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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Jana Monji

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, Examiner.com and the Pasadena Weekly. Currently living in LA, she has found her inner Latina dancing Argentine tango. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

The Captains: The Shat talks Trek

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"The Captains" is available on Netflix, EpixHD.com, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and DVD. It will screen on HBO Canada March 21.

Stardate 65630.8 (1 March 2012)

What made "Star Trek" the most "durable and profitable franchise" in entertainment history? In his documentary, writer-director-producer William Shatner makes a convincing argument that it was "The Captains" -- they set the tone and they brought the theatricality and Shakespearean linguistic grace to TV.

"The Captains," appeared in October, 2011, in Canada, had one-night screenings here and there across North America, and helped launch EpixHD.com. That all seems in keeping with Shatner's impressive role as a new-media barnstormer. No, he's not making political speeches, but he's on Google+ and Facebook, and he's traveling around North America promoting and preserving what may be his most lasting legacy, his role as Captain James T. Kirk. He's even returned to Broadway in a one-man show covering his career before, during and beyond "Star Trek." (Yes, "returned.")

In Hollywood, people joke about the William Shatner School of Acting. He's corny. He's melodramatic. And he has a sizable ego. But he's really not a bad actor. We forget that before "Star Trek," Shatner seemed destined to become a fine stage actor. He first made the trip to Broadway from his native Canada in 1956 with a small part in "Tamburlaine the Great" in 1956. The production had two Tony nominations. He scored the starring role in "The World of Suzie Wong," which ran for two years. Both he and the female lead won Theatre World Awards for their work. In 1962, he was one of the main performers in "A Shot in the Dark," for which Walter Matthau won a featured actor Tony. All that momentum got sidetracked when he went Hollywood.

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Raising Renee: Her sister's keeper

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"Raising Renee" premieres on HBO2 Wednesday, February 22 and is available on-demand at HBO on Demand and HBO Go thereafter.

"Raising Renee" is an accommodating look at the relationship between an award-winning painter, Beverly McIver, and one of her two older sisters, Renee. Although Renee is in her forties, she has the mindset of a third-grader. After their mother dies, Renee goes to live with Beverly and Beverly spends about six years "Raising Renee."

This is the third look at a family facing life-changing problems from the husband and wife filmmaking team Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. Their first was the personal 1995 "Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern," in which Jordan's own family attempts to save their Iowa farm. Given the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Their second, "So Much So Fast," looked at the then 29-year-old Stephen Heywood who discovered he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), a paralyzing neurodegenerative illness. Despite his diagnosis, Heywood gets married to Wendy; they have a child. Heywood died in 2006, but the self-taught architect inspired his brothers to co-found a website for ALS patients and an institute for research into treatment, the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

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Legend of the Millennium Dragon: Epic anime

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"Legend of the Millennium Dragon" is available on DVD/Blu-ray and via iTunes and Amazon Instant. In Japanese with English subtitles.

When a movie jumps from one culture to another, especially one with a different language, expect some things to be lost in translation. If you're not up on Japanese history and folklore, you might be a bit mystified by director Hirotsugu Kawasaki's 2011 "Legend of the Millennium Dragon." Based on a two-book novel by Takafumi Takada (with screenplay by Naruhisa Arakawa and Hirotsugu Kawasaki), this engrossing animation with beautifully detailed background paintings whisks us into an ancient war between gods in Heian Japan.

Names are important in this quick-moving adventure. Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but his historical tragedies would hardly make any sense to one who thinks the "War of the Roses" involves Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. "Holinshed's Chronicles and "Bulfinch's Mythology" won't help you here. Much of what happens in "The Legend of the Millennium Dragon" harks back to two ancient tomes: "Kojiki" and the "Nihonshoki."

The original title, "Onigamiden," means "Legend of the Demon God," but dragons are probably more attractive to an English-speaking audience than demons. A dragon does appear, but the story involves finding courage and a sacred sword. Then there's that age-old question: Just who are the demons?

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Billy the Kid, orphan outlaw

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"American Experience: Billy the Kid" is available on demand at PBS.org after its January 10 broadcast at 9 p.m. (ET/PT). Check local listings.

Who hasn't heard of Billy the Kid? He's often portrayed in Westerns -- sometimes as a blood-thirsty killer -- but the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Billy the Kid" gives us a sympathetic portrayal of an orphan who "became the most wanted man of the west." Instead of drama, blood, and lust in the dust, you'll get a more multicultural view of a homeless kid gone wrong after being wronged.

The one-hour film, narrated by Michael Murphy, begins with a hangman's noose. The date is April 28, 1881 and the 21-year-old man known as Billy the Kid is in the custody of Sheriff Pat Garrett. He escapes his appointment with the hangman, but he won't be alive much longer.

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Richard Garriott, Space Cowboy

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"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" (83 minutes) will be available On Demand on Cox from Jan. 13-March 12, 2012 and on VUDU, Shaw Video on Demand and others starting Jan. 13. It opens the same day at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and other theatrical venues.

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" begins by asking the question: "Why explore space?" By the end of this somewhat indulgent documentary you may ask, particularly considering these tough economic times, "Why spend $30 million to be the sixth private citizen to orbit the earth?" Is this the story of a quest begun in childhood or part of a publicity ploy?

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This isn't your Disney Little Mermaid

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"The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet" airs Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS's "Great Performances." It is currently available on DVD, and will also appear on PBS On Demand.

by Jana Monji

Whenever I say, "Hans Christian Andersen," in my mind I can hear the voice of Danny Kaye singing out the name of the famous Dane. Kaye played the title role in 1952 musical film, "Hans Christian Andersen. " For another generation, the Little Mermaid is part of a Disney franchise beginning with the 1989 animated feature "The Little Mermaid. " Now comes a ballet, recorded for PBS.

Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" is a visually rich, emotionally complex ballet that takes the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from its Hollywood interpretations back to its origins. This is a "don't miss" production.

In the original story, the Little Mermaid saves and falls in love with a prince. She makes a bargain with a witch, giving up her beautiful voice in order to have legs. The prince likes her, but doesn't love her and marries another. Given the choice of killing the prince or dying herself, the Little Mermaid dies, but is resurrected in another dimension.

How can you have a franchise if the Little Mermaid dies? You can't, of course. In the Disney feature, "The Little Mermaid," Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), doesn't die, and instead, does find love with her prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars, and called it "a jolly and inventive animated fantasy" that restored the magic associated with animated Disney features from an earlier era. The Academy voters gave the film two Oscars--one to Alan Menken for Best Music, Original Score and another to Menken and Howard Ashman (lyrics) for Best Music, Original Song ("Under the Sea")

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Ants in Your Pants of 2006

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"The Ant Bully" is now available through HBO On Demand and HBO Go until December 18.

A boy, a wizard and a war--that's the basic formula for many children's adventure stories. In "The Ant Bully," as the name suggests, this story takes place in the insect world, but the bully is the boy named Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen). This modest morality tale doesn't go for big laughs but does deal with situations that young kids will inevitably face.

Based on John Nickle's 1999 book by the same name, this 2006 feature was the first animated film produced by Legendary Pictures. "The Ant Bully" followed two better known 1998 ant-themed films: DreamWorks' "Antz" and Disney's "A Bug's Life." All three movies have messages, but are aimed at different audiences.

"The Ant Bully," rated PG for mild violence, is definitely targeted at young children--preteen kids who might feel powerless, so far outside of the adult world. In the movie, 10-year-old Lucas has no friends and is the target of the neighborhood bully. He turns his frustrations on the anthill in his front yard, causing the ants to scurry about when he floods the anthill.

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It ain't over until the postman rings

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"Il Postino" will premiere on PBS at 9 p.m. ET Fri., Nov. 25 as part of the Great Performances series. Based on the 1994 Italian film, it stars tenor Plácido Domingo.

By Jana J. Monji

The opera "Il Postino" in its name shows its curious lineage. While not a great opera, "Il Postino" does feature the performance of Plácido Domingo, one of the great opera tenors, in a role specifically written for him during the world premiere performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The opera is in Spanish, not Italian as its name suggests. "Il Postino" is also the name of the much acclaimed 1994 Italian movie that although originally released in the United States as "The Postman," is now referred to as "Il Postino" to avoid confusion with Kevin Costner's 1997 post-apocalyptic movie based on the 1985 David Brin novel.

The movie "Il Postino" was also based on a novel, Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta's 1983 "Ardiente Paciencia" (Burning Patience) which was later retitled "El Cartero de Neruda" (Neruda's Postman). The Italian movie "Il Postino" (Skármeta directed a 1983 Spanish language movie of his novel) transferred the location from Chile to Italy, changed the time period and the ending. As you might expect, the movie was in Italian.

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