People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, September 26, 2008
  Wake up to Sleeper Cell
As the fall TV season dawns, one of the medium’s biggest shows, both in terms of audience and “buzz,” is 24, which, as fans know, won’t actually be returning with new episodes until early next year. Now, I don’t watch 24, but I did enjoy the first two seasons on DVD before I heard that my suspicions about its unique premise not being able to sustain itself evidently came true in season three, and I haven’t been interested in the adventures of Jack Bauer since. But I am big fan of Battlestar Galactica, which is also gone until 2009, so I can sympathize with 24 fans having to wait until the new year to get their fix. If you’re a 24 devotee and in need of a fix of some taut terrorist-fighting action, allow me to recommend a little-seen show (at least by my estimation; I can count on one finger the number of people I know who’ve even heard of it) that covers similar ground but is so much better than 24 it makes the Fox hit look like Cop Rock in comparison. I’m talking about Sleeper Cell: American Terror.

The show follows a black Muslim FBI agent who goes undercover in a terrorist cell operating in Los Angeles. By making the lead character a devout Muslim, Sleeper Cell can get into the debate going on within Islam between the mainstream of decent, peace-loving people like you or I and the extremists who use violence and terrorism as tools in their perceived holy war against the West. Sleeper Cell treats Islam with a great deal of respect, going to great lengths to tear down as many stereotypes as possible – in the first season, more than half the terrorists in the cell are white, one of them a blond-haired, blue-eyed American boy who converted to radical Islam to rankle his liberal parents – and even going so far as to make many of the terrorists the viewer can relate to in some way or another. And the hook of having the hero undercover gives the show ready-made tension, as he lives in a constant state of paranoia about his cover being blown – think The Departed by way of 24.

As with any great show, the thing that drew me in to Sleeper Cell were the characters. To say that the hero, Darwyn Al-Sayeed (
Michael Ealy, who’s getting a lot of positive attention in Spike Lee’s new World War II film, Miracle at St. Anna) is conflicted is a huge understatement. He struggles to reconcile his faith with the fact that he works for the American government, but he’s driven by his disgust for what the extremists and terrorists are doing in the name of Islam. (“How can a true Muslim work for the Americans?” a terrorist demands after Darwyn takes him down. “I don’t work for the Americans,” he replies. “I am an American.”) One of the greatest accomplishments of the show is that it never feels like Darwyn’s religion is a gimmick or tool to tell the story, but rather it’s just a part of his character. He looks to his faith for support when his life gets hard – and his life gets pretty hard in 18 episodes – but it’s effective because there’s so much more to the character than just his religious beliefs.

The other cast standout is
Oded Fehr as the series’ villain, Faris al-Farik. Fehr’s a great character actor probably most recognizable for his roles in less-than-great popcorn franchises like the first two Mummy movies and the Resident Evil series, but he’s a talented actor with loads of charisma. And his charisma is exactly what makes Farik so terrifying; I feel like if I were left in a room with his snake-like terror-cell leader for an hour, there’s a decent chance he’d be able to convince me to strap on an explosive vest to strike a blow against the American infidels. And I’m an atheist.

Sleeper Cell lasted just two seasons on Showtime before the cable network decided against picking it up, but I’m happy to report that the ending of the second season does work as proper ending to the show. (As brilliant as HBO’s Deadwood is, the last episode of the final season was clearly just meant to be a season finale and not a series finale, which ultimately left me feeling unfulfilled by an otherwise incredible TV show, which is why I personally give The Wire the edge as the
best show ever, because it has a definitive and satisfying ending.) And like HBO’s stuff, Showtime means Sleeper Cell is filled with swearing and nudity. Not that a show needs that stuff to be great, but it does lend the show a gritty realism that the more comic book-y 24 will never come close to, no matter how many nukes are detonated in Los Angeles. If you’re looking for a fix until the return of Jack Bauer, check out Sleeper Cell. You won’t be disappointed.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008
  DVD Review: The Promotion

I had no idea what to expect going in to The Promotion, which is really how I wish I could go into just about every movie I see, as I find it makes the viewing experience purer somehow. (Alas, in this age of the Internet and thanks to my own addiction to movie-news websites, this almost never happens anymore.) I’d seen the trailer, but aside from the basic premise, I knew nothing. And by the time the credits rolled, I’d been pleasantly surprised by this endearing workplace comedy.

The Promotion is about Doug Stauber (Seann William Scott), the assistant manager at a suburban Chicago outlet of a fictional chain of grocery stores called Donaldson’s. He’s growing increasingly dissatisfied with his lot in life, and when he learns of a new location being built nearby, he puts his name in as a candidate for manager of the new store, thinking the new authority will net him some newfound self-respect. His boss tells him he’s a “shoo-in” for the new position, until Richard Welhner, (John C. Reilly), an assistant manager from a store in Quebec, transfers to Chicago with an eye on the new manager’s job himself. In the meantime, Richard is placed in Doug’s store, where the two men begin a workplace rivalry that eventually escalates into all-out war as they each try to screw the other one over for the job.

If for nothing other than the fact that writer-director Steven Conrad mines the workplace for comedy, The Promotion is vaguely reminiscent of Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space, not to mention TV’s The Office (The Promotion also co-stars The Office’s Jenna Fischer as Doug’s patient wife), but it’s really quite a different movie. Office Space had a dark heart of very real anger at its core (as does Judge’s follow-up, the little-seen Idiocracy, one of the angriest comedies I’ve ever seen), however silly the proceedings were on the surface. But while The Promotion does take many swipes at the ridiculousness of corporate life, even at the retail level, Conrad’s overall take on humanity is much, much brighter than Judge’s. Conrad, who penned the screenplay for the feel-good Will Smith hit The Pursuit of Happyness, treats the main characters with affection, even at their most ridiculous, and it gives The Promotion a warmth that Office Space lacks. (I, however, am a mean-spirited, curmudgeonly bastard, so I still prefer Office Space.)

All that said, The Promotion still made me laugh quite a bit. As much as John C. Reilly is a truly great actor, he’s also proven himself in the last several years to be a talented comic actor as well, and his Richard Welhner is simultaneously totally ridiculous and also a very real guy who just wants to provide for his wife and child. He listens to self-help tapes (literally; he carries around an old-school cassette walkman) that feature classic rock meant to inspire him, such as ‘Fly Like An Eagle,’ and Conrad assembles some nice, clever little montages of him strolling confidently down the streets of Chicago with his silly headphones while Steve Miller croons. Reilly also does a strange “Canadian accent” that somehow manages to be funny and sound somewhat familiar to a Canadian like myself without actually being accurate; I’ve never heard a Canadian who talks like this, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t funny.

But the movie ultimately rests on the shoulders of Sean William Scott as Doug. He’s the straight man to Reilly’s wacky Canuck, which is typically the more thankless role. I actually really like Scott despite my hatred for the AAlas, the two men couldn't resolve their differences with a staring contestmerican Pie franchise, where he made his name as the irritating frat-boy archetype Stifler (his chemistry with The Rock is great in The Rundown, one of the better action movies of the past decade). Here he’s the complete opposite, a soft-spoken, passive guy who’s quietly wondering where his life went so wrong. After all, few people dream of being an assistant manager at a grocery store in their early 30s. He still gets a lot of funny stuff to do, and his relationship with Fischer is both sweet and funny, particularly anything involving the couple’s neighbours, a gay, banjo-playing couple never seen but heard through their thin apartment walls. All Doug wants is to be able to provide for his family, a motivation just about anyone can relate to.

The notion that all both of these men wants is to be the breadwinner for their respective broods is what gives The Promotion its emotional core, and it’s also what keeps either character from devolving into a cartoonishly evil asshole. But it’s also the thing I took issue with the most; there’s something archaic about the notion that men should provide for their families, and while the movie makes it clear that both guys are a little backward in this regard – Doug’s wife genuinely loves him, regardless of where he works or how much he’s getting paid, a fact he can’t seem to grasp – the film still felt a little too quick to justify the characters’ bad behaviour because the ends justify the means. It’s a minor gripe, and I do give Conrad credit for crafting a satisfying ending (which I will not spoil) that resolves all the conflicts set up in the film.

As Conrad himself notes on the commentary, the film is basically about the nobility of people who toil away in thankless jobs we don’t particularly like, or sometimes even hate, for reasons larger than ourselves. And while a message like that coming from a guy who makes his scratch writing and directing movies in Hollywood runs the risk of coming across condescending, it’s not. As much as it was marketed as a zany comedy about psychological warfare at the workplace (and it is that, to an extent), The Promotion is really about the sacrifices we all make in our professional lives in order to find some kind of personal fulfillment. It’s a fun little comedy with heart that’s worth a rental.



The Promotion DVD has a decent collection of extras, lead by commentary by writer-director Steven Conrad and producers Jessika Borsiczky Goyer and Steven A. Jones. Goyer and Jones mostly discuss nuts-and-bolts details of shooting on location in Chicago, from issues involving finding an empty grocery store to shoot in to dealing with a set reeking of spoiling meat, while Conrad primarily discusses the movie itself and the characters. For a guy who wrote and directed a pretty funny comedy, Conrad is very soft-spoken and sober, and it’s clear he took the material more seriously than one would expect. He talks about treating the characters with respect (rightly gushing over his lead actors in the process) and trying tDon't let the ice cream and young child fool you; this is waro ride that line between making a funny movie without reducing anyone – particularly Reilly’s character – into a buffoonish caricature. He also discusses the film’s small scale, swapping stories with the producers about various corners being cut, almost none of which come across in the movie, so good on them for that. And his story about Dimension Films boss Bob Weinstein agreeing to fork over the cash needed to get the rights to the classic rock tunes featured in the film on the condition that Conrad do some script work on another, unnamed Dimension film gave me some insight into how Hollywood works (up until then I just assumed everyone just slept with everyone else for work; I guess it’s true that you learn something new every day). It’s a solid, if unspectacular, commentary track.

The other main extra is a featurette on the making of the film. It’s pretty standard making-of stuff, with clips of the cast and crew talking about how great everyone else is to work with. I happen to find these sorts of things interesting when the film itself is interesting, and I liked The Promotion well enough that it held my attention for its brief running time.

Also included are a handful of deleted scenes, and as is typically the case, some are interesting, some aren’t. The “outtakes” listed on the back of the DVD are really just an extended outtake of a single scene that apparently Seann William Scott and his co-stars just couldn’t get through without laughing. I guess you had to be there.

There are also some “webisodes” created to promote the film online, also pretty hit-and-miss, though the one in which Conrad recorded a phone call from Scott in which the actor, evidently jealous that Reilly will be doing his “Canadian accent,” pitches him on doing an accent of his own. It’s pretty funny stuff, if only because I was never really clear if Scott was joking or not (Conrad alludes to him being a bit eccentric in his commentary). Overall The Promotion is a solid comedy tailor-made to find its audience on DVD.

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Monday, September 22, 2008
  Green Hornet gets a director
The Hollywood Reporter is, um, reporting that Stephen Chow has signed on to direct the long-rumoured Green Hornet film. It's been known for a while now that Seth Rogen will write the screenplay and star in the title role, and everyone involved has been saying for months that Chow was their ideal choice to play the masked crimefighter's sidekick, Kato (a role made famous by Bruce Lee in the original TV series). Chow’s a massively successful filmmaker in Hong Kong with a long string of box office hits, mostly action-comedies, under his belt there.

I'm very excited by this news. Chow's a great director and the more involved he is in this project the better. His Shaolin Soccer is one of my favourite sports movies ever (the Hong Kong version, not the hacked-down American version; thankfully both are included on the North American DVD), and Kung Fu Hustle is the closest thing I’ve seen to a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. I haven’t yet seen his latest, the E.T. riff CJ7, largely because I haven’t heard too many good things about it.

I assume that between Rogen’s script and Chow’s direction, The Green Hornet will blend action and comedy like both guys’ best films do (read all about my love for Rogen’s genre-bending Pineapple Express here), and I think at this point in the evolution of superhero movies it’s a good time to start having some fun with the conventions of the genre, something Hancock proved this summer can be quite lucrative. If The Green Hornet was just another straight-ahead action flick about a guy in a mask beating up thugs without bringing much new to the table, I think audiences have seen plenty of that. But with two talented and funny guys like this behind it, I think the chances of The Green Hornet being something special just increased about tenfold.

The news that Chow will make his American directorial debut with The Green Hornet has put the movie on the fast-track for a June 25, 2010 release. (Also, purely for Stephen Chow fans, the Hollywood Reporter article mentions that Chow is currently in the midst of production on Kung Fu Hustle 2. I. Can’t. Wait.)

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Friday, September 12, 2008
  Iron Man 2 talk
The Internet is afire today with talk of Iron Man 2. Director Jon Favreau’s been doing press to promote the upcoming DVD of Iron Man (out on Sept. 30). Favs (I’ve never met him, but I’ve watched most or all of his audio commentaries, so I feel comfortable calling him that) says he was impressed with Christopher Nolan’s use of IMAX technology in The Dark KnightDowney and Favreau on the set, and is open to similarly doing sequences in IMAX and even in IMAX 3D.

While he’s clearly just speculating here (though I’m sure “Iron Man 2 in IMAX and 3D?” headlines are really helping a lot of movie-news sites generate traffic), I think Favreau should tread carefully when it comes to using 3D for just some sequences in the film. I’ve been quite impressed with the IMAX 3D stuff I’ve seen – Beowulf was incredible in 3D and I saw a Tom Hanks-narrated documentary about the moon landing that was pretty cool – but those were films made specifically for IMAX 3D presentation. I also saw a partially-in-3D version of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, and it was an underwhelming moviegoing experience. How it worked was, certain sequences in the movie were enhanced (seemingly at the last minute; the whole thing reeked of having been hurriedly thrown together a few weeks before release to generate some more buzz) for 3D, and when they started, a little 3D-glasses icon appeared at the bottom of the screen telling the audience to put on their glasses – which we were otherwise just holding in our laps the entire time, though I did notice a few people just left them on for most or all of the movie. The problem with this (well, one of them) is that it completely took me out of the movie. I spent the whole time glancing at the bottom of the screen every few minutes to see if I was supposed to put my glasses on. (“Now? No? Okay. Wait…now? Hang on a sec, why did I need to see him lift a big rock in 3D? This movie f***ing sucks,” etc.)

Not helping matters was the fact that the actual 3D stuff looked pretty weak, presumably because of the last-second nature of it. I’d been following the movie’s decade-long trip to the screen just like most comic geeks (though I've never really been much of a Superman fan), and not until a few weeks before it’s theatrical release did I hear anything about the filmmakers planning to do anything with IMAX technology, which, as I understand it, is quite complicated to use and very different from tradition'How much did I rule in Iron Man?' asks Jeff Bridges. 'This much.'al film equipment. One of the main reasons the IMAX stuff worked in The Dark Knight is that Nolan decided before he started filming that he would use the actual IMAX cameras to shoot those scenes, and set them up accordingly; when regular film stock is just blown up on the giant IMAX screen, it tends to look kind of blurry, but the tradeoff is that you get to watch something like 300 on a movie screen the approximate size of a city block.

Now that I’ve gotten that digression about IMAX and Superman Returns out of my system: Iron Man 2. Favreau also apparently met recently with star Robert Downey Jr. and actor/screenwriter Justin Theroux, who co-wrote Downey’s other big hit this summer, Tropic Thunder (check out my review here), to discuss ideas for the next two movies in the planned Iron Man trilogy. And Favreau says he’s interested in making his Iron Man films work as one big, cohesive story, likening it to the Lord of the Rings movies or even a season of a serialized TV show. Between this and the talk that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk will eventually lead to an Avengers film (which would also include classic Marvel heroes Captain America and Thor), I really couldn’t be more excited for the future of not only the Iron Man franchise, but this larger “Marvel Universe” cinematic world they seem to be building.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008
  My TIFF Not-So-Diary
The Toronto International Film Festival is now in full swing, which means, for me, the annual ritual of kicking myself for not going to see enough (usually this means “any”) movies when one of the world’s biggest film festivals is happening in my hometown. This year I did manage to see JCVD (read my gushing review here), which was my first official TIFF screening – I went to some parties in years past, and saw an unofficial cast-and-crew screening of an excellent movie made by a good buddy of mine called Young People F**king that showed at last year’s TIFF just before the festival opened. But usually I spend a week and a half feeling like a movie-geek poseur because I never seem to be able to make time for any TIFF movies (attending a non-gala screening isn’t really that big of a hassle, but it is more involved than going to see a movie at a regular theatre, and I am notoriously lazy).

While waiting in line to see JCVD, I overheard a couple talking about a friend of theirs who waited in line for six hours to see something. I wish there was anything in the world I wanted so badly I’d be willing to wait in line for six hours for it, but I can’t think of anything that fits that bill right now. And as the smaller, often foreign cult movies that at one time you could ONLY see at a film festival get released on DVD worldwide, I find I can usually see almost anything playing at TIFF (or Cannes or Venice for that matter) within a year, tops, either theatrically or on DVD (my region-free DVD player also helps). I have a whole shelf of DVDs of crazy Japanese movies that, 10 years ago, I would have had to troll “underground” video stores to rent bootleg VHS copies of, but now they’re readily available at most big retailers.

But all that said, every year there’s a handful of movies I almost consider quitting my job to go to see, and given that this year I have a blog, I will tell you about them.

The Wrestler
I’m on record as saying I think Darren Aronofsky is one of the most fiercely talented directors out there right now, and I’ve been reading about this drama about a washed-up pro wrestler for months. I used to be a pretty serious wrestling fan back in the day, and I’m fascinated by the real lives these guys live and the toll it takes (an oftentimes genuinely messed-up existence unfortunately highlighted by the Chris Benoit incident), and I also love Mickey Rourke. It’s always nice when it appears that a film I’ve been interested in for a while turns out to be great, and the buzz around The Wrestler is really starting to build, even Oscar talk for Rourke. The film was just picked up by Fox Searchlight, so hopefully we’ll get a trailer and a release date soon – presumably by the end of the year if they want to capitalize on the Oscar speculation.

Steven Soderbergh is probably my favourite director, period (I sometimes get goosebumps just thinking about how brilliant The Limey is), and his four-hour, biopic of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara (screened in two parts, à la Kill Bill) obviously sounds pretty ambitious, but it stars Benicio Del Toro, whose last collaboration with Soderbergh, Traffic, landed them both Oscars, so my hopes are high (I’m also quite tolerant of my favourite filmmakers’ more self-indulgent stuff – I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia) with this one. Che is also the TIFF movie I’m most likely to kick myself for not seeing, as last I heard it still hadn’t been picked up by a distributor, and as a four-hour biopic about a Cuban revolutionary, it’s sort of a tough sell to wider audiences, so it’s still up in the air as to what form this movie will take when it’s eventually released widely. Hopefully one way or another Soderbergh’s full-length version will see the light of day on DVD at least. I know I’ll buy it the day it’s released.

UPDATE: Variety is reporting that IFC Films has picked up Che and will release it in its four-hour form (with an intermission) in New York and L.A. for a week before the end of the year to qualify for the Oscars, and then release the film early next year in two parts, The Argentine (Part 1) and The Guerilla (Part 2). Huzzah!

Ashes of Time Redux
Years before Ang Lee blew the doors off the
wuxia genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wong Kar Wai, king of the Hong Kong arthouse scene, took a stab at it with 1994’s Ashes of Time, his only martial arts film. Wong’s fusion of lyrical, cerebral filmmaking and traditional swordplay movies was pretty much ignored critically and commercially, despite its cast of Hong Kong cinema all-stars. I managed to track down a blurry VHS copy in my student days, and I was impressed with it then (it’s virtually impossible to find on DVD except in similarly cruddy quality, and there are apparently several different versions floating around out there), so I was particularly excited when I learned Wong was remastering the film and re-scoring it (with the help of Yo-Yo Ma, no less). I’m not sure when and how this film will eventually be released here in North America, but whenever and however it happens, I’ll be there with bells on. If the new version is half as good as I remember the original being, it’ll be great.

There’s a bunch of bigger movies playing at this year’s festival I’m dying to see that are due for regular theatrical releases in before the year’s out, like the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, the Ed Harris-directed Western Appaloosa and Borat director Larry Charles’ documentary on religion with Bill Maher, Religulous, all of which I have high expectations for.

I couldn’t get to all the movies I wanted to see this year, but I did manage to see one of the films I really wanted to see. Which is one more than I’ve seen at TIFF before, really, so that one’s going into the “win” column.

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Friday, September 5, 2008
  TIFF Review: JCVD
I mananged to catch Jean-Claude Van Damme's new film, JCVD, at a Midnight Madness screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I'm still trying to process the fact that not only does Jean-Claude Van Damme have movie on the festival circuit (it also played at Cannes a few months ago), he has a great movie on the festival circuit.

In the early ‘90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the hottest action stars on the planet, combining good looks and impressive karate skills into a nicely marketable package, and his willingness to show off his physique helped him win over a lot of female fans. He made a string of hit action movies before fading into direct-to-video obscurity as “real” actors like Nicolas Cage became the new action superstars. JCVD is Van Damme’s attempt at reinventing himself after a decade in the straight-to-video wilderness, a satirical, brutally honest examination of himself and his career. And not only is it successful, I think it may be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

I should mention that I was a pretty big fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme back in his early-‘90s heyday. I was in my early teens and just hitting my stride as a movie geek, devouring as many films as I could. Granted, most of these were schlocky action and horror and sci-fi flicks, but those summers I spent basically just watching movies with my best friend were very much my formative years as a movie lover. Action was my preferred genre, and Van Damme was one of my favourite action stars. Sure, his accent made pretty much all his dialogue awkward (and often unintentionally funny), and I’m certainly not going to sit here and argue that movies like Kickboxer and Double Impact are quality films by any stretch of the imagination (though Hard Target, John Woo’s first American movie, is a wonderfully over-the-top action flick, and I still think it’s Woo’s best Hollywood effort), but Van Damme had an easy charm about him that contemporaries like Steven Segal lacked, and I never got the feeling he took himself all that seriously. As ridiculous and violent (and ridiculously violent) as his movies were, they were also just fun.

JCVD builds on that sense that Van Damme doesn’t take himself too seriously and launches it into an insane stratosphere of meta-humour and viciously funny self-satire the likes of which I’ve never seen. Sure, celebrities have parodied themselves plenty of times before, but never like this. It’s one thing for George Clooney to have some fun with his ladies-man image, but it’s another entirely for Van Damme to mine his child-custody battles and history of drug problems and failed relationships for comedic and dramatic fodder.

JCVD stars Van Damme as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, a fading action star on the cusp of losing custody of his daughter in a legal battle that his work in low-rent action flicks can’t quite pay for. He returns to his home country of Belgium (where he’s still considered a huge star bordering on national treasure) only to find out that if he doesn’t get his L.A. attorneys a big chunk of cash, they’ll drop his case. He stops by a post office-slash-bank to try to wire some money (which he doesn’t have) to his lawyers, and ends up walking into a robbery in progress, complete with bickering thieves and terrified hostages. The robbers try to turn Van Damme’s presence to their advantage, using him as a spokesman for their demands to the police, and before long the word’s gotten out that the Muscles from Brussels is holding up a bank, and a full-on media circus ensues.

I have a huge weakness for meta-humour as well as for celebrities poking fun at themselves, and JCVD has plenty of both. Except here Van Damme isn’t just poking fun at himself, he’s taking long, deep gouges. But as funny as the movie is – and it’s absolutely hilarious in parts, and unlike a lot of his previous films, it’s funny on purpose – there’s a real sadness at the heart of the JCVD character. He’s entirely motivated by his fear of losing his daughter, and at 47, his weathered face and perpetually-exhausted expression convey a surprising amount of emotion. Which brings me to the real revelation of JCVD, which is that Jean-Claude Van Damme can actually act. At first I thought maybe his shockingly good performance was due in part to the fact that for the first time he’s acting in his native language, but he’s just as good in the L.A.-set scenes, which are in English. But the real highlight is a truly remarkable five-minute monologue that Van Damme delivers to the camera that basically encapsulates JCVD’s themes of celebrity and fame and the price people pay to achieve their dreams, and what they do once they’ve achieved them.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how well-made JCVD is. French director Mabrouk El Mechri is incredibly talented, and Van Damme’s never been in a movie that looked this good. El Mechri fills JCVD with cleverly composed shots, and the opening sequence, an elaborate, single-take action sequence that runs several minutes long, is incredible. If he builds on the potential he displays in JCVD, he could turn into one of France’s more interesting filmmakers.

I have an unfortunate tendency to build up movies I’m anticipating up in my head, and often they don’t live up to my brain-hype. As a lapsed Van Damme fan – I haven’t seen anything he’s done since 1998’s abysmal Knock Off – I’d been reading about JCVD for over a year now, and I had fairly high expectations going in. Not only was I not disappointed, I was floored.


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Wednesday, September 3, 2008
  DVD Review: The Hills: Season 3

The Hills is a very strange show, at least it is to me. I normally consider myself pretty plugged-in to pop culture, and have been pretty much all my life (it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized how it was sort of odd that I was voraciously reading Entertainment Weekly in junior high), so when something approaching a genuine “pop culture phenomenon” takes flight and I’ve never even heard of it before, it makes me feel a little bit weird (and a lot old)One assumes that Heidi, on the right, was Photoshopped in after the fact. The Hills is one of those things. It feels like one day I woke up and found myself a cultural leper because I didn’t know who Lauren Conrad wa

Lauren Conrad is, apparently, a girl who, when she was in high school on a popular MTV high school reality show called Laguna Beach, decided she wanted to work in the fa
shion industry, and I guess because she was on a popular MTV reality show called Laguna Beach, she got a job in the fashion industry. When high school was over, so was Laguna Beach, but Lauren was pretty so she got her own show called The Hills, which follows her life and the lives of her other friends Audrina and Whitney and, in one case, former best friend, Heidi, who is now her nemesis (Lauren's sort of like a superhero that way).

Reviewing The Hills: Season 3 was, aside from a couple of minutes I caught here and there while channel surfing, my first exposure to the show. In fairness, I am aware that I’m really not in the show’s target demographic; I’m a 29-year-old straight guy who doesn’t happen to find skinny, vapid blonde girls attractive, which means on paper The Hills should offer me nothing of value. And while jokingly lamenting to friends and colleagues that I was tasked with reviewing this DVD set, I decided to try to make it some sort of contest with myself: could I withstand watching a full season of The Hills in one day? The answer, I’m vaguely ashamed to say, is yes I did, and I was sort of amazed at how compelling the show actually is.

If the premise of The Hills goes beyond “pretty girls go to clubs, and occasionally work,” it’s lost on me, because that’s all anyone did for 28 episodes. Lauren starts the season working for Teen Vogue, along with her friend/superior (I think; this is never really made clear) Whitney. She also has an apartment with Audrina (who works as a receptionist at a record label), and they both used to be friends with Heidi (who works at an event-planning company), but things went sour when she started dating Spencer (who has apparently spun being a loathsome human being into a full-time gig). The show is basically just watching these people interact with one another and the drama/hilarity that ensues. (The secret brilliance of most MTV reality shows is that what you get out of it is left almost entirely up to you.)

The people on The Hills are young, rich and beautiful, the sorts of people many of the rest of us wish we could be. But at some points in the show, the "drama" hints at something deeper. Watching a scene in which the newly-engaged Heidi and Spencer engage in psychological battle (he "surprised" her by painting a graffiti mural on their apartment wall and putting classic arcade-game cabinets in their dining room; she "surprises" him by painting over it a week later), it seemed like there was a subtext there about how even though these people are rich and pretty and (I guess) famous, they're not necessarily any happier than you or I. I mean sure, flying around on private jets and living in glamorous apartments and going to trendy L.A. clubs every night looks like fun, but if at the end of the day your fiancé doesn't treat you with simple human respect, how much does that other stuff really mean? But as much fun as it is to read that much into this show, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't just plain evil fun to watch Heidi's parents exchange knowing glances (The Hills is a show that elevates shots of knowing glances and meaningful looks into an art) over their soon-to-be son-in-law. Their disapproval is wonderfully palpable.

Halfway through the season, the aforementioned Heidi vs. Spencer psychological battle escalates into all-out war as their wedding day approaches. The jerk inside me that unapologetically finds entertainment in the unhappiness of awful people found himself pinned to his seat as the acid of their mutual dislike and lack of respect for each other as people ate away at their engagement. But the part of me that has faith in humanity wondered what it means that this show is so popular and that Heidi and Spencer have been embraced as the barrel-scraping gossip-rag version of Brangelina.

There’s been a lot of discussion online about just how real this reality show is. I certainly don’t remember the last time I saw a reality show, at least in this post-Survivor age, in which the producers try so hard to conceal the camera crew; at this point in the evolution of reality TV, we’re all pretty accustomed to seeing the fourth wall being broken with some regularity, but on The Hills, everyone is trSo pretty! So glamorous!ying really hard to make it seem like you’re just watching these peoples’ lives as they happen, which actually makes it seem more put-on. And there are simply too many coincidental encounters for any reasonable person’s B.S. detector not to go off; there are WAY too many clubs and bars in L.A. for Lauren’s posse and Heidi to keep running into each other by chance. But two pretty young blondes trying to shout at each other without spilling their beverages does make for some pretty compelling television, I will give The Hills that.

Lots of behind-the-back sniping and the occasional face-to-face confrontation are essentially what the show’s all about. And as I found myself getting more and more drawn into it as the 20-minute episodes breezed by, it dawned on me that that’s one of the reasons (if not the reason) that The Hills resonates with people: most of us bitch about each other behind our backs. Every office, classroom and group of friends I’ve had, through my whole life, has had this dynamic to one degree or another, whether it's students or coworkers bonding over the mutual dislike of a hated teacher or boss, or friends discussing their disapproval of someone else’s new boyfriend or girlfriend, everyone does this stuff to some extent, and hey, apparently so do rich, pretty people. And if a guy like me can watch an entire season of this show in one day without going on a killing spree while frothing at the mouth (I considered this a possibility going into my little experiment), then I guess that says something. Maybe The Hills isn’t just another sign of our cultural decline. Maybe it’s just fun guilty-pleasure television. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.

GRADE: C (though it could also be an A or an F depending on one’s perspective...The Hills very much defies traditional reviews, hence my selecting the most middle-ground grade I could think of.)


There’s a nice collection of extras on this four-disc set, though one of the alleged bonus features, something called ‘Fashion: The Life’ seems to just be an MTV web series about people in the fashion industry that has nothing to do with The Hills, so that hardly counts. Lauren, Audrina and Whitney give commentary on a 25-minute reel of scenes from all over the season, and their observations are about as worthwhile as you’d imagine. (“I really like your hair,” Audrina says to Lauren midway through one scene. “Thanks,” is Lauren’s reply. Fascinating.) Watching these girls talk about the show as they watch it somehow manages to be even more insipid than the actual show. It’s kind of a feat.

Heidi does commentary on a shorter collection of Heidi-centric scenes, only her track is actually kind of awkward. The show clearly demonizes her pretty much any time she’s on the screen (except when she just comes across as pathetic), and her commentary mostly quiet and vaguely defensive. “People don’t understand our relationship,” she offers during one particularly painful scene with Spencer.

There’s also a collection of deleted scenes that really don’t add anything, but there’s a little mini-story told across several short clips in which Audrina, who’s allergic to cats, takes Lauren’s cat to a groomer without her knowledge, and Lauren is none too pleased when her roommate shows up one day with her cat shaved like a poodle.

Rounding out the extras is a series of interviews with the cast members. No hints are given for the fourth season, which just started, and they never spend more than two minutes discussing anything – much like The Hills itself.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008
  DVD Review: Finishing the Game

Finishing the Game is a mockumentary about the efforts to find what was essentially a body double for Bruce Lee in order to complete his final film, Game of Death. It’s a brilliant premise for a spoof documentary, because aside from the fact that everything that happens in the film is fake (events, characters, etc.), the actual story it’s kinda-sorta unofficially based on is actually 100% true.

Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious to this day, and I won’t bore you with the details of the various conspiracy theories; if you’re interested, just Google “Bruce Lee Death” and I’m sure you’ll get dozens of dozens of theories (thanks, Internet!). The point is, he died, and when he passed he left 12 minutes or so of footage he’d completed for what was to be his masterpiece, The Game of Death. (For some reason the version Lee was crafting has a “The” in front of the title, but the version that was eventually released does not. Go figure.) Now, I’m a Bruce Lee fan – if you look closely at the photo of me to the right, you can see that I’m wearing a t-shirt bearing his image – and I find Game of Death fascinating, because it’s easily one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen.

There’s a really excellent mini-documentary about Lee and his plans for The Game of Death on Warner’s great two-disc Enter the Dragon DVD from a few years back that actually includes information taken from Lee’s personal notebooks and even has all the finished film that he shot before he died. The film, which Lee was directing himself, was to be his masterpiece, a showcase for not only his incredible physical talents but also his personal philosophies on the martial arts and life in general. He shot the footage in question, less than 15 minutes of which were usable (martial arts movies have lots and lots of outtakes, as you’d imagine), before halting production when he got the call to make Enter the Dragon, his first big American film. Lee intended to return to Game when Enter finished production, but in between wrapping shooting and its release, Lee died, which helped make Enter the Dragon a worldwide hit, and cemented Lee as a true international superstar, if posthumously.

After Lee’s death, someone secured the rights to the Game of Death footage, which is still some of the most iconic of his career (think yellow jumpsuit and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), picked a stand-in who looked nothing like Lee who also couldn’t act or fight, and unleashed what is now Game of Death. The result is pretty much unwatchable, 80-plus minutes of the stand-in running through a crappy (even by the low standards of the time) kung fu movie, climaxing in What You All Paid To See: some actual Bruce Lee footage. Game of Death is pretty fun to watch, however, if only to marvel at how the filmmakers find increasingly ridiculous ways to conceal the double’s face (the character wears disguises several times, and at one point even has plastic surgery so he gets to spend a few scenes running around in bandages), only to turn around a scene later and clearly show the guy’s face (he doesn’t even look a bit like Bruce Lee; he’s just Asian).

This brings us to Finishing the Game, a film that’s clearly a labour of love for director Justin Lin, who shot it on a budget of pretty much nil using several cast and crew from his previous films. Lin debuted in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow, a smart and stylish little movie about Asian-American overachievers in a suburban California high school whose combination of boredom and system-beating smarts leads them into drugs and crime. He also made The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third (and, for my money, the best) entry in one of my favourite guilty-pleasure franchises. Lin’s a skilled filmmaker, and I respect his attempts to break stereotypes of Asian-Americans, particularly in Better Luck Tomorrow.

Finishing the Game is comedic change of pace for Lin, and he handles the fake-documentary subgenre quite well, never once “cheating” the format to show footage that no real documentary crew would ever get (the cardinal sin of any mockumentary). The premise is a film crew is following the casting process to find Lee’s replacement for the fictional B-movie studio that has the rights to his Game of Death footage. The main guys the crew follows include Breeze Loo, a cocky personification of the scores of Bruce Lee clones that sprang up after his death (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, etc.), who makes low-rent kung fu movies and assumes he’s got the part locked down; Cole Kim, a dull but good-natured lunk raised with heartland values; Tarrick Tyler, an Asian-American activist whose Aryan looks belie his half-Asian heritage; and Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street fame), a once-popular actor trying to reclaim his glory days as a sidekick on a short-lived cop show.

I was surprised at how engaged I was with the characters in Finishing the Game, particularly Troy and Cole; outside of mockumentary master Christopher Guest, few entries in the genre bother with creating well-rounded characters. Make no mistake, Finishing the Game isn’t as good as Guest’s movies, but Lin never makes easy jokes at the characters’ expense (except maybe Breeze). Sung Kang is one of my favourite things in both Better Luck Tomorrow and Tokyo Drift, and in both films he plays cool, brooding characters, but here he does a complete 180 as a starry-eyed Midwestern rube just excited about maybe being in a movie, but his relationship with his manager/girlfriend (Monique Curnen) grounds the character and gives his arc an emotional centre. Nguyen also deserves credit for giving Poon a quiet dignity, even as he sells vacuum cleaners door to door to make ends meet, waving to fans who recognize him from his TV past. I can only assume Nguyen drew heavily on his own experiences post-21 Jump Street, where he went from being a co-star on one of the hottest shows on TV to small roles on shows like JAG and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Lin also uses Poon’s storyline to make a few points about racism in Hollywood; take away the polyester suits, goofy wigs and ridiculous mustache/sideburns combos, and some of the cringe-inducing conversations between the film’s clueless movie execs likely still go on in studio boardrooms today.

My main issue with Finishing the Game was that for a comedy, I didn’t really laugh all that hard. Much of the film is funny, but it’s more to do with the overall silliness of the situation, which has to be based at least somewhat in fact – surely when they cast Lee’s actual replacement/stand-in for Game of Death, there was a similarly absurd casting process (the funniest character and performance in the whole movie belongs to Meredith Scott Lynn, who is brilliant as, appropriately enough, the woefully misguided casting director). The film, as I mentioned, is a passion project for Lin, his cast and his crew, and it really comes through the screen, giving Finishing the Game a sense of fun and heart that many big-budget comedies lack. While I may not have belly-laughed a ton of times the way, say, Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder made me, I had a big grin on my face for most of its running time. I appreciated it more just as a movie than as a comedy, which keeps me from giving it a higher grade, but fans of mockumentaries, Bruce Lee, or Hollywood satires will find lots to enjoy in Finishing the Game.


The Finishing the Game DVD doesn’t have a lot on it, but it’s thankfully pretty free of filler. There’s a commentary track with Lin, co-writer Josh Diamond and music composer Bryan Tyler. The three are good friends that have been working together for a while, giving the track and nice and relaxed vibe as they share stories and insights into the filmmaking process. Also, they marvel at one point that people like me actually review commentary tracks. Guys, if you’re reading this, you did a good job.

There’s also a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Lin, many of which are actually quite funny. Two entire subplots were cut, one of which was the story of a guy who would have been the perfect Bruce Lee replacement – only he gets sidetracked in Mexico with two other celebrity impersonators, and never makes it into the States. Also included is a music video from the soundtrack, and a brief behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the cast and crew goofing around while shooting.
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A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.

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