DVD Pick: RedbeltPicked up a copy of writer/director David Mamet’s Redbelt on DVD this week after catching it in theatres earlier this year. I really like Mamet’s movies (though I confess that aside from James Foley’s excellent film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, I’m pretty unfamiliar with his stage work, which is where he made his name; I’ve just never been a theatre guy). It’s a wonderfully taut dramatic thriller about a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s fantastic in everything I’ve ever seen him in…this guy’s got an Oscar in his future) who refuses to compete in professional mixed martial arts fights because of his philosophical belief that competition weakens the fighter. After he saves an aging movie star (Tim Allen, who, I was surprised to learn, can actually act) from an ass-whipping in a bar, he finds himself drawn into, if you'll pardon the cliché, a web of deception.
I really enjoyed Redbelt, but it’s a bit of a strange beast; it doesn’t really fit into any one genre neatly. It’s sort of a sports movie and sort of a thriller, but if I had to pin it down I’d say it’s a cross between a con movie and a samurai movie. Ejiofor’s character is defined by the rigid code he lives by, and the idea that he’s part of a dying breed – in this case, people with real honour and integrity – is reminiscent of many classic samurai films. Though Redbelt is set against the world of martial arts, it’s not really a “fight movie” (though Ejiofor does get down, most impressively at the end); Mamet’s far more interested in the philosophical aspects of the martial arts, and jiu-jitsu in particular is ripe with thematic possibilities. It’s not about brute force, but rather using an opponent’s strength against them. As Ejiofor tells Tim Allen, “You let him use his strength, and you use your understanding.”
One of Mamet’s signatures is his dialogue, and while Redbelt doesn’t have as much of the super-stylized interactions featured in a lot of his previous works (legend has it he would make his actors rehearse against a metronome), but it’s still filled with great lines and tense exchanges. Mamet regular Ricky Jay in particular is fantastic as an MMA promoter who seems to be equal parts Dana White and Vince McMahon. (Though as much as Mamet is clearly a big fan of MMA, the fictional league featured in the film has far more WWE-style pageantry than any real-life MMA promotion I’ve ever heard of, and I follow the sport.) The dialogue, like most of Mamet's work, demands that you pay attention, so it's not really the sort of movie that you throw in the DVD player while you're preparing dinner or something.
Redbelt is a smart and engaging movie about a man who lives by a strict moral philosophy, and the often steep price he has to pay to maintain his integrity in a world that has none. As a fan of Mamet, MMA, samurai movies and twisty thrillers, it's right up my alley, and if any of that sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend it.
Hard Core Logo sequel(s)In my review of Bruce McDonald’s unique drama The Tracey Fragments, I spent a paragraph gushing about how much I love his 1996 “rock n’ road” movie Hard Core Logo. It’s one of my all-time favourites, though don’t let the marketing lines referencing Spinal Tap on the American DVD cover fool you – it’s not a comedy. True, it’s a “mockumentary” about a rock band, and there are parts in it that are incredibly funny, but the film is really about things like friendship, betrayal, anger and the family-like bond between bandmates. It’s a brilliant little movie, one I love dearly, so I was pretty stoked when I read that McDonald is planning a sequel, which he hopes to start shooting next year. (I should mention that there’s some spoiler-type information about the original in the article.) And not only one; McDonald is hoping to create a four- or even five-film “juggernaut” out of it.
One sequel to Hard Core Logo would be awesome enough, but three, possibly four? Granted, they may not live up the first, and with the careers of lead actors Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie currently in high gear – Dillon currently stars in two Canadian TV dramas, and hosts a third show about comic books on IFC Canada, and Rennie is a regular on Battlestar Galactica – McDonald says making sure everyone’s schedule matches up will probably be a challenge. But hey, if George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford can get back together for another Indiana Jones movie, this should be easy. And I’m sure McDonald could make four kickass Hard Core Logo sequels for about the same amount they paid Ford's stand-in on the Crystal Skull set.
Below is the original trailer for Hard Core Logo. If you’re into rock movies, it's worth your time. It’s the best one I’ve seen.
DVD Review: Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?THE MOVIE
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s follow-up to his 2004 hit Super Size Me, the film that, along with Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction bestseller, Fast Food Nation, is responsible for millions of people swearing off fast food for at least a couple of weeks. This time around Spurlock examines why the U.S.A. doesn’t seem to be able to catch the planet’s most-wanted terrorist, and uses that journey to try to understand the issues at the root of buzzwords (buzzphrases?) like “war on terror” and “Islamic extremism.”
As with Super Size Me, Spurlock uses a personal journey as a jumping-off point to discuss a much larger topic. The film opens with Spurlock learning that his wife (previously seen as his vegan girlfriend in Super Size Me) is pregnant. Filled with doubts about the safety of the world he’s about to bring a child into, Spurlock decides now is the time for him to get to the bottom of where Osama bin Laden is. (Yeah, it’s a bit of a logical leap.)
The beginning of the movie is actually one of its most chilling (and still somehow hilarious) sequences; before setting off on his jaunt through the Middle East – he’s literally going to hunt for bin Laden himself – Spurlock takes a crash course in Middle East safety, learning from experts about how to avoid sniper attacks, how to behave if kidnapped and what to do if a grenade is tossed in his immediate vicinity. It’s the kind of training all journalists and aid workers go through before traveling to the region, and it’s terrifying to watch Spurlock learn first-hand just how dangerous that part of the world is. You can see him quietly reconsidering his decision on the movie’s subject matter while he’s learning how to discern the likely location of a sniper from a blood-splatter pattern above a fake corpse. From there Spurlock actually travels to the region, bouncing from less-volatile-but-still-pretty-messed-up places like Egypt and Morocco to Israel the all-out war zone of Afghanistan. Along the way Spurlock speaks to everyday folks as well as various public officials of varying stripes to try to find out what they think of America (they’re largely okay with Americans, but hate U.S. foreign policy in general, and George W. Bush in particular) and violence being carried out in the name of Islam (a few think it’s good, but most of them don’t). He also occasionally asks half-jokingly if they know where Osama bin Laden is, and the responses range from people kidding around with him to others seriously telling him where they think he probably is.
Spurlock’s real point in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is that Muslims are not the evil bogeymen that the American media often paints them to be. Which, on the one hand, is I guess a pretty noble undertaking, but at the same time it also says some pretty uncomfortable things about the people he’s aiming his documentary at. I realize that as a guy with a degree in journalism and whose job entails him reading the news pretty much all day long, I’m probably more informed about world affairs than Joe Middle America, but the myth Spurlock seems to be trying to debunk, that “most/all Muslims are terrorists,” is one that I hadn’t realized was even somewhat believed by people who weren’t ignorant racists. But then again, I’m Canadian, and this film is therefore not really aimed at me. That said, his efforts to show that people in the Arab world really are just people is, if the fear of Muslims in America is as bad as Spurlock suggests it is, a point that probably could stand to be made pretty forcefully, and I think he does a good job. But as I watched animated segments outlining subjects like Middle East history and the U.S. government’s shady past overthrowing foreign regimes and overlooking the terrible acts of the regional strongmen Washington decided were a necessary evil at the time (like Saddam Hussein in the 1980s), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching American Foreign Policy for Dummies.
The other problem I had with the film is that Spurlock takes the title – which I'd assumed was basically just a rhetorical device for him to investigate a larger issue – too literally. At the end of the film he's considering venturing into the incredibly dangerous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is generally understood to be hiding out, and tries to give his decision some kind of dramatic weight. At that point in the film I’d long since forgotten about the fact that Spurlock is ostensibly actually trying to find bin Laden on his own, a notion that, especially at that point in the film, he’s made pretty clear that one dude with a documentary crew is not going to find him. It’s faintly ridiculous, and I felt vaguely like my intelligence had been insulted; Spurlock just spent the entire movie explaining why it’s almost impossible to find bin Laden (while unfortunately not bothering to examine just how hard the U.S. government is really looking for him) as well as exploring the notion that even if he was found tomorrow and executed the day after that, nothing would really change. If Spurlock had left the title as just a hook, the movie would have been more effective.
Spurlock is still very good at crafting an incredibly watchable documentary, and Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is free of Michael Moore-esque soapboxing on Spurlock’s part. The real points he’s making are that “Islamic extremists” make up a tiny fraction of the Muslim population, and that many in the Arab world (albeit for different reasons) hate Osama bin Laden almost as much as any American does. It’s about how the disconnect between regular Americans and American foreign policy mirrors the disconnect between regular Muslims and the crazy people who want to blow things up. And for all my issues outlined above with what felt like Spurlock’s aiming the film at people who are content to accept world events as spoonfed by Fox News or CNN, I was still engaged for the entire film, and I laughed a lot. Spurlock’s a very funny guy, and he’s got a real talent for presenting his points – especially about so serious and complicated a subject as the Middle East and American foreign policy – in a compelling an entertaining way. If you regularly read the news and are even a little skeptical about mainstream American media, there probably isn’t much in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? that you don’t already know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining documentary, and Spurlock’s heart is certainly in the right place.
There isn’t a ton of extra material on the Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? DVD other than a handful of deleted scenes. As with most documentaries, they’re actually all pretty interesting, they just don’t really fit into the movie’s larger narrative (I particularly enjoyed the chat with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres). The only real exception is an interview with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, which suggests Spurlock reigned in the scope of the movie to cover just the issue of terrorism in the Middle East; it’s sort of too bad, because a different perspective on the whole idea that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is a point that deserved to be made in the film, and I get the feeling that Spurlock didn't want to open up that particular can of worms. But hey, that’s what DVDs are for.
There’s also an alternate ending that, while clever, is incredibly preachy, and more than a little cheesy, so I can understand why Spurlock went with the ending he did. It’s far more effective, less condescending and fits in far better with his own personal arc in the film.
Feelin' kinda viralStudios have been using the Internet to market their films for years now, and I don't just mean buying banner ads on movie websites. The web is now the place to go for trailers, to the point where when I see a trailer I've never seen before in an actual movie theatre, it makes me feel faintly nostalgic. But more and more studios are using viral marketing and sly web videos to promote their movies. The Dark Knight had a pretty long and involved web marketing campaign, from a fake Harvey Dent website to an incredibly complex, nationwide scavenger hunt last year. All of this stuff was pretty secondary to the main marketing push; it seemed to be more about generating early buzz with Internet movie geeks like yours truly (most of these sites started popping up more than a year ago), and some of the gags were genuinely clever – a guy from one website I frequent was sent a Joker-themed cake and a phone number, and when he called the number, a cellphone inside the cake started ringing, and I think there was a voicemail from the Joker on it or something. Not really much of a point to it, really, other than it was pretty cool.
A few months back someone forwarded me the following viral video:
It's certainly crazy, and amusing, and it seemed real when I first saw it (I pride myself on having a pretty good BS detector, but I've fallen for more than my share of fishy web videos; I'm also quite good at self-deception), but I later found out, weeks later, that it was apparently a bit of viral marketing to promote Wanted (which features an amusing office freakout as a plot point). It's clever and all, but it's hard to not consider it at least a partial failure, because at no point is the connection between the video and Wanted made clear. As much as it would have wrecked the reality the clip was trying to present, a title card at the end saying "Wanted: In Theatres Soon" would have, you know, actually promoted the film.
The next clip does a much better job of making clear the connection to the film it's promoting, in this case the Vin Diesel sci-fi action flick Babylon A.D., which opens next weekend. I'm actually pretty excited to see it, as I have a big soft spot for stylishly-visualized sci-fi movies (and as a secret fan of Diesel's Riddick movies, I evidently have a big soft spot for stylishly-visualized sci-fi movies starring Vin Diesel). It's also more effective because it seems almost like the clip is making fun of Diesel's tough-guy persona, and while I have no idea if Diesel himself seen the clip or approves of it, the charm of its lightly self-mocking tone (while it not-so-lightly mocks this summer's blockbuster crop) makes up for what the actual jokes lack in cleverness or subtlety:
It's clear Hollywood (well, technically Babylon A.D. is French) is still working out the kinks in using viral web marketing to promote movies. And while I don't think anyone's trying to point to a year-old web campaign as any real contributor to The Dark Knight's insane box-office haul, all the above campaigns show the studios' growing understanding of online fandom since New Line mistook a bunch of geeks ironic anticipation of Snakes On A Plane on Internet message boards based on its silly title as a pop-culture-phenomenon-in-waiting. That's evolution, baby.
Watching the WatchmenThe New York Times is reporting that since the release of the trailer for Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen was released around the time The Dark Knight came out (it was supposed to debut attached to The Dark Knight, but leaked online the night before), sales of the graphic novel have soared, with DC Comics printing an additional 900,000 copies to meet demand. I know that as soon as I walked out of The Dark Knight on opening day with a friend, said friend and I immediately crossed the street to a bookstore so he could buy a copy. And I’m currently re-reading my own yellowed, dog-eared copy for the seventh or eighth time, this time with an eye towards how Snyder could potentially adapt it.
Watchmen is the brilliant graphic novel from writer Alan Moore (one of two comic writers I unhesitatingly refer to as a genius) and artist Dave Gibbons (no slouch himself) that has long been considered unfilmable. Moore, one of the greatest minds the comics medium has ever seen, has an unfortunate history of his incredible books being horribly bastardized in movie adaptations (his most complex work that I’ve read, the terrifyingly well-researched Jack the Ripper story, From Hell, was made into a generic murder mystery with Johnny Depp and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie shares only the title and vague concept with Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful series; the V for Vendetta movie was pretty good, as well as pretty faithful, but still nowhere near the book’s quality) has since refused to be involved in any film versions of his own work – including refusing any payment.
As great as it is that interest in the film is leading to interest in the graphic novel, Watchmen has been a consistent top-seller since long before the current boom in comic book trade paperback collections, going back pretty much to when it was first collected in one volume back shortly after its publication as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987. It’s often hailed as the greatest comic of all time, which I don’t know that I agree with, but I’d call it the best superhero comic of all time (medium and genre being used interchangeably being a pet peeve of mine and most other comic readers who don’t just read superhero books). The story is, on the surface, pretty standard: it starts off as a murder mystery involving a small group of aging superheroes in various stages of retirement, with the narrative eventually stretching from the 1930s to the present (“the present” in Watchmen being America in 1985 where Nixon is still president). The hook is that Watchmen was the first comic book that really tried to examine what the world would actually be like if certain people felt compelled to don gaudy costumes to fight crime. Some are well-meaning but naïve, some get a special kind of “excitement” out of it, and others are just flat-out nuts. (The book’s other nod to realism is that only one character, the godlike, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, has what could accurately be described as “superpowers.”) It’s been considered one of the medium’s high points pretty much since its release more than 20 years ago, and it even made Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels.
The reason Watchmen has been considered unfilmable is because it’s stunningly complex; I always tell people that every time I re-read it I discover something new, and I’ve yet to prove myself wrong on that front. But as my excitement for the release of the film next March grows with every image I see or interview with Snyder I read (I say stuff like this a lot and often regret it later, but it’s looking like Watchmen is basically a lock as one of my favourite movies of all time), I don’t know that it will actually live up to the book, because I don’t know if that’s even possible. Watchmen, the book, is very much about comics, not just superheroes, but the medium itself. It comments on the tropes of the superhero genre (and some ultra-hardcore fans of spandex books resent the book’s critique), but also on the medium itself; I’ve never read a comic as meticulously constructed as Watchmen, from its rigid panel composition to its thematic use of symmetry, it truly is a remarkable work of craftsmanship. In terms of displaying its creators’ mastery of the form, it rivals cinematic masterpieces like Citizen Kane. So as stoked as I am about the movie adaptation, I really can’t see it living up to the original. Which is okay; so much changes in translating any work from one medium to another that a great book can be made into a mediocre movie (see pretty much any previous Alan Moore adaptation), or a mediocre book can become movie legend (I’ve never heard anything particularly great about Mario Puzo’s Godfather novel, but the movie is, well, The Godfather). What I do think is possible – hell, I expect it – is that Watchmen will be the first movie adaptation of an Alan Moore comic to really get everything right.
If the trailer piqued your interest and you’re at all interested in reading Watchmen to see what all the fuss is about, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of the book as the hype for the movie builds. I’m polishing off my latest read-through of it (just finished Chapter 10 on the streetcar ride to the office this morning), but I’ve got an oversized hardcover version due to arrive from Amazon any day now, and I can’t wait to read it all over again. There's a lot of time to kill between now and March 6, 2009.
Tropic Thunder is an action-comedy co-written, directed by and starring Ben Stiller as one of a group of vain, self-involved Hollywood superstars trying (and largely failing) to make a Vietnam epic. At some point, the grizzled veteran on whose memoirs the movie is based (Nick Nolte, having lots of fun with his recent burned-out image) suggests leaving the spoiled stars out in the actual jungle under the auspices of shooting “guerilla style” with hidden digital cameras, to teach them all a lesson. But before long, the actors find themselves dealing with a very real gang of heroin-processing paramilitary types, with only their wits and guns full of blanks to keep themselves alive.
I was one of the few people who loved the short lived sketch-comedy series The Ben Stiller Show when it actually aired on Fox (there are something like 20 of us, not including the cast and crew and their families), in which Stiller first displayed his talent for pitch-perfect pop-culture satire, and Tropic Thunder is no different. It opens with phony trailers for each of its fictional stars’ movies, and while fake trailers are sort of a played-out joke in and of themselves, Stiller’s versions are the best I’ve seen, nailing virtually every aspect of modern trailers, from the music to the sound effects to the voiceover, each time taking things just far enough to work as a parody, but being careful to not go too far over the top as to make them too silly. That vibe continues for all of Tropic Thunder, which manages to be not only one of the best Hollywood satires I’ve seen, but also a ridiculously fun summer action-comedy. Tropic Thunder is similar to Pineapple Express in that it’s an action-comedy that doesn’t skimp on the action. The plot, which I won’t spoil too much of, actually hinges on some pretty real tension (“real” being a relative term in almost any comedy), putting the characters in danger that doesn’t feel as silly as you’d think, given the concept. And as much as the characters, particularly Stiller’s fading action star Tugg Speedman and Robert Downey Jr.’s way-too-method Kirk Lazarus, are genuinely ridiculous, I found myself really engaged with them the way I didn’t in, say, Step Brothers(which made me laugh really hard, but it's more of a loose collection of gags than a proper movie). All the scenes where Stiller and Downey interact with each other are wonderful. One of the reasons a lot of movies about movies don't connect with audiences is that the people who make them get caught up in satirizing a world they know very well, and they can sometimes forget that Joe and Jane Moviegoer aren't really that interested in 90 minutes of bitter jokes about talent agencies. While Tropic Thunder does indeed have such jokes (Matthew McConaughey turns up in a small but fun role as Stiller's agent), it never felt too inside-baseball to work with broader audiences – I saw it in a packed theatre, and everyone laughed their respective asses off.
The standout performance in Tropic Thunder is, unsurprisingly, Downey as a multiple-Oscar-winning Australian thespian known for his chameleonic approach to acting, who has undergone a surgical process to temporarily alter his skin pigmentation so he can play a black man. Just on paper, to call this a tricky role is a crazy understatement; it means one of the movie’s main characters is essentially a white actor in blackface. Indeed, the movie has a lot of fun with the racially uncomfortable nature of the character, with the actual black guy in the group, a rapper-turned-actor called Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), giving him static almost every time he opens his mouth. But watching Downey absolutely tear up Tropic Thunder made me lament the fact that at Oscar time comedies are virtually ignored, because this is one of the most genuinely amazing performances I’ve seen all year, in any genre. If you thought Downey was great in Iron Man (which I most definitely did), you may not be ready for him here. There’s another performance I have to mention, and that’s Tom Cruise in a small role as a vicious, foul-mouthed studio head. I’d read a few months back that he had a cameo, so I expected one scene with a couple of lines. But no, Cruise’s role is a full-on part, albeit a small one, but he’s hilarious. If this is the latest salvo in the post-crazy-meltdown Tom Cruise Career Reclamation Project, I declare it a full success. I had no idea he was capable of being this funny.
When I was wowed by Hellboy II last month, I expressed skepticism here that The Dark Knight could top it. (I was wrong.) When I saw Pineapple Express last week, I thought it was a slam-dunk for the best comedy of the summer. On a personal level, I still give Pineapple Express a slight edge, but overall I think Tropic Thunder has wider appeal, and is just as funny. Either way, both films are excellent, and among the most fun you’ll have in a theatre this summer. Tropic Thunder is a riot from start to finish.
The Wire is almost too good. Almost.Up until I tore through the first four seasons of the mind-crushingly excellent cop drama The Wire on DVD earlier this year, I'd been hearing for a few years how it was the best show on television, maybe even the best show ever. It seemed like ridiculously high praise, and I took it with a serious amount of salt, until I watched it and was hooked. As much as I hate hype, sometimes hype is actually accurate, and The Wire, for my money, is one of those cases.
If you don't know, The Wire is a cop show from HBO (which means cussing and nudity!) set in Baltimore that follows a single investigation for each of its five seasons, more or less (it gets more complex as it goes on, and I can't be more specific lest I spoil anything). It was co-created by former reporter David Simon (he wrote the non-fiction book NBC's Homicidewas based on) and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns. With each season, the show expands its scope, giving time to not only the cops and the drug dealers they're chasing, but also to encompass the upper echelons of the police department, as well as city hall, the media and the public school system. It features some of the best acting I've ever seen, anywhere, as well as an ensemble cast of characters that are, to a person, all totally fascinating.
The fifth and final season of The Wire was just released on DVD, and it's not exactly the best place to start if you're new to the show – a good buddy of mine who actually convinced me to give it a shot after watching the third or fourth season On Demand after never having seen any of it before has since lamented that, as he goes back and watches the DVDs in order, he's already spoiled several of the bigger plot points for himself – but if you can rent the DVDs or buy them cheap (or expensive – it's totally worth it) and work through it in order, it really is the best American TV show I've ever seen (though I'd also put HBO's Deadwood in that conversation). Believe the hype, people. If television gets much better than The Wire, I'm not sure I could handle it.
TV Funhouse is a short-lived series that aired on Comedy Central in 2000, a spinoff from the popular ‘Saturday TV Funhouse’ animated feature on Saturday Night Live (the ‘Saturday’ in the title apparently being the key difference between the properties). But as the DVD packaging helpfully states, there’s no content on this set from SNL (several of the SNL bits got packaged into their own DVD, The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse, available through another studio). Both the SNL segments and this show come from comedy writer Robert Smigel, who also created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog for Late Night with Conan O'Brien. This last bit is relevant because the same style of humour – crude puppets and even cruder jokes – are what TV Funhouse is (was?) all about.
Like an even-more-warped version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, TV Funhouse is a spoof of children’s TV shows, and this version stars Doug (comedian Doug Dale), a dimwitted Mr. Rogers type who hosts shorts cartoons and other bits in a brightly-coloured set that he shares with the Anipals, a group of animal puppets that include a cat, some dogs, a duck, a lobster, a turtle and others. There are also a few real animals mixed in with the incredibly obvious puppets, and the show mines the juxtaposition between what are clearly puppets and real animals for comedy (another gag borrowed from Smigel’s Triumph skits on Conan) several times per episode. It’s a funny joke, but as I said, it’s in every episode, and it stops being funny pretty quick.
One of the show’s other recurring jokes are that the Anipals almost never participate in Doug’s themed show (Caveman Day, Astronaut Day, Mexicans Day – that’s right, not Mexican Day, Mexicans Day, plural), opting instead to do crazy things like go to Atlantic City to party with Triumph and Robert Goulet (who is totally game and hilarious) or go on Sally Jessy Raphael to try find a mate for an endangered African lizard.
The show’s style of humour is gleefully un-P.C., which is great, but the writers just go to the same handful of comedy wells too many times for my tastes. A shocking amount of the jokes are based around the visual of puppets humping each other (or puppets humping real animals if they want to mix things up a bit). It’s sort of funny in a crude way the first time, but I was surprised how often that particular gag was trotted out (at least four times in eight episodes, as far as I can recall). The real good stuff in TV Funhouse is, unsurprisingly, the cartoons, and they are almost all hilarious, and even the lesser among them is still better than any of the live-action puppet stuff. My favourite was ‘Wonderman,’ a parody of the 1940s Max FleischerSuperman cartoons, only this time the hero uses the goodwill created by his rescues and other feats to try to get his alter ego laid.
Overall, TV Funhouse made me laugh during many of the cartoons, but unfortunately they’re too few and far between, usually only a two or three each 20-minute episode. The rest is repetitive – and crude – puppet humour. There’s some good stuff here, but on the whole, I can see why this show didn’t last very long.
The TV Funhouse set collects eight episodes on two discs, and before I get into the actual content on the discs, I have to mention that the write-up on the back of the DVD package is easily the funniest I’ve ever read, managing somehow to both hype the show as something you should watch and also take several self-deprecating shots at its brief run. Pretty impressive.
The rest is somewhat standard DVD-extra fare: there’s commentary on all eight episodes with series creators Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos and host Doug Dale. They’re often more interesting than the episodes themselves, if only because they’re all looking at the show eight years after its brief run, and they’re all pretty brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t, and that sort of candour is always appreciated in commentaries. And all three are pretty funny guys, so often that brutal honesty is also usually quite amusing.
There’s video commentary from Chickie, Jason, Xabu and Dave (four of the Anipals), and it’s basically just Smigel and friends goofing around in the commentary booth with the puppets, and they seemed to be having more fun dicking around than I had watching the results. There are also outtakes and some additional behind-the-scenes footage, but the outtakes aren’t really funny (they’re often about the frustrations of getting various puppet-related camera tricks to work properly), and the other stuff consists mostly of footage of the crew shooting the puppets, which isn’t exactly what I’d call scintillating viewing. Still, I appreciate the effort to pack in some bonus features for what’s otherwise just a short-lived TV show that probably deserved to be. TV Funhouse is hardly a lost gem of television comedy, but fans of Triumph and crude comedy in general will likely be entertained.
Review: Pineapple Express(Warning: This review ends with a bad pun.)
Pineapple Express is a strange blend of genres, fusing the stoner buddy-comedy with the traditional action flick, specifically the kind of late-‘80s odd-couple action movie best exemplified by Lethal Weapon. The closest comparison I can think of is Midnight Run, which is also about two mismatched guys on the run, and similarly combines action and comedy. And while it’s still too early to make claims about how Pineapple Express is the best action-comedy since the bona fide classic that is Midnight Run (I tend to think that sort of thing doesn’t become clear until well after a movie’s release), it’s definitely the best comedy I’ve seen this summer, and maybe this year.
The plot is pretty simple: Seth Rogen plays Dale, a process server who spends his days smoking pot in his car when not changing into various disguises to hand out subpoenas. After buying a rare and powerful strain of weed called Pineapple Express from his dealer, Saul (James Franco, officially announcing himself as a great comedic actor), he ends up witnessing a murder when a dirty cop (the wonderful Gary Cole) kills a rival drug kingpin. Dale, blasted out of his mind, flees to Saul’s apartment, but not before leaving a half-smoked joint of the killer bud behind – enough evidence for Cole’s corrupt cop (who recognizes his own product; he sold it to Saul through a middleman) to send his thugs after the two stoners.
Pineapple Express is first and foremost a comedy, and a damn funny one at that. It was co-written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the writing team behind Superbad), but a great comedy script can only take you so far, as it’s ultimately up to the actors to make the material work. Luckily, Rogen and Franco are both hysterical, and their chemistry is great, especially as Dale finds himself bonding with his dealer (the film has a lot of fun with the inherent awkwardness of the drug dealer-client relationship), who he gradually realizes considers him more of a friend than a customer. I’ve liked Rogen ever since The 40-Year-Old Virgin (I haven’t seen Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV shows Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared, but I understand he’s great in those), and Knocked Up cemented him as a charismatic and funny actor. But it’s James Franco who really blew me away; while he’s great in his cameo as himself in Knocked Up, I had no idea he was this funny. I really hope he does more comedy work going forward, because he’s absolutely hilarious here. The other standout performance is from Danny McBride, a comic actor who’s been kicking ass with smaller roles in a ton of comedies lately (much to my dismay, even he wasn’t enough to save Drillbit Taylor). I don’t want to say too much about his character in Pineapple Express though, as it would spoil too much. All I will say is that the DVD release of his indie-comedy starring vehicle The Foot First Way (trailer here) cannot come fast enough.
The other thing that makes Pineapple Express so great is that it’s an action-comedy made by people who seem to have genuine affection for action movies. While many of the action sequences are filled with funny stuff, it never feels like Pineapple Express is making fun of action flicks, at least not in a mean-spirited way. It’s very similar to Hot Fuzz in that regard, managing to walk that razor-thin line between spoofing action movies and actually working as an action movie. (Also, if you haven’t seen Hot Fuzz – an action-comedy from the guys behind the delightful Shaun of the Dead – you absolutely should.) It builds to the traditional violent climax at the villain’s hideout, only this time the heroes barely know how to use their guns, and look about as effective in a fistfight against crooked cops and gangsters as you’d expect a couple of out-of-shape potheads to be (Rogen says he tried to do as many of his own stunts as possible to highlight the awkwardness, and it works).
Credit for Pineapple Express’ awesomeness must also go to director David Gordon Green, a guy previously known for well-regarded indie dramas. Hiring a “real” filmmaker like Green for a movie like this really gives in an extra level of quality, whereas a hack like Steve Brill (I really, really did not like Drillbit Taylor) probably would have made the whole thing like look like a TV commercial or an episode of According to Jim.
Overall I had an absolute blast watching Pineapple Express. It’s style of humour may not be for everyone – the movie doesn’t try to redeem the characters’ rampant drug use, and it’s surprisingly violent – but I’d hesitate to call it a “stoner movie,” as I usually consider those to be movies you really should be high on something to enjoy (Richard Linklater’s trippy animated feature Waking Life is a pretty good example of that). It’s more like The Big Lebowski, in that it’s about stoners, and weed does figure prominently into the plot, but the viewer doesn’t necessarily need to be in an enhanced state of mind to appreciate it. I was as sober as a judge when I watched Pineapple Express, and I laughed my ass off. If you’re looking for some laughs and an all-around good time at the movies, (sigh) hop aboard the Express.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a documentary about an Iraqi heavy metal band called Acrassicauda (Latin for a deadly black scorpion native to Iraq), following the band in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and through the particularly bloody period of sectarian violence/civil war (pick your terminology) in 2006-07. It was directed by Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti, two guys from Vice magazine, an irreverent Montreal-based publication that does a pretty good job of combining “attitude” with real journalism. So I wasn't sure, going in, what the tone of the movie would be. There's obviously something vaguely absurd about four dudes trying to be a metal band in a place as, shall we say, severely messed up as contemporary Iraq, but the film is a surprisingly straightforward and serious documentary about the effects of war on normal folks. To say Heavy Metal in Baghdad is about an Iraqi metal band is like saying The Godfather is about a mob family; it's technically true, but also a big understatement.
The film was inspired by a Vice article written by former MTV VJ Gideon Yago about Acrassicauda originally published in 2004. It follows four guys – Firas (bass), Tony (lead guitar), Marwan (drums) and Faisal (vocals and rhythm guitar) – who formed a metal band while Saddam Hussein was still in power. Back then it was still pretty tough for them to put on shows without being harassed; Saddam's strict regime wasn't all that friendly to a bunch of dudes throwing up devil horns and playing covers of American metal bands like Metallica and Slayer. But things went from bad to worse after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and in showing Acrassicauda's struggles just to exist as a band (not to mention simply as human beings) in a war zone, Heavy Metal in Baghdad transcends being a documentary about a band. It's about four guys who, as they're all more than happy to tell the filmmakers, couldn't care less about politics or global affairs, but find themselves in what can pretty accurately be described as hell on earth.
As much as Heavy Metal in Baghdad is about Acrassicauda, the band (the filmmakers even helped the guys put on a show in Baghdad’s Al-Fanar Hotel in 2005, but Alvi and Moretti couldn't get to Iraq themselves to see it), it's much more about four intelligent and incredibly nice guys who just want to play their music. One of the film's recurring themes is the notion that these dudes – and by extension, all of the Iraqi people – just want to live normal lives, the kinds of lives that anyone reading this takes for granted. I threw the Heavy Metal in Baghdad DVD in my player, kicked back on my leather couch and watched it all unfold on my plasma screen TV, and less than halfway in, I felt simultaneously incredibly guilty about all of the above, and incredibly fortunate.
Alvi and Moretti basically use the premise of following an Iraqi metal band to examine the effects of war, and as loathe as I am to add my voice to the mainstream-media-bashing chorus (not that I don't think it's deserved, most times, as much as, as a news editor by trade, I guess I'm also part of it), Heavy Metal in Baghdad gave me a look at life on the ground in Iraq that I'd never seen through any traditional Western media. It's a gripping, and at times, heartbreaking, portrayal of the impact of war on everyday people. And considering the American media's glossing over of so many aspects of the war in Iraq (never showing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers or naming the dead, etc.), it's an incredibly eye-opening look at what's actually happening in Iraq. It's one thing to read about bombings every day (part of my day job) and watch politicians discuss troop levels and exit strategies and plans for victory, but it's another to listen to the guys in the band matter-of-factly talk about walking past dead bodies in the street and narrowly surviving bombings and mortar attacks.
One of the most chilling sequences in the movie has Alvi, who narrates and conducts the interviews, chatting with Firas and Faisal outdoors shortly before the curfew, their discussion interrupted by gunfire and explosions getting closer and closer as Faisal gets increasingly anxious to get back home and ends up cutting the interview short. Heavy Metal in Baghdad really hammers home its point about how dangerous a place Baghdad is; it feels like every 10 minutes Alvi and the crew find themselves in some sort of situation that could get them shot or blown up or kidnapped, and I never once doubted it was 100% true. It's the first documentary I've ever seen that’s easily as tense as any thriller or horror movie.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is the best kind of documentary: it made me feel smarter when it was over, like I better understood the world. It also made me sad, as I realized that entire generations of Iraqis have had their lives torn asunder by this war, and their hope for the future is pretty much nil. Even if they try to leave the country, as the guys in Acrassicauda do, their lives don't necessarily improve; the life of an Iraqi refugee living in a place like Syria or Jordan or Turkey is often so bad that many would actually rather return to Iraq and risk death than live as an unwanted refugee elsewhere.
There are lots of documentaries about the war in Iraq, and many of them are excellent. But Heavy Metal in Baghdad is the first I've seen that connected me in something approaching a real way (inasmuch as such a thing is possible watching a documentary) to the plight of everyday Iraqis. Heavy Metal in Baghdad is, simply put, an excellent documentary, and if you're at all interested in a very different perspective on the Iraq war, it comes highly recommended.
The Heavy Metal in Baghdad DVD is a great example of a disc that focuses on quality instead of quantity. Which is not to say there isn't lots of stuff on it, but the idea was clearly to put good stuff on it instead of just lots of stuff. The centerpiece is the 45-minute featurette 'Heavy Metal in Istanbul,' basically a continuation of the film that picks up where the Baghdad leaves off. Alvi and company traveled to Istanbul in January 2008 to check in with the guys in Acrassicauda, living as refugees in Turkey. Where Heavy Metal in Baghdad examined the effects of war on the Iraqi people, 'Heavy Metal in Istanbul' is very much about the plight of Iraqi refugees, although these four also happen to play in a heavy metal band. It really does feel like an extension of the film, and watching Alvi reunite with the guys in the band is like running into old friends.
Also included are nine additional and deleted scenes that don't really add much to the narrative of the film (which probably explains why they weren't included), but they are nice character pieces, highlighting some of the other people the filmmakers encountered during their trip, including some truly moving segments about their Baghdad translator/guide, Ahmed, and a charming 19-year-old Iraqi named Mike, who helps the band (and the crew) find their way around Damascus. There are also three live performances from Acrassicauda included, and the booklet (seriously, not enough DVDs bother with booklets at all, let alone booklets that include worthwhile content) reprints the original 2004 Vice article that inspired the film, 'No War for Heavy Metal,' as well as an interview with the filmmakers and a statement from the band written for the fim's premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. The Heavy Metal in Baghdad disc does a great job of fleshing out the movie. If only all documentary DVDs were this good.