People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, October 31, 2008
  DVD Review: Halloween
THE MOVIE

Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween is one of the more polarizing horror flicks in recent years. Just about every critic on the Internet (that I’ve come across at least) absolutely loathes the film, and Rotten Tomatoes says it has a freshness rating of 26%. So it’s not a stretch to say the 2007 version of Halloween was not a critical success. It did make a nice c'Oh, hey. Didn't see you there.'hunk of cash at the box office however (setting a new record for a Labor Day opening), but it’s hard to know if that’s due to people genuinely responding to the film, or the usual bored teenagers flocking to the new slasher film on opening weekend for lack of anything better to do. Either way, the film has a bit of a mixed legacy, which I find odd, because I think it’s a great horror movie that’s scary in ways most slasher flicks aren’t.

When I was in high school, I was a pretty serious metalhead. I wasn’t into weird Scandinavian church-burning “black metal” stuff, but I was pretty into ‘90s metal bands like Pantera and Sepultura and Helmet, but my favourite band, hands down, was White Zombie (also my first concert, so they hold a very special place in my heart). They weren’t the heaviest band out there by any means, but singer/songwriter Rob Zombie injected the group with a very specific aesthetic that I guess appealed to my 16-year-old, comic book-reading brain. The music was great but there was so much else going on. The band dressed crazily, more like a harder-edged grunge band than a metal act (most metal bands at the time subscribed to Metallica’s stripped-down, no-frills sense of fashion, which was chiefly defined by a total lack of interest in it), and their CD jackets were filled with amazingly detailed illustrations of cartoon demons and monsters and ‘40s-style pinup girls with devil horns (which I later learned were drawn by Zombie himself). A huge movie geek, White Zombie’s oeuvre is filled with references to movies (the band takes its name from the title of a 1932 Bela Lugosi film), with references to classic black and white horror movies from the early days of cinema, as well as more modern ‘60s and ‘70s schlock like
Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill!, Night of the Living Dead, The Omega Man (the 1971 Charlton Heston sci-fi flick based on the same story as I Am Legend, which is also the title of another White Zombie song), and probably the band’s signature song, ‘More Human Than Human,’ takes its title, as well as a few lyrics, from Blade Runner (probably my favourite movie). So Rob Zombie was sort of like the heavy metal Quentin Tarantino, and it set my teenage brain on fire all those years ago.

But like most great bands (“great” being a particularly subjective term in this case), White Zombie broke up after releasing a tiny number of proper albums (two), and while Rob Zombie released some solo albums that, sonically were not all that different, for some reason it just wasn’t the same to me. This could be because I grew out of his stuff, but I still listen to White Zombie somewhat regularly on my iPod, and I’m always surprised at how well it holds up. But one way or another, I found myself growing apart from Rob Zombie the musician. So when I heard he was making the jump to feature film directing with 2003’s horror flick House of 1,000 Corpses, my interest was piqued. Zombie directed all his own videos, and he had a real visual aesthetic that he brought to every aspect of his work, from album design to concert stages to t-shirts. He was obviously much more than just a musician, and I think this more visual approach to his band was one of the things that most attracted the teenaged me to his work (I used to draw a lot, and in high school my goal was to be a comics artist).


Unfortunately, House of 1,000 Corpses was a pretty big letdown, even with my lowered expectations of the film being set in a genre I didn’t much care for. It’s basically just a half-assed rip-off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, about a group of road-tripping teens in the ‘70s who stumble across a psychotic family in Middle of Nowhere America. Zombie’s lack of interest in the actual plot is palpable, and the movie feels more like a collection of ideas and visual gimmicks (it’s also chockablock with annoying ‘MTV-syle’ editing and crazy lighting and colours and angles, etc.) than a proper film.

Zombie followed House of 1,000 Corpses with a sequel, and a ballsy one at that: 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects is the rare sequel that actually totally switches genres from the movie that preceded it. Devil’s Rejects is an outlaw/road movie, following three of the villains from Corpses on the run from a vengeful sheriff operating above the law (the murderous Firefly clan killed his brother in the first movie, and he’s determined to hunt them down at any cost). The Devil’s Rejects the work of a filmmaker just hitting his stride, and seems to reinforce the impression that he only made a horror movie first because it was expected of him. At any rate, I think The Devil’s Rejects is a brilliant little film (though it’s not without its flaws), and it also features my all-time favourite opening credits sequence, set to the Allman Brothers Band’s ‘Midnight Rider.’ It’s also very violent, not just physically by psychologically, with one scene in particular, set in a motel room as the trio of antiheroes (played by Bill Moseley, Sid Haig and Zombie’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie) terrorize a vacationing family, among the most disturbing and genuinely intense sequences I’ve seen in a movie. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

Which, finally, brings us to Halloween, Zombie’s third film. Zombie is interviewed on a really cool feature-length documentary about the Halloween franchise called Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (produced, I believe, before he was attached to the remake, so he’s speaking purely as a fan), and he’s one of the funnier and more articulate people featured in 'Don't worry, it's cool. I just want to talk.'the film. So I knew going in that Zombie truly “got” John Carpenter’s 1978 original, and it made the overwhelmingly negative response to the 2007 version seem ever stranger to me. But as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the original Halloween – I think it’s the best slasher film, period, and it’s basically the first one, unless you want to count Psycho – I don’t share the devotion to the series that many others do; that aforementioned documentary taught me that Halloween fans are apparently as devoted as any Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter fans. I can only assume that most fans couldn’t get past the idea that Zombie had the gall to actually explore Michael Myers as a character rather than simply as a killing machine.

And that’s the crucial difference between the Carpenter original and Rob Zombie’s remake. The original opens with six-year-old Michael Myers killing his teenage sister on Halloween for no apparent reason, before cutting to 15 years later as he breaks out of the sanitarium he’s been in ever since to go on a rampage in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. It’s scary precisely because the Michael Myers kills without any seeming motivation whatsoever. It’s never explained why he killed his sister, or why he’s stalking Jamie Lee Curtis and her babysitter friends (it’s revealed in the sequel that Laurie Strode is actually Michael’s younger sister who was put up for adoption as a baby, a plot point Zombie includes in his film as part of Michael's motivation). He’s pure evil, killing for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Zombie’s remake takes a totally different approach, with the first half of the movie exploring Michael’s home life before he kills for the first time. This time he’s 10 when he’s locked up, and instead of just killing his sister he also kills her boyfriend and his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Giving Michael Myers a dysfunctional family was a plot point many took issue with, but Zombie’s Halloween doesn’t actually try to use that as an explanation for why Michael kills, establishing instead that he's simply a messed-up kid. Even his stripper mom (Sherri Moon Zombie) eschews the stereotypes; her Debra Myers is actually a loving mother who works a demeaning job to provide for her family.
Zombie’s movie isn’t really so much remake (though it is that, obviously) as it is a companion piece to the 1978 original. You don’t have to have seen it to appreciate the 2007 version, but Zombie’s film fills in a lot of the gaps in Carpenter’s; whether or not those gaps should have been filled is a matter of opinion. Zombie says on one of the extras that he typically prefers working on original stuff, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remake Halloween, and his version is very much Rob Zombie’s take on that classic film. But it’s also not meant to replace it for younger audiences, the way, say, the 2003 Texas Chainsaw remake or the upcoming revamp of Friday the 13th are. A lot of Zombie’s Halloween takes place in the spaces between scenes in Carpenter’s version, and it was a filmmaking choice that really worked for me. Why bother with essentially a shot-for-shot remake when the original is as good as it is?

The other big difference is the style of the horror. The original Halloween is, as I mentioned, very much the proto-slasher film, but Zombie isn’t interested in the usual crew of pretty teenagers getting slaughtered in innovative, over-the-top ways while the audience cheers (though to be fair, neither was Carpenter). The murders in his Halloween aren’t the kind that make people cheer and whoop at the screen, as most slasher movies do these days. When his Michael Myers kills people, it’s brutal and violent and very unsexy. People scream in agony and cry and beg for their lives, crawling pathetically down bloodied hallways while Myers stares at them from behind his mask, and it’s pretty damn scary. Zombie has also thankfully ditched the flashy camerawork that made House of 1,000 Corpses a chore to sit through. Halloween has an almost documentary feel to it, though the shaky, Bourne-esque handheld camerawork in some scenes may irritate some.

The film’s not perfect, however. It feels like Zombie’s trying a bit too hard to make Myers a sympathetic character – thought it’s worth mentioning that former pro wrestler Tyler Mane, most recognizable as the hulking Sabretooth from the first X-Men movie, actually manages to convey things despite his never saying a word and the viewer never seeing his face. Also, the film is really brutal, even for a pretty desensitized guy like myself. There’s a pretty rough rape scene in the sanitarium there that I still don’t really see the point of; apparently this was cut out of the theatrical release (which I never did see) and is the main difference between that and the unrated version on the DVD, and it probably should have stayed on the cutting-room floor. Also, almost every actor in this movie wears a ridiculously obvious wig at some point, and it ends up being a surprisingly distracting detail in some scenes (Malcolm McDowell, filling Donald Pleasence’s shoes as Dr. Loomis, gets saddled with a dreadful hippie wig near the beginning, and it looks totally ridiculous and stupid). And in terms of pacing, hardcore slasher fans may be bored by the amount of time Zombie takes moving the action back to Haddonfield on Halloween night; we’re not introduced to Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her babysitter friends until halfway through the movie.

Overall I was surprised how much I enjoyed Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake. It does some cool things in a genre that’s become pretty by-the-numbers in a lot of ways, and he’s clearly attempting to make a “real” movie more than a gory slasher flick to scam money out of teens’ wallets. A lot of thought and care went into this film, and I’ve seen it three times now, and I dig it more each time. It’s definitely not your usual horror movie, and certainly doesn’t make for campy, light viewing the way, say, House of Wax or the later Friday the 13th movies do, but it’s a nicely dark, violent little flick that I think has gotten an unfairly bad rap.

GRADE: B+

THE EXTRAS

Halloween was originally released on DVD as a two-disc special edition, and up until relatively recently, two-disc DVDs were pretty much as extravagant as special editions got. I assumed that edition was pretty comprehensive (I saw the movie but not the extras), so I was surprised when I learned of a three-disc set coming out. Turns out the first two discs are the same as the initial release, with a third disc bolted on. But that third disc has one of the most in-depth making-of documentaries I’ve ever seen. Clocking in at four-and-a-half hours (!), Michael Lives: The Making of Halloween was produced and directed by Rob Zombie himself. Initially I figured I’d just sort of skim through it – as much as I like the film, four-and-half-hours is a lot. But I watched it in pieces (it’s divided into 25-minute chunks, and those are in turn divided into shooting days), and it’s sort of half-documentary, half ultra-detailed video diary. It covers the entire production, from pre-production and casting through shooting, reshoots and even the score. It’s probably the most comprehensive making-of doc I’ve seen on a DVD. Whether or not Halloween deserves this level of detail is definitely debatable, but I found it surprisingly interesting. Granted, I’m a geek for this sort of stuff, but I felt like I actually came away from this thing with a better understanding of what it’s like to make a movie, having felt like I was actually on the set with Zombie and his cast and crew.

There’s also commentary on the film by Rob Zombie, and just like in the making-of documentary and the other extras, he’s far more thoughtful and articulate than one might think to look at him (or even read his name). At various points in the bonus features he mentions films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Blow-Up, so it’s not like he’s some dude raised exclusively on cheesy B- and C-grade genre movies. He’s smart and funny, and never once does the commentary drag, nor does he get too bogged down with boring minutiae about what day of the shoot they shot this scene.

Disc 2 is filled with more traditional extras, like a featurette on the props (particularly recreating Michael Myers’ iconic mask), the cast as well as the whole idea of remaking (excuse me, “reimagining”) Halloween. It’s all fine, and mostly better than the usual PR fluff. There’s also a ton of deleted scenes featuring whole characters cut from the movie, and one of the funniest blooper reels I’ve seen in a while, particularly the bits with McDowell and the wonderful Brad Dourif trying do complete a scene in a car.

The three-disc Halloween DVD is easily one of the most packed DVDs I’ve seen, and definitely the most loaded that I’ve reviewed for this blog. If anything there’s probably too much material here, but fans of this movie will be in heaven. Considering how often I’ve grumbled about a lack of decent features on some DVDs, I certainly can’t complain.


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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
  DVD Review: The Strangers
THE MOVIE

The Strangers isn’t really a horror movie, in the traditional sense. As someone (I think it was the DP or production designer) says on one of the extras, it’s more of a “terror movie” than a horror movie. Which sounds like a strange (and nitpicky) distinction, but it’s very accurate. The Strangers plays on very real fears most of us share, some rational (fear of violence against randomly-selected victims) and some not (fear of the dark). For the most part it’s an incredibly well-made film, and is often very effective in what it’s trying to do. But it ultimately loses steam before its bizarrely anticlimactic ending.

The Strangers is the feature film debut from writer-director Bryan Bertino, and I vaguely recall reading something about how it was one of those movies that languished on the studio’s shelf for months (maybe even years) before eventually getting a release. This is typically not a good sign, but in the case of The Strangers, I’m guessing it had more to do with the way in which the movie is decidedly not your typical teen-skewing slasher flick or another Saw-esque piece of torture porn. And in this day and age where the above two choices, along with J-horror remakes (though thankfully the latter seems to be dying off for the most part), seem to make up the vast majority of horror movies released here, I can see how a movie like The Strangers would seem like a tough sell to studio suits.


The simple plot follows a young couple, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), staying at the Hoyt family cottage, when in the middle of the night, a random girl knocks at the door, ostensibly looking for someone. Shortly after they turn her away, a trio of masked….strangers (sorry, couldn’t avoid it) begin terrorizing them, evidently for no reason other than because they were home.

The premise of The Strangers is the foundation of the film’s scares. Horror movies typically work best when the viewer can put themselves in the proverbial shoes of the characters onscreen (usually, but not always, the victims), and have the scares come from that. And very little is scarier than the idea of being the victim of a random, brutal crime. The Strangers gets a lot of mileage out of its concept, using atmosphere and psychological terror to instill fear in the audience rather than “gotcha” scares, violence and gore. James and Kristen (and the audience) rarely even see their tormentors, and the glimpses we catch of the masked figures standing silently in the darkness are genuinely terrifying. Bertino also uses sound very effectively; a lot of the movie’s scariest moments are when Kristen or James is stumbling through the house reacting to weird noises in the night. The Strangers is one of the most technically impressive horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and Bertino and his crew do an excellent job of building tension and continually upping the ante in the opening half of the movie.

Another thing The Strangers does better than most horror films is ground the main characters in an emotional reality that better allows the viewer to identify them. When we’re introduced to James and Kristen, they’re returning to the cottage after some sort of formal party (probably a wedding reception, but it’s never made totally clear), and it’s clear they haven’t spoken for the entire car ride. In the next several minutes, Bertino cleverly reveals – again, without the characters explicitly stating it – that James proposed to Kristen earlier that night, only to be rejected. The strained state of their relationship doesn’t really add much to the story on the surface, but that sort of small but important detail makes the characters far more relatable than your average slasher-movie fodder. I actually found myself so compelled by the story of this couple as their relationship hits a crossroads that I was almost disappointed when the masked psychopaths showed up.

But this same grounding ultimately worked against the film, if that makes any sense. The buildup works so well that, like a lot of movies with killer premises, the resolution sort of can’t help but be a bit of a letdown. And personally, I found that letdown to be pretty huge in The Strangers. I’m obviously not going to spoil anything (which will potentially make this part of the review frustratingly vague, so I apologize in advance), but about midway through the movie there was a somewhat major event, a clear turning point in the film, that sort of took me out of it, and things never really got back on track. By about halfway through the movie, I began to tire of the masked trio just sort of messing with the couple’s heads, coming in and out of the house to turn on record players and write stuff on windows and bathroom mirrors and so forth, and realized one of the film’s other big faults – because Speedman and Tyler are the only real victims, The Strangers has to spend a lot more time than most movies like this showing them being stalked and harassed, and it begins to get old after a while. In a more traditional horror flick like Friday the 13th or Halloween, the pace can be maintained with a few minor kills here and there, but The Strangers lacks that. While The Strangers is short – the extended ‘unrated’ cut is still under 90 minutes – it still manages to drag in places.

The resolution of The Strangers was the part that left me the coldest. Again, without giving anything away, I literally shouted to my TV (I live alone, so this happens a lot, unfortunately) “That’s it?!?! What was the point of all that?” To call it anticlimactic is an understatement, and while I appreciate Bertino’s attempt to end the film a bit of a question mark in the final scene (another slasher movie staple), it’s far too little and way too late.

Overall there’s much in The Strangers that works, and it works very well. I’m not a huge horror movie fan, but I could definitely appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Setting it in a remote cabin gives the movie a sense of being simultaneously claustrophobic and out in the open, and the tiny cast and intimate set makes it feel almost like a play in places. But the whole thing loses steam midway through, and the ending is a major letdown. Horror buffs will probably be able to look pass the film’s shortcomings, and if you’re looking for some Halloween night viewing, you could do much worse than The Strangers, a flawed yet fascinating little fright flick.

GRADE: C+

THE EXTRAS

There isn’t a whole lot of extras on the DVD for The Strangers. The disc features both the theatrical cut and an extended unrated version that runs a few minutes longer. The main feature is a brief making-of featurette that actually manages to cram a lot of information into under 10 minutes. There are also two short deleted scenes, both of which further develop the relationship between James and Kristen before things get crazy. They’re both nice little scenes, but with a film like The Strangers, I can understand the need to really get to the stuff people ostensibly paid to see as quickly as possible.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008
  Horror Movie Week
In the spirit of Halloween, it's Horror Movie Week this week here at the movie blog. I'll be looking at the chiller The Strangers tomorrow, and on Friday, I'll be celebrating Halloween with a look at Rob Zombie's Halloween remake, which was just re-released as a deluxe three-disc DVD set. Because two discs just aren't scary enough.

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Friday, October 24, 2008
  DVD Review: The Stone Angel
THE MOVIE

The Stone Angel is an adaptation of the novel by Canadian author
Margaret Laurence (a couple of her books, including The Stone Angel, are commonly studied in school up here). It’s a Canadian film, which is appropriate given Laurence’s iconic status in the field of Canadian literature, and played at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival to considerable hype. I’d expected to be bored silly by what I assumed would be a pretty standard chick flick – the story follows an old woman reflecting on her life in rural Manitoba, specifically in from the ‘40s through the ‘60s – but I found myself getting quite engaged by the film, and by the end, even moved.

The film stars Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn as Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old woman with a rickety relationship with her grown son (played by the excellent American character actor
Dylan Baker) and an even worse one with his wife (Sheila McCarthy). After a particularly nasty fight with him one night, she hops a bus out to the small Manitoba town where she grew up, and ends up spending the night in the burned-out ruins of her old home, her mind drifting back and forth from the present to the past. While Hagar is still whip-smart at her advanced age, she’s also showing signs of dementia, occasionally becoming confused about who she’s talking to or what year it is. It’s here that the film (and the novel as well, I assume; I’ve never read it) strikes an interesting balance between showing that Hagar is still as smart-alecky and stubborn as she was when she was young, but she’s in the final years of her life and her mind and body are well on their way to breaking down.

Hagar is shown to be headstrong and stubborn, as well as something of an iconoclast. Typically in movies this means she sass-talks everyone and is shown to be smarter than almost everyone and ultimately in the right (even if those around her don’t see it). But in The Stone Angel, Hagar’s personality brings her i
nto conflict with those closest to her (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). As a young woman, she alienates her widowed father by marrying a local rancher instead of trying to marry into high society like he planned; her marriage eventually breaks down; and throughout her older adult life her relationship with her two sons grows more and more strained. Hell, she’s even got a beef with the entire town – at the time of her father’s death, he still carried enough of a grudge against her that he leaves his considerable fortune to the entire town in his will rather than pass it on to her. Hagar’s is a lifetime of pushing peoples’ buttons – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – and The Stone Angel shows exactly how she pays the price for it.

The Stone Angel was directed by Canadian filmmaker
Kari Skogland, who bathes much of the film in a rich golden light. The Canadian Prairies have been captured brilliantly on film before – a lot of American westerns are filmed there, including the similarly gorgeous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ­– and Skogland and cinematorgrapher Bobby Bukowski photograph the landscape beautifully. Telling a story that’s constantly jumping across time can sometimes lead to confusing results (in The Stone Angel the story sometimes skips ahead a few years within what’s already technically a flashback), but Skogland manages to keep everything under control, and uses some nice transition techniques between time periods.

Skogland is also helped by a cast of uniformly good-to-great actors. Burstyn’s an Oscar winner and multiple nominee, and she does excellent work in The Stone Angel, with her performance ranging from heartbreaking to hilarious.
Cole Hauser is also great as Hagar’s husband, Bram. I’ve been a fan of his for years in the small roles he’s had in larger movies (he’s great as the shady bounty hunter butting heads with Vin Diesel in the sci-fi/horror flick Pitch Black, the first – and best – entry in Diesel’s aborted Riddick saga, and steals many a scene in The Break-Up as one of Vince Vaughn’s brothers), but this is the first time I’ve seen him in a role this large, and he’s quite good. He’s handsome enough that you can see how Hagar fell for him when she meets him at a local dance one night, but he has enough of an edge to him that when things begin to go wrong in their marriage – he’s as headstrong as she is, and cares even less than she does what the rest of society thinks – it’s not a complete shock. Ellen Page shows up to do some good work as well, though she’s really only in a couple of scenes (as the girlfriend of Hagar’s younger son), despite her prominence on the DVD cover.

The casting itself in The Stone Angel is very well done as well.
Christine Horne, who plays Hagar as a young woman, in addition to being a very good actress, looks remarkably like a young version of Ellen Burstyn. She invests young Hagar with an intelligence and fire (which makes her stand out even more in small-town Manitoba of the ‘40s and ‘50s than it would now) that Burstyn provides several glimpses of in her later years. And one very minor detail really impressed me (and less geeky viewers will probably not miss, but I caught it and it kind of blew my mind a little) – when Hagar visits her aging ex-husband, now in ill health because of his alcoholism, they replace Hauser with his real-life father, veteran character actor Wings Hauser. It’s a small touch, but that attention to detail really helps the continuity, and makes the world Skogland crafts seem all the more real.

My only real gripe with The Stone Angel is that it drags a bit in places, though that could be a bias on my part, as this isn’t really my type of movie, generally speaking. I went into this review pretty reluctantly, but I was pleasantly surprised that not only did The Stone Angel hold my attention, it actually sucked me in in relatively short order. It’s a good movie, and if this is the kind of movie that sounds like your thing, or you’re a fan of Margaret Laurence’s novel, definitely check it out.

GRADE: B

THE EXTRAS

The Stone Angel DVD has literally no extras, not even a trailer. It’s a shame really, as I for one am very interested in the process of adapting a work from one medium to another and the challenges that can present (especially for such a well-known book like The Stone Angel), so a featurette on that would have been nice. As it is, it’s the barest of bare-bones DVDs, which is too bad.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008
  DVD Review: Young People F***ing
THE MOVIE

Young People F***ing is a Canadian romantic comedy that puts me in a bit of an awkward position. See, it's good – really, really good – but it was also co-written by and co-stars a good buddy of mine I've known since high school,
Aaron Abrams, and the standout performance (in my opinion, at least) is from one of my oldest friends, Ennis Esmer. Now, I realize it pretty self-indulgent fThe Exesor me to even mention this, as if I'm trying to impress you with my film-industry connections (I’m not, believe me, as these two guys, talented as they are, are the sum total), but rather because I went to journalism school and believe in full disclosure, and if I'm about to go on at length about how great Young People F***ing is, I think you should know these facts. But something else you should know about me is that I am known among just about all of my friends as a bit of a jerk, largely (but not exclusively) because I'm notoriously bad at lying to people about things that it's culturally accepted we're all supposed to lie about. Which is really a roundabout way of saying that if Young People F***ing was actually a bad or even just mediocre movie, I'd say as much. But the thing is, it's the best romantic and/or sex comedy (it's a bit of both) I've seen, probably ever.

A quick note about the title: as I understand it, it was initially a working title of sorts, as Abrams and co-writer
Martin Gero (who also directed the movie) called it that because Young People F***ing is really what the movie is about, and they couldn’t think of anything better, but planned on changing it to something more appropriate down the line. But people (producers, distributors, etc.) seemed to like it, and it just sorta stuck. So while the title does obviously turn heads, it’s not a cynical, attention-grabbing sort of thing so much as it is just the filmmakers being frank about what their movie’s about.

Young People F***ing, released in America as simply Y.P.F., was the centre of a mini-controversy surrounding government film grants here in Canada. See, just about every Canadian movie gets some amount of public financing, and eventually some bureaucrat or pundit or anThe Roommatesother realized there was a movie called Young People F***ing that received some amount of tax dollars. The flap over Y.P.F. is due to the title (anyone renting it to see some cheap, softcore thrills will be sorely disappointed) and the very frank – and hilarious – way the characters talk about sex. It's very much like Kevin Smith's Clerks, which got all sorts of attention back in 1994 for being the first movie to get slapped with an NC-17 rating for language alone. While Y.P.F. does include some nudity in it, it's nothing more than you'll see in your average R-rated action or comedy flick. It's also the most genuinely adult (and I mean that as in "mature," not "euphemism for pornography") comedy about sex and relationships I've seen. Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-old Virgin, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all resonated with audiences largely (in my opinion, at least) because, at their core, they present relationships in a realistic way people can relate to. Y.P.F. is similar, except that it strips away the sillier plot points of more high-concept, mainstream Hollywood comedies to focus exclusively on the more realistic relationship stuff, with the more “out there” situations still taking place within the realm of reality.

The plot of Y.P.F. is simple, though the film’s construction is not. It follows four unrelated couples (and one threesome) – The Friends, The Couple, The Exes, The First Date and The Roommates (that's the threesome) over one night, with each encounter divided into Prelude, Foreplay, Sex, Interlude and Orgasm and Afterglow. If any of the couThe Friendsples know each other, it's not mentioned; Y.P.F. is essentially an anthology movie, but all the separate stories are so connected, thematically, that you'll hardly notice. Just about all the stories are relatable to most people in one way or another, whether it's the inherent awkwardness of a platonic friends finally consummating years of unrequited feelings or the...other kind of inherent awkwardness of a threesome between a guy, his girlfriend and his roommate he can barely stand. Each story is simultaneously hilarious and also filled with "oh wow, that totally happened to me” moments. (For me, different aspects of The Exes and The Couple hit close to home, but that's the sort of detail that's different for everyone, sort of like how five different people can take five different meanings from a song.)

Y.P.F. is the feature film debut of director Martin Gero, a veteran writer/producer on the Canadian-made cult sci-fi series Stargate: Atlantis. Obviously that show is a far cry from a decidedly grown-up sex comedy, and romantic comedies aren't really the greatest showcase for flashy filmmaking tricks, but Gero does a good job with Y.P.F. Considering he’s got 11 characters in four different stories, with each of those stories in turn divided into five parts, Y.P.F. easily could have gotten too confusing or complicated for its own good, but Gero keeps everything bopping along at a nice pace, staying with each story for enough time to keep the viewer engaged, but not so long as the other stories are forgotten. Gero co-wrote the screenplay with actor Abrams (the male half of The Friends), and the two of them show more genuine understanding of relationships than any movie I can recall seeing. Gero's described Y.P.F. as a sex comedy for people who've actually had sex, and I couldn't have put it better myself. This isn't a goofy sex comedy aimed at randy teens, or a romantic comedy where the romance isn't consummated until offscreen after the couple gets together in the final scene. And for all the attention the film’s received for its alleged crudeness – in addition to the aforementioned controversy here in Canada about public funding for the film industry, America’s MPAA also had their share of issues with the movie – Y.P.F. also packs some real heart to it, and also has a lot of relevant and genuinely interesting things to say about modern relationships and the differences between love and lust.

The cast of Y.P.F. does great work across the board. Everyone gets funny stuff to do, though some more than others – arguably the film’s funniest performance belongs to Esmer as Gord, the gluttonous instigator of the threesome (who – SPOILER ALERT – is really more of a cheerleader than an active participant),The Couple and
Peter Oldring is great as his almost-mute roommate, Dave. But overall this is a crop of very talented young actors all of whom have bright futures ahead of them if their performances here are any indication.

Young People F***ng is a movie about relationships aimed at people who've actually been in them themselves, and know how weird and awkward and sex and romance and all that other stuff actually be. None of the characters get exactly what they expected going into their respective couplings, and that's far more realistic than any amount of semen in Ben Stiller's hair. If you dig on romantic comedies and you’ve got a taste for ribald humour, Young People F***ing is about as good as it gets. Very highly recommended.

GRADE: A-

THE EXTRAS

The lone extra on the standard Young People F***ing DVD – at least the Canadian version – is audio commentary from Abrams and Gero. I believe the American DVD is strictly a bare-bones affair (that’s what
Amazon.ca is for), and I believe the Canadian Blu-Ray version has some other extras on it as well. Abrams and Gero are both extremely funny dudes, and they're a lot of fun to listen to, discussing everything from the ins and outs of production to great commentaries in DVD history. More extras on the standard DVD would have been nice, but overall the movie itself is good enough that it’s a minor gripe. Young People F***ing is a great little film that deserves your attention. Seek it out.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008
  Canadian Cinema Week
I'm trying something new for the next couple of weeks here at IRBWM (I don't think that acronym's gonna stick, but it was worth a shot): theme weeks. For the next two weeks – and possibly beyond – the DVD reviews here will share a theme.

This week is Canadian Cinema Week. We're starting off with an excellent little indie romantic comedy released as YPF in the U.S.A. (find out its more risqué Canadian title tomorrow), followed by the recent adaptation of legendary Canadian author Margaret Laurence's classic novel The Stone Angel, starring Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn.

Following that, to celebrate Halloween, I'll be doing Horror Movie Week, featuring reviews of new horror DVDs for the fright flick The Strangers as well as the three-disc set for Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween. Stay tuned, kids...

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Monday, October 20, 2008
  DVD Review: Doomsday
THE MOVIE

Doomsday is a lot of things. It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie. It’s a “virus outbreak” movie à la 28 Days Later or, I guess, Outbreak. It’s a zombie movie. It’s a medieval adventure movie. But mostly, Doomsday is totally awesome.


Doomsday follows an improbably gorgeous British special forces operative sent into near-future Scotland years after that country was walled off due to a viral outbreaHands off the ride, sportk. It seems the virus, believed to have been wiped out when Scotland was sealed off and everyone on the island died off (or so they thought!), has resurfaced in London. So it’s up to Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) to lead a team of British commandos into Scotland, now a lawless no man’s land populated by cannibals, to return with a live human, who will hopefully provide the key to finding a cure to the virus.

Your enjoyment of Doomsday relies entirely on what you think of the above plot description. If it sounds stupid to you, then yeah, it is. If it sounds like fun, buckle up and enjoy, because Doomsday
is one of the most fun B-movies to come along in years.

Doomsday is the third movie from writer-director
Neil Marshall, a British filmmaker who wears his love for cult genre movies on his sleeve. His first movie, Dog Soldiers, was a low-budget (even by British standards) action-horror movie about a group of soldiers on a training mission in the Scottish highlands who stumble across a pack of werewolves. It’s a fun, gory little flick that borrows liberally – and knowingly – from genre classics like Aliens and Assault on Precinct 13. Marshall followed that up with 2005’s The Descent, one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in years, about a group of women on a caving expedition who stumble across a pack of flesh-eating mutants. The Descent is a quantum leap forward from Dog Soldiers, ditching the earlier movie’s sly humour and self-awareness for an oppressive atmosphere and straight-ahead chills. It’s a genuinely brilliant horror movie that I recommend to anyone – particularly women – even those who normally aren’t into scary movies.

But with Doomsday, Marshall takes the slicker, bigger-budget feel of The Descent and fuses it with his knack for riffing on the movies that inspired him. The big influences on Doomsday
and Marshall admits it freelAWESOMEy on the commentary on the director’s cut and on the featurettes – are the Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, Walter Hill’s cult 1979 gang movie The Warriors and John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York. The latter happens to be one of my all-time favourite movies, so I made Escape From New York the first half of a double bill with Doomsday when I sat down to review it. Marshall borrows so lovingly from that film (not unlike Quentin Tarantino does in his movies), he even uses the same font for the opening credits, as well as a “London, 2035: NOW” title card that evokes Escape From New York’s famous “1997: NOW.” (The gangs of mohawked cannibals and their viciously crude weapons, as well as the entire climactic car chase across a dead plain, borrows just as liberally from The Road Warrior.)

Evoking awesome older movies is all well and good, but if the actual movie under discussion doesn’t hold up, then it’s all for nothing. Luckily Doomsday doesn’t disappoint. It’s an absolute blast from start to finish, from it’s insanely over-the-top violence (we don’t just take it on faith that the roving bands of maniacs are cannibals; Marshall shows them cook and eat one of Sinclair’s team members in shocking detail). Marshall not only gets why movies like Escape From New York and The Warriors and The Road Warrior and 28 Days Later are “cool” on a superficial level; any hack can dress up extras in tattered leather and football shoulder-pads, or set up a gladiator fight between the hero and a giant, menacing brute. He gets what makes them so enjoyable on a deeper level, and he’s clearly having a ton of fun riffing on not only post-apocalyptic action flicks, but in the later portion of the film when Sinclair tracks down Kane, the rogue scientist believed to be sitting on the cure (
Malcolm McDowell, picking the scenery out of his teeth), Doomsday becomes a medieval adventure movie. It seems Kane has set himself up as the head of his own little kingdom in a Middle Ages theme restaurant built into a real Scottish castle, surrounding himself with knights and archers. This allows Marshall to have his heroine swordfight her way thI'd consider allowing myself to be trapped in a post-apocalyptic hellscape if she came to rescue merough legions of armoured soldiers right before his Mad Max car chase at the climax, which is also pretty spectacular. A genre mash-up this ambitious could easily have been a total mess, but Marshall pulls it off and then some.

Doomsday though, is no Escape From New York. As fun as it is, Mitra lacks K
urt Russell’s dry wit as the iconic Snake Plissken (though Marshall does give her one eye for good measure). But saying she’s not as good as one of the greatest movie antiheroes of all time isn’t really that much of a knock; Mitra’s performance is a bit too grim and humourless, and if she allowed herself to have a bit more fun, it really could have elevated what’s already an insanely fun B-movie to a higher level. And of course, if everything I’ve described just sounds stupid to you, well, that’s probably what you’ll think of the movie – Doomsday is the kind of genre movie that isn’t trying to be any more than it is, and the downside to that is if you’re not on board for that, then I suspect there’s not much here for you. But if a hot chick fighting cannibals and knights in post-apocalyptic Scotland sounds like fun to you, Doomsday is an absolute riot.

GRADE: B+

THE EXTRAS

The Doomsday theatrical-cut DVD (which is the version I was sent to review, but I bought the unrated director’s cut, just because I dig the movie that much) has a nice little array of features, the only thing to miss the cut from the unrated version being commentary from writer-director Neil Marshall. There’s a cool making-of featurette called ‘Anatomy on the Brink,’ which covers the cast and crew and various aspects of production. The whole thing runs about 20 minutes, and gives enough detail to remain interesting, but is short enough to not drag. Everyone involved with the movie seems to be having a blast, which comes across in the final product, and Marshall and the crew mention movies like Escape From New York, Mad Max and The Warriors enough to convey how much of a love letter to those genre classics Doomsday really is.

Also included are shorter featurettes on the visual effects, from the CGI to the makeup effects used in the movie’s many gory action sequences (exploding bodies/heads, etc.), as well as a segment on the movie’s weapons, the awesomely high-tech, and brutally low-tech alike. On the surface it’s all pretty basic DVD-extra stuff, but it all gets across how much effort went into the movie, as well as the level of care and detail absent from a lot of bigger movies. Overall it’s a solid DVD package for a great little action flick.

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Friday, October 17, 2008
  DVD Review: The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration
THE MOVIE

This review will be a little different because, as you can see, I’m reviewing Paramount’s beautiful new DVD set of The Godfather. And as everyone knows, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel is, quite rightly, considered one of the greatest American films ever made, and it’s sequel is, again rightly, widely held as the greatest sequel of all time, and is regarded by many to be an improvement over the first (an opinion I happen to share). I really don’t think there’s much I could say about the first two Godfather films that haven’t been said. They’re both absolutely brilliant, staggeringly well-made, and everyone should see them.

What I am going to do is spend a little time talking about The Godfather Part III, the red-headed stepchild of the series. I hadn’t actually gotten around to seeing it until reviewing it for this set, and it was sort of the film I was most looking forward to watching as I went through the movies chronologically.

As far as I can tell, Godfather Part III was largely regarded as a failure (the prefix “colossal” being optional) when originally released in 1990, though I’m sure it made money – I was 11 at the time of its release, so forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong here, I’m writing from memory – based solely on the fact that it was a third Godfather movie. But in the years since its release, people seem to have warmed to it somewhat. It’s certainly not a bad movie by any stretch, and I think one of the reasons time has been kind to it in many peoples’ minds is that, on its release, there was almost no way it could live up to the original two in terms of quality, and I can’t imagine what the hype of a third Godfather film, coming almost two decades after Part II, had surrounding it when it opened. But I imagine that for film buffs it was similar to what geeks experienced when Star Wars: Episode I came out in 1997.

I realize I’m about to surrender a lot of my film-critic cred here, but the Star Wars prequel comparison kept popping into my head while watching Part III. In both cases the filmmaker returned to the series (“franchise” seems like too crass a word to use to refer to the first two Godfather movies) that made him famous, and in both cases said filmmaker fills the new work with ham-fisted references to the beloved earlier films in a transparent attempt to “recapture the magic” of the originals. And as much as I found the nearly-universal criticisms of Sofia Coppola’s performance in Part III to be absolutely bang-on (she’s so bad that she’s totally compelling), she’s certainly no Jar-Jar Binks.

As much as, on a purely personally level, the Star Wars prequels ignite enough nerd nostalgia in me (“nerdstalgia”? There’s no way someone else didn’t come up with that first) that I actually enjoy them. But I won’t defend them, because the sober film critic in me realizes that they are simply bad movies. Godfather III has some very good stuff in it: Andy Garcia’s performance, in which he fuses characteristics from Al Pacino’s Michael, James Caan’s Sonny and John Cazale’s Fredo, is almost enough to balance out Sofia Coppola’s awfulness (almost), and I thought the helicopter attack near the beginning was excellent. Again, nothing as good as the first two, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well-done. Watching The Godfather Part III with Coppola’s audio commentary helped put the film in context as well. The filmmaker recorded the commentary for the trilogy’s first DVD release in 2001, and as with most commentary tracks, the passage of time allows him to speak honestly and openly about what works and what doesn’t. The impression he gives about Part III was that he basically made it because he had to, financially. He was still recovering from his failed attempt to run his own movie studio, and took up Paramount’s standing offer to make a third Godfather movie, probably about as close to a sure thing as, well, three new Star Wars movies. But Coppola didn’t have the clout he did on Part II, and says Paramount was firm on making its Christmas release date – about six months before it really would have been ready, by the director’s estimation here. Basically Coppola explains the things he was going for, and is pretty frank about when he feels it doesn’t quite work as well as it could.

I also have to mention the quality of these DVDs. The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration features slightly longer cuts of the first two movies – I’m not enough of a geek for them to have noticed where the extra few minutes were added in – overseen by the director himself, as well as gorgeously restored picture and sound. They look incredible on standard DVD, and I can only imagine how fantastic the high-definition Blu-Ray versions look.

Overall, The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration comes with about as high a recommendation as I can offer. These are some of the best movies ever made, and they’ve literally never looked better. If you never got around to picking up the 2001 DVD set, then your wait was worth it. If you already have the 2001 DVDs, then this set is definitely worth the double-dip.

GRADE: Godfather, Godfather Part II: A+, Godfather Part III: B

THE EXTRAS

The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is one of probably the best DVD package I’ve seen since Warner’s five-disc Blade Runner set from last year. The films look amazing, and the extras are just about perfectly balanced. There’s a ton of fascinating material about the movies – Paramount was famously down on Coppola pretty much all the way through production on the original, to the point of having the replacement director they’d chosen on set in the event of Coppola’s seemingly inevitable firing. There’s two full discs of extras, one full of brand new material created for this release and one disc of bonus materials from the trilogy’s 2001 DVD release, which was already quite in-depth. (One weird detail I noticed – the disc art that says “All-New 2008 Supplements” and “2001 Archival Supplements” are actually reversed, which was pretty confusing at first.)

My favourite material, aside from Coppola’s excellent audio commentaries on all three movies, was the 2008 stuff. There’s a really cool featurette called ‘Godfather World,’ about the movies’ lasting appeal and cultural legacy, with interviews from all sorts of seemingly random people, including Alec Baldwin, Trey Parker of South Park and Guillermo del Toro, all of whom provide great Godfather-related anecdotes and observations. And Joe Mantegna referring to the original two movies as “the Italian Star Wars” is one of the best lines I’ve heard in a DVD featurette in a long time.


There’s another piece called ‘The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t,’ about the original film’s troubled production. It’s fascinating stuff, especially considering the movie’s legacy, and it’s fun to snicker at the Paramount execs in the ‘70s who tried to fight tooth and nail against Al Pacino’s casting. There’s also a featurette on the restoration process for these new DVDs, and a look at the post-production process, editing and so forth, on the movies. Also included is a set of four “short films” on The Godfather, none of which run more than a few minutes, and they’re all lots of fun, like famous fans of the films comparing the merits of the original versus Part II. All the extras strike a balance between serious examinations of these truly groundbreaking films and a more fun stuff, like Alec Baldwin likening The Godfather to a drug (“It takes away your free will. You’re going to watch it whether you planned on it or not.”).

The 2001 extras include some deleted scenes (some of which were included in the television version of Godfather Part II, which was longer), filmmaker bios and photo galleries, as well as a Corleone Family Tree. There’s also a collection of featurettes, some created for the 2001 DVD. The most in-depth and interesting one is a mini-documentary that seems to have been prepared for television to promote the theatrical release of The Godfather Part III, which includes interviews with just about the entire cast and crew of all three movies. There are also features on Coppola’s screenwriting process with original Godfather author Mario Puzo, cinematographer Gordon Willis and original storyboards, as well as a making-of featurette from 1974 about the success of the original movie.

Between the wealth of quality extras, Coppola’s genuinely compelling commentary tracks and the gorgeously restored picture and sound, The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is on the shortlist of candidates for best DVD release of 2008. This set has my highest possible recommendation.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
  DVD Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
THE MOVIE

I actually wrote about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back when it was released theatrically. It wasn't a proper review, but I'd just seen the film the previous weekend and I felt so strongly about it I just had to get my thoughts down. And when I say I felt strongly, I mean I hated it. It was just so...unnecessary. Not only did it come nowhere close to the quality of the first three Indiana Jones films, the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, had an ending that was clearly meant to wrap the series for good (he and his father literally ride off into the sunset, with the implication that both are now immortal). So just the fact that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford were willing to go back to the bullwhip and fedora well suggested, to me, that someone somewhere had a great idea for a fourth Indiana Jones adventure.

That very well may be possible. But if it is, that great idea managed to not get into the Crystal Skull script. I was initially pretty excited about the prospect of a fourth Indiana Jones movie. As much as I felt Last Crusade was a pretty perfect finale to the films, I figured Spielberg's involvement would keep Lucas' worst impulses at bay (I’m a Star Wars fan, so I have my share of bones to pick with that guy). I was wrong. I love the original Indiana Jones movies. Like most people my age, they occupy a special place in my heart. So I went into Crystal Skull with an open mind, wanting to enjoy it. It’s just that what’s on the screen is just weirdly limp and lifeless. Nothing crackles like it does in the original films. It feels like a feature-length, fan-made YouTube video, only they somehow managed to get Steven Spielberg to direct it and Harrison Ford to star in it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, and swapping the Nazi villains from the original films for Soviet agents (led by Cate Blanchett). Indy is kidnapped early on by the Russians, who force him to help them steal the mysterious titular crystal skull from Area 51. This brings up one of my chief problems with the movie, which is the laziness of the screenplay. I'm aware that the Indiana Jones movies traffic the fantastic – that's one of the reasons they're so much fun. But there's a world of difference between suspension of disbelief-type stuff like, say, the plausibility of Indy's escape from the temple at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the casually logic-free nature of Crystal Skull. For example, the plot makes much of the fact that crystal skull itself is highly magnetic; when it's introduced, it can attract metal objects from halfway across a huge warehouse while still sealed in a wooden crate. An hour or so later, its magnetism nullified by placing the skull in a burlap sack. This laziness is also found in the larger plot itself; pretty much the entire movie consists of the Soviets capturing Indy and friends, forcing him to help them find something or explain something (about half of Ford’s dialogue is plot exposition, a lot of it delivered to Blanchett at gunpoint), then he escapes in a big action sequence, only to be recaptured several minutes later in another big action sequence, at which point the Soviets once again force Indy to help them find something or explain something. This happens literally about three times in the movie, and the bulk of the film's bland, totally unthrilling action sequences take place in this escape/recapture/escape cycle. The film also hints early on that Blanchett's character, Soviet agent Irina Spalko (who talks suspiciously like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle), has some sort of extra-sensory powers, only to drop that whole concept midway through the movie without explanation.

As I said, I'm a Star Wars fan, so much so that I actually enjoy the prequel trilogy films to various degrees (though I won't try toVariations of this scene are repeated 3-4 times defend them as good movies; they just push the right combination of nostalgia and genre buttons to entertain me, but I realize, objectively speaking, that they are bad). And like most Star Wars fans, I have long since come to terms with the fact that George Lucas is in fact a talentless hack. He wrote and directed all three prequel films, but after the original 1977 Star Wars, he wisely contracted out the screenwriting and directing duties to others (something he should have done for Episodes I through III). But dating back to the ill-advised "Special Edition” re-releases of the original trilogy, before he took such a hands-on approach to the new Star Wars movies, it became obvious to me and millions of others that somehow Lucas had managed to completely misunderstand exactly what it was about the original films that made people love them. We liked the tactile, real-world model effects of the first movies, but Lucas couldn't wait to replace as many of the wonderful, charming practical effects of the original films with as much CGI as he could fit into the frame. Sure, that alien makeup is cool, but isn't it cooler if there's four or five little CGI robots buzzing around in the background? No, George. It's not.

Where I'm going with this Star Wars­-related digression is, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie that has George Lucas' fingerprints all over it. And he still doesn't appear to grasp what it was about the original Indiana Jones movies that really resonated with audiences. Sure, Steven Spielberg is the director, and, to my mind, he shares a good portion of the blame for the movie's ultimate suckitude. But Spielberg has shown himself as an incredible craftsman and technician, even if the films themselves have been less than spectacular (I think War of the Worlds has some really wonderful filmmaking in it, but I don't care much for the movie as a whole), but even he can't shine through Lucas' mess of CGI gophers and surprisingly mediocre green-screen effects. I'm not usually the type to rail against CGI effects for their own sake, but Crystal Skull is the first Indiana Jones movie with computer-generated effects in it, and it just feels wrong. Indiana Jones shouldn't have computer effects, or if it does, they should at least look natural, and not cartoony and obvious like they are here.

One issue I did not have with the movie that I sort of expected to was Ford's age. He looks fine in Crystal Skull, but the script seems sort of self-conscious about it, with characters (usually Indy himself) stopping every few minutes to offer some quip or another about how he's getting too old for this stuff, etc. And the film's set in 1957, so it's not like Spielberg and Lucas are pretending he's still young.

The only actor who really acquits himself well here is Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf's an actor I still feel like I should dislike for some reason, but he's been utterly charming in every movie I've seen him in, and he's quite good here as Indy's wannabe tough-guy son. The ending sets up the possibility of LaBeouf's character officially joining the family business, a'I think I've found the script. It's...not good.'nd as much as I disliked Crystal Skull, if his character does indeed take over the franchise, it could still be good.

The rest of the supporting cast is a mixed bag. I think it’s fantastic they got Karen Allen back to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood from Raiders – as Indy himself says here, none of the love interests from the subsequent films came close to matching her – and her banter with Ford, while not as great as in the first movie, gives the film a genuine energy and humour while the rest of the script's attempts at comedy generally fall flat. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are both top-shelf character actors who unfortunately don’t get much to do other than mug for the camera. Winstone’s character turns on Indy so many times the concept of the sidekick-turned-villain loses any meaning at the movie’s halfway point, and John Hurt literally just wanders around dazed, getting on the nerves of the other characters – and the viewers. But worst of all, Spielberg, screenwriter David Koepp and Lucas (I'm throwing him in there too, just because) actually manage the feat of drawing the first poor performance out of Cate Blanchett I've ever seen. If there was an emoticon for sarcastic applause, I'd put it here.

Everyone involved is doing their damndest to make Crystal Skull feel like an Indiana Jones movie, and superficially, they're largely successful. But the original films were enjoyable for reasons beyond the stunts and chases and ancient temples, and that intangible thing that makes them great is entirely absent from Crystal Skull, leaving it feeling cynical and put on. It seems like Ford, Spielberg and Lucas are just going through the motions here, and it's really too bad. I honestly wanted to like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I really did. But this movie's just running on nostalgia fumes, and it's just not the same.

GRADE: C-

THE EXTRAS

Lucky for me Steven Spielberg doesn't do audio commentary, thus saving me from having to watch this a second time (though I'd be pretty interested in hearing him describe what it was like to direct Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett to pretend she's being swarmed by CGI monkeys). The rest of the two-disc Crystal Skull DVD is filled with bonus features outlining virtually every aspect of production, from the seed of the idea for another kick at the Indiana Jones can 10-plus years ago (Spielberg mentions an older idea involving flying saucers, only to feel the idea was trumped when Independence Day came out) all the way through post-production. It’s pretty in-depth and detailed, and I found quite interesting despite my feelings about the finished movie.

The real meat of the making-of stuff is the 12-part ‘Production Diary’ mini-documentary, which follows production from the first day of filming through the last. There are also separate featurettes on the visual effects and music, the creation of the actual crystal skull props, the makeup process, a nice little tribute the cast and crew to salute their hard work, and most importantly, the creation of iconic props like Indy’s hat and whip. None are long enough to overstay their welcome, and some are more interesting than others. There’s also standard stuff like a collection of trailers and still photos, as well as a playable Xbox 360 demo for the recent Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures game. And rounding out disc 2 is a set of pre-visualization animatics of some of the movie’s big action sequences.

The coolest extras were on disc 1. ‘The Return of a Legend’ is a nice little look at the legacy of the films and the character himself. For fans of the franchise, it’s good stuff. There’s also a featurette on pre-production, which covers all the interesting aspects of the production, like the genesis of the story (fun to watch, considering how weak the film actually is), and the mechanics of getting the original cast and crew back together. It’s here that Spielberg admits that he was the final holdout, which would explain many of my issues with the sort of half-assed nature of the finished product.

I must say I was pretty pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Crystal Skull DVD, even if the film itself is kinda sucky. The picture and sound quality on the film itself is excellent, and the two-disc DVD comes loaded with features, in keeping with Paramount's solid previous Indiana Jones DVD releases. Too bad the film itself in this case isn’t really worth it.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008
  DVD Review: Sex and the City
THE MOVIE

Not too long ago, I reviewed The Hills: Season 3 DVD set, and in that review I mentioned that, going in, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to get through the entire season, let alone in one day, as I challenged myself to do. Turns out I did (read the results here), and as far away as I am from popular MTV reality show's target audience, The Hills ended up drawing me in. So given the fact that I'd made it through an entire season of The Hills, when I received the deluxe two-disc DVD of Sex and the City: The Movie, I figured this review would be child's play. After all, if I could make it through 20-plus episodes of possibly the most vapiThe girls are back! And I'm using exclamation points!d show in a genre of television known for its vapidity (in one day, it bears repeating), two-plus hours of an actual narrative film would be a walk in the proverbial park. Boy, was I wrong.

I'm going to go ahead and assume right now that none of you reading this has, in fact, been living under a rock for the past decade and change, so you already know what Sex and the City is and what it's all about. Four women in New York City have sex and talk about it, and go shopping for shoes and dresses designed by apparently very important people, almost none of whom I've heard of. Even more so than with The Hills, I am pretty much the exact opposite of the show's – and now the movie's – target demographic, a fact I kept in mind during the entire review process. Even still, Sex and the City: The Movie, despite that post-colon declaration, barely qualifies as such.

The film picks up a few years after the end of the HBO series with two of the ladies married, and the other two in long-term, committed relationships. The plot – which matters in this film about as much as in your average kung fu movie – involves Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) marrying Mr. Big (Chris Noth), except things don't go smoothly, and they spend most of the movie apart until they eventually reconcile in standard romantic comedy fashion. But as I said, Sex and the City is not the sort of movie where the plot is important. This movie is all about the characters and what they're wearing. In one of the extras on disc 2, the movie's costume designer (I think), a woman with fuchsia hair and a face like a shrunken apple, describes the Sex and the City movie as a big, indulgent dessert to follow the meal that was the show. It's a very apt comparison, as I felt like an outsider while trying to watch it; I could never shake the feeling that there were lots of references throughout that I wasn't picking up on (a fact confirmed by writer-director Michael Patrick King on the commentary track). And when it was done, I felt a little sick.

Sex and the City is clearly intended to be a gift to fans of the show, a sort of going-away present from the cast and crew to fans. Which is great, on one level: it means that if you are a fan of the show, you will almost certainly enjoy this movie (and the more you love the show, the more you'll love the film). But on the other hand, it means that if you're not familiar with the Sex and the City brand, this film literally offers nothing. For me, it was two-and-a-half hours (seriously!) of aging, proudly superficial women talking about sex and clothing designers I'm not familiar with. A review I read when the movie was released theatrically likened it to the female equivalent of a big, brainless, testosterone-driven action movie – it's all sensational thrills (often in the form of fancy dresses) with no regard for plot, characters or narrative. It's a pretty accurate comparison, only the fictional "male" version of Sex and the City would be two-and-a-half hours of pure, over-the-top violence (we're talking graphically-exploding heads, motorcycles being ridden atop of moving trains, people fighting while jumping from one helicopter to another and a body count in the triple digits), with a 10-minute montage of topless Hooters waitresses on trampolines thrown in for good measure.

The other thing I feel compelled to mention is Jennifer Hudson's role as Louise, Carrie's assistant. The character was introduced, as King himself says on the commentary, for the express purpose of addressing the criticism that the series was far too white for a show set in New York City (a charge leveled against similarly all-white, NYC-set sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends). And while I guess King's heart is in the right place, if he really wanted to show black people in a positive light, he probably shouldn't have made the first black character in Sex and the City Carrie's assistant; I was pretty uncomfortable with Hudson's character spending her relatively brief time in the film fetching Carrie's lattes, sorting through her e-mails and fixing up her website for her. Couple that with the fact that her character's role in the plot is basically just to help "fix" Carrie's life cuts a little too close to the "magical negro" stereotype, and it almost makes things worse than if they hadn't included her at all.

But all of my problems with Sex and the City are pretty much academic. Most of this film's target audience has probably already bought the DVD and watched it repeatedly. And for all my issues with the film's lackOh Samantha, you cad! of interest in telling a coherent, stand-alone story (there's a montage of Carrie modeling different wedding dresses that goes on so long it's basically a music video embedded in the movie), I can't say it's a poorly made film from a technical standpoint. Michael Patrick King, a veteran of the series, is a competent enough filmmaker, though his script was remarkably unfunny, filled with bizarrely sophomoric humour (he mentions on the commentary that in a scene in an auction, he desperately wanted Samantha's paddle number to be "69," a joke Beavis and Butthead would find clever; thankfully the auction house said no). It's well-shot, and all the costumes and shoes are lovingly photographed – I’m sure it’s wonderful eye candy if you’re into this sort of stuff. But personally, when I sit down to watch a film, I'm looking for more something with more depth than your average shampoo commercial. Even moreso than with The Hills, my grade reflects only my opinion, and if the Sex and the City movie sounds like it may be your cup of tea, by all means, enjoy. I'll be waiting for something with a little more substance. Or at least some kung fu.

GRADE: D+

THE EXTRAS

The two-disc Sex and the City DVD comes with a fair assortment of extras, including the hot new gimmick of DVD extras, the “digital copy,” allowing you to take a legal version of the movie with you on your computer. There's a segment in which writer-director Michael Patrick King interviews star Sarah Jessica Parker about the film, as well as a featurette on the costumes and shoes (no movie in history probably has put more emphasis on costumes and shoes). Both are frothy, fun and interesting to people who are into that sort of thing, I'm sure, but I don't know a Choo from a Blahnik, so it's all the same to me (again, the action-movie comparison came to mind while watching this; it reminded me of the gun-porn special features on many action movie DVDs focusing on weapons). There are also a few deleted scenes, but given that this is the extended version of the film, there aren't many (thankfully; this thing is already almost as long as There Will Be Blood). And there's a brief featurette on Fergie working on the soundtrack.

There's also audio commentary from King on the entire movie, and it was here that I gained a little more appreciation for the film itself. King knows what he's doing, and as much as I may not care for this movie or his strangely crude sense of humour (he seems to think a scene in which a character literally poops her pants is high comedy), he has a very clear understanding of the characters, the show, and most importantly, the fanbase, and it shows. The movie, I learned through King's commentary, is filled with little references to beloved episodes, and the affection he has for the characters and the actresses who play them comes across.

Overall, Sex and the City: The Movie is a treat for fans of the show, and the deluxe DVD has plenty of material for them to enjoy.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008
  DVD Review: Run Fat Boy Run
THE MOVIE

It probably won’t come as a surprise to regular readers to learn that I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies. And it’s not because I’m an unsentimental bastard with a heart of stone (well, maybe it’s a little of that), but rather because I find that, more than any other genre, romantic comedies adhere to a very strict formula, even when they’re pretending not to. Now, I’m very much a genre-movie guy (granted, more traditional geek genres like sci-fi, action, crime, etc.), so I understand the importance of tropes to any genre, but I find most romantic comedies so predictable that they barely hold my attention.

But Run Fat Boy Run was supposed to be different. It was co-written by and stars the great Simon Pegg, one of the geniuses behind the brilliant movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, as well as the wonderful British sitcom Spaced (which just came out on DVD here in North America; seek it out immediately). And as much as the zombie angle of Shaun of the Dead gets most of the attention, when you break the plot down it’s really a romantic comedy, something even the filmmakers acknowledged, dubbing it a romantic zombie comedy, or “rom-zom-com.” But sadly here Pegg’s presence, while elevating Run Fat Boy Run above the worst of the genre, doesn’t give the movie the boost it needs to be anything above average.

The movie opens with the wedding of Dennis (Pegg) and his pregnant fiancée, Libby (Thandie Newton), in a low-key, at-home ceremony. But Dennis gets cold feet, jumping out a bedroom window and literally running away from his wife-to-be and unborn child as fast as his legs will carry him. Cut to five years later and Dennis is an out-of-shape security guard at a small women’s boutique in London. He still sees Libby on occasion when he picks up their young son as part of their shared-custody arrangement, which is where Dennis is introduced to the new guy in Libby’s life, Whit (Hank Azaria). Azaria’s great as that old rom-com staple, The New Boyfriend. At first I was encouraged by how much of a dick he wasn’t; the film does a great job, at the beginning, of quietly hinting at his jerk-like qualities, making the odd aside about Dennis’ dead-end job (Whit’s a successful hedge fund manager, or something), but he seems at first like a perfectly nice guy who will give Libby the life that Dennis feels she deserves – and that he can’t provide.

After a reasonably strong start, Run Fat Boy Run goes from promising to unfortunately generic. Whit, as it happens, runs marathons regularly, and in a great example of logic that exists only in movies, Dennis decides that he’ll prove his worth to Libby by running a marathon himself, despite the fact that he’s a paunchy chain-smoker who can’t run a block without getting winded. But given that Dennis left his pregnant fiancée at the altar, one of the most awful, humiliating things he could have done without breaking any laws, the idea that he thinks he can mend that fence by running 42k is more than a bit ridiculous. And as much as the movie does try to acknowledge this (somewhat weakly), I personally couldn’t get past Dennis’ cowardly, awful behaviour at the opening of the film, so I found it hard to sympathize with him at all, no matter how hard the movie tried to convince me that he’s not actually a bad guy.

Run Fat Boy Run was directed by former Friend David Schwimmer, and while he’s a competent enough filmmaker, he lets his sitcom roots show a bit too much. The screenplay was originally written b'Whoa, wait a sec. This marathon is HOW long?'y comic Michael Ian Black, veteran of cult sketch comedy shows The State and Stella, and Pegg rewrote it, relocating the film from its original setting of New York City to London. The State and Stella both feature absurd, out-there comedy (what little I’ve seen of both is a bit too consciously strange even for my tastes), and Pegg is, as I’ve mentioned, a freaking genius, so I was stunned by how pedestrian the jokes in Run Fat Boy Run were. As much as romantic comedies aren’t my thing, I could have forgiven a lot if the comedy bits were actually funny. I had a few chuckles at some of the smaller, more subtle jokes, but Schwimmer’s take on the material was too broad for my tastes, particularly one incongruous gross-out gag (which I won’t spoil) that sticks out like a sore thumb, as if someone edited in a discarded joke from an American Pie or Harold and Kumar movie. Couple this with a groan-inducingly clichéd climax, and it adds up to a missed opportunity to make a nicely unconventional romantic comedy.

As the final credits rolled, I was ready to dismiss Run Fat Boy Run as a misfire. It wasn’t poorly made, but I didn’t laugh very much, I never once bought into the romance, and the plot contrivances were hokey to the point of being laughable. But then something occurred to me. At a previous job, part of my duties included reviewing records, and we had a bizarre mandate to only say nice things, which meant I often found myself having to pen glowing reviews of Britney Spears or Enrique Iglesias albums, regardless of what I actually thought of them. I had to try to find merit in stuff I personally didn’t enjoy. I had to try to access a headspace in which a person could genuinely dig a Good Charlotte or Toby Keith song. I had to understand how, even if I didn’t like something, someone else might (I’ve long held that just about any movie, no matter how bad, is probably someone’s favourite). I’m opinionated about movies, and part of that, to me, means respecting other peoples’ opinions as well. And when Run Fat Boy Run was over, my first thought was, “My parents would probably love this movie.” So as much as Run Fat Boy Run wasn’t my cup of tea (and my grade reflects that), it may very well be yours.

GRADE: C

EXTRAS

The commentary track on Run Fat Boy Run features Schwimmer, Newton, Pegg and Pegg’s mom. At first I thought it was a joke, but nope, Gill Pegg is there. I think she barely utters four words during the course of the film, and seems to be just sitting there in the background doing something else. But what’s advertised as a quirky, fun commentary thing jusPegg learns about the storied pain-gain relationshipt becomes weird in a way I can’t quite articulate (did she just not have anything better to do that day?). Beyond that, the commentary track is surprisingly dull, considering there are at least two genuinely funny people on it; Pegg is charming and warm, but Schwimmer seems to take the film a bit too seriously for his own good, and Newton barely says anything except to fawn over the child actor who plays her son.

There’s also a collection of deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary by Schwimmer – he’s even more sleep-inducing by himself – that add nothing. There’s a gag reel that’s kind of amusing, as well as a weird little practical joke thing (Newton swapped Pegg’s water bottles at a press junket for vodka), and the usual assortment of trailers.


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