes by incredibly slow when an individual is in prison.  Time also allows the friendship and bond between Red and Andy to grow over the course of the film.  Red keeps getting rejected for release and he believes hope is a dangerous thing, and he is not sure if he will be able to survive outside of prison.  For many of the inmates, all they know is prison.  By the time they get out, they wonder what use they will have in the outside world.  It provides structure for them, even if it comes with the beatings, mental anguish and boredom.

There is a lot to like about “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it starts with Robbins and Freeman. They are the engine which keeps this film moving as it runs at almost two and a half hours.  The film is never, ever boring, and there are also interesting supporting characters such as Brooks (James Whitmore), an elderly man who has spent nearly fifty years in prison and works in the library. There is also the wild and out of control Heywood, played with manic energy by William Sadler. There is Tommy, a young hot-shot who keeps getting in trouble, played by Gil Bellows.  Even though the film is set in prison, there is no shortage of interesting characters to spend time with.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is a film with a huge heart that holds up very, very well nearly thirty years later.  I would most certainly put it in my top ten favorite films of all time. It has heart, humor and a lot to say about the prison system and if it really helps those behind their walls.  It also talks about the adjustment period from prison to the real world.  There is a reason why so many end up back in prison after they are released.  It’s also a gorgeous-looking film with a great sense of time and place.  I’m very happy Warner Brothers decided to upgrade this film to 4K.  The Blu-ray, which I also watched, looks better than the original release. This is a film that really makes one think about their life and how they are living it, each and every single day.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-Ray Info: “The Shawshank Redemption” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers. It also comes with the digital copy of the film. The film has a running time of 142 minutes and is rated R for language and prison violence.

Video Info: For the 4K, the transfer comes in 2160p Ultra High Definition while the Blu-Ray comes on a 1080p High-Definition transfer.  The 4K adds rich color and texture to the film.  It makes the film really pop off the screen and shine. This is a tremendous improvement over the Blu-Ray.

Audio Info: For both the 4K and Blu-ray, it has DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish Audio tracks. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish.  The audio is also very easy to understand and stands out on both the 4K and the Blu-ray.

Special Features:

Commentary by Frank Darabont

“Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption”

“Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature”

“The Shark Tank Redemption”

Stills Galleries

“Bogs Takes a Fall” Storyboards

“New Fish Arrive” Storyboards

Should You Buy It?

Even though the special features are basically the same as the original Blu-ray, this film is worth owning for the upgrade to 4K.  Almost three decades later, this film is still incredibly moving.  I could watch this film at least once a month, and I’d still enjoy it and get something out of it.  This is one of those films where you are swept up in what is happening on screen from start to finish.  There is not a dull or wasted moment on screen. It starts with the acting, as I mentioned, but major credit must also be given to Frank Darabont. He knows how to really slow things down and let them play out in a meaningful way.  Did I mention the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins? This is a must own for any film collector out there! I cannot recommend it enough.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.