People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
  DVD Review: The Tracey Fragments

“My name is Tracey Berkowitz, 15. Just a normal girl who hates herself.”

The Tracey Fragments is a weird little Canadian indie movie from director Bruce McDonald and starring Canadian Oscar nominee Ellen Page. Not that Canada produces the equivalent of big studio movieTracey's had an...eventful days, but there’s also a clear indie aesthetic at play here. (Also, even if she fades into obscurity, Page will be referred to in Canada as “Canadian Oscar nominee Ellen Page” until the end of time; we Canadians are insecure like that.)

The film is based on a novel by Maureen Medved, who also penned the screenplay. It opens with 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz sitting on the bus, naked except for a shower curtain. Exactly how she got there and what happened to her is the story of the film. It’s an incredibly effective premise, in that Tracey’s situation (I won’t say “predicament” because she seems incredibly calm and unfazed considering she’s a 15-year-old girl riding a city bus at night wearing only a shower curtain) immediately made me eager to find out just what happened. (The plot involves her desperately searching for her kid brother, who’s been missing for a few days after she hypnotized him into thinking he was a dog.) While the concept of starting a movie in a compellingly strange place in the story and building the film around the after-the-fact explanation isn’t a new concept, McDonald does a lot of interesting things with it.

Bruce McDonald, by the way, directed one of my all-time favourite movies, an awesome little 1996 rock and roll movie called Hard Core Logo, about a fictional semi-obscure Canadian punk band reuniting for a tour across the country playing dive bars and scummy clubs. It stars musician-turned-actor Hugh Dillon in what I believe was his first acting role (he absolutely destroys it; he’s since carved out a nice little career for himself as a character actor, and can currently be seen in the Canadian-produced left-field hit cop drama Flashpoint, not to be confused with the awesome kung fu movie Flash Point my review of which is here) and character actor Callum Keith Rennie (probably best known now as the tricky blond Cylon Leoben on Battlestar Galactica). Hard Core Logo doesn’t have a whole lot to do with The Tracey Fragments, but I had to mention it just because it’s a great movie. I’m not sure what its DVD status is at this point – I got a copy from a Canadian DVD company when it was reissued several years ago – but if you’re into music movies, Hard Core Logo comes with my highest possible recommendation.

Anyway, back to The Tracey Fragments. McDonald was apparently inspired by the title to craft a very unique film, breaking the screen up into literal fragments to show different angles of scenes (both literally and figuratively). Medved says on the DVD that her book was very subjective, being written from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, and McDonald’s vision does a great job of capturing the unreliable narrator aspect of the text. Some of the scenes shTracey and the boy of her dreams, Billy Zeroow Tracey’s gritty reality, while others are clearly fantasy, and many more exist somewhere in between. Typically I get annoyed when a movie plays fast and loose with what’s really happening and what isn’t, but I thought the technique worked well in The Tracey Fragments. And while I certainly won’t spoil any plot twists, I will say that McDonald never leaves any of the important stuff ambiguous. I have a soft spot for movies that seem impenetrable at first but reward the viewer for actually paying attention (see also: David Mamet’s Spartan, a movie I will fawn over in a future post), and while I’ve read that some people found McDonald’s visual style here hard to follow, I had no problems comprehending the events on the screen.

McDonald also pulls out some more traditional (and fun) filmmaking tricks, like including a brilliant fake-opening-credits sequence for the movie about Tracey’s life that plays in her head (including credits for “F***head Bully #1 and #2,” “Some Crazy Lady” and “That Knockout Bitch Debbie Dodge”). Tracey’s the victim of much taunting in school, and lives a vivid fantasy life as a result. When a cute new boy starts school, she imagines him riding a motorcycle through the halls, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he rescues her from her classroom tormentors. I haven’t been a teenager for a decade now, but high school life portrayed in The Tracey Fragments feels a lot closer to the angst and the weird, unfocused anguish of adolescence than any so-called “teen” movie I can recall seeing any time recently, but maybe that says more about me than it does about movies. Not for me to judge, I guess.

But the visual flourishes are nothing compared to the real draw of The Tracey Fragments, and that’s Ellen Page’s amazing performance. Page is, hands down, the best young actress out there right now, and her work in The Tracey Fragments is something to behold. Tracey's the sort of complex female character we don’t see enough in movies; rather than being a one-note “tough girl” or tomboy or an embittered geek, she’s simultaneously cynical and strangely naïve. It’s a hell of a tricky tightrope to walk, but Page pulls if off with the gusto of a seasoned vet. Not that I’m the first person to say this, but Page definitely looks to be one of those once-in-a-generation talents, and this (along with Hard Candy – rent it if you dare) is the best work I’ve seen her do.

The Tracey Fragments had me pinned to my couch, and at no point during its wonderfully economical 77-minute running time did I have the slightest idea what was going to happen next. And for a movie like this, that’s the highest compliment I could pay it.



The Tracey Fragments DVD is pretty spare – a commentary from McDonald and/or Page (the latter, I assume, would be a bit ofPage and McDonald on the set a challenge, as Page’s stock has risen quite a bit since this film was completed thanks to Juno) would have been a nice touch. There’s a brief making-of featurette that runs less than 10 minutes and boasts on-set interviews with McDonald, Page and others, but it’s not long enough to really get into any detail about the film. Which is a shame, because it’s the kind of movie that really would benefit from some more in-depth bonus features.

The only other extra (aside from a photo gallery) is an interesting item called ‘Tracey: Re-Fragmented.’ To promote the film, McDonald and company released digital files of various scenes from the movie on the web for users to play around with to make their own short films or trailers. Five are included, and the winner’s trailer is actually considerably better than the film’s official trailer (which is also included). It’s a cool little feature to include on the DVD, reminiscent of a similar short-film contest on the Diary of the Dead DVD (read my review here). Overall it’s a pretty sparse disc, but The Tracey Fragments is recommended nonetheless. Sometimes a good movie’s enough.

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Friday, July 25, 2008
  I'll buy THAT for a dollar! is reporting that MGM has signed director Darren Aronofsky to helm a new RoboCop movie for a 2010 release. This is incredibly exciting news: RoboCop (the original; JUST the original) is, for my money, one of the truly great sci-fi movies, capturing the social commentary aspect of the best science fiction perfectly. Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film is remarkably sharp and funny, and still manages to deliver the goods as a blockbuster action movie about a cyborg policeman. But sadly the satirical aspects of Ed Neumeier's script were pretty much abandoned for the sequel (though I appreciate the meta-humour of having the new model of RoboCop in the movie actually called "RoboCop 2"; okay, maybe it's not really that clever), and the less said about the third, Peter Weller-less film, the better. (How do you screw up a concept as awesome as a robot ninja? Watch RoboCop 3 and learn.)

Aronofsky is capable of some truly amazing visuals, as shown in The Fountain, a strange and truly heartbreaking love story about immortality and trees flying through space, and his previous film, Requiem For A Dream is incredibly well-made, if so emotionally punishing that it's one of the rare movies that made me say "that was a brilliant piece of work, and I never want to watch it again, ever." I've been hearing rumblings that MGM's been looking to ressurect the RoboCop franchise, but until now I was afraid they were just looking at it as a potential sci-fi/superhero franchise, an excuse to milk some cash from a dormant franchise about a cyborg who can punch through walls. Hiring someone as smart and talented as Aronofsky to bring the character back, though, shows that the studio (presumably) isn't shying away from the social satire of the first movie -- there's no doubt in my mind that Aronofsky gets what made the original a great film, and with his incredible eye, I'm sure it'll look amazing as well.

In the meantime, I think I'll rewatch the original again,
which MGM re-released last year in a nice two-disc special edition with slick metal packaging to commemorate the film's 20th anniversary. (Aaaand now I feel old.)

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
  DVD Review: In Bruges

In Bruges is a movie that has no business being as good as it is. That doesn’t mean it’s a brilliant film – it’s not – but a movie about smartass gangsters released in 2008 should feel tired and clichéd. But somehow it doesn’t.

The concept – two British hitmen lay low in the picturesque Belgian town of Bruges after a job – smacks of the wave of post-Tarantino crime movies that plagued the mid-to-late-90s. Movies like Mad Dog Time, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, 2 Days In the Valley and Truth or Consequences, N.M. (why so many of these things have places in their titles I have no idea) all exploited the It-Boy status of the world’s most famous former video-store clerk with stories about criminals with ironic senses of humour as ready to make jokes or dThe sweet romance between a drug dealer (Clémance Poésy) and a hitman (Colin Farrell)ebate the merits of various aspects of pop culture as they are to commit crimes. Some of these movies were better than others – I think I saw Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead after hearing it was pretty good, but aside from the noble attempt to resurrect Treat Williams’ career, I remember nothing about that movie, which is typically not a good sign – but “forgettable” is probably the best word to describe pretty much all of those movies (though Mad Dog Time, a.k.a. Trigger Happy, is absolutely one of the most insanely, compellingly awful movies I’ve ever seen). The bottom line is, Quentin Tarantino rightly blew minds with the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and none of filmmakers attempting to become “the next Tarantino” with their own quirky crime movie had anything close to enough of his talent to pull it off.

So who the hell decided to make a movie about wisecracking gangsters in 2007? In Bruges is the feature debut for writer-director Martin McDonagh, who’s obviously no Tarantino, but then again he’s not trying to be. (He’s also not trying to be Guy Ritchie either, which is also a wise decision, one Guy Ritchie himself should really look into, judging from the been-there-done-that trailer for his new film, RocknRolla.)

The plot, as I mentioned, is pretty simple: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (one of my favourite character actors) play a pair of hitmen who've been ordered by their boss (a hilariously foulmouthed Ralph Fiennes, who shows up halfway through the film, at which point he begins gleefully tapdancing all over it) to hide out in Bruges, Belgium. There's obviously more to the story than just that, but McDonagh doles out the information about exactly what happened during the hit (hint: it did not go smoothly) in bits as the film unfolds. It's a cool little storytelling technique that McDonagh smartly doesn't turn into a gimmick; the way the characters casually mention plot points that fill in your understanding of exactly what happened before they arrived in Bruges feels natural, rather than expository, a trick a great many screenwriters and directors could learn from.

In Bruges pulls off something a lot of similar crime comedy-dramas fail miserably at, managing to strike a nice equilibrium between the comedy and the drama. As much as In Bruges is a film about smart-alecky gangsters, it deals with some fairly heavy subjects, and when the guns do come out, it's quite violent (there’s also a lot of casual drug use, so heads up for that if it’s the kind of thing that bothers you). It's a balancing act that many films attempt, and most fail at, but McDonagh makes it work.

I like Colin Farrell well enough, but this is the first film since his remarkable debut in Tigerland (where he rocks a southern accent; it was the first time I'd seen him and I was totally floored when I found out that not only was he not from the American south, he was Irish) that he really impressed me with his acting. For a potty-mouthed professional killer, Farrell injects the character of Ray with surprising heart and humanity. Gleeson, who in Beowulf actually managed to craft a heartfelt performance in a motion-capture CGI film (if that's not an acting feat I don't know what is) can do no wrong, and his Ken fits in Ray's life somewhere between a father and an older brother. Even moreso than Ray he's a hitman with a conscience, and as much as that's already film cliché (especially in this sort of movie), Gleeson's a talented enough actor to do something special with it.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the scenery. Bruges (or "f***ing Bruges," as Farrell constantly refers to it) is a beautiful place filled with incredible medieval architecture. McDonagh says in the DVD extras that he wanted to make the city the film's fourth main character, and he succeeded if for nothing other than the town is so quiet and boring and touristy that the other characters can barely go two scenes without someone bitching about it. But McDonagh and cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoot the town beautifully, and as the story darkens they get a lot of mileage out of its gothic towers and twisting cobblestone alleys.

Great characters, excellent performances, gorgeous scenery and a sharp script elevate what should be a decade-late-and-a-dollar-short entry into the Tarantino-wannabe sweepstakes into a fun little gangster flick that really should not be as good as it is. In Bruges doesn't reinvent the proverbial wheel, but it's worth a look if you have a taste for comedy that runs a shade on the sinister side.



There's about 18 minutes worth of deleted scenes (the funniest of which is a bit in which Gleeson tries to goad Farrell into riding in a horse carriage), and like a lot of deleted scenes, they're largely smaller character moments and scenes that reinforce ideas dealt with elsewhere in the film – though there is a cool flashback sequence that further establishes the history between Gleeson's Ken and Fiennes' Harry that probably would have worked quite well in the finished film.

There's also gag reel, and it's quite funny, particularly the scenes between Farrell and Gleeson. The two have an easy, friendly chemistry that's so natural I hadn't even noticed just how good the two are together until I watched them breaking each other up during takes.

'When in Bruges' is a making-of mini-documentary that runs about 13 minutes, covering the film's genesis and encompassing casBrendan Gleeson prepares to go get himself somet and crew interviews. It's long enough to feel substantial, more than the usual PR fluff, but short enough not to drag on (in the hour-plus making-of docs I'm usually officially bored somewhere between interviews with the film's composer and the costume designer). It's interesting stuff that does a good job of fleshing out the movie. 'Strange Bruges' is a shorter featurette about the town of Bruges and how it fits into the film. Usually these kinds of extras are boring filler, but considering how much In Bruges' setting is a part of the film, it's appropriate here.

'A Boat Trip Around Bruges' is a nicely relaxing way to spend five-and-a-half minutes: it's just what the title suggests, filmed in the first person and featuring trivia about Bruges running above and below the images. It's a strange little feature, but interesting enough, and between it and the film itself, I sort of felt like I'd actually been to Bruges myself.

Finally, 'F**king Bruges' seems to be attempting to condense all the film's (considerable) profanity, as well as all the mentions of Bruges, into a 96-second greatest-hits reel. It's remarkably funny stuff. Overall this is a solid DVD package for a good movie. Can't really beat that.

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Monday, July 21, 2008
  The Dark Knight makes me eat crow
Around this same time last week I posted about how rad Hellboy II: The Golden Army was and expressed doubt that The Dark Knight could live up to the ridiculous hype. I expected an excellent movie, but I really didn't think it could blow my mind like Hellboy II did.

Well, I guess I asked for it. The Dark Knight was indeed incredible, and actually managed to exceed my already high expectations. I try not to get to ahead of myself talking about whether a movie I just saw will be one of the best of the year, but in two weeks both Hellboy II and The Dark Knight entered the conversation. Who knows what else will knock me on my ass between now and the end of December (presumably at least a few movies that don't involve crimefighting or monsters), but the bar is pretty damn high right now.

And as you may have heard,
The Dark Knight also made copious amounts of money over the weekend, breaking Spider-Man 3's previous opening-weekend record by a few million. I tried to see it in IMAX on the opening weekend, but when I went online to try to buy tickets last Monday (something I never do), it was already sold out. So I saw it twice on Friday (which had more to do with seeing it with separate friends than me being such a geek that I had to see it twice on opening day, but hey, there are better ways to spend five hours of a day off than watching a great movie two times), and I'll report back on the IMAX version once I've gotten to that in the next week or two.

Also, one last thing I had to mention about The Dark Knight, which actually has nothing to do with The Dark Knight at all: the trailer for Watchmen that preceeded it. Oh. My. God. I literally haven't been this excited about a movie since I spent about half a year eagerly anticipating the 1989 release of
Tim Burton's Batman (I was about 10, making it one of the big formative periods in my movie-geek career, and the movie remains one of my all-time favourites). I'm not going to go on about Watchmen here right now, but go watch the trailer (I watched it about 10 times on the weekend, and twice more just putting this post together, so it's safe to say I'm pretty excited). One of the few things in life I love more than movies are comics, and this is an adaptation of one of the truly great works in the medium's history. Zack Snyder proved with 300 that he knows how to make a movie, and this trailer is designed to let hardcore Watchmen fans like me that he really understands how to translate this incredibly dense and complex book to the screen (the Wikipedia entry on the book is here, but I recommend avoiding any spoilers if you haven't read the book -- which you should -- and have even a passing interest in the film). I'm just glad I have until next March to prepare myself for this thing.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
  DVD Review: Drillbit Taylor

I’d been wondering for a while what kind of experience watching a comedy with no laughs would be. I realize there are hundreds and hundreds of so-called comedies out there that I simply would not find funny, but I just avoid seeing them (though I did pay to see Scary Movie 2 in theatres, but that was because the group I was with arrived late to the theatre and that was literally the only thing we could see, and I did laugh at one joke David Cross had in that one). I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of my own tastes at this point, and I typically don’t subject myself to movies I’m almost certain I won’t enjoy.

Drillbit Taylor is the movie that answered my curiosity. It has the distinction of being the first film released in the wake of Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt earlier this year, and normally this is where I say something like how that’s too bad because the film deserved more attention than it got or something. Except that Drillbit Taylor is a bad movie, and is deservedly seen as one of comedy superproducer Judd Apatow’s misfires. (I heard a rumour that you get a letter from Apatow’s lawyer if you don’t refer to him as “comedy superproducer”.)

As I mentioned in my Semi-Pro review, comedies are the most subjective genre. As much as I disliked Drillbit Taylor (I remember checking to see how much time was left at least a half-dozen times during its 110-minute running time…oh, and Judd Apatow? Comedies don’t ever need to bump up against the two-hour mark. Ever. I quite enjoyed Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but both of those were waaaay too long), I acknowledge that some people out there, even some people reading this, will think it’s funny. I also realize I’m not in the film’s target demographic – it’s a PG-rated high school comedy, basically Superbad for 12-year-olds, which apparently also means it’s like Superbad but with all the funny stuff taken out. The Superbad comparison really stuck in my head while watching Drillbit Taylor. Like that (much funnier) film, it was co-written by Knocked Up star Seth Rogen, and features three characters with similar dynamics: the best-friend pairing of the obnoxious fat guy and the awkward skinny guy, and the more awkward-yet-also obnoxious nerd who sort of tags along with them.

The plot of Drillbit Taylor feels like it has the nugget of a decent idea in there somewhere: a trio of nerds entering high school (a fat kid, a skinny kid, and a smaller, geekier skinny kid) are plagued by a sociopathic bully and his sidekick, so they hire a homeless military vet who calls himself Drillbit Taylor (Wilson, totally phoning it in) to be their bodyguard and also train them to fight back. The main problem with the premise, however, is that giving Owen Wilson a 5 o’clock shadow and dressing him in slightly tattered fatigues does not make him anything close to believable as a homeless man. Granted, I haven’t been to the area of Southern California where the film is set (which apparently has a large and diverse homeless population, at least that’s what the director and screenwriter say on the commentary), so maybe it’s filled with handsome, young beach bums with chiselled physiques who live in cardboard boxes and beg for spare change. I live in Toronto, and the homeless people I’ve seen here aren’t exactly the types you’d want to build a Hollywood studio comedy around.

But all my griping about logical holes aside, the bottom line is that Drillbit Taylor didn’t make me laugh once, though I think I snickered at a line by Danny McBride, an up-and-coming comedy star who has a small role here as one of Drillbit’s scumbag homeless buddies (there’s a subplot about how Drillbit’s a good homeless guy, while his pals are just losers and would-be scam artists, which culminates in his predictable redemption). Whereas Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and the McLovin kid are actually all funny dudes, none of the kids in Drillbit Taylor have any comedic talent that I could see. A funny and charismatic actor can elevate a so-so script, but neither the cast nor the screenplay here is any good. The jokes are obvious, sometimes even lifted wholesale from other movies and TV shows, and they all fall flat. Wilson’s basically coasting on his charm (which is not inconsiderable, but it’s not the same as a “performance”) in this watered-down, toothless high school comedy. I don’t think a movie has to be R-rated to be funny; I actually think many R-rated comedies use raunchiness as a pathetic crutch in place of actual humour. Watching this movie, all I could think of were better movies that hit the same marks that Drillbit Taylor was aiming for (and missing) I could be watching instead. But in fairness, because I know I’m not the kind of person this movie’s aimed at, I’m giving it an extra “+”. You’re welcome, Drillbit Taylor.



As is probably clear at this point, I didn’t like Drillbit Taylor at all, and that went for the extras as well. There’s actually quite a bit of bonus material on the DVD, but none of it was what I would call interesting or insightful.

There’s a commentary track with director Steve Brill (who directed many Adam Sandler comedies like Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds) and co-screenwriter Kristofor Brown. The pair are boring as hell on their own (so much so that partway through I got up to start doing dishes) and the beginning of the track features a couple of uncomfortably long silences as the pair evidently just sit and watch their movie. Brill and Brown are joined periodically by the teen actors for the film, and they’re even less interesting in real life as they are in the film. There’s an old showbiz adage about how you shouldn’t work with children or animals – Brill both in the commentary and in the other extras displays his short patience with his young actors, and hilariously overcompensates by saying over and over again how much he enjoyed working with them – and that should be transferred over to audio commentaries as well. None of the kids adds anything insightful or interesting, and just add to Brill and Brown’s annoying habit of pointing out which scenes were filmed when (“this was the first week of shooting. No wait, I think it was the second…”), apparently mistaking that sort of observation for interesting. It’s not.

An advertised featurette on the film’s screenwriters (Brown and Seth Rogen) is actually just Brown basically interviewing Rogen on the phone (ridiculous!) about Drillbit Taylor, which, judging by how often Brown has to coach his co-writer about the film, Rogen seems to hardly remember working on (the feature ends with Rogen talking for two minutes about how much he loved the new Rambo movie). The feature does have a nice, relaxed tone of two funny buddies just shooting the breeze, but it’s hard not to read into Rogen’s (wise) decision not to participate more on the DVD.

There are also 17 minutes or so worth of deleted and extended scenes, which includes the one thing I found genuinely funny on the whole DVD: an extended take of Danny McBride’s scene where his sleazy homeless guy poses as a high school teacher, hitting on students and dropping nuggets of wisdom like “Tequila is the most jealous of all liquors.” There’s a feature called ‘Line-O-Rama,’ which I think was supposed to whip through all the movie’s “great lines” in four minutes or so, but due to the movie’s tin ear for comedy, it’s more like a William Hung greatest-hits album: pointless.

Also included is a gag reel, which is four minutes of the kid actors flubbing lines and messing up takes. Normally gag reels are at least kind of funny, but this one proves there’s nothing in this life you can count on. Rounding out the extras are three-minute bits about shooting a scene where the high school halls are flooded by sprinklers, a brief, un-narrated look at the actor playing the chief bully, a similarly random piece on Danny McBride (which is disappointing in its non-hilariousness), and a five-and-a-half-minute segment called ‘Directing Kids’ where we get to see Brill lose his patience with the child actors a few times. Oh, and there’s an extended version of the rap-off in the film, where the fat kid has an 8 Mile-esque rap battle with the chief bully. As a fan of hip-hop, I personally found this scene in the movie both painful to watch and incredibly offensive, and the extended version made me want to gouge out my eyes and shove pencils in my ears.

Drillbit Taylor is a bad movie with a DVD packed with boring special features. If you’re in the market for a good comedy, check out the improv poker comedy The Grand (some more of my thoughts on that film are here). If you’re in the mood for some quality Owen Wilson comedy, check out his first collaboration with director Wes Anderson, Bottle Rocket. But do yourself a favour and avoid Drillbit Taylor.

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Monday, July 14, 2008
  See This Movie: Hellboy II
I got some news this morning that made me very happy: Hellboy II: The Golden Army came in tops at the box office this weekend. Normally I'm not all that interested in the box office side of things, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was concerned that Hellboy II might get lost in the summer-blockbuster churn. I'm happy to say my $10 was among the $35.9 million it made over the weekend, and it's my new frontrunner for Best Movie of the Summer (not to mention my new frontrunner for Best Movie of 2008). As stoked as I am about The Dark Knight, I'd be absolutely stunned if that movie (which I still expect to be excellent-to-amazing) surpasses what Guillermo del Toro has accomplished with his sequel. I've been thinking about it since I saw it, and I can't wait to see it again.

I don't remember the last time I was so thoroughly entertained by a movie: the plot was engaging, the characters were pretty much uniformly well-rounded and compelling (any time your villain has at least a somewhat valid point in his/her motivations, that's a much greater bonus than a lot of screenwriters seem to realize), the story bopped along at a great pace, the parts that were supposed to be funny were hilarious (the scene where Hellboy and Abe Sapien get hammered and talk about the ladies in their respective lives while drunkenly crooning Barry Manilow tunes is magic), and the action was the best I've seen so far this summer, eclipsing even Wanted and The Incredible Hulk (as much as I loved my second-favourite movie this summer, Iron Man, I can't really disagree with the knock against it that the action stuff wasn't as mind-blowing as it could/should have been, but whatever, it's still a better overall movie than Wanted or Hulk). I know The Dark Knight is the movie that everyone's talking about, but trust me, Hellboy II is worth your time.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
  DVD Review: Come Drink With Me

Come Drink With Me is a classic of martial arts cinema finally available on a proper DVD here in North America thanks to Dragon Dynasty’s Shaw Brothers Classics Collection. Directed by legendary Hong Kong/Taiwan filmmaker King Hu, it marked a huge leap forward in the evolution of kung fu movies, and is probably most notable to contemporary audiences as the spiritual ancestor of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

King Hu died at age 65 in 1997 as one of the most revered filmmakers in Hong Kong martial arts movies, though he spent most of his career in Taiwan after banging out several classics of the genre in the ‘60s and ‘70s, beginning with Come Drink With Me in 1966 (he also won a technical prize at Cannes in 1975 for another martial arts film, A Touch of Zen). His films pioneered many conventions of the kung fu subgenre known as wuxia that have since become hallmarks of martial arts movies. (The more fantasy-based wuxia subgenre typically focuses on swordsmen and swordswomen with rigid codes of honour and superhuman powers; think of the difference between fantastic “wire fu” films like Crouching Tiger and Hero and more “realistic” kung fu movies like, say, Bruce Lee's or Jackie Chan's.)

I’d never seen Come Drink With Me before reviewing this new DVD, but I had read about it years ago when I was devouring as many books about Hong Kong cinema that I could find. So when I heard about the movie’s restoration for DVD, I was excited to see it at last to find out what the fuss was all about. The fuss, as it turns out, was well deserved. Come Drink With Me is a pretty remarkable piece of work, particularly considering its age. The story is nothing special – a government official is kidnapped by bandits demanding the release of their own captured comrades, and the official’s sister, dubbed Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), is sent to get him back – but the action is where this film shines.

The first thing I noticed was that Come Drink With Me doesn’t feature the typically stilted martial arts choreography I’ve come to associate with older kung fu movies, but rather a far more stylized, almost dance-like grace to it. (Hu was a big fan of traditional Peking Opera, and it influenced his martial arts movies in a big way.) Many of the fights are clearly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, with fighters striking dramatic poses and squaring off for several tense seconds before either combatant strikes. This technique allows Hu to really ramp up the tension in several scenes, especially in the brilliant fight in the inn near the beginning.

The other thing that really struck me about the film as just how much of an influence it was on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I knew Ang Lee was a huge fan of King Hu and the wuxia genre (going so far as to cast Cheng Pei-pei as the villainous Jade Fox 30-plus years later), but two of Crouching Tiger’s most memorable sequences are direct homages to this film: the aforementioned inn fight where CheThese guys are learning what happens when you mess with Golden Swallowng faces off against several opponents (echoed by Zhang Ziyi’s character kicking the asses of an entire inn full of fighters – she even does so disguised as a man, as Pei-pei does in Come Drink With Me), and a chase across rooftops at night, one of Crouching Tiger’s most famous scenes. Ang Lee’s film, made decades later, obviously benefits from technical advances (particularly the rooftop chase scene; the Crouching Tiger version rightly blew many a mind when the film came out), but King Hu manages to impress with traditional camera tricks instead of wires and CGI.

The film is also just beautiful to look at; King Hu (a former set decorator) lovingly shoots all the sets and locales with a clear eye for composition and detail, and the new DVD features some incredible restoration. If you didn’t know you were watching a 42-year old film, you’d hardly guess it to look at it. One thing I did notice about the DVD’s audio tracks was that the English-dubbed track (in 5.1 surround) seems to have not only cheesier dialogue, but cheesier music as well, filled with over-the-top flourishes clearly intended for grindhouse audiences. The music on the Cantonese track (available only in mono) is much more atmospheric and more evocative of Peking Opera and Kurosawa samurai movies than the ‘70s-style exploitation vibe on the English track.

Overall I was quite impressed with Come Drink With Me. Fans of martial arts movies will be delighted to see a true classic finally available on DVD, and more casual fans can get a look at where the genre took a great leap forward.



As with all the Dragon Dynasty DVDs, Come Drink With Me comes with a nice bunch of extras. First is the commentary on the film with Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan and star Cheng Pei-pei. As usual, Logan is a font of knowledge about virtually every aspect of the film and its legacy, and though Cheng’s English isn’t perfect, they have a nice rapport and he gets some cool little details out of her.

There’s also an interview with Hong Kong director Tsui Hark called ‘The King anSPOILER ALERT: She totally catches all those coins on her fand I’ in which Tsui, a longtime King Hu fan who collaborated with him on one of his last films, 1990’s Swordsman (a disappointing effort meant to be Hu’s triumphant return to Hong Kong movies), in which the filmmaker recalls the impact Come Drink With Me made on its release as well as his personal stories of time spent with his late mentor. Tsui’s actually one of my favourite Hong King directors (despite having made some really bad movies, like the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme mess Knock Off, which followed the insanely ridiculous – and entertaining – Double Team, which teams JCVD with former NBA star Dennis Rodman; I could probably write a whole goddamn book about that movie, but I’m digressing here big time), so I really enjoyed watching him talk about the splash King Hu’s first martial arts movie made back in the day. He talks about how even back in ’66 he and his friends knew they were watching a paradigm shift in HK action movies, and I also got the impression he was something of a starstruck fanboy around King Hu himself, at least initially.

‘Come Speak With Me’ is an interview with star Cheng Pei-pei that runs a little over 15 minutes, where she explains that she had no martial arts training before filming Come Drink With Me, but was rather a dancer (a legacy taken up by other dancers-turned-asskickers Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi-yi). There’s also an interview with Come Drink With Me’s leading man, Yueh Hua, who plays Golden Swallow’s perpetually-soused kung fu master. Like the Pei-pei interview, it’s pretty basic stuff, but at one point he pulls out the original Come Drink With Me script, which was sort of cool.

Also included is an interview with Bey Logan where he discusses Come Drink With Me in particular and King Hu’s legacy in general. It’s interesting stuff for genre fans like me, as Logan is essentially a walking encyclopedia of HK film knowledge, and he does an excellent job of putting the film in a historical context.

It’s great to see Come Drink With Me on DVD at last, and the fact that it’s on a gorgeously restored disc packed with extras only makes it better. Fans of kung fu films need to check this DVD out.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008
  Random Thoughts: Hulk, Hellboy and Holmes
It occured to me recently that I posted about The Incredible Hulk a few weeks ago before I saw it and never followed up my thoughts as promised, so the two or three of you that regularly read this blog may be kind of disappointed (it was pretty good). Since then I also managed to check out Wanted, which I also really dug (it was loads better than the comic it was based on, which I hated despite the gorgeous art by J.G. Jones), and it got me thinking that, at least in terms of the blockbusters I've bothered to see, they're pretty much all good-to-great. It's the first time I can remember that I got halfway through a summer without any big disappointments (though I haven't seen Hancock yet and, box office aside, the word on that one is not encouraging) Iron Man was excellent, Hulk was solid, Wanted was far better than I was expecting it to be (thank Nightwatch and Daywatch director Timur Bekmambetov for crafting the most fun American action movie I've seen since The Rundown), and I've still got Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, Step Brothers, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express to look forward to.

Speaking of which, Hellboy II: The Golden Army opens this Friday and I cannot wait to see it. I know The Dark Knight is the better-known property and is getting all the crazy hype and attention -- I'm expecting a top-shelf superhero movie, but this stuff I've been reading about how it's some kind of "cinematic revolution" and a
"potent provocation" (what does that even mean?) seems like it's laying it on a bit thick -- but for my money Hellboy II is the one to keep an eye out for, even if it's the movie I think has the best chance of being lost in the proverbial shuffle. But Guillermo del Toro is one of the best directors working today, and I'm expecting something truly special with this movie. I should also probably mention I'm a pretty huge fan of the Hellboy comics as well as the first movie, which is a great little gem of a comic book adaptation, so that could factor in to my excitement. But anyone who was impressed by Pan's Labyrinth (that should be ALL of you, and if you haven't seen it yet you should remedy that situation immediately), even if you don't typically go in for sci-fi/fantasy/superhero stuff, should give it a chance. I think it has the pontential to be the best movie of the summer that not enough people went to see.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention an interesting press release that crossed my desk last week I wanted to mention: apparently
Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius behind Borat/Ali G., will play Sherlock Holmes in a new movie opposite Will Ferrell as Dr. Watson, with Judd Apatow producing. As much as it seems like a retread of the minor classic Without A Clue, I've got enough confidence in all involved that it'll be something pretty awesome, even if the reaction to my positive review of Semi-Pro has all but confirmed that I seem to like Will Ferrell more than most. (Anyone interested in my thoughts about a comedy that totally does not work on any level should stay tuned for my Drillbit Taylor review, which I plan to have up some time next week.)

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Friday, July 4, 2008
  DVD Review: Control

Control is the story of Ian Curtis, lead singer for the seminal British post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980 after releasing just two proper albums. (The better known, more synthesizer-heavy New Order formed later that year from Joy Division’s ashes; they actually scored the movie.) It marks the feature film directorial debut of photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, and it’s not only impressive as a first-time filmmaking effort, it’s one of the best music movies I’ve seen.

I should begin by saying that going into Control, I had very little interest in or knowledge about Joy Division. I’d heard of them and was familiar with a few of their songs (their signature tune, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ is rightly considered a classic), and what little I knew of Curtis himself and his death I gleaned from his brief appearance as a character in Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 biopic of Factory Records founder and British music icon Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People (another great little music movie). In that film, which covers a far greater amount of time than Control does, Curtis is a crazy whirlwind who blows into Wilson’s life, promptly becomes his biggest act, then kills himself about 20 minutes later (in film time, not real time). So I’m happy to report that Control is not a movie that requires any prior knowledge of its subject to enjoy (which was one of my knocks against Todd Haynes’ consciously weird Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not Theremy review is here), though at least a passing interest in pop music and musicians in general will probably help.

Corbijn cites Joy Division several times on the DVD as the reason he moved from his native Holland to England in the late ’70s, both inspirationally and more pragmatically – within months of his arrival in the U.K., Corbijn was photographing the band. He later went on to direct videos for bands like U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Nirvana and Metallica. He brings a similar aesthetic to Control, which is photographed beautifully in black and white (as are many of his videos). Corbijn's music video background gives him a real knack for effectively marrying music and images on screen, and there are several sequences in Control that use music as well as any film I’ve seen. My personal favourite was the scene where, a day after seeing a now-infamous Sex Pistols show in Manchester and having his Bowie-loving mind blown by this new thing called punk rock, Corbijn shows Curtis, in a single-take shot, walk towards the camera from his home to his job down the street while a song begins, with the drums kicking in just as he turns a corner, displaying the word “HATE” scrawled in white across the back of his black coat. It’s the sort of sequence a written description can’t really do justice to, but it’s been in my head since I first saw the film a few weeks ago and I had to mention it.

Corbijn’s sure filmmaking hand isn’t the only thing Control has going for it. It's anchored by a pair of absolutely brilliant performances from newcomer Sam Riley as Ian Curtis, and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah (on whose book, Touching From A Distance, the film is based). Morton, a two-time Oscar nominee, is stellar, and it’s hard to argue with Corbijn’s assessment on the commentary that she's one of the greatest actors of her generation (I’ve never seen her do bad work, though I also haven’t seen her in a movie where she’s not sad and crying in every other scene). The real standout is Sam Riley, and the fact that he’s never been in a film before makes his work here all the more remarkable. The lead in a biopic is always a tough load to shoulder, and Riley does it with aplomb, making a guy who, judged on his actions alone, should probably come across as something of an asshole into a real character I really sympathized with. (Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy not long after Joy Division formed, and evidently viewed the illness – the treatment for which has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970s – as a kind of death sentence, and the script factors that in to his ultimate decision to take his own life.)

Control is not only a great music biopic; it’s a great movie that has a shot at making my list of the best films I’ve seen this year (though I think it was technically released in 2007; details, details). It announces two significant names to the movie world in director Anton Corbijn and star Sam Riley, and it gave me a new appreciation for a band I previously had only a passing familiarity with. Highly recommended.



The Control DVD isn’t exactly loaded up with extra features, but just about everything on it is quality. There’s a really nice commentary track from Anton Corbijn, in which the soft-spoken director discusses everything from camera movements to working with the actors to his connection to Joy Division. He also explains his reasoning for shooting in black and white (aside from a couple of live performance videos, virtually all photos of the band – many taken by Corbijn himself – are in black and white). The most interesting, and impressive, tidbit of information was the fact that in all the film’s performance scenes, that’s actually the actors themselves playing Joy Division’s songs, including Sam Riley singing (as preparation the actors, many of whom had some kind of prior musical experience, learned to play the instruments and rehearsed together regularly). Perhaps this would have been obvious to hardcore Joy Division fans, but I was astounded when I found out, mostly because these actors pretending to be a band are actually pretty good.

There’s a making-of featurette that touches on the history of Joy Division as well as the development and production of the film, and it manages to cover quite a lot of ground in 20 or so minutes. Separate from that is an interview with Corbijn that runs a bit over 10 minutes that focuses more specifically on the his background and his relationship with the band.

Also included are full versions of three performances from the movie (two of which are dramatically cut down in the finished film), ‘Transmission,’ ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Candidate,’ as well as three music videos: the real version of their performance of ‘Transmission’ on Tony Wilson’s TV show So It Goes, as well as the Corbijn-directed video for ‘Atmosphere,’ released in 1988, eight years after Curtis’ death. Watching the original ‘Transmission’ performance was something, considering it’s remade in its entirety in Control. For a Joy Division novice like myself, it was great being able to compare actual footage of Curtis with Riley’s portrayal. There’s also a Corbijn-helmed video for The Killers’ cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay,’ done to promote the film, but I didn’t watch it because I fucking hate The Killers. My loathing of terrible contemporary rock bands aside, this is a very nice DVD package for an excellent movie.

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A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.

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