People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
'Hancock' lends a hand
One of the more intriguing movies of the summer (I say “intriguing” because at the time of my writing this it hasn’t come out yet, so it may suck) is Hancock, in which Will Smith looks to continue his string of July 4 weekend blockbusters (unbroken since Wild Wild West!) playing an unlikable, alcoholic superhero. It’s directed by actor-director Peter Berg, whose last three movies, The Rundown, Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, are all totally awesome for totally different reasons (though I guess The Kingdom could have been livened up with monkeys and Ernie Reyes Jr.), so that combined with the irresistible premise – aforementioned drunken superhero tries to rehabilitate his tarnished image with the help of a slick PR consultant – has had me curious for months now.
So I thought it was kinda cool when I heard about Columbia Pictures’ ‘Hancock’s Helping Hand’ contest. Movie promotions are obviously nothing new, but one that promises to actually help someone in a very real way is an excellent idea. The deal is, running with the superhero theme, Columbia is offering to pay the mortgage of one needy family with a grand prize worth up to $360,000, which, considering the state of the American housing industry, really is pretty superheroic. Entrants can submit a 200-word essay explaining why they believe they’re deserving of the grand prize at HancockMovie.com. The deadline for the contest is July 6.
Labels: Peter Berg, superheroes
DVD Review: Be Kind Rewind
THE MOVIEI was initially incredibly excited about Be Kind Rewind, beginning from the moment I first read about the concept – two dudes remake classic movies on no budget using only a video camera and their own cleverness – through my first viewing of the trailer. It seemed like a virtual can’t-miss proposition, especially with a director with the knack for incredible visuals like Frenchman Michel Gondry. I don’t know exactly where things went wrong with this disappointing misfire, but I have some ideas. And I’m going to tell you all about them.
Gondry is, for my money, one of the most talented visual stylists making films today. He cut his teeth making music videos, and some pretty awesome ones at that, directing a pile of clips for The White Stripes (including the memorable Lego-centric video for their breakthrough hit, 'Fell In Love With A Girl), as well as several artists known for boundary-pushing videos like Björk, The Chemical Brothers and the Foo Fighters. (I have a DVD of his music videos and it’s pretty uniformly amazing stuff.) His film debut was the little-seen oddity Human Nature, which was written by Being John Malkovich screenwriter and crazed genius Charlie Kaufman. They reteamed for 2004’s critical and cult hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a truly amazing piece of work that bears the distinction of being the last movie that moved me to tears. Never before and not since have I seen a filmmaker who can so accurately create truly dreamlike images on film – it’s like Gondry has evolved a direct pipeline to his subconscious that the rest of us humans lack.
Gondry followed up Eternal Sunshine with Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a fun little concert film/documentary virtually bereft of any kind of crazy visual flourishes (a wise move for a doc). His next proper narrative film was The Science of Sleep (which he also wrote), which I also didn’t get around to seeing, but have not heard very many good things about. One of the knocks against that film was that it was all dreamy imagery with no substance, and that left to his own devices (i.e. without a proper screenwriter to guide him) Gondry sort of disappeared up his own ass. I can report after Be Kind Rewind – which Gondry also scripted – that this knock appears to be legitimate.
The plot of Be Kind Rewind is bizarrely convoluted and filled with more than a few things that strain the unspoken suspension-of-disbelief pact audiences usually make with movies. Mos Def plays a dull-witted clerk at a New Jersey corner store that, for reasons the film never really adequately explains, still rents VHS tapes. His jackass friend (Jack Black) accidentally magnetizes himself, in a ridiculous superhero-origin confluence of events that makes Spider-Man's radioactive spider-bite look like something realistic and plausible enough to make the cover of Scientific American, and erases every tape in the store while Mos Def’s boss is out of town. Natutally, they decide that the only reasonable way to deal with this crisis is to take a camcorder and reshoot as many of the erased movies as possible in the hopes that nobody notices, beginning with Ghostbusters.
It’s a great idea for a movie (though admittedly a pretty weird one), and with Gondry directing, there’s a lot of genuinely amazing stuff to look at. His strength is in the inventive ways Def and Black shoot their movies on zero budget, with charmingly low-fi costumes and ingenious depth-perception gags in lieu of special effects. (The Ghostbusters sequence also benefits from the use of that movie’s theme, which will automatically improve just about anything. Just typing that sentence got it stuck in me head again, and that’s not necessarily a lament.)
Be Kind Rewind is very much Gondry’s love letter to movies, so it’s fitting that the best part is itself one of the oldest tricks in the movie book: the montage. In a remarkable single-shot take (there may be an edit or two hidden in there, I don’t know), Gondry has Black, Def and company ripping through several classic films from all eras, and, as if Gondry was trying specifically to win me over, sets the whole affair to The Gap Band’s classic slice of funk, ‘Early In The Morning.’ It’s a fantastic sequence, but unfortunately the movie that surrounds it pretty consistently comes up short.
One of Gondry’s big themes in Be Kind Rewind is that old things are usually better than new, and this nostalgia for the past and disdain for the future is illustrated most obviously in the VHS-to-DVD debate the film tangentially touches on. The small town where it all takes place also bills itself as the birthplace of a legendary jazz musician, and the older characters are often heard lamenting the passing of the Good Old Days. And while the film does have a lovingly analog feel to it, I’ve never bought into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and Gondry doesn’t do a very good job of presenting why he thinks progress is such a bad thing. I mean, I used to have a pretty ridiculous collection of VHS tapes before I upgraded to DVD, and guess what, DVD is simply the better format, and I don’t miss VHS one bit. I can appreciate Gondry’s point to a degree, but there’s something weirdly Luddite about his perspective that I couldn’t really get behind.
The words “charming” and “sweet” came to mind a lot while I was watching Be Kind Rewind, and some things, like the relationship between Mos Def and his boss/surrogate father (played by Danny Glover), and Def’s low-key romance with the adorable Melonie Diaz, really do work. But the flipside to that coin is that the film gets really hokey at times. Like, really hokey. The overarching plot in which the characters have to rally to save the charming little corner store from the evil condo developers (who initially raise some presumably valid concerns about the safety of the aging building that the film goes on to happily ignore) is just hackneyed and lazy. Gondry lays it on a little too thick with the Evil Corporate Types Who Just Don't Get It (including film studio execs who, upon learning about the low-rent remakes, crack down on the store for piracy; it’s an idea that sounds a lot cleverer in theory than Gondry’s script bears out). I realize there's little to nothing about Be Kind Rewind that's meant to resemble the real world you and I inhabit, but most of the characters – even the good guys – seem more like broad caricatures more than people.
The film really loses steam after the aforementioned studio crackdown, as from that point on the characters move from remaking classic movies to creating an original work about homegrown jazz great Fats Waller (though there's a funny gag involving Jack Black emerging in blackface to uncomfortable silence from his cast and crew). Without the conceit of the main characters remaking actual movies, Be Kind Rewind collapses into clichéd underdogs-must-overcome-the-odds stuff we’ve all seen a hundred times, only by that point any goodwill the film had bought with me had run out.
I realize by now that I’m probably leaving an impression that I disliked Be Kind Rewind more than I actually did. There’s some really good stuff in there, but it’s pretty much confined to the movies-within-a-movie stuff, and ultimately Gondry doesn’t go anywhere with his excellent premise. So if I sound like I’m ripping the film, it’s only because, aside from some flashes of genuine brilliance, it’s a missed opportunity. And sometimes the disappointment of a missed opportunity can smart a lot more than an out-and-out failure.
The first thing that struck me about the Be Kind Rewind DVD was the fact that the “sweded” films (so named because Def and Black initially claim their low-budget films are the Swedish import versions; an example of Gondry’s dreamy imagery melting into dreamy logic) are not included. In fairness, they are apparently all available in their entirety at www.bekindrewind-themovie.com, but why they're not on the DVD itself I have no idea. If ever a movie’s premise lent itself to DVD bonus features, it’s this one, and their absence is very strange indeed.
The only real extra is 'Passaic Mosaic,’ a 10-minute featurette on the town of Passaic, New Jersey, where the film is set and was shot. At first it seemed odd that the lone bonus feature was a piece about the town where the movie was made, but it’s actually quite engrossing. It paints a surprisingly honest picture of Passaic, seedy side and all, which you don't typically find in a 10-minute featurette. A look at the making of the film itself, done with similar depth, could have been something really special; as such it just feels more like another missed opportunity, which is something of a theme with this movie.
Labels: Charlie Kaufman, DVD review, music videos
DVD Review: Fatal Contact
Fatal Contact is a starring vehicle for rising Hong Kong martial arts star Jacky Wu Jing, who made an impact on a lot of fans with his breakout role as the right hand man of gang boss Sammo Hung in S.P.L. (aka Kill Zone). He barely has any lines in that film (but it's a kung fu movie after all, so that hardly matters), but his fight scenes in that film, particularly his dustup with Donnie Yen near the end, immediately got him attention, including the inevitable "next Jet Li" mantle that’s been worn by many would-be martial arts stars since, well, Jet Li. As much as calling anyone "the next" anything is automatically cliché (and almost always dooms that person to never live up to that standard), Jing is damn impressive. He's as fast as almost anyone I've seen in a martial arts movie (though in Hong Kong they often speed them up in postproduction, so really, what do I know), and insanely athletic. Fatal Contact is a great showcase for his considerable abilities, but as a movie – even a kung fu movie – the story is weak and doesn't really hold water.
Wu Jing plays a mainland Chinese martial artist in a travelling Beijing Opera troupe passing through Hong Kong. A crew of gangsters take in a performance one night, and afterwards offer him a handful of cash to participate in an underground fight. Being a fresh-faced country rube, Jing refuses. Naturally, that's not the end of things (a look at the box cover will tell you that), as after a female friend he seems to kinda-sorta have a crush on (though she seems to like money a bit more than him) basically tells him to stop being so naïve and take the payday, he shows up and annihilates his first opponent. Before long, Jing's country boy has been sucked into the seedy world of underground boxing, demolishing just about anyone the gangsters put him in the ring with. Naturally it doesn't take long before Jing learns about the dark side of his new livelihood (turns out the fights aren't always fair…crazy, I know).
The story in Fatal Contact is nothing special; as I explained in my Flash Point review, the plot of a martial arts movie is largely beside the point (though a good one, as in the case of Flash Point, certainly helps). Indeed, Fatal Contact is also a nice little throwback to old-school '80s kung fu movies that, before S.P.L., Hong Kong didn't seem to make anymore. Just about every plot development here can be seen by anyone who's seen a movie before coming a mile away, but that's not really the problem. When Jing's character falls in with a penny-pinching would-be con artist assigned to keep an eye on him by the gangsters (Ronald Cheng, who apparently is a comic actor with no martial arts training, but he had me fooled) and then realizes he’s a kung fu master himself, it recalls the old kung fu movie archetype of the sleazy drunken kung fu master, a beloved trope of the genre.
The fights in Fatal Contact are lots of fun, and there are plenty of them (in the extras Jing estimates he has 10 fights in the film). Wu Jing is an absolute blast to watch when it's time to do his thing, leaping off walls, spinning and kicking people two or three times in the time it takes you or I to blink. The problem is the story. Wu Jing's character only gets involved in the underground fighting circuit because his ladyfriend (I'd call her his girlfriend but I don't think they so much as kiss) tells him he should. When he starts to realize he's maybe getting in over his head, there's nothing actually keeping him there other than the fact that she keeps telling him she likes guys with money. This establishes that 1) she's a selfish, money-grubbing con artist who looks at him as a meal ticket and 2) for a badass fighter, he's pretty much spineless. I get the feeling director Dennis Law was going for some moral ambiguity with her character, but instead she’s just fundamentally unlikeable. (She also talks her best friend – a sweet girl who at the beginning of the film urges Jing not to get into underground fighting – into prostitution.) All this undermines the romance that's clearly meant to drive the plot, and because Jing's character is basically only doing the underground fighting thing because she told him it would be swell if he did, the central conflict of the film feels manufactured and false. Which, again, for a martial arts movie is not the worst thing, but the story requires Jing's character to give a shit about what's happening to her long after we’ve been shown that she’s ready to screw him over at the drop of a hat, and her “redemption” is supposed to be that she starts to feel bad for using him. Worst of all, the ending (which I won't spoil) is needlessly depressing, so dark that it sticks out like the proverbial sore. Its grimness is totally unearned, and really left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
Fatal Contact has some excellent fight sequences and is a great little diversion for fans of martial arts movies, but anyone looking for a more complete action movie experience should check out Flash Point or Kill Zone for contemporary kung fu done right.
It’s been a while since I've encountered a “two-disc ultimate edition” DVD that was so undeserving of a second disc. The only somewhat interesting extra is the commentary track, with director Dennis Law and Dragon Dynasty regular Bey Logan. Law’s English isn’t great, but he and Logan have a friendly tone that helps the commentary flow nicely. He even jokingly gives Logan hard time for his repeated mentions of other Dragon Dynasty releases (“this is like a commercial!”) It’s really only of interest to fans of Hong Kong cinema, but there are some interesting nuggets of information in there.
The rest of the extras are mostly fluffy promotional stuff. There’s an interview with Wu Jing that runs just over 20 minutes in which he talks about researching his role, training, kicking a stuntman in the neck by accident and knocking him out during filming, and being knocked out himself in a different take (“It was a wonderful feeling" . . . gotta admire his commitment to his craft).
Aside from that, there’s nothing particularly fascinating here. There’s also a 30-minute interview with the director, in which he describes the origins of the film (it started off as a story about a hooker who falls for her pimp, then he falls for her and has pangs of guilt about using her; he just swapped the characters’ genders and made it about underground boxing instead of prostitution and bang, instant kung fu movie). He also was consciously trying to evoke the feeling of old-school fighting video games, particularly the Street Fighter II (classic!), which isn’t the kind of thing I’m used to directors admitting to, but I appreciated the reference.
Beyond that there are short interviews with the two female co-stars, and as they’re both pop starlets first (in the same nine-piece girl group, no less; turns out the band’s manager also manages Wu Jing) and actresses second, their interviews almost put me to sleep. Finally there’s something called ‘Life Is A Contact Sport: Behind The Scenes of Fatal Contact,’ which I took to be a making-of featurette, but it’s just 30 minutes of Wu Jing training. Pretty underwhelming.
Overall this is a pretty weak DVD package for a decent kung fu movie. I appreciate Dragon Dynasty piling on the extras, but Fatal Contact is a movie that doesn’t really warrant them.
Labels: Asian cinema, Dragon Dynasty, DVD review, martial arts
DVD Review: Semi-Pro
For me, there are two different kinds of Will Ferrell movies: The truly top-shelf stuff in which he makes me laugh almost every time he opens his mouth or does anything (Old School and his Adam McKay collaborations Anchorman and Talladega Nights), and the B- or C-list movies where he often seems to be going through the motions, with results ranging anywhere from piss-poor (Kicking and Screaming) to just-okay (Blades of Glory). In the latter types it often seems like he’s just running through the Will Ferrell playbook, yelling a lot, doing the odd pratfall and basically just playing an obnoxious jackass. (I’m not including his more dramatic stuff, like that Woody Allen movie he did and Stranger Than Fiction, which I quite enjoyed.) Semi-Pro isn’t as good as the A-level Ferrell movies, but it’s way better than the other stuff. A few times it scrapes up against the bottom of greatness, but it’s not really anything we haven’t seen before, either as a sports movie or a Will Ferrell comedy.
(Speaking of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, I just wanted to slip in a few words about how excited I am about their next movie, Step Brothers, about two lazy man-children living with their single parents – the other is John C. Reilly – who are forced to live together when their folks marry each other. The trailer is here.)
Lots of people have pointed out Ferrell’s apparent predilection for sports movies; Semi-Pro is his third after tackling soccer (Kicking and Screaming) and NASCAR (Talladega Nights). And as played-out as Ferrell doing sports comedies may seem at this point, Semi-Pro, like Talladega Nights, has the advantage of the sport it follows – in this case ABA basketball – being inherently sort of ridiculous to begin with (NASCAR fan hatemail: GO!). The other edge Semi-Pro has on the other lower-tier Ferrell flicks is that Ferrell has created a pretty great character in Flint Tropics player/coach/owner Jackie Moon. He’s no Ron Burgundy, but those Old Spice ads alone made me laugh harder than anything in Blades of Glory.
The reason a dude in his late ‘30s who isn’t even that good at basketball is playing on and running an ostensibly pro basketball team is one of the film’s funniest jokes: Jackie Moon recorded a one-hit wonder soul song called ‘Love Me Sexy,’ and used the money he made from its brief success to buy an ABA franchise and move it back to his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The actual song ‘Love Me Sexy’ sounds amazingly authentic (it was crafted by veteran soul musician Nile Rodgers), and it was stuck in my head on and off for weeks after I saw the movie.
The plot of Semi-Pro is standard sports-movie fare: As the ABA collapses, the league signs a merger deal with the NBA that will see four ABA teams absorbed into the bigger league. Moon manages to convince the ABA to let the teams with the four best records into the NBA – rather than the teams in markets the NBA actually wants – kicking off the Flint Tropics’ push for fourth place. (I have a weakness for sports movies where the Big Game isn’t actually for the championship, but rather a smaller prize – like the Indians trying to win the AL East pennant in Major League – so the idea of fourth place as the goal amused me on its own.)
Comedy’s the most subjective of all genres, so I realize that what I think is hilarious (like Moon instructing his team to wear eyeliner to distract their opponents), other people might find just stupid. But I spent most of Semi-Pro’s running time either laughing or grinning, and in my books that’s a score. (I debated putting a basketball reference in there for a while, but decided against it. I think I made the right decision.)
The film’s secret weapon is Woody Harrelson, who plays a washed-up ABA veteran whose claim to fame was winning an NBA title with the Celtics as a bench player. Harrelson, as most people know, is really funny (and also a great basketball player – White Men Can’t Jump kicked off a basketball craze when I was in junior high), but he’s also a great actor, and he ends up investing the character of Monix with the kind of depth and reality that you don’t typically find in zany sports comedies.
Semi-Pro also has murderer’s row of excellent comic actors in supporting roles, like the brilliant Will Arnett (of Arrested Development fame; look for me to go on about that show in future posts), Andy Richter, Rob Corddry (see Blackballed, post-haste) and David Koechner, as well as a guy I’d never heard of named Andrew Daly who destroyed me as Tropics broadcaster Dick Pepperfield. After this movie I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for him.
The two-disc, unrated “Let’s Get Sweaty” DVD includes extra footage not in the theatrical version, largely consisting of a subplot about Moon having a skanky wife, and while there are a few good jokes in there about her and their relationship, their inclusion seems motivated at least in part to up the T&A factor.
Overall Semi-Pro is a solid effort from – love him or hate him – one of the titans of modern comedy movies. If you’re not into Will Ferrell this one won’t convert you, but if you’re a fan of Ferrell or sports comedies or both, Semi-Pro is deserving of your attention.
The Semi-Pro DVD has pretty much the perfect amount of bonus material, and manages to straddle the line between giving you more information than you could possibly need about a silly comedy and not giving you anything worth spending your time watching. It doesn’t have the insane amount of stuff found on the Talladega Nights or Anchorman DVDs (in the case of the latter, they had so much extra footage they assembled a whole other version of the movie), but there’s a nice balance between the usual making-of features and deleted/extended scenes and outtakes and improv stuff we’ve come to expect from comedy DVDs.
There’s a nice collection of featurettes about the movie, the most interesting of which are about recreating the ABA for the film. The ABA, the DVD goes to great lengths to explain (ugh, I feel old), was a real league in the ‘70s, and the folks behind Semi-Pro put quite a bit of effort into making it as realistic a portrayal as possible….for a Will Ferrell comedy. (Apparently “free gerbil night” was an actual ABA promotion, and not something they made up for the film. Huh.) There’s also a cool little feature on the ABA players with small roles in the movie, as well as a longer featutette on the film’s director, Kent Alterman, where all the cast and crew say all the requisite nice things about him. All of these benefit from not running too long, so before you can get bored of the accolades for Alterman, the thing’s over. Given that Semi-Pro is based somewhat in reality, it’s nice that they didn’t miss a chance to actually fill viewers in on that reality, especially for younger ones who may not realize that there really was an ABA back in the day.
The real treats are in the stuff from the cutting room floor. There’s a handful of deleted scenes, as well as an improv reel from various sequences in the movie in which Ferrell and co. try out different lines and versions of scenes. My personal favourite was Ferrell’s varying exclamations of agony when the aforementioned mascara plan goes awry. Almost every take is actually better than what’s in the finished film (which is still hilarious). There are also a couple of brilliant little promotional bits that run a minute or so each that were apparently done for the web to promote the film in which Moon is interviewed by Dick Pepperfield courtside. These are clearly improvised, and are almost as funny as anything in the movie. Overall the “Let’s Get Sweaty” of Semi-Pro is a great DVD package for a solid comedy, and is worth checking out.
Labels: comedy, DVD review, John C. Reilly, sports movies
R.I.P. Stan Winston
Starting your day off with shitty news is never good, but this morning I kicked off my day by learning that Oscar-winning special effects guy Stan Winston died on the weekend. Winston was pretty much the king of creature effects and suits, and a pioneer in fusing practical real-world effects with CGI, having won Academy Awards for his work on Aliens, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and for his makeup work on Batman Returns. His last work, making the suits for Iron Man, was hailed by movie and comic geeks (I'm both) as a not-inconsiderable contribution to that movie's awesomeness. He also designed the creature from the Predator movies, and the last-minute nature of that job (long story short, paraphrased from the brilliant If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It documentary on the Predator DVD: the original Predator looked 100% different, they started production, decided it looked like crap and stopped shooting, called in Winston to redesign it from the ground up on virtually zero notice, and the result was one of the most iconic cinema monsters in decades – if that's not the sign of true goddamned genius, I don't know what is) makes it 10 times more impressive.
I don't usually like to wax poetic about "the magic of the movies" and such, but Winston was one of those guys whose work contributed to that funny tingly feeling people who love movies get when they know they're watching something truly special, whether it's photo-realistic dinosaurs on screen for the first time, or unstoppable cyborgs from the future, or a superhero come to life. And movies are going to suck just a little bit more without him.
DVD Review: Flash Point
Before I get into it, a bit of a disclaimer: I'm about to go on (and on) about kung fu movies, so if that's not your thing, you may find this review a bit ridiculous. You have been warned.
Now that that's over, on to Flash Point. Actually, before I get to that, as many of you have probably come to expect, a little bit of background. See, I love kung fu movies, and I have for a long time (read: since before The Matrix came out). A few years ago I heard about this Hong Kong action movie called S.P.L. (an acronym for something to do with Chinese astrology; it's one of the best examples of a cultural reference that just does not transfer over to English) that was apparently just the greatest thing since sliced bread, the best HK martial arts movie in a decade. I tracked down a copy of the official Chinese DVD (thank you Internet!) and my shit was promptly flipped.
S.P.L. (re-titled Kill Zone for the eventual North American DVD release) is a gritty cop movie for the first hour or so, then at the end turns into one of the most balls-out insane kung fu movies I've ever seen. It stars veteran HK action star/director/fight choreographer Donnie Yen (he turns up in the odd American movie, playing a samurai-sword-wielding vampire in Blade 2, where he also choreographed some of the fights, and I think he's in a Highlander movie too), Simon Yam and kung fu cinema legend Sammo Hung (remember Martial Law? It was like Walker, Texas Ranger but with an actual Asian guy. The show was ridiculous, but Sammo is an icon of martial arts movies, take my word for it). One of the reasons it kicks so much ass is that it's one of the rare martial arts movies that actually works as a movie. Don't get me wrong, it's not Oscar material, but director Wilson Yip is a hell of a craftsman; he makes everything look great, and the first 60 or so minutes really do work as a straight-ahead cop thriller. The collaboration is what makes it special, as the action sequences are all choreographed and directed by Yen (a director in his own right), so they absolutely crackle with energy. It's one of the only martial arts movies I've seen that doesn't feel flat and boring when people aren't kicking and punching each other, and I highly recommend it.
The Yip-Yen team reunited with 2006's Dragon Tiger Gate, an adaptation of a Chinese martial arts comic. It's the complete opposite of Kill Zone's brutal action and dark story, a candy-coloured comic come to life, about guys with ridiculous (RIDICULOUS) hair named Dragon and Turbo kicking dudes through walls. It's lots of fun, and Yip manages to capture the feeling and tone of a comic for a budget that was probably smaller than a week's worth of catering on the Iron Man set.
With Flash Point (see? I TOLD you I'd get to it), Yip and Yen collaborate for a third time on a film much more in the vein of SPL/Kill Zone. It's another gritty cop thriller set in pre-handover Hong Kong (as a co-production between Hong Kong and China, they had to set it before China took over the territory as a way of justifying the rampant criminal activity seen in the film; the idea is that now, this sort of thing could never happen). Yen stars as basically his character from Kill Zone, a good cop who gets in trouble with his superiors for using his incredible fighting skills a bit too freely against suspects. His partner (Louis Koo, star of Johnnie To's Election movies; I will never miss a chance to pimp them) is undercover with a trio of Vietnamese brothers tearing up the Hong Kong underworld, pissing off basically everybody as they try to establish themselves as the baddest guys around. Archer (Lui Leung Wai), the eldest, is the boss; Tony, the middle brother, is the "cool" one (Collin Chou, best known as Seraph in the Matrix sequels – he's the guy Keanu Reeves fights in the teahouse); and the youngest, Tiger (Xing Yu), a thuggish man-child with a quick temper.
Yen says himself in the commentary that the story is nothing the audience hasn't seen a dozen times, but the key to making a great genre movie is to take the tropes of the genre and do something different with them. In the case of Flash Point, that means taking kung fu sequences to levels never before seen by human eyes.
As with any good kung fu flick, Flash Point lives and dies by the quality of its fights, and sweet fancy Moses do they impress. Yen is one of the best action directors working today, and the thing that sets him apart from his peers is that he's constantly evolving and trying new things. In Flash Point, Yen builds on the hints of mixed martial arts influences glimpsed in S.P.L./Kill Zone and goes all out. Over the past few years, Yen has fallen in love with MMA, and his goal in Flash Point is to incorporate grappling and groundfighting into the more traditionally flashy kung fu and lightning-quick boxing moves that are the genre’s standards. It sounds like a strange idea, but Yen pulls it off with gusto, flowing effortlessly from flying kicks to armbars and leglocks. (Putting grappling into a martial arts movie isn't actually a new idea; Jean-Claude Van Damme and HK director Ringo Lam tried it – less than successfully – in 1996's Maximum Risk, but the less said about that movie the better.)
Not since Ong Bak has a martial arts movie made me shout "holy SHIT!" and wince in sympathetic pain so many times. Normally I'm loathe to regurgitate the hyperbole from DVD boxes (I'm quite capable of hyperbole myself, thanks), but the back of Flash Point boasts a "bone-crunching 16-minute showdown" at the end, and that's underselling it. Yen and Chou throw themselves at each other during the climax with blinding speed and palpable intensity, and both actors say on the DVD it was the toughest fight of their careers. I've seen this movie about six times now, and even watching it most recently with the commentary, my mouth was hanging open for most of the fights.
As with Kill Zone, one of the secrets of Flash Point's awesomeness is that it actually holds your attention in what Yen calls the "drama scenes" (i.e. the ones where guys aren't fighting) with a compelling, if not groundbreaking, story and solid performances from the cast. The film is structured similarly to S.P.L. in that it starts off relatively slow, action-wise, before things go totally fucking nuts about an hour in.
Flash Point is like mana from kung fu heaven, the work of two collaborating filmmakers at the top of their respective games. Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip are carrying the torch of Hong Kong action cinema into the 21st century, and fans of martial arts movies owe it to themselves to follow them.
As with previous Dragon Dynasty DVDs, Flash Point is packed with extras. I guess Harvey Weinstein took complaints about his treatment of Asian movies when he was at Miramax to heart, because all of the Dragon Dynasty DVDs I've seen are excellent. The picture here is razor-sharp, and the DTS audio track lets you feel it in your bones when these guys try to break each other’s.
Most of the bonus features on this two-disc set seem to be ported over from the movie's Chinese DVD (which I own, and I recognized them from it, though it was nice to be able to actually understand them), and because it was a pretty high-profile release in Asia, a lot of it is promotional material from the film's pre-release hype. There's an 18-minute featurette called 'The Making of Flash Point,' a typical making-of promo, as well the 28-minute 'Flash Point Explored,’ which focuses more on the characters and plot. It's kind of interesting for serious fans, but neither is anything mind-blowing. The MMA angle is covered pretty heavily, so I guess that was a big part of the movie's marketing in Asia (where MMA is more of an unknown quantity). There's also handful of shorter featurettes on the fights and Yen's team of stuntmen and fighters, but a lot of it is kind of bland and there's a lot of information overlap between them all, making big chunks of each segment redundant.
The real gem is 'On Deadly Ground,' a 30-minute interview (in English, done for the North American DVD) with Donnie Yen. It's great stuff, at least for kung fu geeks like me, with Yen talking candidly about the differences between Hong Kong and Hollywood, his collaboration with Wilson Yip and the process of action direction. It ends with Yen not-so-humbly calling Flash Point a spiritual successor to Bruce Lee's early films, which put a smile on my face.
The other highlight of the extras is the audio commentary with Yen and Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan (I think he works for Dragon Dynasty, as he does commentary on almost all their DVDs). Yen and Logan know each other, and the tone of the commentary is friendly and conversational. There's lots of interesting bits of trivia (Logan's specialty, though Yen pitches in too), and they even take a moment to make fun of co-star Louis Koo's George Hamilton-esque tan.
There are also a handful of deleted scenes, but as with most deleted scenes, they don't really add much and I can see why they were cut. And I'm only mentioning the trailers because of the TV spot where an announcer breathlessly describes it as "a breakthrough in Chinese cinema!" I'm not so sure about that, but Flash Point is a solid DVD package for a great action movie.
Labels: Asian cinema, Bruce Lee, Dragon Dynasty, DVD review, Johnnie To, martial arts
The Hulk Can't Win
I haven't seen The Incredible Hulk yet, but my interest in seeing it spiked when I read somewhere a few months ago that the climactic fight between ol' Jade Jaws (comic-geek lingo, sorry) and the Abomination lasts for something like 20+ minutes. The idea with this movie was clearly to reboot the franchise after what many people considered the disappointing 2003 Ang Lee movie (which I love, by the way; it's easily the most underappreciated comicbook movie of the post-X-Men comicbook movie boom) with more emphasis on action. Which was the problem most people had with Lee's Hulk, it was "boring." I always thought that was sort of a stupid complaint about the movie. All Lee was doing was trying to make a real movie that just happened to be about a dude who turns into a 10-foot monster when he gets angry, and everyone said it was boring. I dunno, what do you think is going to happen when you hire a real filmmaker like Ang Lee to make a superhero movie? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn't a great movie because of all the fighting, it's a great movie because it has emotional depth, something Lee tried to lend Hulk, and people really did not like that (though I can't argue that the climax, where he fights his father/a cloud of gas is pretty underwhelming).So I've been reading reviews for The Incredible Hulk, and they all seem to make basically the same point, regardless of their overall opinion of the film: it's okay, but sort of dumb and totally action-based at the expense of character. Um....isn't that what people apparently wanted? Wasn't the problem people seemed to have with Hulk? Too much talking and not enough smashing? Marvel turns around and makes a WHOLE NEW MOVIE just to give you (I say "you" in the general sense of "the public"; not you dear reader, oh no) what you apparently want, and now Incredible Hulk is getting flak for having "too much brawn, not enough brains," as one headline I saw put it? I wasn't expecting The Incredible Hulk to come close to Iron Man in terms of quality; as fun as The Transporter was, director Louis Leterrier is no Jon Favreau. Favreau, who directed Made (one of my favourite movies) and Elf (one of my favourite Christmas movies) before Iron Man, has an understanding of character and story and what makes a great movie. Leterrier made a movie about Jet Li being led around on a dog collar. But Leterrier can construct some really impressive action sequences, and between that fact and a weirdly great cast, all I want out of The Incredible Hulk is the titular character wrecking shit. I'll let you know how good a job I think Marvel and co. did next week.
A Grand Old Time
This isn't a proper DVD review, but every now and then, in my travels through the world of cinema geekery, I come across a cool or weird (or in this case, hilarious) little movie that I feel the need to go on about, and The Grand is such a movie. It's a mostly-improvised comedy about a winner-take-all Las Vegas poker tournament with a cast that I wouldn't really describe as "all star," but there were very few actors who passed through the frame that I didn't recognize from somewhere.
As an improv "mockumentary," there are lots of similarites between The Grand and Christopher Guest's improv comedies like Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind, something director/co-writer Zak Penn was apparently going for, or at least so sayeth Wikipedia. It's not as good as those brilliant little masterpieces, but it had me laughing my ass off for most of its running time. Check it out if you're looking for something to chuckle at. It co-stars acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) as The German, an intense, uh, German who has to kill a living creature once a day (he travels with several bunnies and other small animals) to maintain his edge, which, believe me, is a crazy enough thing to type, let alone watch.
Also, I'm sorry about the title of this post. I know I'm better than that.
Labels: improv, Mockumentary
Indiana Jones and the Painfully Unnecessary Sequel
So I finally got around to seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (I wasn't in a huge rush to see it to begin with, though I do love the previous movies, and the middling-to-awful reviews didn't make it an opening-weekend priority), and Sweet Christmas is it bad. The couple of friends I knew who'd seen it before me were even harder on it than the critics I'd read, but even that didn't prepare me for whatever it was I sat through yesterday afternoon.
Now don't get me wrong, it wasn't the worst movie of the year or anything, nor do I expect to clean up at The Razzies (do I smell a Speed Racer sweep?), but considering the previous films in the series, Crystal Skull was an almost unforgiveable mess. It was so bad I struck up a conversation with a total stranger (something anyone who knows me knows I never do) about how bad it was while he waited for our respective companions (well, I was there with a friend, he was there with his pregnant wife who was due that day) outside the washroom afterwards. Obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest adventure movies ever made, I doubt there's many people who'd dispute that. Temple of Doom gets a lot of shit (I managed somehow to not see it until it was first released on DVD in the 2003 box set), and while it's a step down from Raiders, it's still pretty good. And Last Crusade, I've recently learned, is also the subject of a lot of negative ink (or whatever the digital equivalent is in the Internet age), but I've always loved it, and as the first Indiana Jones movies I saw in theatres, watching it in the cinema my dad back in 1989 is one of my Hall of Fame moviegoing experiences.
So....what the hell happened here? Crystal Skull tries so hard to evoke the previous movies, Raiders in particular, that it's almost embarassing. And while for years I defended Harrison Ford from the "he's too old for another Indy movie" criticisms....yeah. He's old. I was as excited as any movie geek when I first heard that after years of rumours they were officially making a new Indiana Jones movie. But the result is proof that sometimes, everyone's schedule being clear at the same time isn't really a reason to make a movie. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, they were apparently so excited to see that they could make another Indy movie, nobody stopped to ask if they should.The movie is a collection of lame gags, pratfalls and some brutal greenscreen and CGI work (CGI gophers? WHAT?!?!?), and the "performances" are mostly just mugging. The only actor who I thought was okay was Shia LaBeouf, who continues to make me like him. As bad as Crystal Skull was, if they do go ahead with what's hinted at in the movie and shift the franchise into adventures about his character, I'd probably check it out. Between Transformers and this, Spielberg obviously sees something in this guy, and I'm starting to see it too.
The bad dialogue and lame jokes really seem like the work of producer George Lucas, who, with this film, cements my suspicion that he really doesn't understand what it is that made people fall in love with his two signature franchises. (I actually quite enjoy the Star Wars prequels, though I will never argue that they're really any good, but that's a topic that deserves a rambling post of its own....STAY TUNED!) From Lucas, I expect this sort of garbage, but Spielberg is better than this, and I'd hoped that his superior filmmaking skills would override Lucas' meddling, but I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
Seriously, man. CGI gophers.
Labels: Movie review, Star Wars
DVD Review: Diary of the Dead
Diary of the Dead has an intriguing premise: George A. Romero, the father of the zombie movie, returns to the genre he created with a Blair Witch-like take on the undead. It was to be a commentary on the evolving media that would also be a throwback to the indie spirit of his original Night of the Living Dead. The problem is, Diary of the Dead is a failure on nearly every level.
First, a superfast recap of the mythology of Romero’s undead movies: Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, birthing the zombie genre as we know it. He followed that up with Dawn of the Dead 10 years later, a film that many (myself included) still consider his masterpiece. In 1985 he released Day of the Dead, which seemed to wrap the zombie cycle as a trilogy, though Romero said for years afterwards he had more undead stories in him. The breakout success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 put zombies back on the mainstream map, and it wasn’t long until Romero secured studio funding for his own apocalyptic zombie epic, releasing the underappreciated Land of the Dead in 2005. (I think it was unfortunately overshadowed by the success of Zack Snyder’s slick 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which most hardcore zombie fans seem to hate for reasons I never could understand.) Land of the Dead’s apocalyptic ending seemed to close the door on zombies for Romero, at least in the internal continuity of the films.
Romero’s zombies literally. In Night they’re the mindless flesh-eaters horror buffs know and love. In Dawn they congregate on a mall (“Some kind of instinct,” one character speculates when asked why the zombies flocked to a shopping centre. “Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”) It was a pretty sharp little bit of commentary materialism on Romero’s part, particularly for the late ‘70s. By Day of the Dead, a zombie held in captivity was trained by a crazy scientist (the best kind of scientist you can put in a movie) to use tools, like a gun. And by the end of Land of the Dead, Romero’s zombies had amassed into an army, organizing and communicating amongst themselves.
With Diary of the Dead, Romero goes back to what he calls “the first night,” updating the initial rise of the undead for modern times. A group of film students (and their drunken professor) is shooting a horror movie for a school project in the woods one night when the rotting flesh hits the fan. A couple of the students start shooting the chaos around them as they try to make it home, and the idea is that the footage was assembled after the fact by one of the survivors into the “documentary” you’re now watching. It’s a cute idea, and one Romero gets some mileage out of, but the problem with a concept like that the film has to stick to its own internal rules in order for it to work. (Cloverfield didn’t blow me away, but the filmmakers did a great job of adhering to the concept, as much as that adherence gave some people motion sickness.) For the most part Romero plays by his own rules, but admits in the commentary that he cheats a few times.
The gimmick also conceals Diary of the Dead’s miniscule budget, and does it well. This also means, however, that there aren’t as many zombies, which means fewer kills, so gorehounds take note: you may be disappointed. Still, some of the zombie gags are pretty excellent (arrows in the head, pretty much everything with a badass, dynamite-throwing Amish mute), and a struggling zombie hanging from a noose is a nicely creepy image. The problem with Diary of the Dead isn’t the zombie action; it’s what Romero’s trying to say with it.
Romero’s zombie movies have always been known for their social commentary, which is far from subtle. In Night, Romero cast a black man as the lead, something that, in 1968, was totally unheard of, and it’s still considered an important (if admittedly small) moment in the civil rights movement. Dawn dealt with consumerism, and Day of the Dead was about, I dunno, the military being evil or something (insane gore aside, it’s considered by many to be the weakest of the original three movies). Land of the Dead continued the trend 20 years later, using the post-zombie-apocalypse society to comment on class issues as well as the Iraq war – Dennis Hopper’s evil businessman is clearly meant to evoke Dick Cheney in particular and the Bush administration in general. With Diary of the Dead, Romero takes aim at what he calls “emerging media,” which I guess means the Internet, but he tackles the issue with the grace and understanding of an old man shaking his fists at the kids on his lawn.
Clearly Romero has a bone to pick; the social commentary in Diary is heavier than anything in his previous movies, which makes the thud with which it lands even louder. I’m not sure if Romero understands what blogging and YouTube and Myspce actually are, given his apparent disdain for them – really, blogs are just people writing, and YouTube is simply an uncensored America’s Funniest Home Videos for the digital age – but I guess picking on the traditional news media is too passé for an old hippie like Romero (and I say that with affection; my favourite part of the commentary is his description of the race and class issues around Hurricane Katrina: “All the folks without suntans skipped town, man”). But while Diary of the Dead is filled with his sound and fury at the new digital media, it signifies nothing. It’s just ham-fisted and tired, equating cameras to guns (both “shoot,” get it?), and offering clichéd complaints about the detachment of the media. Many of the kills feature other characters standing by in the background with cameras. Not that subtlety has been ever been Romero's thing, but it grates here because he comes out and just says it (near the end no less, looooong after his point has sunken in), when a character actually screams for the passive cameraman to stop standing there and help her. It's bad enough just listening to the cameraman/protagonist repeat over and over how important it is that he document what's happening. We get it, George.
The film-student characters are just the same clichés we've seen dozens of times: the steely heroine, the annoying geek, the asshole jock, the vain princess, etc. The characters in his previous films broke stereotypes (at least the best ones did), and were always interesting studies in how different people deal with crisis. Some can hold it together, some come apart slowly over time and others just lose it right out of the gate. In Diary of the Dead, I found all the characters to be annoying and shrill, with pretty much sums up the film itself. I get that he still has a lot to say, but Romero’s a day late and a dollar short here, and I'd have preferred it if he'd left the zombie genre on a high note with the far superior Land of the Dead. Or maybe he can do another zombie movie to redeem this unfortunate misfire (which, according to IMDB, is in the cards).
There’s a commentary track with Romero, DP Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty that’s vaguely interesting, though Doherty does the thing where he seems to only talk about editing (“we snuck an edit in here….this next part was really difficult to edit”), but Romero’s very complimentary to them, and they’re clearly huge fans of his. One cool factoid Romero mentions is that because actors are unionized in Canada, some zombie extras were in Diary of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, as all three were shot in Toronto (which I am now rechristening Zombie City).
The making-of documentary For The Record commits the cardinal sin of presenting itself as a "feature-length" doc, but you can't watch it all at once; you have to select each chapter as an individual featurette (what's especially puzzling is that you can 'PLAY ALL' on another collection of special features. Ridiculous.) Overall it’s a mixed bag; the bio piece on Romero himself is nice, if a bit fluffy, and the rest covers the actors, CGI effects, makeup and other aspects of production, but none of that is terribly interesting.
Also included are “character confessionals,” shot Real World-style with the characters talking to the camera. These were originally meant to be sprinkled throughout the film itself, but they were wisely cut. They just showcase more of the irritating characters, and less than halfway through the 20-minute running time (never should have hit ‘PLAY ALL’) I was hoping a zombie would come and rip my throat out. There’s also a collection of recordings of the stars that provide vocal cameos in radio broadcasts overheard throughout the film, including Stephen King as a ranting religious nut, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Shaun of the Dead co-writer/star Simon Pegg and Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy/Hellboy 2 director Guillermo del Toro. Cool stuff.
The rest of the extras are basically just items culled from the Myspace Diary of the Dead page created to promote the movie, and they include a boring and useless four-minute “set visit” featurette made by some zombie-movie nerd who’s so stoked to be on a Romero set he seems to be on the verge of hyperventilating at any moment. His excitement is only made funnier by the fact that the end result was a pretty bad movie.
The lone bright spot in the web-related features is the collection of short zombie films made for a Myspace contest. As fan-made shorts tend to go, some are very well done, and others are absolutely painful to watch, but it’s cool that they were included on the DVD. There are some nice zombie gags, though Opening Night of the Living Dead, about zombies going to the movies, manages to fail spetacularly at coming anywhere close to living up to that marginally clever title. My favourite was & Teller (which didn’t actually win the contest), about Teller from comedy/magic duo Penn & Teller (played by the man himself, who also co-wrote) living as a survivalist loner in a post-zombie-apocalypse world after he was forced to kill Penn, who was turned during one of their shows. Brilliant.
Labels: DVD review, zombies
A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.