DVD: Breaking Wind, Unrated Director's Cut

 One of the greatest measures of a film’s success isn’t huge box office receipts or even getting big awards…it’s inspiring a parody. The Twilight series may find this a dubious distinction, however, when the tribute is as ridiculous as Breaking Wind.

Though the title implies a send-up of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, the movie more closely follows Eclipse, beginning with the attack on Ronald (the character who was named Riley, played here by Michael Adam Hamilton) in Seattle. It is at this point, not even two minutes into the movie, viewers are treated to the first of many flatulence jokes, leading into the credits.

Cut to Bella (Heather Ann Davis) and Edward (Eric Callero), sitting in a meadow and meeting up with Bella’s grandmother, and the audience gets the first of many sex jokes. This pretty much sets up the pattern of the rest of the film. Fart joke. Penis joke. Fart joke. Big vagina joke. Fart joke. Homosexual joke. And so on. It’s definitely NOT a film for family movie night with the little kiddies.

Writer/director Craig Moss (The 41-Year-Old-Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It) apparently felt the need to add all the sex and profanity that Stephenie Meyer left out of the Twilight saga, turning ‘imprinting’ into another word for ‘masturbation,’ and giving Bella a penchant for African-American men and an allegedly huge vagina. The sex is so in-your-face (literally) that the movie is just a few orgies shy of being a porno.

Amid the sea of adolescent humor are a few worthwhile scraps. It’s amusing that the werewolf clan is (mostly) made up of overweight guys flashing their monstrous bellies with the confidence of body builders, and that they never change form once during the film. In particular, Frank Pacheco as Jacob is a weak ray of sunlight peeking through this cloudy mess.

By far, the funniest scene (and the only one to embrace the parody movie tendency to incorporate bits of other movies) involves the legend of the cold ones, and incorporates the many characters of Johnny Depp and an Avatar. Alas, those two minutes of celluloid can’t keep this train from jumping the tracks.

While keeping very close to the story of the original films, the addition of two mini Cullens (Edward and Jasper) is confusing and silly, but less offensive by far than the majority of the movie. Little Edward also plays a pivotal role in the reenactment of Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (which this movie summarizes in a lightning-fast three minutes).

The Unrated Director’s Cut DVD (Lionsgate, MSRP: $26.98) contains two featurettes and a commentary track by Moss and the cast. Surprisingly, the audio commentary is not only great, it also vastly improves the experience of the movie. It’s far more interesting to learn that Alice is played by Ashley Greene’s photo double (Alice Rietveld) in the Twilight films than it is to watch Rietveld play the part, and Davis and Callero are far more charismatic in their voice-over than on-screen. Comedian Pacheco also lives up to his reputation.

For such an embarrassing movie, the producers of Breaking Wind actually went to a great deal of trouble to maintain some authenticity, as shown in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette. From locations and wardrobe to outright shot duplications and hiring actors with uncanny resemblances to the original characters—particularly Carlisle (John Stevenson) and Charlie (Flip Schultz)—there was a concerted effort to keep true to the feel of the source material. It’s a shame, really, that there wasn’t a much better end product after going to such effort.

“The Heart Warming Embrace of Edward and Jacob” is a series of outtakes of a scene featuring Bella and her two suitors that is, to say the least, a different take on the fight between the vampire and werewolf that took place in Eclipse. There are also trailers for Disaster Movie and Scary Movie 3 included.

Although facetiously dedicated to Twihards, whom the film showcases in the end credits, Breaking Wind is offensive to both Twilight lovers and haters and is sure to be equally reviled by both. Fans of parody would be much better off watching one of the vastly superior films in the trailer gallery.

Breaking Wind is now available on DVD.

Published on LifeInLA.com

DVD: The Descendents

 Hawaii is often thought of as a vacation destination, a tropical paradise where beaches and sunny days make it easy to forget life’s cares. The Descendants, however, which is set in Hawaii, exposes the inevitable other side of paradise, where real life and family tragedy exist among the coconut palms.

Now available on a single-disc DVD (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, MSRP: $29.98) and two-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (MSRP: $39.99), the Academy Award-winning film is one of those so-called quiet movies: there isn’t much action, and though there is plenty of drama, it’s more internal than expressed in bursts of violence or passion.

Adapted from the debut novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the story revolves around real estate lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), reeling after his thrill-seeking wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lapses into a coma following a boating accident. For years, Matt has been coasting along as the “backup parent” to his spirited daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and is only beginning to see how troubled both truly are.

As he deals with Scottie’s bullying behavior at school and Alex’s emotional detachment, he aches for his wife’s return to health. However, Matt’s cluelessness has extended to his personal life as well, as fresh-out-of-rehab Alex informs him that his wife had been having an affair. He struggles to come to terms with this news just as the doctors inform him that his wife is deteriorating, and the terms of her living will specify that they must terminate life support soon.

It becomes Matt’s job to inform relatives and friends of Elizabeth’s condition, in order to allow them the opportunity to say good-bye. He enlists Alex’s help—and she, in turn, brings along surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause). The reactions vary from tears to anger (and earn Sid a punch in the eye), but all agree to make the trip to the hospital to say their farewells. After discovering the identity of the man his wife was seeing, Matt ultimately decides to reach out to her lover (a subdued Matthew Lillard) as well.

At the eye of this swirling hurricane of emotional trauma is a land sale being brokered by Matt’s family. As the descendants of Hawaiian missionaries and a Hawaiian princess, the family trust fell heir to a huge tract of undeveloped land on Kauai, of which Matt is the trustee. The cousins are all gathering to vote on one of the billion-dollar bids, foremost of which include selling to a local investor, which Matt himself backed, but a new development suddenly has him rethinking his strategy as both a businessman and a parent.

Though the surface emotions rise and fall as gently as the Hawaiian surf, the actors all do an outstanding job of portraying the simmering undercurrents in each scene. Woodley and Miller, in particular, exhibit the unwilling maturity of kids whose parents are too busy fighting their own demons to notice the problems at home, while still maintaining a child-like innocence at their core.

Clooney rightly deserved his Academy Award nomination, embodying Matt’s tepid personality and discomfort with the turns his life takes with subtlety and just enough gravitas. Both Robert Forster (as Elizabeth’s angry father) and Beau Bridges (as the beach-bum cousin Hugh) are terrific counterpoints to Clooney’s middle-of-the-road expressions, and each differently highlights Matt’s ultimate inability to engage in his own life.

One of the uncredited stars of the film has to be the state of Hawaii itself, as the gently swaying trees and cultural iconography all permeate the story, lulling the viewer with its lush beauty and distracting them from the harsh realities of the story.

The single-disc DVD contains a few special features, along with the theatrical trailer and some sneak peeks of upcoming releases.

First off, it’s not just females who swoon over Clooney. The featurette “Everybody Loves George” shows why the actor is a guy’s guy, an actor’s best friend, a director’s dream and an all-around great guy. Funnier than his movie roles, Clooney is revealed as a prankster, impersonator and a teller of great tales.

Directors can be a quirky bunch, and the featurette “Working with Alexander” showcases just how true that is of Oscar winner Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election). Also functioning as a co-writer and producer of the film, Payne wore many hats throughout the process, and was universally beloved by the cast and crew (as these testimonials show). As laid-back as the islands on which they filmed, this short feature is a perfect portrait of an artist (and also showcases a couple of no-fail omelet techniques to boot).

If, as the adage goes, into every life a little rain must fall, where better to endure a storm than the Hawaiian islands? In “Hawaiian Style,” viewers are treated to the many things that make Hawaii a special place to film. From the blessing on the first day of shooting to the colorful expressions picked up by all, it is clear that family made up of cast and crew were far more functional than the fictional Kings.

The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack adds to the extras four additional featurettes (“The Real Descendants,” “Casting,” “Working with Water” and “Waiting for the Light”), the silent film The World Parade—Hawaii, a conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne, three music videos (“Honolulu’s Whisper,” “Postcards from Paradise” and “Will I Ever See You Again”), deleted scenes and a digital copy of the film.

While the ending of The Descendants isn’t wrapped up in a bow (or even a brightly colored lei), there are a few rays of hope penetrating the overall sadness for the family’s future. If anything, this movie should make viewers appreciate their own families a bit more…and perhaps plan to spend some time with them on that long dreamed of trip to Hawaii.

The Descendants is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Posted on LifeInLA.com

Shopping: Men's Bracelets

Courtesy of Night Rider

Shake hands with a businessman or hipster these days and you may catch a peek of the latest trend for men: the wrist tangle, or so-called Kanye bracelets.

The trend, sparked by singer Kanye West’s mix of gold and fabric wrist-wear at the 2011 Coachella music festival, has gained enough momentum to rate a mention in February’s New York Times Style section, and has landed firmly in Las Vegas.

Jennifer Miller, director of marketing for MJ Christensen Diamonds, a 2011 Best of Las Vegas reader’s pick for Best Jewelry Store, defined the type of customer most likely to embrace this trend as “current, on trend and doesn’t really care what others think. He’s definitely an independent spirit with a lot of confidence and a passion for jewelry.”

Kyle Anderson, a loan officer in New York, picked up a David Yurman bracelet at the Fashion Show Mall during his visit to Las Vegas. It is the third in his collection, which included a leather bracelet given to him by a girlfriend years earlier and a woven parachute cord piece he got at Christmas.

“I’m not really into too much flash, but this trend feels like me,” he said. “It’s not over-the-top bling.”
The beauty of this trend is that guys like Anderson can mix inexpensive pieces with more high-end brands.

“We see a lot of mixing and stacking of different textures,” Miller said. “A lot of designers are coming out with the parachute material, and people are layering that with sterling silver.”

Besides making a fashion statement, a few brands also make a philanthropic gesture as well.

“We have paper beads that are made in Uganda, Africa from recycled paper that benefits a group of impoverished women there,” Miller pointed out, adding that the company just reached a $100,000 in sales that all go to BeadForLife.org. “There are also some made from parachute cord that helps soldiers who are relocating to America after being at war. When you mix the charity in with the high end, it’s a really cool vibe.”

For those looking to break into the trend, Miller suggested a classic woven sterling sliver bracelet, such as ones made by John Hardy or the Arizona-based company Night Rider.

As for cost, “You can pretty much start at $5 to wherever you’d like to spend,” Miller said. “The Bead For Life recycled paper beads begin at $5, but the sky is the limit. There are different brands for different gentlemen. Find what his passions are and what story he’d like to tell, and then match the jewelry with his personal needs.”

While wearing a wrist full of color isn’t Anderson’s goal, he likes the mix-and-match effect of his set and plans to add a nice watch later this year.

“I’ve got my eye on a Tag Heuer,” he said. “Why not? After all these years getting presents for girlfriends, I think it’s fun to get something for me.”

Published on BestofLasVegas.com

Blu-ray: Footloose

  Remakes and updates abounded in 2011, but the decision by Paramount to green light a new version of Footloose was met with mixed reactions, as it’s a film that some claim is an American classic. One of those movies that inspired a generation, the original film launched the career of Kevin Bacon and helped establish Kenny Loggins’ reputation as the 1980s King of Soundtracks. Even today, who doesn’t hear the opening bars of the title track without immediately getting into the party spirit?

What most people fail to remember about the 1984 film, though, is that it was only so-so, mainly a vehicle for the soundtrack that went on to spawn a number of hits. Despite a few iconic scenes, the movie was basically cinematic fluff to pass the time before The Karate Kid came out later that year.

The 2011 Footloose is in almost every way a better movie than the original. Writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) took on the task of modernizing the tale of a small town that blamed dancing and modern music for the crash that took the lives of five teenagers years earlier.

This time around, the leads are played by newcomer Kenny Wormald (as Ren) and a made-under Julianne Hough (playing the reverend’s daughter, Ariel). Wormald is perfectly cast as the big-city boy with a chip on his shoulder, while Hough portrays the rebellious teen with a much softer edge than Lori Singer did in the original.

For those few who never saw the original (or don’t recall the movie), the story goes like this: a few years back, at a post-game party, teens got drunk, drove home and were killed in a car wreck, prompting the town elders to set forth a regulation prohibiting public dancing and loud music. Three years later, Ren comes to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother passes away and falls for the reverend’s daughter (whose brother was killed in the aforementioned crash). Rebellion ensues as the kids try to have a prom with dancing and the town shuts them down.

Dennis Quaid is great as Reverend Shaw Moore, and Andie MacDowell oozes Southern charm as his loyal wife. Also turning great performances are Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens (Uncle Wes and Aunt Lulu) and Ziah Colon as Ariel’s best bud Rusty.

There are a few changes from the original storyline, most obviously the location changes. Bomont is now located in Texas instead of Utah, and the bad-boy Ren now hails from Boston rather than Chicago, probably because Wormald’s native Boston accent is such a great counterpoint to the Texas twang of his best bud Willard (a scene-stealing Miles Teller). This cast also includes more characters of ethnicity (which is to say there actually are some).

A big fan of the original film, Brewer tries to keep as much continuity as possible between the two films while still filming a modern movie. Sticking so close to the first version should have made this Footloose just as mediocre of a movie as Bacon’s version, but Brewer is somehow able to wring more personality and presence from one scene than much of that first effort contained in its entirety. This Footloose feels like less of a remake, and more of a “how it should have been made.”

If there is anywhere the remake falls short, it’s the music. While a variety of genres are represented on the soundtrack (from Quiet Riot to Cee Lo Green), there is a decidedly country-music spin on the majority of the tracks. This isn’t what makes it less appealing than the Kenny Loggins-led songs, however—that fault lies mostly with the fact that the songs themselves feel outdated. In a film about dancing and the power of music, that seems to be a big miss.

The director’s commentary track on the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (Paramount Home Media Distribution, MSRP: $44.99) goes into much more detail about what influenced Brewer’s directorial decisions, and reveals that he was very much in-the-know about how deeply reviled he was for even taking on such a project. However, hearing him talk about making this version should leave little doubt that he wanted to do the story justice.

“Jump Back: Re-imagining Footloose” goes into detail about what Brewer decided to change and what bits he felt were essential to keep in order to honor the source material (Ariel’s red boots and Ren’s Volkswagen are just two examples, as well as the clever recreation of the dancing-feet opener).

The Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack also features five deleted scenes, one of which— “Reverend Shaw’s Speech”—does a lot to give the older folks’ perspective. Viewers can also watch the scenes with optional commentary by Brewer.

Two mini-documentary features are devoted to the film’s stars. “Everybody Cut: The Stars of Footloose” gives viewers more background about the main characters, as well as the largely unknown cast, while “Dancing with the Footloose Stars” showcases the dance moves and training of said cast.

The two-disc Combo Pack also includes three full-length music videos: Big & Rich’s rowdy party song “Fake ID,” Blake Shelton’s take on “Footloose” and the moody Ella Mae Bowen version of “Holding Out for a Hero.”

The most fun of the special features, “Footloose Rap,” features YouTube sensation Emily Whitcomb and her original rap that perfectly summarizes the storyline from the point of view of Ariel. Whitcomb joined the cast at a screening of the film in Minneapolis and was asked to “remake” her performance in front of the crowd, with Brewer, Wormald and Hough as backup. The result is kitchy and fun.

The DVD that comes with the Combo Pack only holds the movie and an Ultraviolet digital copy. The single-disc DVD release (MSRP: $29.99), however, comes with the director’s commentary track, three deleted scenes and the “Fake ID” music video, along with an Ultraviolet digital copy.

then and now are still pretty much popcorn movies: lightweight entertainment that won’t change the world, but will certainly inspire viewers to jump off the couch and dance. Fans of “Dancing with the Stars’” Hough, though, won’t be disappointed in her acting chops, and a whole new generation should now be inspired by phrase “Everybody cut….”

Footloose is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Published on LifeInLA.com

Shopping: Pawn Shop Deals

Budgets are tightening all over the country, and people are looking for ways to save on the products they buy. Craigslist, eBay and even Goodwill can yield some deals on pre-owned merchandise, but there is another source becoming more and more popular: pawn shops.

Once regarded as sleazy, dirty or borderline criminal, pawn shops have undergone a reputation overhaul thanks to shows like the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” featuring Las Vegas’ own Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, at 713 S. Las Vegas Blvd.

More people are opting to sell their high-end items, from flat screen televisions to tablet computers, for fast cash. These items are then sold to the public at prices that are 30 to 60 percent cheaper than retail prices.

Mitchell Weinstein, a pawnbroker with MaxPawn at 2400 S. Jones Blvd., said that “anything you can buy in a pawn shop, you’re going to get a deal because they items are used, from jewlery to the name-brand purses that (MaxPawn) is famous for.”

Some of the best buys in a pawn shop will be jewelry, high-end tools, musical instruments and small items like DVD or Blu-ray movies, which can often be had for a few dollars each. There are even bargains available on firearms.

“If you’re a local and can show ID, we can call in the (purchase) from here and get you approved so you can leave with your purchase the same day,” Weinstein said.

Televisions, video game consoles and even laptops are also popular items at the pawn shops. Though once considered a risky purchase, as the quality could not be guaranteed, most shops now have a 30-day return policy on electronics.

Las Vegas resident Sarah Whitney chose to visit SuperPawn at 1100 W. Sunset Road when she was looking for a new iPod Touch last year.

“A friend told me he got his there and that it was in good condition,” she said. “I checked to see if they had what I wanted, and they did,” she said. “I ended up paying at least half, if not more, of what a new one would have cost.”

Another secret of pawn shop purchasing is that the price tag isn’t always what the sales price may be.
“No matter what’s on the tag, for instance, a watch for $599, if you asked to see that watch and said you really liked it, and would we take $250 for it, you might just have yourself a deal,” Weinstein said.

“I expected it to be more ghetto, but it was actually really nice and the (merchandise) had a good presentation,” Whitney, who had never gone into a pawn shop before, said. “I didn’t feel in any way sleazy or thrown together.”

“Here at MaxPawn, we have a higher standard,” Weinstein said. “Our motto is, if we don’t treat the customer as number one, someone else will.”

Although some still hold onto the image of a pawn shop as a thinly-veiled fence for stolen goods, Weinstein assured that they, and other pawn shops in the city, work closely with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Pawn Shop Detail in order to keep inventory as clean as possible.

“It’s a judgment call,” Weinstein said, “but we’ve been doing this a long time. There are people we’ve turned down, and even items that we put on a 30-day hold in order to make contact with the task force to make sure they’re not from somebody’s home.”

Published on BestofLasVegas.com

DVD: Jack and Jill

 Adam Sandler fans are a very forgiving bunch who seem to know that, for every Anger Management the star has produced, a You Don’t Mess with the Zohan seems to follow. And yet, they ride out the mediocre in hopes of the next Big Daddy or The Wedding Singer. Sadly, that movie definitely isn’t Jack and Jill.

The premise of the film is thin at best. Sandler plays Jack Sadelstein, a successful advertising executive in Los Angeles with a picture-perfect wife (a bland Katie Holmes) and two kids—the girly girl Sofia (Elodie Tougne) and Scotch tape-obsessed Gary (Rohan Chand). As the movie opens, the family is looking forward to Thanksgiving—and dreading the annual arrival of Jack’s nemesis, his identical twin sister, Jill (also Sandler). A montage during the opening credits illustrates the many ways Jack has been annoyed by his sister since birth (or the multiple ways he’s been a total jerk, depending on the audience’s point of view).

Clearly, Jack is far more bothered by his brash New Jersey-based sibling than anyone else in his family, who all seem to take her quirks in stride. For her part, Jill loves her brother and simply wants to be closer to him, especially now that their mother has passed away. Dinnertime friction ends in a major fight, followed by Jill’s decision to extend her stay so the two can “work things out.”

The character of Jill is played as a passive-aggressive whiner with a thick Bronx accent, yet it’s Jack who is the more annoying of the two. His selfish, mean-spirited nature makes filmgoers wonder why his sister even bothers. Nevertheless, a few days becomes a few weeks, and Jill runs the risk of becoming a permanent fixture.

Hampering Jack’s attempts to run his sister out of town are two potential love interests: the landscaper, Felipe (Eugenio Derbez), and—no joke—Al Pacino. Yes, that Al Pacino. Playing a cartoon parody of himself, the Godfather vet falls head-over-heels for the manly Jill, citing their common Bronx background as the basis of the love connection. Jack needs Pacino to agree to do a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial shoot or his job is on the line, so he is torn between wanting his sister on the next plane out of town and pimping her to lure Pacino into a contract.

The rest of the story doesn’t matter much, as it only exists as a vehicle for the numerous celebrity cameos popping up like the rodents in a Whac-A-Mole game. It comes to mind that this would make Jack and Jill an excellent drinking game movie—if players took a shot each time a famous face showed up, they’d be passed out before the first hour was up. The bit parts vary from painful (the ShamWow guy?) to very funny (Norm MacDonald as a creepy blind date, Dana Carvey as a stomach-puppeteer). The funniest appearance, however, has to be Johnny Depp at a Lakers game. Sporting a Justin Bieber T-shirt and his trademark lazy grin, Depp clearly took the role with the seriousness it deserved. “Were you in Duran Duran?” Jill screeches at him. “Yes,” he says without a trace of irony.

The final third of the movie takes a break from the agonizing sibling rivalry to make a commercial for the Royal Caribbean cruise line before diving into the inevitable Jack-dressed-as-Jill bit, and the realization that Jack’s been a huge ass.

Now for the positives: Sandler takes the character of Jill further than just being himself in a dress. Throughout the film, it is entirely possible to forget that the same person inhabits both roles, and there is even enough shading and depth between his portrayals of Jill and Jack-playing-Jill that the two are very separate. Although the movie as a whole is a disorganized mess, there are funny and original bits. And finally, Sandler fans can take heart that the lows to which this movie sinks can only mean the upcoming That’s My Boy has nowhere to go but up.

After slogging through the film, viewers might enjoy some of the special features. The DVD (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, MSRP: $30.99), Blu-ray (MSRP: $35.99) and Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (MSRP: $40.99) all offer “Laughing is Contagious,” an obligatory blooper reel that shows viewers how much fun it was to make the film and what a great time everyone had ad-libbing and riffing off of each other. It is interesting to watch the enthusiasm of the actors between takes, as those moments are full of more humor than the final product.

Although it’s usually easy to see why deleted scenes were cut, the multitude of extra footage included o
n Jack and Jill is roughly the same quality as the rest of the film, which is to say sophomoric. Any of the 13 scenes could have been interchanged with what ended up in the theatrical release without any discernible change in quality.

Uncover the magic behind the transformation of Sandler from a him to a her in “Boys Will Be Girls.” While not precisely method acting, Sandler does admit that the clothing and makeup were challenging but necessary to his portrayal. The featurette also explores the alter-egos of some of the other females-played-by-males in the film, including Derbez as his character
’s own grandmother.

One of the most worthwhile features is “Look Who Stopped By,” a comprehensive look at the nearly two dozen cameo appearances in the movie, from an angry John McEnroe to a bewildered Bruce Jenner, from the laid-back Drew Carey to a hammy-in-more-ways-than-one Shaquille O’Neal. (Those good at math will surely notice that, at 91 minutes, the movie averages a wink-wink, nudge-nudge appearance approximately every four minutes.)

The Blu-ray releases add just two exclusive extras to the package, “Stomach Ache” and “Don’t Call It A Boat—Royal Caribbean,” as well as an UltraViolet digital copy of the film.

In review: frat boys, adolescents and multiples who enjoy films about twins should find something to enjoy about Jack and Jill. Anyone else looking for vintage Sandler humor should just pop in a DVD of Grown Ups instead.

Jack and Jill is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Posted on LifeInLA.com

Shopping: Mystery Shopping Jobs

Get paid to shop! Enjoy free dinners and merchandise! Work on your own schedule! With the economy in a slump and jobs hard to come by, ads like these seem incredibly appealing. But are they on the level?

It helps first to know a bit about what mystery shopping is.

Retailers, businesses and restaurants may at one time or another want to gauge their employees’ customer service skills, adherence to procedure or training in a real-world environment. These companies will then hire people to pose as customers with a specific agenda, then to report their findings back to those companies.

Helen Rodriguez has been a mystery shopper for a national restaurant chain for more than 15 years.

“I go in and order an appetizer, an entrée and dessert and watch for the cleanliness of the restaurant, quality of the food and the service,” she said. “I always have to take someone with me, so I have a lot of friends who keep in touch.”

In return, Rodriguez is paid $50 and reimbursed for the bill.

The job is far from a walk in the park. Good shoppers must be over 18 years old, have a great attention to detail, the ability to write a clear, fact-based summary of their experiences and, in most cases, be computer literate. Each company provides their own guidelines for what they hope to accomplish with each job, which are paid anywhere from $10 to $50 or more.

Assignments are filled on an application basis from a pool of qualified shoppers, who are free to accept as many (or few) jobs as their schedules allow. Payment typically includes reimbursement of goods or services being shopped, but vary by assignment. In fact, there are jobs that even allow shoppers to keep their merchandise.

Now for the bad news: although most other states allow mystery shoppers to be independent contractors, as of 2005, Nevada has much stricter regulations that require potential shoppers to undergo a background check, get a sheriff’s card and register with the Private Investigators Licensing Board as either a private investigator or an employee of a licensed firm, all of which are at the applicant’s expense (a small price to pay compared to the fines of up to $2,500 per shop without proper documentation.)

Those still interested in applying for secret shopper jobs will need to have a few things handy before starting the application. Most sites require a job history of at least five years; a current photo is sometimes requested; and, in many cases, a short sample narrative is required. Once the initial application has been processed, applicants should expect one or two more in-person or phone interviews before getting an offer, usually followed by training.

Even after the long process, the job can be fulfilling, said Julie Hill.

“It’s not for everyone, and you don’t make a lot of money, but it is great for a little income and you can feel good about what you are doing,” said Hill, a stay-at-home mother of two who mystery shops for a national retail chain. “You have to be aware of a lot of things on your checklist the company gives you, and it’s really specific. Did they bring you what you asked for, mention specials, hand you the receipt not just put it in the bag? And sometimes you know that your report, if it’s bad, is going to cause problems for the employees. And you have to be available when they need you. Slackers need not apply.”

There are only a handful of agencies licensed to run mystery shops in Nevada, but there are a great many internet companies promising jobs for a small administrative fee. At no time should applicants ever need to pay for the information, as it is readily available online for free. Here are the agencies currently licensed to operate mystery shopping operations in Nevada: Service Sleuth; QSI Specialists; Bestmark, Inc.; The Benchmark Collaborative; and A Closer Look.

Published on BestOfLasVegas.com

Blu-ray: Hugo

  Hot on the heels of its five Oscar wins (for cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects), viewers who missed Hugo in theaters have another chance to experience the first children’s movie from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, as it’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

“Once upon a time, I met a boy named Hugo Cabret, who lived in a train station. Why did he live in a train station, you may as well ask?” That is really the basis of Hugo, or so the trailers would have one believe. The movie advertised to audiences seems to be about a young orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the aforementioned train station, winding the many clocks and evading notice by the authorities (embodied brilliantly by Sacha Baron Cohen). His only companion, a broken-down automaton that his father (Jude Law) was fixing before he died, can only be activated by a special heart-shaped key. He finds said key around the neck of the precocious goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) of the local toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), and adventure ensues.

That’s not to say that story isn’t part of the film. If Hugo were a sandwich, that story would be more like the bread surrounding a thick slice of something completely different. The meat of the story is actually the touching tale about an early pioneer in moviemaking, Georges Méliès, who had to give up his passion after the first World War and settle for running a toy shop instead.

Butterfield and Moretz are remarkable young actors, perfectly cast in the lead roles, carrying their part of the movie (the one that promised two kids having a magical adventure) aptly. For his part, Kingsley embodies the bitter toy maker with pitch-perfect cynicism, as well as the mischievous magician and joyful filmmaker.

While the film is exceptional in many respects, the blended storylines have the effect of dragging down the action midway through. It isn’t that there isn’t anything interesting to say, but more that there is too much…and said in too many ways.

Every few minutes, a character shares the idea that early films had the power to capture dreams, and Hugo plays like a dream. It is visually stunning, the colors and lighting making a 1930s-era train station come vividly to life, even without the 3-D. Unlike other 3-D movies viewed in two dimensions, the missed effects aren’t distracting from the story.

“Do you ever wonder where your dreams come from? Look around. This is where they’re made.” Méliès’ words to a young Rene Tabard (who would one day become an avid historian, played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the film) could have just as easily applied to the moviemaking magic accomplished in this film, from the spectacular effects to the almost hypnotic atmosphere. The filmmaking is an homage to the art of cinema, even if Hugo’s storyline isn’t always up to the task.

While the bare-bones DVD release (Paramount Home Entertainment, MSRP: $29.99) contains only the movie and an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, both the Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with digital copy (MSRP: $39.99) and the 3-D Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with digital copy (MSRP: $44.99) have a number of special features. “Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo” features interviews with the cast, crew and director Scorsese.

Viewers intrigued by the filmmaker portrayed in the movie should truly enjoy “The Cinemagician, George Méliès,” a look at some of the actual films that have survived the past century. This short feature showcases some of the innovations and ground-breaking effects used by the filmmaker, while further exploring his impact on cinematic history. Méliès’ great granddaughter also gives her insights into the man she knew (and the great similarities between him and Kingsley).

Likewise, those whose interest was piqued by the automaton, wondering if such a thing ever existed, will find answers in “The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo.” The featurette explores the history of automatons and their makers throughout history, showcasing some that were made in the 1700s and are still functioning today.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the film, that of a train engine running off the tracks and through a window of the station, is explored in “Big Effects, Small Scale.” From the photo of the actual train accident that inspired author Brian Selznick to include the scene in his book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to the models used to recreate the action, this method of moviemaking is a throwback to days before CGI was the norm.

Finally, “Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime” features Cohen at his satirical best, explaining why Scorsese is a terrible director and why he should be allowed to do things as he wants to do them. One might wonder if anyone has successfully interviewed Cohen as anything other than a character; this feature does nothing to dispute that notion.

While Hugo may be magical, it’s not magical in the way one might expect given how the film was marketed. It is, however, a must-see for film buffs and for those who want to know about how this singular young man searched so hard to find a secret message from his father, and how that message made its way all the way home.

Hugo is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Posted on LifeInLA.com

Shopping: Topshop at Fashion Show Mall

LasVegas exclisive at TOPSHOP.
Style-savvy men and women across the United States will be headed to Las Vegas for the March 8 flagship store opening of London-based retailer TOPSHOP in the Fashion Show Mall.

TOPSHOP  has long been known to fashion editors and international travelers as the place to find eclectic pieces by hot British design talent and for fashionable staples that don’t cost a month’s rent. Until two years ago, when the New York location opened, there was no way for stateside fashionistas to get their fix of U.K. flair without going online. The Las Vegas store is the third U.S. location to open, with a Los Angeles location soon to follow.

When the 20,000-square-foot store opens their doors, shoppers will be treated to the best of British trends and an exclusive, limited-edition collection created just for Sin City.

“We were inspired by all that we associate with Las Vegas, the sparkle and the glitz,” design director Jacqui Markham said. “In creating this line, we referenced retro casino graphics and the old-style glamor of speakeasy clubs and dancing girls.”

The women’s collection is set to include sequined dresses, shorts and skirts, evening clutches and colorful sandals embellished with rhinestones and crystals.

“We incorporated iconic motifs such as dollar signs, slot machine cherries and playing card symbols into the styles in a playful, tongue-in-cheek way,” Markham said.

The collection will also include a signature nail polish, called Razzmatazz. “It’s a super-glittery polish, as the name suggests, inspired by the Razzmatazz of Vegas nightlife,” Markham explained.

The TOPMAN brand, which focuses on menswear, also features Las Vegas-inspired items. In addition to knit ties, leather belts and an exclusive suede-and-canvas bag, the brand’s classic suit will hearken back to Rat Pack-era Las Vegas.

“I wanted pieces that referenced the traditional time of Sinatra,” Gordon Richardson, TOPMAN design director, said. “Tailoring played a big part of the look of that era. With that in mind, we’ve created suiting…that is slimmer and sharp in construction.”

In addition to the usual retail fixtures, the local TOPSHOP /TOPMAN will also offer guests a few additional perks. Instead of Muzak or recycled hits, the store features two DJ booths. A cosmetic area will offer shoppers the ability to come into the store, shop for a new nightlife look and be made up for a night out on the town.

Perhaps the most inviting service are the luxurious private shopping suites and fitting rooms, staffed by personal shoppers and outfitted with their own private entrances. Services are available by appointment.

Guests attending the grand opening will enjoy complimentary makeovers and may be lucky enough to receive a gift card by TOPSHOP style girls circulating through the store. Shoppers who spend up to $100 in store will also walk away with an exclusive glitter clutch as a gift.

TOPSHOP/TOPMAN is located on the ground level of the Fashion Show Mall, 3200 S. Las Vegas Blvd. For more information, call 702-369-8382 or visit them online at topshop.com.

Posted on BestofLasVegas.com

DVD: The Rum Diary

  It took more than a decade to bring Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary to theaters, six years after the author’s death in 2005. Now available on DVD (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, MSRP: $30.99) and Blu-ray (MSRP: $35.99), the story of a writer who finds his voice in 1960s Puerto Rico is, mostly, a fitting tribute to the author whose dream it was to see it on the big screen.

Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a New York novelist who, frustrated with his lack of progress as a writer, moves to Puerto Rico to take a job reporting for the San Juan Star. At first given entry-level assignments by his editor-in-chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), Kemp is content to nurse his alcoholism and pal around with staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli).

He soon finds himself courted by the powerful Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who involves him in a scheme to generate a lot of cash for some greedy investors—at the expense of the poor. Complicating matters, Kemp falls for Sanderson’s wild child fiancée, Chenault (the radiant Amber Heard). “Oh, God. Why did she have to happen, just when I was doing so well without her?” Kemp muses.

As he begins to fall deeper in love with an unavailable woman, Kemp also starts to see the damage men like Sanderson and even Lotterman are doing to the people of Puerto Rico, keeping them in poverty while courting rich Americans to play on their beaches or at their “safe” hotels and bowling alleys. When Kemp starts to submit stories that reflect the true nature of life on the island, Lotterman laughs, “The average Joe doesn’t save up for 25 years so he can take a cruise to the islands and hear how bad conditions are at the sugar plantation.”

Disillusioned and angry, Kemp suddenly finds the inspiration he’s been seeking and vows, “I will try to speak for my reader. That is my promise, and it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”

Thompson penned The Rum Diary during a very formative period of his career, and most consider the book to be a barely fictionalized autobiography (though he jokingly disabuses that notion in the special features). He very much wanted to write a Great American Novel, in the fashion of Hemingway or Steinbeck, and the book is indeed the enduring story about a writer finding his voice in an exotic land. Does the film version also translate into a cinematic opus? Not so much.

Lacking The Great Gatsby’s drama or Of Mice and Men’s rough character, there is nevertheless a great deal to like in The Rum Diary. The casting is inspired, with perhaps the exception of Eckhart, who seems curiously unenthusiastic in his bad-guy character. Rispoli and Heard shine in a version of the angel- and devil-on-the-shoulder roles (though, in this case, the devil wears apple-blossom lipstick), and Jenkins proves yet again to be one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood.

Bruce Robinson does a credible job translating Thompson’s work into a script that keeps the flavor of the original work, though the story doesn’t quite have enough peaks and valleys to stir any great feeling, either for the main characters or the people of Puerto Rico. He also does a fine job as director, keeping the story focused and well-paced. Oddly enough, the weakest link in the film is Depp himself. As a good friend of Thompson’s, and an early champion and producer of this film, one might assume that he would embrace the role more thoroughly. Instead, he seems somewhat tentative in his portrayal, as if he were so worried about doing his friend justice he forgot to make the role his own.

One of the real stars of this film is the cinematography. The flavor of the time and place is so authentic, the viewer can almost smell the stale tobacco and sweat in the newspaper offices, feel the cloying heat of the bodies pressed together around a cockfight and taste the heavy, salt-tinged Caribbean air on a boat bound for Carnival. This isn’t the glamorous ’60s of shows like “Mad Men” or “Pan Am;” The Rum Diary’s contrasts between the easy lifestyle of the wealthy and the deplorable conditions of the poor aren’t just played for shock, but feel genuine in their effect, and give real weight to Kemp’s eventual desire to expose the “bastards” of the world.

As far as bonus features go, there are relatively few included on both the DVD and Blu-ray release. What the discs lack in quantity, however, is made up in quality—especially if viewers are fans of Depp or Thompson.

“A Voice Made of Ink and Rage: Inside The Rum Diary” takes an inside look at the filming of the movie, from Depp’s pre-shoot ritual for honoring his departed friend to costume design to the type of film used to capture the essence of Puerto Rico. Focusing mainly on the actor/producer, it’s a fairly standard behind-the-scenes feature, but well done and chock full of interesting tidbits for film buffs.

The Rum Diary Back-Story,” by contrast, is made for fans of Thompson and the novel that inspired the film. Less a polished documentary than a well-edited collection of home movies and interviews, this feature is a far more intimate look at The Rum Diary
’s journey from a rough manuscript languishing in Thompson’s study to the silver screen. Featuring footage shot as far back as 1998, viewers are treated to the author’s final efforts at editing the story before publication, his and Depp’s meetings with potential producers and scenes of Thompson simply reading passages from his own work aloud. Though at times the writer is so difficult to understand he requires subtitles, he exudes enthusiasm and genuine pride in his words. A complex man, at turns charming and obstinate, Thompson seems at all times to know who he is and completely embraces it.

Although it doesn’t completely live up to the grand cinematic aspirations Thompson might have had for the movie, The Rum Diary is still a lovely snapshot of a time when America was just losing its innocence, drinking and smoking were job requirements and one of last century’s most iconic talents found his voice.

The Rum Diary is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Published on LifeInLA.com

Tuesday 13: Cheaza Figueroa of Peepshow

Courtesy Photo

Some people are just born to be entertainers, and Cheaza Figueroa is one of them. The native Puerto-Rican is the reigning Peep Diva in Planet Hollywood’s sexy burlesque show “Peepshow.” From the moment she steps onstage, Figueroa owns the role once inhabited by guest stars Mel B, Shoshana Bean and Aubrey O’Day. But this former-backup-singer-turned-lead isn’t just a great smile on top of a wicked sense of humor. She’s a single mom to Mariana (who just turned 16), a calendar girl and a recording artist in her own right.

Earlier this month, the Boricua beauty celebrated the production’s 1000th show with cast mates Holly Madison and Josh Strickland, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon—despite a recent injury that kept her from performing for nearly three months. Now back onstage and better than ever, the saucy señorita talked with the Best of Las Vegas about touring with the greats as a child, her own very talented daughter and what new challenges she can’t wait to conquer.

BOLV: You have been with “Peepshow” since day one, moving from a principal singer to arguably the best Peep Diva in the show’s history. How has the experience been from your perspective?
Cheaza Figueroa: I came from Wayne Brady’s show to do “Peepshow,” and it’s been a great experience. I moved out to Vegas to do exactly what I’m doing now and it’s really exciting and liberating to live out one of my dreams, especially a dream which some people said I was crazy to think could even happen. And (the role) is teaching me so much as well. I’ve never been in a production like this, so it’s teaching me a lot about discipline and working with a big cast. All in all, it’s definitely been a learning tool and a fun, fun journey.
BOLV: There have been comparisons of your vocal style to other divas like Tina Turner and Whitney Houston. How were you affected by Houston’s recent passing?

It still hasn’t really hit me. She has been a true idol of mine. I remember when I was a little girl I wanted to be Whitney Houston. She helped sculpt and mold me as an entertainer, along with other great artists, but she was a great role model of mine growing up. She’s still a lot of who I am today. A lot of people tell me I sound like her, and to hear that throughout my life then to have that tragic event of her passing. Well, her legacy will live on through a lot of people, and definitely myself.
BOLV: I know you were working on your own album, and even had a single, “Live for Tonight” ready to go. Is there anything to report on that project?

CF: Yes, actually. We’re working with new producers right now.
BOLV: You recently suffered a fairly serious injury. Can you give us an update on your condition?

CF: Well, I fell exiting the stage during my show, and it took me out for about three months. But I’m healing, I’m back in the show now. (The producers) are allowing me to do the show according to what’s comfortable for me. I’m very lucky, because a lot of shows won’t allow that. I’m in rehabilitation right now for my shoulder, so I just have to be patient and go through the process.
BOLV: Your fans can now purchase a calendar featuring 14 months of Cheaza. How was the experience of shooting a calendar?

CF: It was a lot of fun. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing and we got it done in a couple months. Due to my injury, it pushed the calendar release back a bit, but better late than never. I can’t wait to do next year’s. Sherrie Hill was one of my sponsors for the calendar, I definitely love wearing Sherrie Hill dresses.

BOLV: You’ve also been known to shop for lots of new footwear. Any favorites?
CF: I’m simple, but I love shoes! I love Louboutins, of course. Gianmarco Lorenzi, those have become my new favorite. I don’t get those on an every day basis, though. I also shop at Baker and Wild Pair, usually on the way into work or out from work at the Miracle Mile Shops. I just bought some new Betsey Johnson’s the other day, too.

BOLV: I keeping with the devil-may-care spirit of your character, you are a big fan of motorcycles. How did you get turned onto that hobby?
CF: I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 16 or 17 years old. My uncles always owned a motorcycle and as babies we would be around them so it kind of just rubbed off on me. I have my own street bike, a YZF1000, and I love it. Right now, I can’t ride because of my shoulder, but as soon as it’s healed I’ll be back up on it, riding someplace like Lake Mead.

BOLV: You are a big user of social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As the mother of a teenage daughter, do you find yourself monitoring what you put out there or what she is seeing?
CF: You know what? I do, actually, but there’s really nothing that I would put out there that I wouldn’t let my daughter see. It just comes down to character. My daughter is an entertainment child, she’s been exposed to a lot. I’m very protective over her and just make sure she understands that the world is the world and people are people and everyone is different, so the things you see and hear are other people’s opinions and views, but what you get at home you can take to the bank.

BOLV: When you were a child, you were traveling with your mom, who was an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner, and a backup singer for Chaka Kahn, among other gigs. How did being around such great musicians at a young age help shape you as an artist?
CF: That was everything to me. I look back and think that, as a child, I really didn’t realize the (impact of the) people who had such an influence on me as an artist today, just by sitting in the other room, listening to them sing or rehearse with my mom. I was exposed to Rick James to Johnny Otis to Chaka Kahn and Smokey Robinson, so may great artists, but not knowing as a child that “these are the greats, the soul of music.”

BOLV: Your life story is so fascinating. If Hollywood came calling, would you ever consider doing your own reality show?
CF: You know, I said no to it a lot of times, but we actually have a show in production right now. I think it will provide a lot of opportunity for my daughter, so she can get her feet wet in the business as well, because she sings and acts and dances. We were approached by a really good production team, and I think (a reality show) would be a positive insight into what we’re trying to do in my life and my daughter’s life right now.

BOLV: So Mariana has inherited the performing bug as well?
CF: She loves it, she absolutely loves it. She comes from a very musical background. Her father, my ex-husband, is in the boy band, All-4-One, so as a small, small child, in the belly really, she was exposed to music. She was also on a show called “Hip Hop Harry” on PBS Kids, and is going to start recording (an album) this summer.

BOLV: You were a backup singer for Wayne Brady, who is also known for his comedy. Recently you also tried your hand at improv comedy. Do you have a future as a comic lined up, too?
CF: Yes, I love it! Wayne used to pull me up on stage with him to improv, and he was one of the first people to tell me I really needed to try this, because I was good at it. He believed in me more than I believed in myself when it came to comedy. I mean, standing next to the best… what can I really say? He is amazing. It’s just like a whirlwind of experience, being onstage with him. Everything that I’ve learned, I’ve been able to incorporate into (“Peepshow”,) which is a blessing. Improv has become another love of mine thanks to Wayne and I’d like to venture a little bit more into that side of things.

BOLV: You’re a singer, a dancer, you do comedy, sports. Is there any field you haven’t tried yet that you would love to explore?
CF: You know what? There is. I really want to try opera. I know I can do it. It’s very disciplined, and that’s the reason I want to try it, to give my vocal chords that chance. I was thinking about going to Nashville, maybe the U.K., someplace that’s a different environment. I know Nashville is a really cool place to take opera (lessons.) I just want to try to do something farfetched that I’ve never done.

Published on BestOfLasVegas.com

Blu-ray: Lady and the Tramp Diamond Edition

  One of the greatest love stories of all time, Lady and the Tramp is far less tragic than Romeo and Juliet, more endearing than Scarlett and Rhett and just plain cuter than Bogey and Bacall. It’s a timeless classic, featuring one of the most iconic movie moments of all time—seriously, who hasn’t tried to recreate the spaghetti-kiss scene with their significant other?

For those who aren’t in the know, this is the story of Lady (Barbara Luddy), a cocker spaniel, who was given as a Christmas gift from Jim Dear (Lee Millar) to his lovely wife, Darling (Peggy Lee). Lady is a pampered princess, loving her masters and protecting the home from pigeons and giant rats. She, in turn, is the light of the family’s life…until a little bundle of joy arrives.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the collarless Tramp (Larry Roberts) is living footloose and fancy-free, terrorizing dog catchers and fending for scraps. Chance takes him into Lady’s neighborhood, where they meet and an attraction is formed.

The two eventually have some grand adventures, with Tramp showing Lady the joys of a stray’s life, but eventually Tramp comes to find the value of being tied down.

Now available as a two-disc Diamond Edition Blu-ray Combo Pack with DVD (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, MSRP: $39.99) as well as a three-disc Diamond Edition Blu-ray Combo Pack with DVD and digital copy (MSRP: $44.99), viewers have the option to watch Lady and the Tramp after an introduction by Diane Disney Miller, who gives a short tour of the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, then tells viewers how much her father loved animals…dogs in particular. Blu-ray viewers may also watch with the film with the audio track “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings,” in which voice actors bring to life notes from story meetings and brainstorming sessions that took place between 1939 and 1946. Even knowing these were recorded north of the 21st century, it evokes the spirit of the early Disney filmmakers and gives audiences a rare peek into the old-fashioned animation process.

The new package also includes some interesting bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray disc. The most interactive is the new Disney Second Screen feature, now included on many new Disney releases. With an Internet-enabled Blu-ray player, viewers can enjoy a wealth of special features on an iPad or computer (both Mac and PC formats are supported). Some of the gems in this Second Screen collection are storyboards and line drawings from the original concept meetings; flipboards featuring basic animations contrasted with the final product; Scene Shuffle, where players put a mixed-up version of a classic still back together; Draw and Paint, featuring various characters; Fun Facts; and biographies of key players at Walt Disney Studios as the film was being made. Second Screen users can also watch their Blu-ray version of the movie with an expanded version of “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings,” illustrated with sketches, storyboards, film clips and photos.

Three never-before-seen deleted scenes are included on the Blu-ray disc. These are essentially animated storyboards from original concept meetings in the 1940s, with voice actors portraying the characters and/or narration. The pencil drawings are beautiful, each one little art pieces, but it’s not difficult to see why these elements were never added to the final storyline.

The first, “Introduction of Boris,” is a tedious 10 minutes long. It details the fight for Lady’s affection by loveable mutt Homer and Russian wolfhound Boris, who has just moved in next door. Boris is insufferable, attempting to win Lady’s affection by flaunting his wealth and perceived importance. Homer, in the meantime, is the blue-collar dog who doesn’t even know the meaning of half the fancy words Boris uses. In the end, Boris and Homer were scrapped for Jock and Trusty, a wise move on the part of the filmmakers.

In contrast, “Waiting for Baby” and “Dog Show” offer more lighthearted fun. The first expands on Jim Dear’s desire for a son, and his certainty that he’ll do great things. The second finds Lady and Tramp crashing a trained dog show, featuring dancing poodles. Both could have easily been added to the final cut, but they wouldn’t have added more than a few new laughs.

Over the course of the many years this movie was being developed, the characters went through many variations. At one point, Tramp had a song, the catchy "I'm Free as the Breeze," which is performed here for the first time over line drawings and sketches. Ultimately, it was decided that Tramp wouldn’t be a singing character, however, so the number was tabled.

Diane Disney Miller narrates a second featurette on both the Blu-ray disc and DVD, “Remembering Dad.” In it, she reveals the fact that Walt had an apartment built above the fire station in Disneyland, which he and his wife, Lillian, used until he died. The pair were apparently great fans of Victorian-era décor (having both grown up in that time), but their own home was more modern. Therefore, this small apartment became their mini-Victorian oasis (Second Screen users can take a 360-degree virtual tour of the apartment).

Rounding out the bonus features on the Blu-ray disc are extras from the 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition DVD, released in 2006: “Lady's Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp;” “Finding Lady: The Art of the Storyboard;” the original 1943 storyboard version of the film; “PuppyPedia: Going to the Dogs;” “The Siamese Cat Song: Finding a Voice for the Cats;” a "Bella Notte" Music Video; trailers for the theatrical release; and excerpts from "Disneyland" TV shows. The DVD also includes “PuppyPedia,” which is narrated by the ever-witty Fred Willard, who teaches viewers the differences in five types of dogs using clips of pooches from Disney movies (both animated and live-action), along with actual canines and their owners in a dog park.

The opening credits of Lady and the Tramp claim that the film is dedicated to all dogs, whether they be “ladies” or “tramps.” The film definitely bridges the gap between both types of humans as well, and still brings a smile to the faces of young and old alike. It’s truly a classic tale that
deserves to be unleashed in high definition.

Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition is now available on Blu-ray.  

Published on LifeInLA.com

Shopping: Springtime Organizing

Photo courtesy of Get it Together, LLC. Click here for more.

Winter is coming to a close, and with the new season looms the prospect of spring cleaning, a time when many decide to clear out the clutter in their homes and get themselves organized. For some, however, the task might seem so daunting that they, like the groundhog earlier this month, might decide they’d rather head back to their burrows and put the task off six more weeks.
Getting organized doesn’t have to mean sacrificing an entire weekend, or even a series of them, said Renee Ursem, professional organizer and owner of Get It Together.

“Start with something small, like a drawer or a shelf, your linen closet,” she recommended. “With a linen closet, there’s not a lot of emotional investment, but you can see big results.”

Christine Ruggiero, owner of The Lakes Professional Organizers, agreed that the best place to start is “the spot that impacts your daily life the most, whether that’s the kitchen, the bathroom or somewhere else there is extra clutter.”

“Don’t start in the office,” Ursem warned. “Paper takes up such a small amount of space, but it takes a large amount of brain power to go through. I think it’s better to start in a place where you’re going to see big results.”

“Probably more important than where to start is how to start,” Ruggiero said. “You want to chunk it down into manageable stages, like just one cabinet in the bathroom instead of the whole space.”

Ursem gave this formula for deciding what to keep and what to donate or toss: “(Clients) kind of need to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ As our lives change, we need to have what we need for who we are and what our life is now.”

Ruggiero acknowledged that it might be tempting for people to start an organizing project by purchasing bins, boxes or containers, but called that approach absolutely wrong.
“Most people think, if they buy organizing materials they will automatically become organized,” she said. “In reality, things have to be purged and sorted first. Getting the supplies should come at the end.”

“It’s not the containers, it’s the process that gets you organized,” Ursem said. “I find my clients have tons of containers already, so I tell them not to buy any more right away. A lot of times, if they just look through those containers and empty out what isn’t important, they’ll have the all the containers they need.”

When the time comes to purchase organizing supplies, Ruggiero also recommends hitting thrift shops like Savers and Goodwill.

Sometimes people just aren’t able to clear out the excess things on their own because of emotional attachments or just sheer volume. In these cases, they shouldn’t be afraid to contact a professional.
“Clutter is not really about the stuff, it’s what the stuff represents,” Ursem said. “Sometimes (clients) just need help walking through that.”

Ruggiero, a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, urged anyone seeking professional help to look for someone affiliated with that organization in order to ensure ethical standards are being met.

“(If) you’re bringing someone into your home to work with you, you need to be careful,” Ruggiero said.

In the end, people shouldn’t worry if things seem to be taking longer than expected to come together.
“Sometimes people get caught up in the plan, and organizing isn’t a linear process,” Ursem, who is also a member of NAPO, said. “There are no right or wrong ways.It’s more of an art than a science.”

Published on BestofLasVegas.com

Blu-ray: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

   Lifelong pals Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) have gone to White Castle, Guantanamo Bay, Texas and Amsterdam, but in A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, the latest offering in the seminal stoner series, the pair go where no pot-com buddies have ever gone before…three dimensions.

Originally released in 3D, the new format opened whole new ways to take a joke, shake it up and spray viewers with the aftermath. The film
’s recent release on DVD and Blu-ray, therefore, might seem like it would be disappointing by comparison, but, believe it or not, the movie stands up fine on its own, offering more laughs, groans and just-plain-wrong moments than the previous two films.

The story begins when, after a two-year break in their friendship—during which Harold gets married to dream-girl Maria (Paula Garcés) and Kumar is dumped by his true love Vanessa (Danneel Harris)—a package addressed to Harold mysteriously shows up outside Kumar’s door. He decides to deliver it to his former BFF at his home in the ‘burbs as he makes his way into Manhattan for a Christmas Eve party.

At first happy to see each other, the tentative reunion is upset when the package turns out to be a gigantic joint. One thing leads to another, and before you can say “munchies” Maria’s father’s prized Christmas tree has gone up in smoke.

The next several hours are spent searching for a replacement, with the predictable hijinks. Along for the ride this time around are Harold and Kumar’s new best buddies, Todd (Tom Lennon) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld), as well as Todd’s precocious daughter, Ava (Ashley and Chloe Cross).

The specifics of their adventures aren’t super-important (the bullet points are: car wreck, Russian mob, claymation sequence, a baby ingesting multiple drugs, naked nuns in the shower, obligatory Neil Patrick Harris cameo and shooting Santa), as they involve most of the same jokes and punch lines of the other two films, but, let’s face it…this movie isn’t trying to win awards for breaking new ground. It is what it is, unapologetically, and as such succeeds in being a new classic in the genre.

Okay, the NPH cameo does warrant a few sentences. Has any other actor become so beloved for playing such a reprehensible, sociopathic version of themselves? Harris is so deliciously deviant, so brilliantly bad, so not Doogie Howser, that, despite knowing his character belongs in jail (at best) or in a psych ward, viewers, like Kumar, really want to see what happens next.

Unless experienced on a 3D television hooked up to a 3D Blu-ray player playing the 3D Blu-ray version of the movie (Warner Home Video, MSRP: $44.95), home viewers aren’t likely to feel the full power of smoke rings blown by Kumar and Patton Oswalt or the giant doobie flying at the screen, but the 3D effects weren’t the only dimensional aspects of this movie. Surprisingly, there has also been an attempt to make the main characters more than a couple of stereotypes. Harold’s attempts at starting a family, as well as Kumar’s realization that it’s time to grow up, may set the stage for new growth in future films…or may simply be a device setting up a sequel featuring their kids.

The Blu-ray Combo Pack with DVD and UltraViolet digital copy (MSRP: $35.99) comes with a single, double-sided disc. The DVD side has only the theatrical release and a language option, plus the UltraViolet digital copy information (accessible via computer). The Blu-ray side offers both the film shown in theaters and an extended “Extra Dope Edition,” plus a few special features, though they’re as scanty as the female leads’ wardrobes.

Though extended editions are usually bloated and slower paced, the extra six minutes added to this film actually seem to enhance the story and give more depth to the characters (inasmuch as that’s possible in this type of genre movie).

The longest feature, “Through the Haze with Tom Lennon,” is actually a series of vignettes and comedic observations the actor makes about the film, the production and Harris. They’re mostly funny (Lennon is much more interesting here than in the film itself), but each of the six shorts must be selected individually; it seems as though a ‘Play All’ button was an obvious miss (especially if the target audience is more likely than not to be, er, not low).

The winner for most interesting feature is the behind-the-scenes look at creating the animated portion of the movie, “Bringing Harold & Kumar Claymation to Life,” with director Todd Strauss-Schulson. Though it seems like it was meant to be part of a much more extensive extras feature, it holds up by itself. The storyboard art, mixed with picture-in-picture clips of the finished scene, make for interesting viewing.

Finally, both the Blu-ray and single-disc DVD release (MSRP: $28.98) include some deleted scenes—actually, they’re more accurately called alternate scenes. Jews eating Chinese food, Santa versus the mob and attack of the coked-out baby all offer viewers a sort of alternate-reality version of events as they appeared in the film. An UltraViolet digital copy of the movie is also included with the DVD.

Viewers shouldn’t let the fact that the holidays have passed be an excuse to put off enjoying A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas until late November. The holiday season functions merely as a new backdrop for the adventures of these two odd couple-esque friends. The real story, as ever, is how much can go wrong in the wake of toking up—and how funny it all is when it’s over.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray.

Published on LifeInLA.com