People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
  DVD Review: Appaloosa

I’m not a huge westerns guy, but as with any genre, it’s got its share of great movies (Tombstone is a personal fave, and Sergio These three actors in a western? YES PLEASELeone’s spaghetti westerns are excellent), but it’s not a genre that I typically get excited about one way or another. And at this point, westerns tend to fall into two categories: post­-Unforgiven “revisionist” westerns that aim to show how violent and amoral that mythical era actually was, and movies that use the tropes of the genre for more traditional action-adventure stories, like the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma (which I didn't much care for). Appaloosa doesn’t really fall into either category; it has very little in the way of “action,” but it’s also got an old-fashioned flavour to it, and co-writer/producer/director/star Ed Harris doesn’t seem interested in using his film to make a statement about the treatment of Native Americans or the brutality of the real American West, choosing instead to focus on character.

Appaloosa, which is based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, co-stars Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons, and it’s this stellar cast (I actually don’t care for Zellweger at all, and I had many issues with her character as well, but more on that later) that helps to elevate Harris’ film to an above-average entry into the genre. Harris plays marshal Virgil Cole, who travels around from lawless town to lawless town bringing justice, aided by his loyal, shotgun-toting deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen, rocking some of the most impressive facial hair I’ve seen in a western since the mustache festival that was Tombstone). Cole is hired by the residents of the fictional town of Appaloosa to help them deal with local rancher Randall Bragg (Irons) whose workers are running roughshod over the nearby town. The film opens with Bragg coldly murdering a marshal and two of his men (two of his men brutally killed a married couple, and the lawmen showed up at his ranch to collect them) which proves to be the last straw for the people of Appaloosa, who hire Cole to deal with Bragg permanently. Cole takes the job, and he, Hitch and Hitch’s facial hair set about bringing peace to the town.

One of the best things in Appaloosa is the characters and how they interact. Harris and Mortensen, paired as rivals inMortensen in a quintessential western shot A History of Violence, have a wonderfully easy chemistry, and they really do seem like they’ve been riding together for more than a decade. They have a great dynamic, and their banter (Harris estimates about 85% of the dialogue was just taken verbatim from Parker’s book) is sharp and often hilarious. Harris plays Cole as an almost robotic killer – he’s less a proper lawman than he is a hired gun who earns his money killing criminals and thugs – while Mortensen’s Hitch is the duo’s conscience, more intelligent and well-read, and less prone to jumping into a situation without thinking. Throw in a brilliant actor like Jeremy Irons as the villain, and you’ve got yourself a solid western based on that alone. Just getting to watch three capital-G great actors do their thing is a treat.

Which brings me to Renée Zellweger’s character. As I said earlier, I’ve just never liked her as an actress, but I like to believe I’m capable of looking past my own personal feelings when I’m in Reviewer Mode. (I find Jack Black irritating as hell, but that didn’t stop me from loving both Tropic Thunder and Kung Fu Panda, and he does great work in both). My issues with Zellweger in Appaloosa have to do with her character. I can’t go into too much detail about what happens with her as the movie progresses for fear of spoiling plot points, but, like many westerns, Appaloosa is very much a Guy’s Movie, and I was a little troubled by the vaguely sexist tone the movie takes on when it comes to her character (though I can only assume that’s taken from the book). Basically as soon as she arrives in Appaloosa, Cole falls in love with her at first sight, and their romance throws his dynamic with Hitch all out of whack – the story of Appaloosa has as much to do with their friendship being tested by an icky girl than it does about their attempt to bring Bragg to justice. As a result, Zellweger’s character just comes across shrill and annoying – she nags Cole about why he has to spend all day guarding his prisoner (i.e. doing his job) in his holding cell instead of spending time with her, for example.

I also found that music really struck the wrong tone. Which sounds like a strangely minor thing to gripe about, but the only reason I mention it is because AppaloPardnersosa is one of the rare times I even noticed the score, and that’s because it felt so wrong in so many parts. Ed Harris is a very capable director, and much of Appaloosa is beautiful to look at, and there are more than a few excellently-constructed sequences. A few scenes come close to being genuinely great, but the music holds it back, ruining the atmosphere, particularly in the buildup to the gunfights (a crucial aspect of any western). There’s also a couple of bits of voiceover from Mortensen’s character at the beginning and end of the film that are problematic. The voiceover that opens the film is helpful, as it explains Cole’s relationship with Hitch, but his narration in the final scene really just heavy-handedly explains things that were already pretty clear from the characters' actions, and it ruins the subtlety of an otherwise well-done sequence. The ending would have been far more effective if it had been allowed to play out without Mortensen's voiceover.

Ultimately, though, I found that the good in Appaloosa outweighed the bad. The gunfights, though few and far between, are very well done, though they typically only last a few seconds, often finishing before you realize what’s happening. (“That happened quick,” Hitch says after one shootout in which several men go down in the span of about two seconds. “Everybody could shoot,” is Cole’s terse reply.) And for the first two thirds or so I thought Appaloosa was really quite standard in its story – gunfighter cleans up lawless town, but finds his heart softening when he falls in love – but as the final third began, the plot started taking turns I didn’t expect, for better or worse (usually for better). Overall, if you’re a fan of westerns, there’s a lot to like here, but if you’re looking for lots of gunplay and action, look elsewhere. Appaloosa is an above-average western with some issues that prevent it from being truly great.



The Appaloosa DVD has quite a few extras on it, and they’re pretty much all solid. Ed Harris provides commentary, and he’s soft-spoken to the point of potentially inducing sleep. But he was heavily involved in just about every aspect of production, so he manages to provide lots of insight. He’s joined partway through the film by producing partner and co-writer Robert Knott, and as much as the two have the easy dialogue of old friends, Knott’s arrival doesn’t really add much. The track is thoughtful, if a little dry.

Also included are a handful of making-of featurettes on the characters and actors, the historical accuracy, the town itself (which was laid out and planned with a surprising level of detail) and veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who returned to the western genre – and traditional film stock – after spending several years shooting on digital. It’s a solid, if unspectacular package for a solid, if unspectacular film.

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Friday, January 23, 2009
  Oscar nominations
It’s that time of year again, when people debate the worthiness of the various Oscar-nominated films and bitch about which films got overlooked and which nominees have no business being on the list. I should begin by explaining that I don’t really pay all that much attention to the Oscars; only twice in the past decade or so can I say I wholeheartedly agree with the Academy’s choice for best picture of the year, and that’s The Return of the King’s win in 2004 (understood to really be an Oscar for all three of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, which I still consider a genuinely amazing achievement in filmmaking) and last year when No Country for Old Men won. Both times I issued silent ultimatums to the Academy that if those films didn’t win, I would officially write off the Oscars as irrelevant for all time, and both times they actually came through. No movies really blew me away this year like those did (read my best and worst of 2008 post here if you’re interested), and this year, like many years, there’s a pile of multiple nominees that I just haven’t seen. Some are films I’m interested in that I just haven’t gotten around to checking out yet (Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and a few that, for whatever reason, I’m not really interested in seeing, Oscar nomination or no.

Okay, with that lengthy preamble out of the way, here’s the list of nominees for the Oscars this year, and I’ll follow it with my thoughts:


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Richard Jenkins (The Visitor)
Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon)
Sean Penn (Milk)
Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)

Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married)
Angelina Jolie (Changeling)
Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
Meryl Streep (Doubt)
Kate Winslet (The Reader)

David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon)
Gus Van Sant (Milk)
Stephen Daldry (The Reader)
Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)

Josh Brolin (Milk)
Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt)
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Amy Adams (Doubt)
Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Viola Davis (Doubt)
Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)

The Baader Meinhoff Complex - Germany
The Class - France
Departures - Japan
Revanche - Austria
Waltz with Bashir - Israel

Kung Fu Panda

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
Doubt - John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon - Peter Morgan
The Reader - David Hare
Slumdog Millionaire - Simon Beaufoy

Frozen River - Courtney Hunt
Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh
In Bruges - Martin McDonagh
Milk - Dustin Lance Black
WALL-E - Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter

First: I’m stoked that Robert Downey JDowney kicking ass in Tropic Thunderr. got a nomination for his amazing work in Tropic Thunder. I reviewed that movie twice for this blog, once in theatres and again on DVD, and repeated viewings have helped me appreciate his performance even more (I also said back in August that he deserved an Oscar nomination, so I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an element of I-told-you-so in my excitement). But he’s in the category that’s been considered Heath Ledger’s since The Dark Knight came out, so he almost certainly won’t win. But I’m happy he got a nomination for the role he did.

I also think The Wrestler should have gotten more love as a film rather than just as a vehicle for great acting work. It’s a goddamn brilliant movie, and I don’t think Darren Aronofsky’s getting enough attention for his work. It’s obviously not as flashy as Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain, in terms of filmmaking gimmickry and special effects, but it’s still a brilliantly made film. That said, both Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are excellent in it, and I hope they both win.

Like many others, I assume The Dark Knight getting left out for any of the “main” awards outside of Heath Ledger’s nomination will make it the focus of much Internet whining. I loved the movie (though many aspects of its vaulting past “hugely successful movie” into “pop culture phenomenon” grate on my nerves), and I was somewhat surprised it didn’t get at least a token nomination for best picture based on its box office haul alone – the Academy loves them some successful movies, as the still-baffling (to me at least) choice of Gladiator as best picture in 2000 can attest – but I will not be one of the whiners. Ledger's widely seen as a lock for a posthumous Oscar for his work as the Joker, and he deserves it, so that’s okay. As much as I’m a comic book guy, I think The Dark Knight is an amazing movie that just so happens to be about Batman and the Joker, and it would have been a big moment for comic books and comic book movies for it to have gotten some more nominations (read: acceptance as a “real” film). As much as I may dislike that sort of condescending attitude towards The Dark Knight in some quarters based on its genre alone, I won’t be losing any sleep over it not being up for best picture or best director.

The film that seems to have all the momentum going into this year’s show is Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. I still haven’t gotten around to checking it out, though I’ve heard mostly good things – the lone dissenting voice among people I know is the same friend who really didn’t care for Let the Right One In, which was my favourite film of 2008, so I just may not be on the same wavelength as him – and I haven’t disliked a Danny Boyle movie I’ve seen yet, and that’s a list that includes A Life Less Ordinary. (Hell, I’m the only person I know who liked Sunshine.) A similar deal with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – I haven’t seen it yet (I plan to rectify that soon), but David Fincher’s one of the best American filmmakers out there right now. I’m happy he’s getting some attention for this ambitious film, as his previous work, 2007’s Zodiac, was an absolutely brilliant piece of work that seemed to slip under the radar for most people, the Academy included. Will this be a case of a talented filmmaker getting all the attention for the wrong film? I’ll weigh in on that once I’ve seen the film.

I also have a problem with this best animated feature award. As I’ve mentioned here before, I love animation and animated movies, but children’s movies don’t do it for me (because hey, I’m an adult). And while I named Kung Fu Panda one of my top films of 2008, and I stand by that choice, my issue is with what the Academy has done with this category. IWaltz with Bashirnstead of taking the opportunity to focus on great animated films, it’s basically become the “best kids movie” category, and the Academy seems to consciously turn a blind eye to animation as a real medium rather than a genre (i.e. cute talking animals). Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo and WALL-E I acknowledge as really top-shelf movies, but….Bolt? Really? A talking-dog movie with Miley Cyrus? A year after Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis was nominated (but didn’t win) in this category after not being included in the best foreign-language film category, the Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (of which I’ve heard nothing but incredibly positive things) is in the best foreign film category, and isn’t up for best animated film. I don’t get it. But then again I included a Punisher movie as one of my top 10 movies of 2008, so really, what the hell do I know.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
  DVD Review: Righteous Kill

I'm not going to mess around here: Righteous Kill is a bad movie. A very bad movie. It's bad in just about every way a movie like this can be bad. What ostensibly makes this cop thriller special is that it reunites two of the greatest actors in cOld men shooting guns! YEAH!!!inema history, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, in their first on-screen pairing since 1995's Heat. The issue some people had with Heat, at least in terms of the Pacino-De Niro teaming (they were both in The Godfather Part II, but never appeared on the screen together), was that they only shared one scene together (well, technically two, but the second, in the film's final moments, has no dialogue). Notwithstanding the fact that Heat is completely brilliant and that people who complain about it don't know what they're talking about (seriously, badmouth Heat in my presence and I will cut you), I can understand the appeal of Righteous Kill's gimmick of "now they're in virtually every scene together!" The problem is, as I mentioned earlier in this paragraph, Righteous Kill is bad.

Righteous Kill is a whodunit cop thriller about a serial killer in New York City who targets criminals, leaving little poems at the crime scenes. Eventually the investigating officers (De Niro and Pacino) conclude the killer must be a cop. And because the only characters in the movie are either cops or criminals, it means just about every character is a suspect. And Righteous Kill is filled with red herrings; there isn't a character in the movie the film doesn't try to make seem like the killer at some point, however implausible. And it opens with De Niro's character confessing to a video camera that he's the killer. But given the kind of movie this is, it's clear within seconds that there's more going on than meets the eye, so despite his apparent confession (and the film's constant, heavy-handed suggestions that he's the killer), De Niro's character is the only one who can be reasonably assumed to be innocent.

Now none of this, on paper, is all that bad. And add to that the pairing of De Niro and Pacino, and it's sort of amazing this movie isn't at least watchable for them alone. But w'Hey, remember when we did this scene in Heat? We should fire our agents.'iser critics than I have noticed a distinct drop-off in Pacino's give-a-rat's-ass-o-meter these past few years (exemplified in his previous thriller, 88 Minutes, which was also directed by Righteous Kill producer/director Jon Avnet; I haven't seen 88 Minutes but I've heard nothing but terrible, terrible things about it), and after watching Righteous Kill, I can attest to that. De Niro’s character is a bit more low-key – he’s filled with rage that bubbles just beneath the surface, something he specializes in – while Pacino just looks bored, strolling through scenes and dropping his lines as if he were giving his order at a deli. I’d say it’s a shame, but the script, by Inside Man screenwriter Russell Gerwitz, is so weak that I can sort of sympathize with his lack of enthusiasm. The only actors I thought were doing decent work were John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as a pair of fellow cops helping De Niro and Pacino on the case (or are they?!?!?).

Righteous Kill is a thriller with zero thrills. The bulk of the movie is just Gerwitz and Avnet trying to misdirect the viewer with sloppy red herrings and plot threads that go nowhere. Gerwitz explains in one of the extras that when he writes a movie like this he starts with the twist and writes backwards. And while I’m sure many great whodunits have been created that way, in the case of Righteous Kill, it just makes the twist (which I won’t spoil other than to say it’s silly, and involves a ridiculous bit of misdirection that the back of the DVD box tipped me off to) all the more far-fetched. It seems like Gerwitz was trying far harder to shock viewers than to create a twist that made any sort of logical sense for the character involved.

Overall, Righteous Kill, despite re-teaming Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, has pretty much nothing to recommend it. I know it gets dry out there in the video stores sometimes, but if you’re thinking of checking out Righteous Kill, just re-watch Heat. Or if you want a twisty, morally ambiguous cop thriller, track down a little film called Narc with Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, or the 1985 William Friedkin classic To Live And Die In L.A., with a pre-CSI William Petersen. Those are all movies that, to varying degrees, successfully cover territory Righteous Kill tries – and fails – to cover. Do yourself a favour and avoid this one.



The Righteous Kill DVD has a few extras on it, including audio commentary with producer/director Jon Avnet. Avnet is boring as hell, and his quiet, vaguely monotone voice make this commentary track great for insomniacs. He seems almost defensive about comparisons to the obviously Two old dudes + a corpse = BOX OFFICE GOLDfar (FAR) superior Heat, pointing out that he had a limited budget and shot the movie in 35 days, whereas Heat had over 100 shooting days. The trouble is, nobody else mentioned Heat, so his bringing it up himself, apropos of nothing, seems like he knows he made a bad movie. Avnet is remarkably pretentious considering how pedestrian and weak his movies seem to be. Maybe he should stick to producing. “If the quality of my work is not great or doesn’t rise above mediocrity,” Avnet says at one point on the track, “it won’t be for a lack of effort on my part.” I guess it’s good to know that Righteous Kill sucks despite Avnet’s best efforts.

There’s also a brief making-of mini-documentary that’s pretty standard stuff. More than half of it is the rest of the cast and crew gushing about De Niro and Pacino. The coolest extras is a 20-minute featurette that uses the film’s plot purely as a jumping-off point to explore the topic of police corruption. It’s actually very interesting, and I wish it ran longer. The narration is incredibly cheesy, however, and for such gritty subject matter, the narrator shouldn’t sound like the MovieFone guy. Still, it’s quite interesting, and despite the regular, shoehorned-in references to the movie, it’s really a standalone piece about real-life examples of police corruption and the “blue wall of silence” seen in the film. It’s surprisingly well-produced for a featurette of this kind, complete with re-enactments and everything. It’s too bad the movie it’s bolted onto isn’t better.

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Friday, January 16, 2009
  First Watchmen post of '09!
Great news today for comic book geeks: The lawsuit filed by 20th Century Fox trying to block the March 6 release of the Watchmen film has been settled. I'm no entertainment lawyer, but as a huge fan of the original book, dirJeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian (AP Photo/Warner Bros.)ector Zack Snyder's work and movies in general, I'd been keeping an eye on this story, which first started to get serious around Christmas time when a judge agreed to hear the case. I was never that worried that the finished film wouldn't get its planned release date, at least not over this lawsuit, but it's nice to know that it's settled and the movie will come out as intended. Presumably Fox – which passed on the film, and then apparently decided they did want a a piece of it after all when the trailers first hit to incredible buzz, and I assume The Dark Knight's huge success, which proved there is a market out there after all for intelligent, complex films about superheroes didn't hurt either – is getting a ton of money in return for dropping the suit.

I came across an interesting open letter by one of the film's producers, Lloyd Levin, about a week ago. He's been trying to get the film made for more than a decade now, and I found his input on this situation to be pretty insightful. Here's his take on the Fox issue:

From my point of view, the flashpoint of this dispute, came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package, at the same time. It included a cover letter describing the project and its history, budget information, a screenplay, the graphic novel, and it made mention that a top director was involved.

And it's at this point, where the response from both parties could not have been more radically different.

The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie - yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.

Read the whole thing here if you're interested. It's a little moot now that the case has been settled and Watchmen is officially on track for its March 6 release date, but I'm a sucker for inside stories about how Hollywood actually works. And as a longtime fan of Watchmen, which was considered unfilmable up until footage from Snyder's film started coming out, I can say that if this film is half as good (and loyal to the source material) as it appears to be, the project's 15-year-long trip to the screen will have been worth every minute.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
  Best and Worst of 2008
I used to love the year-end best-of lists that populate magazines and TV shows that come around in late December and early January each year, but now, like a lot of people, I’m pretty sick of them. However, this is the first year in which I’ve had a blog, and I’ve actually been pretty excited about putting together my first year-end best/worst lists.

A few words before I get into it…I don’t see anything close to every movie that comes out, and I haven’t seen many of the films populating other year-end lists, like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Milk or Slumdog Millionaire. I generally see movies I’m interested in and think will be entertaining, and try to avoid those I think will suck. And I also tried to tie in as much as possible film’s I’ve discussed in this space over the past several months. Because I typically use this blog to crow about what I loved (or hated) at the movies or on DVD, there was going to be a ton of overlap anyways.

And no, I didn’t give them a made-up award name. I feel like things get self-indulgent enough around here without me going to those lengths. With all that said, here are the 10 movies/DVDs I enjoyed the most in 2008, followed by the five worst (I’m trying to be nicer this year, so I’m focusing more on the positive than the negative.


1. Let the Right One In
Tomas Alfredson’s vampire film (I almost described it as “offbeat,” particularly in light of Twilight’s success, but like to paraphrase Michael Bolton in Office Space, why should I qualify my review? Twilight’s the film that sucks) was that rare film about which I heard an insane amount of positive things beforehand, and not only did it not disappoint, it managed to surpass expectations. That said, hype and expectation aside, this is a beautiful, haunting film that’s stayed with me ever since I saw it (twice). Maybe not for everyone – at least one friend of mine thought it was horribly overrated, but whatever – but no other film I saw this year knocked me on my ass like Let the Right One In did. (Check out my full review here.)

2. The Wrestler
I wrote in this space about how Darren Aronofsky is ridiculously talented, and in my TIFF recap, I lamented not being able to see this movie (which at the time still had no distribution deal). Aronofsky proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of story – the plot is pretty standard sports movie fare – to make a truly great film. If you haven’t seen it, everything you’ve heard or read about Mickey Rourke’s performance is absolutely true. The best work I saw any actor do this year (though the next film on my list boasts a close second). Aronofsky’s last two films (The Fountain and this) have brought me to tears in a movie theatre, and if he can do that with his planned RoboCop remake/sequel, well, then I’ll know he’s truly a genius.

3. The Dark Knight
I love this film for a lot of reasons. Heath Ledger’s performance, obviously, is one. He’s so good I actually forget I’m watching an actor, and I just think of him as The Joker, which I can only say about two other performances I’ve ever seen: Rourke in The Wrestler and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. But as much attention as Ledger got (and will get – if he doesn’t win the Oscar, I’m pretty much done with paying any attention whatsoever to the Academy Awards), this is just a great film. Christopher Nolan deserves an incredible amount of praise for not only building on the excellent Batman Begins and delivering something genuinely special, but also – and this is just the comic book geek in me talking – proving that just because a movie is about a guy who dresses up in a costume and fights crime, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be taken seriously as a movie and work on its own merits. It’s a legacy I’m hopeful/confident Zack Snyder’s upcoming Watchmen film will build on.

4. Iron Man
Jon Favreau’s superhero flick kind of got a raw deal this summer. In any other year it’s huge box office haul would have made it the film of the year, but instead it’s just sort of a footnote in The Summer of Dark Knight. But Iron Man was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theatre, and like The Wrestler, proves that a standard genre plot – the superhero origin story, of which I am pretty tired at this point – doesn’t necessarily mean a standard film. Normally one of my problems with superhero movies is they don’t spend enough time on the superhero action (which is what I paid to see), but Favreau stacks his deck with an incredible cast that almost makes it disappointing when the titular hero shows up to kick ass. Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong, and the sequel – and planned spinoffs like Captain America, Thor and The Avengers – can’t come fast enough.

When I heard that Jean-Claude Van Damme, formerly one of my favourite action stars (back when Boyz II Men was one of my favourite musical groups, just to put my appreciation of quality back then into perspective) was starring in a film in which he’d play himself as a washed-up former action star who gets embroiled somehow in a botched robbery in his hometown of Brussels, it sounded like it would at least make for compellingly surreal viewing. What I wasn’t expecting was a genuinely great performance from JCVD himself (he delivers a minutes-long monologue to the camera that’s as riveting as anything I’ve seen in a movie this year) and a beautifully shot, emotionally engaging film from director Mabrouk El Mechri. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises. (Check out my full review here.)

6. The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration
Okay, this one is cheating – these movies are more than 30 years old in some cases – but Paramount’s Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is hands-down the most impressive DVD release I saw all year. I hadn’t realized how crappy the previous Godfather DVDs looked until I saw the gorgeous transfers on the standard discs, and as I said in my review, I can only imagine how amazing these films look on Blu-Ray. Kudos to Paramount for giving some of the greatest movies ever made a DVD set they deserve. Even if you’ve already got these movies on DVD, trust me, this is the set to pick up. (Check out my full review here.)

7. Mongol
This movie really surprised me. Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s film about the early days of Genghis Khan combines action, emotion and beautiful cinematography better than just about any similar Hollywood movie I can think of, and, as a Mongolian co-production shot on location and populated with Mongolian actors (though the title role is played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, who does some great minimalist work here) it has a real authenticity to it. I have no idea how historically accurate Mongol is, but it’s a great movie, and I hope Bodrov and company get to complete their planned trilogy of Khan biopics. (Check out my full review here.)

8. Tropic Thunder
I’ve watched this comedy a bunch of times now, and I still laugh my ass off every time. Sure, the Tom Cruise dancing stuff is a bit forced, but I otherwise love his performance, and Robert Downey Jr. does some of the best work in his career as an Australian actor doing a cringe-inducing caricature of a black man in a would-be Vietnam epic. Director/co-star Ben Stiller uses his cast brilliantly – Jack Black as an irritating jackass? SOLD – and manages a movie that lambastes Hollywood without being so mean spirited as to alienate viewers. Tropic Thunder is that rare comedy that holds up on repeat viewings. (Check out my full review here.)

9. Punisher: War Zone
Director Lexi Alexander’s insanely violent adaptation of the Marvel Comics vigilante proved the third time was indeed the charm for Frank Castle. It’s a shame this movie tanked at the box office, because it was some of the most fun I had in a movie theatre all year. It’s the perfect mix of violence and black humour, and Ray Stevenson is perfect as the Punisher (he doesn’t utter a line until about 20 minutes into the film), and Dominic West is so good as the villain, Jigsaw, that only Heath Ledger did a better job as the bad guy this year. 2008 was huge for Marvel Studios – their weakest movie was The Incredible Hulk, and that was still pretty good – but sadly Punisher: War Zone seems to have gotten lost in the churn. Hopefully this movie will find its audience on DVD, because it’s a riot, and the most deliriously over-the-top action movie I’ve seen in years.

10. Kung Fu Panda
I groaned when I saw the trailers for this movie – Jack Black voicing a Homer Simpson-esque panda bear in a kiddie comedy that spoofs my beloved kung fu movies – but boy was I wrong. People who know me know my lack of patience for kids movies, but Kung Fu Panda was blast. The animation is brilliant, the script is actually pretty funny, and the action sequences are excellent. It’s that rare children’s movie that actually works for just about anyone. I haven’t been this impressed with a movie of this kind since The Incredibles. (Check out my full review here.)


1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I had a conversation with a friend of mine right after I saw this in theatres (he’d seen it too the previous week), in which I acknowledged it was awful, but disputed his claim that it was the worst movie of the year. I have a dynamic with this friend where he makes a claim that I disagree with, only to realize days, weeks, even months later that he’s actually 100% right (usually this happens with music, but occasionally with movies as well, as was the case here). This is the most cynical, unnecessary cash-grab of 2008, and the only thing worse than the movie itself – which is filled with painfully leaden dialogue, cheap mugging and largely joyless, unexciting action sequences – is the fact that it raked in a ton of money at the box office. Everyone involved in this film is capable of better work, and should have known better. It makes producer George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels look excellent by comparison. At least Hayden Christensen didn’t survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a damn fridge. (Check out my full review here.)

2. Hell Ride
This movie is such a self-indulgent mess that going on about its awfulness feels like a grown man picking on a sickly child. Writer/director/star/pretentious douchebag Larry Bishop’s movie seems like a solid enough idea – riffing on old biker movies the way Kill Bill riffs on martial arts and revenge movies – but in the hands of such a criminally untalented, self-indulgent hack, it just becomes an exercise in testing viewers’ patience. I watched this thing – TWICE – out of a sense of journalistic duty. I pity those who sat through it ostensibly to be entertained. I’d rather stare at a wall for 90 minutes than watch this again. (Check out my full review here.)

3. Righteous Kill
My full review of this cop thriller will be posted later this week, but suffice it to say it’s not only a terrible film – a whodunit about a vigilante serial killer, thought to be a cop, who murders criminals and leaves little poems at the crime scenes – but it wastes the pairing of two of the greatest actors in film history, which makes it something akin to a war crime. Despite the fact that they share just about every scene together, both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (mostly Pacino) are just phoning it in. Righteous Kill is that rare film that’s so bad it actually affects other, older films; in this case, it makes Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat, which is already astoundingly good, even better. Damn this film for wasting such an opportunity. To hell with Director’s Jail, producer/director Jon Avnet should be brought before a tribunal at The Hague.

4. Sex and the City
Once again, this almost feels unfair. Almost. I probably would have put this fim higher on this list, but tearing up this unwatchable piece of garbage, which is so clearly not meant for me, already feels sort of unfair. But if anyone involved in this movie had the slightest interest in making a actual movie, they would have put some effort into making this something more than a two-and-a-half-hour (!) commercial for various clothing and shoe designers. But they didn’t. So here it is. The fact that people out there somewhere (and a lot of them, apparently) genuinely enjoyed this movie makes me weep for humanity. No wonder the terrorists hate us. (Check out my full review here.)

5. Be Kind Rewind
This isn’t so much one of the worst movies of the year as it is just a big letdown (like I said, I’m trying to be nicer). A million-dollar idea – two dorks recreate popular movies using camera tricks, cheapo costumes and loads of enthusiasm and cleverness – proved that despite his keen visual style, writer/director Michel Gondry should not be allowed to write his own work. Left to his own devices, the “childlike wonder” for which he’s known becomes “overly sentimental drivel.” While there’s certainly some great ideas here, and some flashes of genuine brilliance, it’s ultimately just a giant missed opportunity. If Gondry had asked his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to do a pass on the script, this could have been the film I – and many, many others – had hoped it would be. For my money, this was the most unfortunate misfire of 2008. (Check out my full review here.)

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Friday, January 9, 2009
  DVD Review: Hamlet 2

Hamlet 2 is easily one of the strangest comedies I saw in 2008. It’s not unlike Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder (see my review here), in that it’s spoofing a fairly well-tread subgenre – the “inspirational teacher movie” – while also managing to work as an entry into that genre. I didn’t think Hamlet 2 was as funny as Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder, but unlike those films, it actually has some fairly pointed things to say about modern American culture (the closest the other two movies comes to any similar sort of statement is Tropic Thunder co-writer/director/sMarschz leads his class in rehearsaltar Ben Stiller’s ongoing fascination with the entertainment business, which can make a lot of his directorial work a little too inside-baseball for some), and it’s also smarter, and considerably angrier. I generally try to avoid using too many overdone reviewer-words, but “scathing” immediately came to mind while I was watching it.

The plot of Hamlet 2, on its surface, is pretty standard inspirational teacher movie stuff. British comic Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz (pronounced "Marsh," more or less), a struggling actor whose credits include ads for juicers and herpes medication and a tiny role on Xena: Warrior Princess (he was also Robin Williams’ stand-in for a week on Patch Adams) who know spends his days working pro bono as high school drama teacher in a Tucson, Arizona, where he puts on plays based on contemporary movies like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning (!). He’s very unhappily married to an awful, bitter shrew of a woman (Catherine Keener) and to make ends meet, they’re renting out a room in their house to a dim slacker (David Arquette). When he finds out the school – which couldn’t care less about any arts programs, hence Marschz’s working for no pay – is cancelling drama, he decides he has to put on a blockbuster play to save the program. Taking the advice of an unusually verbose 14-year-old critic from the school paper (Marschz’s insane desire to get positive notices from a kid who cleans hamster cages is the funniest recurring gag in the movie), he decides to stop adapting mainstream movies for his plays and craft an original work. His idea? To write a sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The fact that Marschz unironically attempts to write and produce Hamlet 2 tells you all you need to know about his idiocy and self-delusion, but his ridiculously ambitious undertaking and his desire to save the program he loves gives him his first true bit of artistic inspiration. One of the greatest conceits in the movie is that, aside from a few offhand references to the play made by characters and a few glimpses of the production during the final sequence, the plot of Marschz’s Hamlet 2 is never really addressed in any detail. Instead we get tiny bits of information about what's actually in Marschz's sequel, such as a time machine, Albert Einstein, Jesus, at least one flying lightsaber duel, Satan kissing the president, and a stage setup that spoofs Rent’s scaffolding set. And aMarschz and Shue share a tender moments if that weren’t enough, Marchz is also using the play to address his serious unresolved issues with his father.

Because Hamlet 2 is a movie that's very much about show business –Marschz is prone to bitter outbursts about his failed acting career, and Elizabeth Shue plays herself as a former successful actress who now works as a nurse in Tucson after she quit the business in disgust – the filmmakers fill it with references to actual inspirational teacher movies like Dangerous Minds (which Marschz watches after his first day with his new class full of the Latino “troubled kids”), Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus (another of his faves). But ultimately the difference with Hamlet 2, as the producers say in the extras, is that this time the ethnic kids from the bad side of town (another stereotype the film has some fun with – Marschz assumes his students are all dead-end gangbangers, and learns that one has a 3.9 GPA, with a father who is a successful novelist with a PhD in literature and a mother who is a painter with an exhibit in the Guggenheim) save the teacher, instead of it being the other way around. But as much as Hamlet 2 is about a high school play, it’s definitely not for kids; it’s filled with swearing and sexual references (the students perform a song alongside Marschz – who’s dressed as Einstein for reasons that are never explained – called ‘Raped in the Face’).

Most importantly, Hamlet 2 is pretty damn funny. I haven’t seen any of Coogan’s signature BBC show, Alan Partridge, but he’s absolutely brilliant in everything else I’ve seen him in, and he’s no different here. He deserves a ton of credit for this movie working as well as it does; it’s a tricky balance the filmmakers are attempting to strike between satire and outright stupidity, and without someone as talented as Coogan carrying the whole thing, Hamlet 2 could have been a huge mess. Instead, Coogan makes Marschz a totally likeable buffoon through his relentless, infectious enthusiasm. I don’t remember the last time “lovable loser” was such an apt character description.

But in addition to just being a comedy, Hamlet 2 has a lot to say. It’s a comedy about the anti-intellectual, anti-art sentiment that’s seemingly been growing in America in the past decade or so, as well as homogenous mall-culture. It’s set in Tucson, Arizona, and it’s filled with mean jokes about what a boring, lifeless dead-end place it is (I’ve never been, so I can’t really say, but the director mentions they had to shoot in New Mexico because officials from Tucson didn’t appreciate the script and didn’t want them to shoot there). But it’s also filled with more low-brow, broad comedy – it’s written by folks who worked on the South Park movie and Team America, so it’s got a similar all-over-the place vibe. If jokes about Shakespeare aSexy Jesus himself, rocking everybodynd the dumbing down of contemporary culture aren’t your thing, a silly pratfall or bit of male nudity will be along in a few seconds to try to get a chuckle out of you. And somehow the filmmakers even manage to make what little of the Hamlet 2 play we actually see emotionally affecting; it’s sort of a real moment when Marschz, playing Jesus (some time after the ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ musical number – sadly not to the tune of Falco’s ‘80s classic, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’) forgives his own father.

My biggest problem with Hamlet 2 was with Catherine Keener’s character as Coogan’s wife. As I mentioned earlier, she completely loathes her husband for being such a loser, but the character is so hateful that it’s difficult to identify her as even human. I get that she personifies all of Marschz’s self-doubt – she thinks nothing of belittling his ambitions or sperm count in public – but I couldn’t get past the idea that there was no possible way these two characters made it through one dinner together, let alone got married. This isn’t a knock on Keener; she’s an excellent actress, and she’s not bad here (and I also realize this isn’t a comedy filled with totally realistic, fully fleshed-out characters), but she was just too awful a person for me to buy her as anything resembling a real person. And I promised myself I’d mention that the “putting on high school plays based on hilariously inappropriate contemporary movies” is lifted from Rushmore.

Overall though, Hamlet 2 is a very funny comedy with real ideas and genuine intelligence behind it, and there isn’t a whole lot of that going around these days. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different from the average comedy, check out Hamlet 2. At the very least, the ending is much more uplifting than Hamlet 1.



The DVD features on Hamlet 2 are some of the cleverest, from a conceptual standpoint, that I’ve seen in a while. In addition to a couple of more traditional making-of/cast and crew featurettes (which do a decent job of showing the apparently fun on-set vibe) and a lone deleted scene, there’s a pair of sing-along features for the two songs performed in the film, ‘Rock Me Sexy Jesus’ and ‘Raped in the Face.’ There’s also a cute comparison between the brief scene from Marschz’s Erin Brockovich play and the same bit in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film. Finally, co-writer/director Andrew Fleming provides a solid, if unremarkable, commentary track.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009
  DVD Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the flawless No Country for Old Men is a strange little movie. As a comedy (albeit a dark one), in many ways it’s the oppo
site of No Country, bBrad Pitt as one of the film's gang of idiotsut both films share a pretty bleak view of human nature, and like many Coen Brothers films, it has bursts of shocking violence. It also boasts a cast that is, to use the cliché, star-studded, and everyone involved is doing great work. Combined with a deliciously black tone and its theme of peoples’ inherent greed and stupidity (a subject near and dear to my own cynical heart), Burn After Reading should be a minor classic. And yet somehow, it's strangely inert, and just never quite comes together.

While I know many people and critics really didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading a bad movie, just...odd. (I actually found it such a strange experience that I watched it again the following day, and found myself enjoying it far more than I did initially.) The comedy in Burn After Reading comes more from tone, but the movie isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny, though I did titter like a schoolgirl in many parts, particularly on the second viewing, and I had an evil grin on my face for much of its running time. The music, for example, is so hilariously overblown and serious – as if you were watching a “real” spy movie – that it perfectly underscores the petty silliness of what's happening on the screen.

One of the issues many people seem to have with Burn After Reading is that none of the characters are sympathetic (I actually tend to quite enjoy movies like that, but that's largely due to my own misanthropic tendencies); they’re all bad people or just plain stupid, or both. George Clooney is a scumbag sex addict who cheats on everyone, even his mistress; Brad Pitt is an dim, annoying douchebag; Frances McDormand is superficial, self-involved and oblivious; John Malkovich is an arrogant jerk; Tilda Swinton is an ice queen who, at the beginning, seems like the worst of the bunch, but by
the end she seems liTwo morons making a love connectionke the least shitty person, because unlike all the other characters, she seems to have her shit at least somewhat together.

Clooney and Pitt are playing so against type that if you’re interested in the movie because you think they’re glamorous and sexy movie stars, you will probably be disappointed. Clooney in particular is doing some impressive work as a sleazebag who tries to be charming – it’s like a great actor pretending to be a bad actor, and I’m sure it’s harder than it looks. Pitt is fantastic here, and his performance reminded me of an Esquire column I read years ago, I think shortly after Ocean’s Eleven came out, that basically argued that he’s an incredibly funny comedic character actor trapped in a screen idol’s body, and if you haven’t seen True Romance (another personal fave) or any other movies where Brad Pitt gets to be hilarious, Burn After Reading is worth checking out just for that.

One thing I really appreciated about the movie is that it has fun (granted, very mean-spirited fun) with the way that a lot of people nowadays behave as if they’re in a movMalkovich decides it's time for VIOLENCEie. Not literally, of course, but movies and TV shows have impacted the way we think the world works, in a lot of ways. McDormand
’s and Pitt’s characters act like they’re in a spy film, and a lot of the humour and absurdity in their subplot involves their illusions about what espionage is like crashing against the far less sexy reality. They’re basically just trying to do things they’ve seen in movies, and none of it works, at all. Burn After Reading is a comedy for people who find themselves thinking from time to time about how much people suck. (Like me.) It’s a mean little movie about small, petty people doing small, petty things, only they all think their actions are grandiose and important.

All of this sounds overwhelmingly positive, I realize. But Burn After Reading, for all my gushing, is certainly flawed. It’s just that I
really can’t articulate what those flaws are. Something about the film just doesn’t connect or gel the way, on paper, it feels like it should. It’s just weirdly…off in a way that I can’t really put my finger on. I feel like I appreciated it more than I actually liked it. All the pieces are here – and then some – but the final product somehow manages to be less than the sum of its very impressive parts. Burn After Reading isn’t a bad film by any means, but considering the talent involved, it’s a curious disappointment.



I don’t like to make presumptions about the motives of other people, especially other people as talented as the Coen Brothers, but their participation in the slight featurettes on this DVD (and others, like The Big Lebowski) doesn’t suLike so much in life, Brad Pitt's gambit ended with bloody-nosed disappointmentggest an actual aversion on their parts to doing interviews and stuff for DVDs. But for whatever reason, Coen Brothers discs tend to be pretty spare, and Burn After Reading is no different. Two of the three featurettes are barely five minutes (one is just about how Clooney and the Coens like working together, the other, an ostensible making-of feature, is less than six minutes long). The most interesting (and, at over 10 minutes, the most substantial) is ‘D.C. Insiders Run Amok,’ about the actors and their characters, and it’s pretty fun stuff.

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

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