Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)

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Film review of Trainwreck

August 6, 2015

This review of “Trainwreck” appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 6 August 2015

Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Amy Schumer
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and LeBron James

This is Amy Schumer’s year. Her “Inside Amy Schumer” TV show is hot hot hot. In April, she was named one of “Time” magazine’s “100 most influential people”. Schumer wrote and stars in “Trainwreck”, which is directed by Judd Apatow, the American Jewish film-maker who seems to have reinvented film comedy in the 21st century. Where will she go next?

Amy Schumer’s character in “Trainwreck” is called “Amy Townsend”, and is clearly autobiographical. Her on-screen sister – excellently played by Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street”) is called Kim (just like her real sister) and her on-screen father (“Saturday Night Live” veteran Colin Quinn) is called Gordon, like her real dad.

Amy (the character) lives in New York City, working for a popular men’s magazine, edited by Dianna, played by unrecognisable Swinton, who creates a character of breathtaking – and genuinely hilarious – self-obsession and total lack of empathy (Swinton also wrote the “Time” magazine article about Schumer). Amy is unhappy in love, using men for sex and not expecting much from her relationships. Things change when Dianna assigns Amy to write a story about a sweet-natured sports physician, Dr Aaron Conners (comedian Bill Hader). Aaron “gets” Amy, understands her weaknesses and appreciates her strengths. Much of the film then charts Amy’s and Aaron’s attempts to develop their relationship, in the best of the romantic comedy tradition.

Like almost every Judd Apatow film, “Trainwreck” is slightly overlong with a predictable plot and conventional denouement, filled with many wonderful – some truly memorable – scenes, but ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its component parts. A number of scenes and plot devices simply don’t work. I could have skipped the “film within a film” called “The Dogwalker” starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) and Marisa Tomei, much of the time spent on Amy’s relationship with her father and his illness, and an odd scene with actor Matthew Broderick, tennis star Chris Evert and New York sportscaster Marv Albert (all playing themselves) when they “counsel” Aaron.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that “Trainwreck” contains some of the funniest film lines this year, the romance is fully believable, and most minor characters (some played by previously unknown actors) give unforgettable performances. In addition to Tilda Swinton, professional basketball mega-star LeBron James – playing himself as a colleague and friend of Aaron’s – gives a subtle and delightfully comic performance. Bulked up professional wrestler John Cena also adds a lovely comic turn as one of Amy’s boyfriends (Schumer once dated professional wrestler Dolph Ziggler). Vanessa Bayer plays a ditsy magazine colleague of Amy’s who smiles when nervous (watch the scene between her and Swinton and you’ll understand). A deadpan Ezra Miller plays the funniest young editorial intern to appear on film, and – at age 100 – legendary Jewish actor Norman Lloyd plays a crotchety Jewish resident (named “Norman”) of Gordon’s Long Island nursing home.

“Trainwreck” is Amy’s story, however, her first starring film role. Like Lena Dunham in “Girls” (which Schumer recently appeared in), Schumer reflects the present moment of semi-confident, young, urban women fitfully seeking romance and professional success, in a long film tradition that extends back to “His Girl Friday”, “Working Girl”, “9 to 5”, “Legally Blonde” and “The Devil Wears Prada”. Along the way, Apatow and Schumer find time to pay quick homage to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”, even shooting a brief scene at the Queensboro Bridge and playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

Schumer is not your typical or classically beautiful romantic star: “Sydney Morning Herald” film critic Jake Wilson describes her as “one of the most original romantic comedy stars since Barbra Streisand. But like other comics of her generation, she is apparently fearless, more than willing to make a fool of herself (think Sarah Silverman). Although Schumer is Jewish (and a cousin of New York Jewish Senator Chuck Schumer), her character in “Trainwreck” is Jewish only in that its self-deprecating comedy is filled with the angst of self-doubt. Schumer is a great physical comic, and “Trainwreck” truly soars the film lets Schumer “strut her stuff”: the last scene, set in New York’s Madison Square Garden, is a total delight.

Unlike the majority of Judd Apatow’s films, which are aimed squarely at male geeks (“40 Year Old Virgin”) and slackers (“Knocked Up”), “Trainwreck” will appeal to women more than men. Minor criticisms aside, this film is a crowd-pleaser, and audiences are likely to leave the cinema feeling happy. What more can you ask for?

“Trainwreck” is Rated MA15+ in Australia, for “strong sex scenes, sexual references and coarse language”. There is lots of use of “f” word and simulated sex – much of it hilariously portrayed.

Trainwreck_poster


Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.

*****

(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster


The good and the bad about living in Australia

October 16, 2013

There are some consolations about living in Australia.

Our wealth (yes, guys, we are one of the two richest countries in the world, per capita).  Our sunshine.  Our beaches.  Our health system (Americans, eat your heart out).  Our high dollar (at least for me, when I buy books on Amazon or travel to the USA).  Our relative safety and low crime rates.  Our general absence of paranoia.  The variety and quality of our food.  Our scenery.  Our genuinely multicultural society.  Our literacy rates.   Our weather.

There are some downsides, too.  The agonisingly long – and expensive – airplane rides to get anywhere in North American or Europe.  Our rapidly warming part of the world (is it global warming that Sydney has had its hottest September and October EVER?).  Waiting a week or so for my copy of The New Yorker.  Our hideously expensive broadband internet.  Our expensive books.  The status and poverty of our Indigenous inhabitants.  The fascination with cricket (hey, its my post; I can write what I want).  Our unwillingness to get really serious about public transit.  The delay in getting some of the best and quirkiest films and television shows.

Depending on how you see it, the Queen (along with the Royal family) is both an upside and a downside.  At the moment, more up.  That may change.

So here is the funniest ‘you can’t watch this video clip’ message I have seen.  But this is the deal.  You can ONLY see this message if you live in Australia:  go to The Colbert Report website.  And try to watch a clip.  You can if you are in the USA (I am less certain about other countries).

But if you live in Australia, you get the following message on screen:

Sorry but this video is unavailable from your location.  It’s one of the detriments of living under a monarchy.  But in case you can’t give up your vegemite and move to America, watch clips from The Colbert Report on thecomedychannel.com.au.

(Except The Comedy Channel website does not really show any Colbert Report – exclusive to FoxTel subscribers ….)

At least the message is funny.

Colbert Report


“This is the End” film review

July 19, 2013

This film review of “This is the End” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 July 2013.

(Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)

The thing you have to know about the new film “This is the End” is that it’s made by twentysomething guys for twentysomething guys.  The further you fall outside this demographic, the less appealing “This is the End” is likely to be.

The set-up is part of the fun – and yes, the film is very funny, in a cerebral, gross-out, post-adolescent take-it-to-the-max kind of way.  It goes like this:  actor Jay Baruchel arrives at Los Angeles to hang out with his old friend Seth Rogen.  We realise early on that these guys are playing versions of themselves, when someone walking past asks, ”Hey, Seth Rogen, what up, man?” and another says, “You always play the same guy in every movie.  When are you going to do some acting?”

After Rogen and Baruchel go to Rogen’s house to spend the afternoon getting stoned and horsing around, Rogen convinces Baruchel to come with him to a party at James Franco’s house.  There a “who’s who” cast of the current Hollywood “brat pack” (all playing themselves) dance, take drugs and have casual sexual encounters – just the sort of thing you would expect of a Hollywood party filled with the beautiful, young, rich and famous.

Aside from Franco, proud of his fortress-like house with its modern art collection, we see African-American comic Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Jason Segel, David Krumholtz, Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Martin Starr, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari and Evan Goldberg.  We are also introduced to a number of (presumably fictional) “in-jokes”:  youthful innocent Cera is, in reality, horny, sexually aggressive and nasty; Baruchel and Rogen, childhood Canadian friends, are attempting to re-kindle their “bromance” friendship; and all of the party-goers are, without exception, fabulously self-absorbed in a “Seinfeld” type of way.

Hollywood actors are easily satirised, and “This is the End” finds many different ways to do so.  Everyone unashamedly keeps referring to their own movies:  when Jonah Hill decides to pray, he says, “Dear God, this is Jonah Hill, from ‘Moneyball’”.

After the comic introduction comes the turn to horror:  something like the apocalypse takes place, with some people beamed up to heaven in blue light, others falling into massive sinkholes and Los Angeles exploding into fire.  Only Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill and Robinson remain marooned in Franco’s house, joined by comedian Danny McBride, who steadfastly refuses to play any games of being nice.

“This is the End” falls squarely into the “comedy-horror” genre with many influences, from “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” to “Zombieland”, “Ghostbusters” and “Shaun of the Dead”, with dashes of the apocalyptic end of the world:  think “2012” and “Earthquake”.  But “This is the End” goes one step further, introducing themes from the “Book of Revelations” (the last book in New Testament), complete with horned fiery beasts; along with elements of the Christian concept of “Rapture”, as commonly used by Christian fundamentalists, especially in the USA.

These Christian themes appear odd, given that “This is the End” was co-written and co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, both of them Jewish – and that at least half the major characters, including Hill (born Feldstein) and Franco, are also Jewish (and in fact even Baruchel’s paternal grandfather was Jewish).  It’s hard to tell what religious points “This is the End” is trying to make.  Despite the funny monsters, the film seems to take the Christian concept of self-sacrifice seriously (it’s how you get to heaven).  There’s probably no deeper meaning in these religious symbols; they are really more of an excuse to introduce the “end of the world” action.  But I wondered.

Despite the presence of so many well-known stars, the real acting honours in “This is the End” go to Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, who both seem to inhabit their roles (such as they are) with good dramatic effect.  Rogen plays Rogen, Franco is uncharacteristically subdued and Jonah Hill is given a ridiculous “zombie possessed” scene.  Perhaps I expected too much?  If you like this sort of movie, then “This is the End” is a must-see; young people seem to love it, and it’s even funnier with a large audience.  If this genre is not your thing, give it a miss.

Rogen, Goldberg and Baruchel had apparently been thinking about “This is the End” for many years, and in 2007 they shot and released a one and a half minute trailer on YouTube entitled “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse”.  The trailer is still there, with more than 655,000 views.

This is the End Franco Roget Baruchel

(Footnote:  I was asked to rate this film for the Jewish News publication, and found that terribly difficult.  I gave it 4 stars – out of 5 – for young people, but only 2 stars for the older demographic.  Thus an average of 3/5.)


The Campaign new comedy previews in Sydney

August 7, 2012

The Campaign report – 7 August 2012

On Sunday night we went to the Australian preview “red carpet” screening of the new Will Ferrell film The Campaign.  The gala screening took place at the Hoyts Entertainment complex at Fox Studios in Sydney’s Moore Park, with the movie’s primary star, Will Ferrell, in attendance, giving a brief and reasonably funny introduction.  It’s a lovely cinema – superior to anything I have been at in the USA – and we were treated “royally”, with giveaways for the film (stickers, face masks, buttons) along with free popcorn and bottles of water for everyone.

Lots of minor Australian celebrities attended, and almost everyone (excepting me and my companion) there seemed to be between age 25 and 40.

I am fascinated that Will Ferrell actually came to Australia – a good 14 hour plane trip from Los Angeles (and no short-cutting that trip, I know from long experience) at this stage in the film’s release, as it opens in North America this coming Friday – August 10th, with special midnight screenings from the night before.  Although I have not done a detailed analysis of comparative Ferrell box office between the two countries, I know that we love Ferrell’s work here in Australia. But still, it’s hard for me to believe that Australia’s box office is that significant that Ferrell would take what would have to be at least 72 hours to come to Sydney in the few days before the film’s worldwide release.  When I did the research for my PhD thesis (degree received from Macquarie University earlier this year – 2012), I found out that (as of 2003), Australia was ranked sixth top foreign market for American films, after Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and France.  That’s pretty good, but was it really worth an Australian trip for the sixth market, right now?  A number of people at Warner Brothers clearly thought so, as did Ferrell.  Nice for us down under, I guess.

(As an aside – of little interest to Warners or Ferrell – in 2003, on a per capita return basis, of the top eight box office countries consuming American films, Australia actually rated first, with an average of $AUD8.34 per person, significantly higher than all other countries.  But more on that another time.)

Curiously, the film’s Australian distributor (Village Roadshow) requested that no “print” reviews appear before Tuesday 7th August, as the film opens here in Australia on Thursday 9th August.  This is indeed an almost archaic request, given media convergence, the dramatic decline of print film reviews and the tendency of young people to read reviews online.  But on the other hand the request also seems to respect the power of print, which is certainly encouraging for those of us who mourn the continued decline of classic newspapers under the new media onslaught of the digital business model.

The Campaign runs a tight 97 minutes and is directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers), and has a quality cast, including Jason Sudeikis as Ferrell’s character’s campaign manager, Dylan McDermott as a shadowy campaign manager for Zach Galifianakis’ character, John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd as two conniving industrialists and Brian Cox as Galifianakis’ character’s unloving father.  There are some women also, but no name stars and they are secondary to the action, the plot and the audience.  Yes, this is a man’s man film, pretty much from start to finish.  Target age I’d say is between 20 and 40:  it’s actually rated “R” in the USA, although the Australian rating does not appear to be confirmed yet (update to come).

The film’s description from the Village Roadshow website:

When long-term congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) commits a major public gaffe before an upcoming election, a pair of ultra-wealthy CEOs plot to put up a rival candidate and gain influence over their North Carolina district. Their man: naïve Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), director of the local Tourism Center.

At first, Marty appears to be the unlikeliest possible choice but, with the help of his new benefactors’ support, a cutthroat campaign manager and his family’s political connections, he soon becomes a contender who gives the charismatic Cam plenty to worry about.

As election day closes in, the two are locked in a dead heat, with insults quickly escalating to injury until all they care about is burying each other, in this mud-slinging, back-stabbing, home-wrecking comedy from Meet the Parents director Jay Roach that takes today’s political circus to its logical next level. Because even when you think campaign ethics have hit rock bottom, there’s room to dig a whole lot deeper.

My analysis:  Undoubtedly this is a very funny movie, and the first film I can recall that attempts to satirise campaign finance and ethics (although I don’t know how many Australians are familiar with the McCain Feingold Act, since disallowed by the US Supreme Court, in a truly nasty decision).  There are a number of truly outrageous scenes that will most likely enter movie lore as classic comedy.  There’s a nipple scene (no more said), a baby hitting and a dog hitting scene – all close to the There’s Something About Mary classic comedy.  So good on ‘em for not pulling their punches.

But there’s also an odd tonal inconsistency:  both the Cam Brady and Mary Huggins characters span from nasty to idiotic to sympathetic – sort of a “dumb and dumber”.  Idiotic and sympathetic I can take, but the occasional nastiness was at times too much.

And I was left in a true historical vacuum:  any US congressional election takes place in the context of a national election of all members of the US House of Representatives.  And if it is to be set in 2012, a Presidential election as well (and two out of three times in each state, a senatorial election).  But no mention in The Candidate of any other elections – sort of like a “school board” election, no impact by national politics.  Not only curious, but distinctly illogical.  I could go on, but I guess that’s not the point.  Perhaps I was expecting too much.

Official film trailer:

And a fabulous fake “Cam Brady” and Marty Huggins election ads (both classic comedy):


Jewish comedy and the marginal man

August 14, 2010

There is a whole lot of literature pointing out that so much of Jewish comedy arises from Jewish pain and the feeling of being an outsider.  Back in 1975, Mel Brooks was famously quoted (in a Newsweek article of February 17, 1975, pp. 55-58, by Paul Zimmerman) saying:

Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one …. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.

In his review of the book It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks by James Robert Parish, Joshua Zeitz points out that Brooks is the classic “marginal man”, a concept first introduced by the late Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park in 1928 and elaborated on in 1937, specifically that he is:

a cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples; never quite willing to break, even if he were permitted to do so, with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society in which he now sought to find a place.  A classic example: the Jew almost anywhere – the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint.” In other words, a man wise because he’s in his surroundings but not of them.

There is a long list of “marginal men” in comedy, and here’s proof that Ben Stiller is amongst them:  Tom Shone has just published an interview with Stiller (Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2010) coinciding with the release of the film Greenberg in which Stiller (for the first time I can recall) acknowledges his outsider status:

Stiller dislikes analysing his comedy – “I talk to my shrink about many things but never that,” he says – but admits you don’t have to dig far to unearth the roots of all that awkwardness in his adolescence.  The son of showbusiness parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he attended the progressive Calhoun School in New York where pupils called teachers by their first names and devised their own curriculum.  Even so, “I had moments of real awkwardness and feeling totally outside the loop in terms of being accepted.  I wasn’t a great student and I definitely wasn’t a sports jock.  I was into theatre but I wasn’t a theatre nerd – I was somewhere in the middle, having crushes on girls and not feeling worthy, trying to figure out who I was.  I was kind of a chameleon in high school, sort of a fly on the wall, a little bit.”

And speaking of Stiller, I can’t resist putting in the link to the early trailer for the film Little Fockers (the third in the series), due for release in the USA on December 22, 2010.