People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
  DVD Review: Traitor

I love spy movies, or at least, a particular kind of spy movie. I’m not really into the over-the-top nature of the James Bond movies – I can appreciate them as pure action flicks, but as ostensible espionage movies, they’re just too damn silly – but director Doug Liman breathed new life into the spy flick with 2002’s surprise smash The Bourne Identity, and Paul Greengrass refined it even further with his even-more-brilliant follow-ups, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne films brought spy movies down to earth (relatively speaking, of course; they’re still movies, and still filled with various sorts of “action” that I’m sure stretch plausibility when compared to actual espionage work), focusing, quite literally, on intelligence, in both the espionage sense of the word and its more common use. Having read a couple of books about actual spies (including Robert Baer’s excellent See No Evil, the basis for much of the equally-excellent Syriana), these sorts of movies, which emphasize tense conversations between fiercely intelligent people rather than on watches that shoot lasers or massive explosions, are precisely the kinds of spy movies I love. And Traitor is very much in that mold.

Traitor is small film but is broad in scope, both literally and figuratively. It tackles the contemporary issue of radical Islamic terrorism, which makes it feel even more immediately real-world than the Bourne movies. The plot follows Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a former U.S. special-forces soldier and devout Muslim who gets picked up by FBI Agent Clayton (Guy Pearce) for selling explosives to terrorist groups. It appears that Horn has been using his explosives knowledge to build bombs for and train Islamic terrorists, but as with most spy movies, there’s considerably more going on. Traitor’s tagline, “The truth is complicated,” is very apt; it’s evident from the opening frames that Horn isn’t just some terrorist or mercenary – he may actually be working undercover for the CIA. As the film unfolds, Horn is placed in increasingly difficult situations, trapped between the rock of maintaining his cover in the terrorist underground – not to mention his faith – and the hard place that is Clayton’s FBI investigation.

Traitor is a smart, taut thriller that doesn’t use gimmicky twists to create tension. Instead, the tension comes from the fact that Cheadle invests Samir with such depth and complexity – not to mention pathos – that just watching him talk to people, be it FBI agents or terrorists or his estranged girlfriend conveys to the audience the incredible pressures the character is under. Traitor follows the legacy of great undercover cop/agent movies by really making the audience feel the perpetual state of fear and anxiety the protagonist lives in, and having a brilliant actor like Don Cheadle at the centre goes a long way.

Speaking of great actors, Traitor has quite a few. Guy Pearce, who can always be relied upon to do top-quality work, makes Clayton into an actual, three-dimensional character as opposed to just an FBI attack dog chasing down the hero. Clayton’s from the South, the son of a Baptist minister, and his own religious upbringing – and his considerable knowledge of and respect for Islam – gives the character a depth that I wasn’t expecting, and the way his background mirrors Horn’s helps lift Traitor above the average spy thriller. Jeff Daniels turns up in a few scenes as Horn’s CIA contact, and despite his limited screen time, he makes his character somehow seem appropriately shady (he’s a CIA guy, after all) and also trustworthy and decent at the same time. And Saïd Taghmaoui, one of my favourite character actors – he turns up in lots of movies and TV shows, unfortunately often playing some kind of terrorist – is great as Samir’s “friend” in the terrorist community who puts him into contact with the terrorist mastermind he’s ultimately trying to stop. Most of Taghmaoui’s scenes are with Cheadle, and the fact that he holds his own with such a talented actor really says something.

Another thing I loved about Traitor was its moral ambiguity. While much of its premise – a devout Muslim working undercover for the U.S. government to undermine terrorists – is similar to the excellent Showtime series Sleeper Cell (read me gush about it here), Traitor is even more interested in grey areas than black-and-white distinctions between good and evil. Samir has to do things in the name of duty that have serious psychological repercussions, not unlike the similar moral themes of the new Bond movies. And despite having a tiny budget compared to the 007 or Bourne films, Traitor really does feel like an “international thriller,” with locales all over the world, from the Middle East to Europe to Washington D.C. to Toronto (it’s always nice to see my hometown represented in a movie as Toronto and not as a stand-in for New York or another big American city).

But Traitor isn't perfect. There isn’t a whole lot of “action” in the film, which isn’t really a problem on its own, but considering the scale writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff is shooting for, the film feels sort of small-scale at times, despite the globe-trotting locales. Nachmanoff, who wrote the screenplay for the climate-change disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, is only directing his second film with Traitor (IMDB says he directed a 2001 movie I’ve never heard of called Hollywood Palms), and he may have bitten off more than he can chew as an auteur with such an ambitious project; there’s a few too many sequences that feel like they’re from a TV show and not a feature film, and it’s little intangibles like that that hold the film back from being truly great. On the whole though, Traitor is an above-average political thriller that’s definitely worth your time if you look for more out of spy movies than fight scenes and big explosions.



The Traitor DVD comes with a couple of short featurettes, one on the action sequences (it’s pretty short, given the aforementioned lack of action, but it held my attention), and another on the movie’s locations. There’s also audio commentary from Nachmanoff and Cheadle, who also produced the film. The commentary is surprisingly light and conversational despite the movie’s sober, serious tone (they point out that a terrorist’s attempt at levity near the beginning may be the only joke in the entire film). They swap stories about the production, and share a nice rapport while also providing some cool insights into the movie. However there is one thing about Traitor that I found pretty fascinating that wasn't mentioned anywhere on the DVD, and that's the fact that Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – came up with the story. I'm assuming he had little to no involvement with the actual production, but that's a pretty interesting little factoid that isn't acknowledged anywhere. It's a weird (and admittedly incredibly minor) omission, but overall the extras on the Traitor DVD, while not great in number, are pretty solid.

previous post


Friday, December 12, 2008
  DVD Review: WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan was the first hip-hop group I really got into when I was in high school, when I was primarily into hard rock and heavy metal. (I was one of those generations who thought liking rock or rap was an either/or proposition; things have changed a lot since then.) I’d listened to rap when I was a kid, stuff like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith’s old duo), but when I started to really get into music as a teenager, it was “alternative rock” and heavy metal primarily. But the Wu-Tang Clan was the group that re-ignited my love of hip-hop (and old-school kung fu movies), and I haven’t looked back since. Wu’s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is still one of my favourite records, and is rightly considered a classic album in the hip-hop pantheon. WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, billed as “the official authorized story,” is a BET documentary chronicling the rise, fall and rebirth of one of music’s most complicated groups. As a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I found it pretty fascinating, but as a documentary, WU does have its share of flaws.

A lot of the most interesting stuff in WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan comes close to the beginning, when filmmaker – and childhood friend of several Clan members – Gerald “Gee-Bee” Barclay begins at the beginning. Because of Barclay’s relationship with the group, he has access to all sorts of cool footage from before they blew the doors off the hip-hop world. For a Wu fan, watching grainy camcorder footage The RZA and Method Man when they were unknowns, hunkered down in the smoke-filled studio writing rhymes, or watching Raekwon recording his vocals on the classic track ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, is pretty special. Barclay also includes interviews with the local DJs and industry folks who helped break the group as they reflect back on the impact the Clan had on the rap industry in the early ‘90s and their evolution into one of the most important hip-hop acts of all time.

Barclay also attempts to showcase the darker side of the Wu-Tang Clan’s success. Even though I’m a big fan of their music, I confess that I don’t read hip-hop magazines (or any music magazines, for that matter), nor do I frequent hip-hop news sites, so while I’ve heard many offhand references to inner feuds within the Wu family, I didn’t actually go into WU with any actual knowledge of what sort of inner turmoil the group has had to deal with (aside from the obvious 2004 death of founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard). While I appreciate the effort Barclay makes, I still came away with WU with little more than vague notions of greed and jealousy causing rifts in a group already saddled with nine outsized personalities and egos. I gleaned was some new insights into the strife – when the group was first assembled on Staten Island (a.k.a. Shaolin), many guys in the group were from rival cliques, so dudes who spent one summer shooting at each other spent the next summer making music together in a studio, and some of those tensions never quite went away – but for the most part, I could have done with some juicier Behind the Music­-style gossip, but it feels like Barclay’s sense of responsibility to his old friends won out over his journalistic drive to give his viewers the whole story.

Some aspects of WU made me cringe. For one, the production quality is quite low, even by the standards of TV documentaries. It’s got a home-video feel to it, which isn’t really that bad, especially considering the subject matter – one of the things that makes early Wu-Tang music so great is a tangible sense of grime, a true underground vibe – but there’s a world of difference between less-than-perfect video quality aScrew guns. I'm scared of THIS guynd misspelling Quentin Tarantino’s name in an on-screen graphic (pretty inexcusable….did nobody seriously think to check Google or IMDB?). And the “fall” part of the “rise, fall and rebirth” of the Clan that the film ostensibly covers is basically relegated to ODB’s incarceration and eventual death from a drug overdose. Barclay does do an excellent job of conveying the tragedy in ODB’s (a.k.a. Russell Jones) situation, including video shot during a party thrown by family and friends to welcome him home from jail just weeks before he died. It’s pretty moving stuff, especially when you see Jones simply as a man surrounded by his loved ones, instead of the cartoonish, obviously-inebriated character he played on records, in videos and in interviews. Unfortunately though, the myriad other problems the group was going through, like the aforementioned infighting, is pretty much skimmed over with a few cursory (and clichéd) mentions of how money and success can bring out the worst in people.

But overall, as a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, I found WU quite compelling; it gave me a glimpse into a group that I didn’t really know that much about. It’s a great look at the legacy of one of the most important and influential groups in the history of hip-hop culture, and is a must-have for fans. It’s nowhere near the best rap documentary I’ve seen – that honour goes to the DJ doc Scratch, which I heartily recommend to anyone, regardless of your feelings about rap music – but it’s a lot better than a lot of low-rent hip-hop documentaries out there, and Barclay does get at some real stuff that lifts WU above just being a doc about how the Wu-Tang Clan is great; it gets at why. As a Wu-Tang fan, I enjoyed this documentary more than my grade might suggest, but speaking objectively, WU: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan is far from perfect. It’s a solid, if flawed, look at the most important rap group still making music today.



There’s a handful of interesting extras on the WU DVD; as per usual with documentaries, there are some extended interview segments with several interview subjects, including a much longer individual interview with Wu members Raekwon and The RZA. Also included is a featurette about ODB’s widow, Icelene, and, my personal favourite, the original, wonderfully low-quality music video for their first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck.’

previous post

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 10, 2008
  Dark Knight double-dip
Like millions of humans, yesterday I picked up my copy of The Dark Knight on DVD. The movie is still amazing (I think it’ll only get better with age as the cringe-inducing hype that still surrounds the film dies away and we can just appreciate it on its own merits – I look forward to a day when Heath Ledger’s death is more of a footnote in the film’s legacy), but I’m pretty underwhelmed by the DVD’s extras.

First of all, this “digital copy included” thing has got to go as a selling point or an excuse to add another disc to a package in order to make it seem like it’s more bang for the customer’s proverbial buck. I’m not interested in watching a two-and-a-half hour crime epic on my iPod or my laptop, though I guess I appreciate the option they’re giving me to do so, especially with the growing spectre of online piracy, and I realize that some people do enjoy that sort of thing, but as an excuse to bolt an extra disc onto a release and proclaim it a “special edition” is pretty weak (no commentary and a couple of featurettes and trailers). It’s not that I had a problem with the extras that are on the two-disc Dark Knight DVD – I dug the fake talk-show segments, particularly the one with Eric Roberts, whose presence in the film is a gift that keeps on giving – but it’s pretty obvious that there’s a much more in-depth DVD of The Dark Knight coming down the pipe. Which I’m not necessarily complaining about – I’ve happily done the DVD double-dip for movies like Sin City, which director Robert Rodriguez was pretty up-front about doing more DVD editions of down the line from the get-go, which is either commendably honest or shockingly cynical, I’m not sure which. And I, like millions of others, has been patiently awaiting the long-promised Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, which Quentin Tarantino has been promising for several years now. But the bottom like is, The Dark Knight is a pretty astounding piece of cinema, and I will happily shell out for the even-more-special edition I’m sure is coming some time in 2009 – presumably with another digital copy.

* * *
I mentioned my skepticism about Lionsgate’s new Punisher movie, Punisher: War Zone in this space not too long ago, and I checked it out last weekend. I’m happy to report my skepticism was totally unfounded, as it’s the most fun pure action movie I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s shockingly violent in all the right ways – the rocket launcher/parkour scene alone was worth the price of admission – and manages to capture the tongue-in-cheek black humour of the best recent Punisher comics. It’s too bad the movie opened pretty poorly, barely making $4 million in its first weekend. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves on DVD (as many Lionsgate films do), because to me, Punisher: War Zone is second only to Iron Man in terms of Marvel movies in 2008. The worst movie Marvel Studios released this year was The Incredible Hulk, and that was a solid B+ in my estimation. So if you want to have a laugh at mobsters getting their faces blown off with shotguns, Punisher: War Zone is the movie for you.

* * *

This week saw the release of complete-series DVD sets for the two best televisions shows I’ve ever seen, HBO’s The Wire and Deadwood. Both are so good I want to punch someone in the face, but I personally prefer The Wire because 1) I prefer cop dramas to westerns and 2) it has an actual ending and is therefore more satisfying on the whole. And for some connective tissue between these three items, Dominic West, who plays the lead character in The Wire, is absolutely phenomenal as the villain Jigsaw in Punisher: War Zone. If Heath Ledger hadn’t changed the game up for comic book movie bad guys in Dark Knight, West would have been my pick as best movie villain of 2008, hands down.

* * *

A little bit of movie news: John Stevenson, director of the excellent animated film Kung Fu Panda (read my review here), is attached to adapt the comic book WE3 into a film. WE3 is a three-issue series by probably my two favourite comic creators working today, writer Grant Morrison (to whom I refer as a genius without hesitation) and artist Frank Quitely. The story follows three animals, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, who are the subjects of brutal government experiments aimed at creating living weapons, fusing the animals’ nervous systems with cybernetic weaponry. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling, both incredibly violent (for a while the film was rumoured to have been “cleaned up” to be more family friendly, which couldn’t miss the point of the source material more) and utterly heartbreaking. I’m not among them but I’ve heard many people who’ve read it admit that WE3 is the only comic that has made them cry. With a talented filmmaker like Stevenson at the helm, and an apparent desire on the part of the producers to keep the material in R-rating territory, WE3 could be something pretty special.

* * *

The last thing I’ve got for today is a fulfillment of my earlier promise in this space to not miss an opportunity to talk about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, due in theatres in March. Apple has the three minutes of footage shown at Comicon last summer, which initially set the Internet afire with buzz. Several months (and three to four trailers) later and the footage is officially online courtesy of iTunes. Check it out here, but be warned, you must have iTunes installed on your computer to watch it. Also be warned that this movie looks totally awesome.

previous post

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, December 5, 2008
  They Live again?

The Hollywood Reporter says John Carpenter's cult classic They Live (seriously, is there another drector who's made more bona fide "cult classics"? I can't think of any) is the latest passenger on the remake train. The 1988 original is a wonderfully angry sci-fi/action flick about class warfare, Reganomics and aliens. Wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays a nameless drifter who stumbles across an alien conspiracy to subdue and control the human race througWatch it, he's all out of gumh media-based, subliminal mind control after finding special sunglasses that let him see things as the truly are –dollar bills are really just slips of paper that say "THIS IS YOUR GOD" and billboards are emblazoned with the simple order to "OBEY," while the aliens look like the Nazis who get their faces melted at the end ot Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a really great little movie that manages to follow the legacy of the best science fiction by using its fantastic conceit to comment on society, while also managing to not take itself too seriously. And it also has one of the absolute greatest fight sequences I have ever seen in a movie, a hilariously brutal, dragged out brawl between Piper and kickass character actor Keith David, with a few pro-wrestling moves thrown in for good measure. Who knows if the remake will be any good – the production still doesn't have a writer attached, much less a director or cast – but given the global economic crisis and the fact that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen into a full-on chasm, an upated They Live could be something awesome. We shall see.

In unrelated news, here are a couple of links that I think are worth your time. The first is
Roger Ebert blogging about the death of the newspaper film critic as the mainstream media continues to chase the celebrity-gossip dragon. It's not really terribly relevant to what I'm doing here, aside from the fact that Ebert is one of the best film critics out there and anything he has to say about the state of film criticism is, by definition, important (at least it is to me).

The other is considerably lighter. Ever wonder about the lady with the torch in the Columbia Pictures logo? Or what mountain the Paramount symbol is based on? How many lions have roared before the opening credits of an MGM picture? Here are the answers.

previous post

Labels: , ,

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

April 2008 / May 2008 / June 2008 / July 2008 / August 2008 / September 2008 / October 2008 / November 2008 / December 2008 / January 2009 / February 2009 / March 2009 / April 2009 / May 2009 / June 2009 / July 2009 / August 2009 / September 2009 / October 2009 / November 2009 / December 2009 / January 2010 / February 2010 / March 2010 / April 2010 / May 2010 / June 2010 / July 2010 /

Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]