People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, November 28, 2008
  DVD Review: A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All

I love The Colbert Report, and I’ve been a fan of Stephen Colbert since he was a Daily Show correspondent (his tête-à-têtes with fellow mock pundit Steve Carrell, “Even Steph/ven,” were pure genius). On rare occasions when I miss an episode of The Colbert Report (usually when my PVR acts up, which it does from time to time) I become irrationally angry. So when I heard about his hour-long holiday special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All, I was more than excited. But when I saw the list of performers – Toby Keith, Feist, Elvis Costello, John Legend and Willie Nelson – I realized they were all friends of the show, so I assumed the special was basically just a compilation of bits from their appearances on the Report. I’m happy to report that A Colbert Christmas is all fresh material, and it’s all goddamn brilliant.

Just like The Colbert Report is an ironic pundit show à la The O’Reilly Factor, A Colbert Christmas is an ironic Christmas special. It’s all set in a hilariously fake-looking cabin in which Colbert is trapped by a marauding bear outside (fans of the show are familiar with Colbert’s hatred of bears, which he calls “godless killing machines”), and each segment sees him visited by a different celebrity musician, who treats him to a song. They’re pretty much all amazing and hilarious, though John Legend really doesn’t seem have a knack for any performance that isn’t singing. The most game of the celebrities is easily Elvis Costello, who wears a different ridiculous costume in every other scene he appears in. Toby Keith (who turns up wielding an assault rifle) is also hilarious, and his hysterical song, about the “War on Christmas” O’Reilly and company love to go on about, is fantastically patriotic and over-the-top. There’s just something about combining Christmas cheer and threats of physical violence that I find endlessly amusing. Add to that Willie Nelson (as one of the wise men) crooning about having only good weed to offer at Jesus’ manger, and Feist as an angel who answers Stephen’s prayer to tell him that God will be right with him and his prayer will be answered in sequence, and you’ve got yourself a wonderfully off-kilter Christmas special.

Speaking as a huge Stephen Colbert fan, A Colbert Christmas very well may be, as its title suggests, the greatest gift of all.



The Colbert Christmas DVD has the main program available with or without an audience laugh track (I watched the show sans laugh track, which added to the hokey, old-fashioned Christmas-special vibe), but it’s cool that both versions are included. There’s also three increasingly ridiculous alternate endings, and a 25-day video advent calendar. I flouted his orders in the first bit and went ahead and watched all 25 in a row (I also ate all 25 chocolates in an actual advent calendar one year in my childhood; not one of my proudest moments), and they’re almost as funny as the material in the main program. Finally, in keeping with Colbert’s aggressively anti-intellectual stance, there’s a special video yule log of burning books. Can’t wait to set that one up on a loop this Christmas Day.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
  DVD Pick: Bottle Rocket
This week saw the release of Wes Anderson’s feature debut, Bottle Rocket, on DVD from the Criterion Collection. Movie buffs know Criterion as the mark of quality when it comes to DVDs (I’ve heard of people buying everything Criterion puts out, whether or not they like the movie or have even seen it, just by virtue of the fact that Criterion made a DVD of it; to me, this is craziness, but whatever blows your hair back), and as much as I was excited just to even be able to buy Bottle Rocket on DVD thanks to Columbia’s bare-bones disc from a few years ago, only now do I really feel like I own Bottle Rocket.

Bottle Rocket is one my all-time favourite movies, hands down. (One of these days I’ll compile an actual list of my favourite movies, if only because I seem to regularly mention movies offhand as being among my favourites, and it may leave the impression among regular readers that I describe every movie I even remotely like that way – that’s not the case, it’s just that I’m crafty and very good at finding excuses to talk about movies I love.) And while I run the risk of coming across like one of those douches who insists he liked the cool new band WAY before anyone else did, I saw Bottle Rocket in a theatre here in Toronto when it was released theatrically in 1996. It wasn’t because I sought out bold new directors at the time (I was in high school, watching The Simpsons religiously, reading comics and playing Dungeons & Dragons), but rather because I saw a small item about it on a pop-culture news show that had a couple of clips and thought it looked pretty funny, so I told some friends about it, discovered it was playing in a local theatre, and 90 minutes later we'd all fallen love with it.

Bottle Rocket follows three bored young men (Robert Musgrave and Owen and Luke Wilson, in their respective film debuts) who decide to become criminals in an attempt to get some excitement out of their lives. They pull off a minor heist (they rob a bookstore) and go on the lam, only to have the bonds of their friendship and partnership tested, particularly when Anthony, the least enthusiastic of the three (Luke Wilson) falls in love with a Paraguayan hotel maid while they’re ostensibly on the run. At some point they meet up with an infamous local thief (James Caan) to pull off another, bigger job, and hilarity, as the cliché goes, ensues. Apparently a lot of Wes Anderson fans don’t like it that much (it’s nowhere near as stylized and “quirky” as his later films), but it’s probably still my favourite film of his. And to this day I still watch it from time to time if I’m feeling down, and it never fails to cheer me up.

The Criterion DVD is, as I expected, pretty wonderful. There’s commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson (who also co-wrote it with Anderson), and a great little making-of documentary – there’s something special about watching Anderson and the Wilson brothers, now all Hollywood veterans, reflecting on their first movie. Topping it all off is the original 13-minute black and white short that inspired the main film, which, up until now, I’d only seen in grainy form on the web. I love this movie, and I’m incredibly happy that Bottle Rocket now has a worthy DVD.

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Friday, November 21, 2008
  The Punisher vs. The Spirit
2008 was a banner year for comic book movies. The two biggest films of the year were Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and while The Incredible Hulk rather ironically ended up making almost exactly the same amount of money at the box office as Ang Lee’s 2003 movie (which Incredible was supposed to erase from all of our memories), it was successful enough to put Iron Man’s popularity in the wider context of a Marvel cinematic universe, which, as a comic geek who grew up reading mostly Marvel books, I couldn’t be more excited about. And Hellboy II: The Golden Army was just released on DVD; if you haven’t seen it, I personally put it up there with The Dark Knight and Iron Man in terms of quality.

But there are two more comic book movies left this year, both smaller-scale films and characters than this summer’s blockbusters: Punisher: War Zone (out Dec. 5) and The Spirit (Dec. 25). These two films don’t have that much in common, though they share a similarly dark tone, and both feature urban vigilantes rather than brightly-coloured superheroes, but that’s about it. But for no other reason that I thought I might enjoy it (and I could use a bit of a break from the DVD reviews), today I’ll be handicapping the two with an arbitrary new system I just devised. Enjoy!

The Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher: War Zone is actually the third trip to the screen for the Marvel Comics vigilante, following 1989’s The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren (of Rocky IV fame), and 2004’s The Punisher, starring Tom Jane. Both the previous films suck for very different reasons – the first was just really low-budget and cheap, the second seemed to be made by people who all totally misunderstood the concept of the character on its most
basic levels – but this one looks like they might have finally got it right. I’m not sure how much the character’s origin has been changed for the new movie, but in the comics Frank Castle was a military vet whose family was killed in the crossfire of a mob shootout. He basically goes nuts and starts using his military training to kill criminals, often rather brutally. The Punisher was actually one of the first comics I collected when I was a kid (I bought my first issue because there was a ninja on the cover), and there’s something deliciously simple about the premise: he’s like a no-frills version of Batman who uses automatic weapons instead of clever gadgets, and his appeal to teenage boys is pretty obvious. War Zone, like The Incredible Hulk, is a reboot, and doesn’t follow any of the other movies. I’m not even sure what the plot is, but the trailer looks violent as hell, which is an encouraging sign.

Well as I said, the trailer makes the film look incredibly brutal, which isn’t normally a barometer of quality for me, but in the case of a Punisher movie, it becomes one. (One of my big problems with the Tom Jane movie was the character was tricked and manipulated his targets into killing each other, which may be a cool gimmick for another action/revenge movie, but not The Punisher. He just kills people. That’s it.) And given the character’s over-the-top testosterone appeal, hiring a woman to direct, Lexi Alexander, is an interesting choice (I hear good things about her previous film, the soccer-hooligan flick Green Street Hooligans). Add to that a solid cast – Ray Stevenson from HBO’s Rome is in the title role, and Dominic West, the hero from the incredible HBO cop show The Wire, plays the villain, Jigsaw – and Punisher: War Zone might – MIGHT – prove that the third time’s the charm for Frank Castle’s cinematic career.

I try not to pay too much attention to this sort of thing, but for months (mostly this past summer) there were behind-the-scenes rumours about the studio, Lionsgate, not being happy with Alexander’s work and that she’d been fired (later refuted by all, and Alexander still seems to be promoting the movie), and as much as some or all of the talk is probably bull, it’s not usually a great sign when those sorts of stories start making the rounds. And as much as, on paper, the Punisher is one of the easiest characters in mainstream comics to adapt for a movie – his “costume” is basically just black clothes with a white skull on his chest, and nobody has any powers that require viewers to suspend disbelief – there have been two unspeakably bad Punisher adaptations previous to this one, so it’s hard not to be at least a little pessimistic about the movie’s quality. We shall see.

The Spirit

I’ve been a huge fan of Frank Miller’s since The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City blew my mind when I was in high school. He’s one of the true geniuses of modern comics (his landmark work on Batman includes his amazing collaboration with artist David Mazzucchelli, Batman: Year One, one of my favourite of Miller’s works, and Batman Begins borrows heavily from it). But his insanely over-the-top,
hard-boiled dialogue works better in comics than it does in movies – a lot of people I know groaned at many lines in the Sin City film, which were largely lifted verbatim from the books – so his first work as a solo filmmaker after co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez is a tricky proposition. It stars an unknown (Gabriel Macht) in the title role of an adaptation of a character who’s somewhat obscure even among comic book geeks.

The Spirit was one of the early creations of
Will Eisner, hands-down one of the most important figures in the history of comics. Eisner, for whom the comic industry’s most prestigious awards are named, died in 2005, and occupies a similar place in the comics industry as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock do in film. He and Miller were good friends, and Miller considers Eisner his mentor. So Miller obviously has a lot invested in The Spirit, which, though I’ve never read any of the original Eisner material, I’m familiar enough with both creators’ work to know that the film of The Spirit has far more in common with Miller’s aesthetic than it does Eisner’s.

The Spirit follows a cop named Denny Colt, who was killed and then returns from the dead, apparently now immortal (at least he seems to be in the film; I’m not sure how faithful this is to the comic). He dons a simple domino mask to fight crime. The Spirit began as a newspaper strip, and has more in common with old pulp characters like The Shadow than with more traditional superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man.

The first images and trailer for The Spirit I saw just looked bad. It looked like everything that made me cringe about Sin City was magnified, with none of the parts that made the movie awesome. As excited as I was about one of my favourite comic creators getting to direct his own movie, I was underwhelmed by what I saw. But the full theatrical trailer, which included more plot points and hinted at the more supernatural aspects of the film (and showcased more action), looked far more interesting. It’s really a matter of tone – I’m sure the movie will at least look kind of cool, which goes pretty far with me – and I have no idea if Miller the filmmaker will be able to nail it. One of the things I enjoy about his comics – and that a lot of readers seem to miss – is the tongue-in-cheek, almost satirical edge in a lot of his work, particularly his superhero stuff. The latest trailer has hints of that, and if Miller has crafted a visually stylish, fun action flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, The Spirit could be very cool. And Lionsgate moved the release date earlier this year to Christmas, which is typically a sign that they’ve got faith in it.

The bottom line is I really want The Spirit to be good, partly because I want it to be successful enough that more comic creators might get a chance to adapt their own work to film (something that happens somewhat regularly in other parts of the world where comics have more cultural clout, like Europe and Japan). I want Frank Miller to succeed as a director because I have a dream that in a few years, when Warner Bros. decides to move on beyond Christopher Nolan’s current Batman films, they might tap Miller to adapt The Dark Knight Returns himself (anyone else doing it would screw it up; Miller very well might too, but at least he would be the one screwing up his own adaptation). Failing that, Marvel Studios would do well to consider Miller for directing a revamped Daredevil (the character on whom Miller cut his teeth as a writer and artist). Ah well. A geek can dream.

As I mentioned, the initial stuff I saw from The Spirit was not encouraging. In order for the film to work it will have to walk a pretty tough tightrope, and as Miller’s solo debut behind the camera, it’s a tall order. It appears that Samuel L. Jackson, as the villainous Octopus (who is never actually seen in any of the Eisner comics, which allowed Miller to create his look himself), appears to wear a different outlandish costume in every scene, and it’s a concept that seems like it would work in a comic, but in a movie it could be a remarkably distracting – and silly – detail. And Miller, an unabashed fan of the female figure, has cast some incredibly gorgeous women as his femme fatales, but unfortunately as great as Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes are to look at, they’re also two of the worst actresses around today, and coupled with Miller’s tin ear for dialogue, I expect to be cringing through many of their scenes. The Spirit looks to be a toss-up between being a refreshingly unique comic book movie or an absolute mess (though I’d put my money on the latter), but one way or another I can’t wait to see it.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
  DVD Review: Tropic Thunder

I reviewed Tropic Thunder when it was released theatrically, and I loved it. But if you can handle a peek behind the curtain of my reviewing process, I tend to write theatrical reviews a lot quicker than DVD reviews. DVDs usually have extras and often commentaries as well, and the additional time it takes me to go through all that material usually means I have more time to think about the movie. And I seemed to enjoy Tropic Thunder more than a lot of people I know, so I was particularly curious to revisit the film to find out if my initial gushing reaction was overblown.

After watching the extended Director’s Cut of Tropic Thunder, I’m happy to report that this is (still) one of the best comedies I’ve seen this year. The story follows a troubled production of an Oscar-baiting Vietnam epic (also called Tropic Thunder) with a cast of superstars: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed), a dull-witted, fading action star; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a multiple-award-winning Australian “bad boy” who takes method acting to absurd extremes; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroine-addicted comic whose crude, flatulence-themed comedies have made him a star; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper more interested in hawking his lines of soft drinks and candy bars and clothes than acting; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a starry-eyed newcomer eager to sink his teeth into his first film role. When the rookie British director (Steve Coogan) gets fed up with his actors’ refusal to follow his orders, the grizzled ‘Nam vet on whose memoirs the film is based (Nick Nolte) suggests he leaves the group out in the actual jungle to fend for themselves in the hopes of shocking them into taking the project seriously. The problem is that they end up stumbling across a real drug-processing operation hidden in the jungle and Speedman ends up getting captured by the gun-toting thugs, leaving the rest of the actors to mount an actual operation to rescue him.

Stiller, who’s been working on this idea literally for decades (he says he got the idea while shooting his small role in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II film Empire of the Sun) is really shooting for the stars with this ambitious genre hybrid, and it’s remarkable how well it all comes together. Just like Downey’s character has layers upon layers of identities (he underwent a “controversial” procedure to darken his skin so he could play a black man, and stays in character no matter what happens), Tropic Thunder has many levels to it as well; it works as a silly comedy, a sharp HThe gang all suited up and ready for actionollywood satire, a war movie, and a spoof of war movies. It’s almost dizzying, and it’s really amazing that this movie not only isn’t a trainwreck, but it’s actually quite brilliant.

First things first, Tropic Thunder is damn funny. The script manages to somehow be both pretty vicious in its take on Hollywood and the film industry, but at the same time it’s also a love letter to movies and movie-making (Stiller fills the film with references to classic war movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan). The cast is also excellent. I mentioned in my Kung Fu Panda review how tired of Jack Black I’ve become over the years, but by casting him as a guy who’s supposed to be an annoyingly hyperactive jackass, it actually makes Black’s portrayal of Portnoy even funnier (it also helps that, of the three main stars, Black’s role is by far the smallest). Canadian Jay Baruchel is the movie’s real unsung hero as the one guy in the group even remotely grounded in reality, and he manages to be incredibly funny despite being saddled with what’s largely the straight-man role.

But Tropic Thunder belongs to Robert Downey Jr., period. I said in my original review and stand by it now that this is one of the best performances of the year, and it’s really too bad the Academy routinely ignores comedies, because Downey is doing some flat-out amazing work here. Every time he’s onscreen the movie sings, and his dynamic with Stiller’s character in particular is probably my favourite aspect of Downey’s performance (which is my favourite thing in the movie). In one of the extras, Coogan discusses the potentially offensive racial aspects of the role, and he put its perfectly: the performance is really about the Australian character’s take on playing a black man. It’s about how Kirk Lazarus misunderstands blackness (i.e. playing the character as a collection of stereotypical tics, cartoonish voice and all), and tGenius at workhat’s why it’s funny. It’s a comment on racial stereotyping, done quite effectively through satire. I’m prone to hyperbole, but I fully expect Downey’s work to go down in cinematic history as one of the great comic performances.

Another aspect of Tropic Thunder that struck me, especially on repeat viewings, is how great the movie looks. Stiller hired Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (rightly considered one of the best in the business) to shoot the movie, and it looks great, adding to the feeling that it’s a “real” movie and not just a comedy or spoof. And when the action kicks in at the end, I never felt like I was watching an action scene in a comedy, but rather like I was watching a ‘80s-era action flick. I’ve liked Stiller ever since The Ben Stiller Show, and he hasn’t lost his touch for pitch-perfect media satire.

If there are any problems I have with Tropic Thunder, they involve the Tugg Speedman character. Unlike the other characters, he’s easily the broadest and most stereotypical – Stiller playing dim yet hugely successful superstar is basically a slightly different version of the main character from his last directorial effort, Zoolander, only now he’s an affable-if-shallow actor instead of an affable-if-shallow male model. Also, all the Hollywood jokes can be bit inside-baseball (jokes about agents and box-office grosses and Machiavellian studio execs, etc., especially from a lifelong showbiz guy like Stiller, comes across as somewhat self-indulgent), so if you’re turned off by that sort of thing, be warned.

I’ve watched Tropic Thunder movie four times now (once in theatres, once on DVD and twice more with the commentaries) and unlike most comedies, it still manages to make me laugh really hard on repeat viewings. It may just be my favourite comedy of the year, and I recommend it highly.



The two-disc Director’s Cut of Tropic Thunder comes with a great assortment of extras, striking a near-perfect balance of being pretty interesting (not to mention funny) without being too in-depth; there’s no three-hour making-of documentaries here, but I still felt like I came away with an understanding of the process of making the movie.

As I mentioned, there are two commentary tracks, one with Stiller, Black and Downey, and another with Stiller and his crew. The crew commentary is, as expected, way technical, as they discuss the nuts and bolts of shooting various scenes, special effects, stunts, lighting, etc. It’s kind of dry, but Stiller and company keep it pretty fresh.

The cast commentary is a lot more fun. There’s a scene in the film where Downey’s character says he doesn’t drop character until heNick Nolte and Danny McBride, just being f***ing awesome’s done the DVD commentary, and Downey actually runs with that, doing the bulk of the commentary in the voice he uses for most of the film. (He’s not really “in character” though; it’s really more that he just does the voice.) I was pretty astounded that he even attempted it, and even more so that he’s actually incredibly funny the whole time. For the small segment of the film at the end where Lazarus finally drops character, he takes on the Australian accent, and then makes a brief appearance at the end as just Robert Downey Jr. It’s easily the best audio-commentary performance I’ve ever listened to. It’s clear on both tracks how seriously Stiller takes his work, though he’s always happy to talk about how funny and great everyone is.

There are also a handful of featurettes on the production. None of it is terribly fascinating, but they’re all short enough to get to the point and get out, as it were. There’s a couple of deleted and extended scenes as well, though the
“commentary” is basically just Stiller explaining the clip in the opening seconds; he then just falls silent and lets the scene play out, which is weird.

The best extra, however, is the fake documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the famous documentary about the infamously troubled Apocalypse Now shoot. Co-screenwriter Justin Theroux (who’s also an actor; he plays the director in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and was the villain in the second Charlie’s Angels movie) plays pretentious German filmmaker Jan Jurgen, documenting the shoot of Tropic Thunder (the movie-in-the-movie version), and includes interviews with most of the cast in-character. It’s really funny stuff, particularly where Jurgen documents Downey’s character’s descent into method-fuelled madness. It’s great stuff, and some of the most genuinely fun DVD extras I’ve reviewed yet.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008
  DVD Review: Hell Ride

Loyal readers may have noticed I’ve been handing out A grades like Halloween candy here lately. While I’d argue that this is because I’ve been reviewing some pretty damn fine movies of late (I can’t help it if Let the Right One In, Kung Fu Panda and Mongol all rule), I do sometimes worry that maybe I’m getting soft. So it’s with great excitement that I go into this review for Larry Bishop’s Hell Ride, easily the worst movie I’ve reviewed for this blog, and one of the most ridiculously awful movies I’ve seen in quite some time.

I mentioned Bishop months ago in my review for In Bruges (a charming, if unspectacular little British gangster film), where I discussed his 1996 film Mad Dog Time as the worst of the wannabe-Tarantino gangster movies of the ‘90s. It’s an absolutely fascinatingly terrible movie, as well as the most self-indulgent piece of filmmaking I’ve ever witnessed. In that film, writer/director/producer Larry Bishop (son of Joey Bishop) casts himself as a super-badass hitman who wears sunglasses and gloves indoors and spends half his scenes with his tongue down Angie Everhart’s throat. It’s what I would have done if I’d been allowed to make a gangster movie when I was 16 or 17: cast myself as the coolest guy on earth and spend the movie making out with a supermodel. It’s beyond ridiculous, and just one of the many, many reasons Mad Dog Time is one of the worst movies ever made.

But I’m not here to talk about Mad Dog Time, I’m here to talk about Hell Ride, Bishop’s follow-up. (I try not to read into the fact that it was 12 years between Bishop’s directorial efforts, but it’s hard.) It’s a biker flick about a gang called the Victors, led by the enigmatic Pistolero (Bishop) as he seeks vengeance for his girl who was murdered 32 years earlier. Following him are his right-hand man, The Gent (Michael Madsen, veering between genuinely fun and flat-out bizarre) and the young upstart Comanche (Eric Balfour). The “bad” gang, the Six Six Sixers, are headed by Billy Wings (Vinnie Jones, doing the most bizarre maybe-accent I’ve seen since Kevin Costner’s opening scenes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and The Deuce (David Carradine). The movie basically follows these characters as they arrange meetings at dusty desert bars, then double-cross each other and set up rival gang members for brutal murders. I’ve watched this movie twice now (once with the commentary), and I’ll be damned if I know what the actual point of Hell Ride is.

When it comes to genre movies like Hell Ride, all I’m looking for is some good times. The red-band trailer was very promising; it looked like a fun, ultraviolent biker flick, kind of like a low-rent Kill Bill for biker movies instead of martial arts films. And really, I don’t think that would have been all that hard to pull off. Instead, Bishop (who, again, wrote, produced, directed and stars) tries to get all existential and arty with his biker movie, which would be a tricky enough proposition for a legitimately talented filmmaker, but Bishop is not one of those. To call Hell Ride a mess would insult messes.

The cast of Hell Ride seems to be having fun, but not in the way that infects the viewer. Instead it gave me the impression that nobody really cared that much about whether anything they were saying or doing made sense; it just gives the whole movie a sloppy, slapped-together feel (which is particularly odd considering Bishop says in the commentary that the initial draft of the script took the form of a 400-page novel; god knows what was in that).

All I wanted out of Hell Ride was a fun, violent biker movie that didn’t take itself too seriously. Hell Ride is violent, but misses everywhere else. Kill Bill’s one of my favourite movies, and I know Bishop’s not a fraction of the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is, and there was zero chance Hell Ride would be anywhere near as good, but at the very least I was hoping he’d go for a similar spirit of almost cartoony fun and action of Volume 1. Instead, Bishop tries to get all existential and disappears up his own ass. I like Sartre and Kant as much as the next would-be intellectual, but I thought this was supposed to be a biker movie, not your graduate thesis on the nature of nothingness.

Ultimately Hell Ride is a mess, but a pretty fascinating one if you're a fan of spectacularly bad movies. It's no Southland Tales (one of the most compellingly insane cinematic failures of the past decade; I’ll be writing about it some time soon, hopefully), but it's pretty crazy. But if you're looking for just a fun, silly, violent biker movie, look elsewhere. “If the whole world feels like I let them down with Hell Ride, it wouldn’t mean anything to me unless Quentin [Tarantino] said so,” Bishop says in one of the DVD extras. Well dude, I hope QT liked it, because speaking for the rest of us, I can tell you that your movie sucks.



For the first half-hour or so watching Hell Ride, I couldn’t wait to watch it with the commentary from Bishop and director of photography Scott Kevan. I had no idea how seriously I was supposed to be taking this thoroughly ridiculous movie. But then about 10 to 15 minutes later, I just stopped caring. Unfortunately Bishop seems to think he was making some sort of intellectual masterpiece, and all the stuff I was laughing at was, apparently, meant to be taken seriously. He discusses the genesis of Hell Ride, which is more interesting than the movie itself – Bishop starred in a bunch of old biker movies in the ‘60s, and Quentin Tarantino, trash-cinema aficionado that he is, is a fan of them. He met Bishop (and cast him in Kill Bill Vol. 2 as Budd’s boss at the strip club; that scene alone, including Bishop’s hilarious performance in it, are better than this entire movie) and told him it was his destiny to make the ultimate biker movie (thus earning him an executive producer credit, evidently). Bishop apparently took this far too literally (a point that, to be fair, he admits himself) and became obsessed with the notion, and penned the aforementioned 400-page novel that would become the Hell Ride script.

Bishop himself seems like an amiable enough guy, though he's pretty full of himself, and it's unfortunately clear how much he idolizes Tarantino, and he name-drops him like crazy. (A fun drinking game would be to get a bunch of friends together and watch the entire Hell Ride DVD – the main film with the commentary and then all the featurettes – and take a drink every time he mentions Tarantino. I guarantee you will all be totally hammered before the halfway mark.)

There’s a handful of featurettes on the making of the film and the cast, all pretty standard stuff, and if you were to watch them first, I’d imagine they’d create the illusion that this movie is all the things it should have been, but isn’t. The best thing on the Hell Ride DVD is the trailer, the broken promise for the ultimate fun, trashy biker movie that, sadly, still remains unmade.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008
  DVD Review: Kung Fu Panda

I love animation, and have since I was a kid (kids loving animation is not unusual; I just didn’t grow out of it). One thing I did grow out of was the more kiddie-centric aspects of animation – like any good geek, I bristle at the suggestion that animation is for kids – and I’ve had to turn to Japanese anime and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows like The Venture Brothers and Metalocalypse. But ever since I was little, computer animation in particularly has fascinated me (I loved Tron and Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ video), and as that’s replacMere high shelves cannot stop the mighty Poed traditional cel animation as the standard for theatrical animated films, many of my friends has heard me grumbling that I’m eagerly awaiting Hollywood to stumble across the fact that computer animation can actually be used for something other than children’s movies about celebrity-voiced animals. So when I started seeing trailers for Kung Fu Panda, I groaned; it just looked like more of the same. I don’t bother with the kiddie animated movies, not since I suffered through the first Shrek in theatres and swore never again (though as a comic book geek, I rather unsurprisingly worship Pixar’s The Incredibles). So I was pretty surprised at how thoroughly entertaining Kung Fu Panda is.

The story follows Po (voiced by Jack Black), a food-loving panda who works at a noodle stand in ancient China where his (presumably adoptive) father, a duck, is pushing him into taking up the family business. But Po dreams of being a kung fu hero like his idols, the Furious Five. When their enlightened master decides it’s time to find the prophesied Dragon Warrior, Po is the one he chooses – much to his idols’ dismay. They’ve been training for years to become the perfect fighting machines, only to have their places usurped by a fat, bumbling fanboy with no kung fu skills. Further complicating matters is the return of Tai Lung, the former prize student of the Furious Five’s master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who believes he should be the Dragon Warrior, and is willing to take the prized Dragon Scroll by force.

The plot of Kung Fu Panda is by no means original, borrowing liberally from Star Wars as well as tons of old-school kung fu movies. But that’s actually part of the movie’s charm, and really, kids movies are not the place to look for groundbreaking stories. Kung Fu Panda does what it does really well, managing to be funny without resorting to fart jokes like Shrek and packaging a nice little morality tale about believing in yourself without getting too preachy or sappy about it. On top of all thisPo and Shifu training the movie’s action scenes are legitimately fun and cool, particularly the sequence where Tai Lung breaks out of the prison he’s been locked in for 20 years. The filmmakers behind Kung Fu Panda clearly get and appreciate classic kung fu movies, with co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne even mentioning The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in the commentary as one of the inspirations for the training sequence. They also mention their goal was to push the boundaries of action in a family-friendly animated film, and they pulled it off with gusto. Kung Fu Panda perfectly marries martial arts action with classic Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons.

The cast is also great. (Listening to Dustin Hoffman seriously talk about what it takes to master kung fu is worth the price of admission alone.) Like a lot of people, I used to think Jack Black was pretty awesome, until, like a lot of people, I got tired of his shtick and now he gets on my nerves, so I had low expectations for him going in. But maybe it’s the fact that it’s just his voice here and not his face, maybe it’s the fact that Po is actually a character and not a collection of tics and nonsensical phrases (his Homer Simpson-esque love of food isn't all that origTai Lung kicking assinal, but then again it’s not like The Simpsons invented that whole thing either). Black was actually one of the things I enjoyed the most about Kung Fu Panda, with several of the jokes working almost entirely because of his readings. The Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Crane (David Cross) – are also a high point, but unfortunately the celebrities they lined up to voice them don’t get a whole lot to do (a fact acknowledged – and lamented – by Stevenson and Osborne on the commentary). But the real standout is Ian McShane as Tai Lung. McShane manages to inject the film’s villain with a ferocity and scary intelligence reminiscent of his mind-blowing work as Al Swearengen on Deadwood, and the whole movie kicks into a higher gear any time Tai Lung is onscreen.

As a fan of more grown-up animation, I’ve been hoping that the success of the excellent Beowulf would make Hollywood realize that there are audiences old enough to shave that enjoy animated films as well. I’m not sure how that's going to work out (though I have high hopes of Pixar’s rumoured adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ cult sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars), but in the meantime, I can handle more talking-animal animated movies if they’re as good as Kung Fu Panda.



The Kung Fu Panda DVD has quite a few extras on it, but a lot of them are activities and games for young viewers. The more substantive among them include a nice look at the history of kung fu as well as the animal-themed fighting styles seen in the movie. There’s also the aforementioned commentary from directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, which is kind of interesting, if a little dry. I don’t imagine kids will be all that interested in it.

Kung Fu Panda is available individually and packaged with a direct-to-DVD companion piece (it’s sort of equal parts sequel and prequel) called Secrets of the Furious Five. The main feature runs about a half-hour, anThe Furious Five in a less-than-furious momentd tells the origin stories of each of the Furious Five in the stylized, 2D animation style seen in the main movie’s very cool opening sequence (it reminded me more than a little of Genndy Tartakovsky's excellent series Samurai Jack). Unfortunately, only David Cross reprises his role from the movie, but Secrets of the Furious Five mostly follows the characters in their youth, so it’s not really that noticeable (though Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee, fills in for his dad as Monkey). There’s a handful of extras on the Furious Five DVD, but they’re exclusively for kiddies. Overall Kung Fu Panda is a solid DVD package for a fun little flick kids will love.

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Friday, November 7, 2008
  Review: Let the Right One In
A few weeks ago I wrote about a vampire movie from Sweden called Let the Right One In that had been winning raves at film festivals. I noted then that I’m not the biggest fan of the horror genre, particularly vampire movies, but this one had an interesting twist: it’s about a vampire who appears to be a 12-year-old girl. Between the the premise and its origins – one of the reasons I like foreign movies is they typically lack the more formulaic, clichéd aspects of most Hollywood productions, vampire movies being among the worst offenders – I was curious to see if Let the Right One In could live up to the hype. I’m happy to report that it more than surpassed my expectations.

The story of Let the Right One In follows Oskar, an awkward, solitary 12-year-old boy who gets picked on at school and divides his time at home between his separated parents. A new girl moves in to the apartment next door to his mother’s, along with a silent older man who appears to be her father. The girl, Eli, soon introduces herself to Oskar one night when he’s outside fantasizing about fighting back against his tormentors with his knife. (It’s the dead of winter in Sweden, but she’s out in her pajamas, but she insists she’s not cold. “I guess I've forgotten how,” she tells Oskar.) The two children strike up a friendship, and Oskar slowly realizes there’s a lot more to his strange new friend than he first realized.

Let the Right One In is a haunting, beautifully-crafted film from director Tomas Alfredson, and written for the screen by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his own novel. It’s not your typical vampire movie – it’s quiet, moody, and builds slowly to its astonishing climactic scene, and some people in the theatre with me who were presumably expecting a more traditional vampire movie seemed bored by its deliberate pace. That’s not to say there aren’t scares in the movie, because there are, but it’s more psychological and atmospheric, the sort of tension you find in a good thriller. Alfredson fills the film with gorgeous shots of the snowy landscape, and the scenes set outdoors at night, with the contrast between the stark white snow and the oppressive darkness beyond, are particularly creepy.

But the thing that impressed me the most about Let the Right One In was its emotional punch; this is one of the most genuinely moving films I’ve seen this year. The young actors (
Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli) are both amazing, and as their friendship blossoms into something more, I realized that not only is this a phenomenal vampire movie, it’s the most affecting love story I’ve seen in a long time. I went into Let the Right One In expecting a good vampire movie, but I didn’t expect to have my heart broken.

I know the teen-girl-friendly Twilight, based on the massively successful series of novels by Stephenie Meyer, is the vampire flick getting all the attention right now, and I’m sure it’ll be a big box office success. But that really (to me, at least) looks like more of the same; dreamy, vaguely Eurotrash-looking blodsuckers brooding and looking pretty and all that other played-out, gothic claptrap. But Let the Right One In (an actual European film) doesn’t have time for clichés, and while it does delve into vampire mythology – the title alludes to the “rule” about vampires needing to be invited into a person’s home – it’s a truly unique and wholly original film. It’s not only the best vampire movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s a lock for my year-end best-of list. Let the Right One In is simply a brilliant piece of cinema, and it comes with my highest possible recommendation.


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Wednesday, November 5, 2008
  DVD Review: Mongol

Mongol is a biopic of Genghis Khan’s early days (it ends with him assuming that famous mantle) that strives for a real authenticity in recreating the world of 12th-century Mongolia I haven’t seen since Mel Gibson’s Mayan epic, Apocalypto. The film, co-financed by the Mongolian government, is entirely in Mongolian (thankfully the DVD doesn’t even bother with an English-dubbed language track), and features a cast of largely Mongolian actors (with one exception being the lead, played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano). I’m not a Genghis Khan expert by any means, so I can’t really comment on Mongol’s accuracy, but I do know it’s one of the best historical epics I’ve seen in some time.

Mongol tells the story of Temudjin, the son of a Mongolian khan who witnesses his father’s betrayal and murder while still a child. His family is betrayed by his father’s former right-hand man, who assumes the mantle of khan himself, and swears to kill Temudjin when he comes of age, as Mongols, we are told, forbid the killing of women and children. Young Temudjin is promptly chained to a pole in the middle of the village before he manages to escape, and grows into manhood while in exile from the very people he’d been groomed to lead. He seeks out his wife, whom he chose (but really, she chose him) decades earlier while they were both still children – the trip on which his father was murdered was to find young Temudjin a wife from a rival tribe – and eventually unites the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into an army that would conquer most of the known world.

The most striking aspect of Mongol, to me, was the love story. The stance taken by Bodrov and co-screenwriter Arif Aliyev seems based largely on the old maxim about how behind every great man is a greater woman. The love between Temudjin and Börte, his wife, is what drives him throughout the film, and there are parts where he appears to be on the verge of finally just giving up all hope, only to be buoyed by her strength. Their connection not only drives Temudjin, but the entire film, and as much as that sounds like a cliché, here it really is the case. It gives Mongol a genuine heart I really wasn’t expecting from a biopic about Genghis Khan. Most Hollywood movies show a woman’s “strength” by having her beat up on men or act like a man, but Börte’s strength is far more real than anything I’ve seen in any American film like this. She does a lot more than stand by her man; she travels across the continent to break him out of prison. As tough as Temudjin is shown to be in the film, Börte is consistently shown to be as strong and resourceful, if not more so. Between her and Temudjin’s equally fiery mother, the women characters in Mongol are the strongest in the movie.

The performances in Mongol are uniformly great, though there was only one actor I’d seen before, and that’s Asano as Temudjin. He’s an actor with a sizeable following among fans of Japanese cult movies, having broken out with his role as the villain in Takashi Miike’s (really, the personification of Japanese cult cinema) ultraviolent manga adaptation Ichi the Killer. He’s an actor with a real charisma, the kind that comes across even when he’s not speaking. Indeed, much of his performance in Mongol consists of staring at people and things wordlessly, and he’s utterly compelling. Khulan Chuluun as Börte is also damn impressive; obviously Temudjin is the main character in the film, but she makes Börte just as interesting.

Mongol was directed by Russia’s Sergei Bodrov. (Between being co-produced by and shot in Mongolia, directed by a Russian and starring a Japanese actor in the lead, Mongol is easily the most truly multicultural film I’ve reviewed yet.) There’s a lot of interesting films and filmmakers coming out of Russia right now, most notably Wanted and Night Watch/Day Watch director Timur Bekmambetov. Bodrov doesn’t pack Mongol with the hyperkinetic, super-flashy visual style of Bekmambetov, but Mongol is a great-looking movie. Bodrov and cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov really showcase the stark beauty of the Mongolian steppes, and some of the shots in this movie are among the most breathtaking I’ve seen. Mongol is just a flat-out gorgeous film.

Another thing about Mongol that surprised me – pleasantly, I might add – is the lack of “action.” It was an hour into the film’s two-hour running time before the first real battle sequence, and by then I’d become so involved in the story I’d almost forgotten about that aspect of the film. While the battle scenes are really well done (and nicely violent, which adds to their authenticity), if you’re looking for an action flick, look elsewhere (I recommend Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s wuxia trinity of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, though the emphasis on action in those three films lessens as the films go on). Mongol, while telling the story of history’s greatest conqueror, is more interested in what makes him tick than in elaborate action sequences.

Mongol, though it works perfectly fine on its own, is intended as the first part of a planned trilogy of films chronicling the life of Genghis Khan. I for one hope Bodrov, Asano and company get to complete their trilogy. If Mongol is any indication, it could be the definitive film version of Genghis Khan’s story the way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy will undoubtedly be seen as the final cinematic say on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy cycle.



There are literally no extras on the Mongol DVD, which is sort of too bad – I’d love to learn more about the production and how devoted the filmmakers were to historical accuracy, if the facts were gleaned from a specific book about Genghis Khan or several, etc. – but the movie’s good enough that I can overlook it. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a more elaborate DVD release in the future, possibly if the trilogy is completed.

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

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