People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, March 27, 2009
  DVD Review: Primal Fear

I first saw Primal Fear back when it was first released on video a few months after its 1996 theatrical run. I checked it out primarily because I’d heard all sorts of insane hype about some newcomer named Edward Norton who apparently blew everyone else in the movie out of the water (and was subsequently nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar). I don't remember much about the movie other than the twist at the end (which is a big one, and fairly well done), and the fact that Norton was as good as everyone said he was. I hadn’t seen Primal Fear since, and upon revisiting it for this review of Paramount’s spiffy new “Hard Evidence Edition” DVD, I think I know why I couldn’t remember much about it other than those two details: unless you’re a hardcore fan of courtroom dramas, there isn’t much beyond Primal Fear’s twist ending and Norton’s performance to recommend it.

Before I go further, I should mention that I’ll be getting into some spoiler territory in this review. I try to avoid this usually, but Primal Fear is so reliant on the twisty nature of its plot that I can’t really say much at all without ruining some revelation or another. Also, if you haven’t seen this 13-year-old movie yet, but are somehow still interested enough in it to want to go into it fresh, then I really don’t know what else to tell you other than, I guess, stop reading now. (Also, the premise is that Norton plays a shy altar boy accused of murder, and given the attention he gets for his performance – it quite literally made his career – clearly something is going on with his character.)

Primal Fear is a legal thriller based on a novel by William Diehl, about the trial of an altar boy (Norton) accused of murdering a Catholic archbishop in Chicago. He’s represented pro bono by a slick defence attorney (Richard Gere) who usually specializes in defending mobsters and other high-profile sleazebags. The young man is arrested while fleeing the archbishop’s home, covered in his blood – but he insists he didn’t kill him, claiming that he only witnessed the murder. It then becomes a race against time – or more accurately, against the American legal system – as Gere and his team try to solve the mystery of the murder before the prosecution does. And naturally, there’s considerably more to the shy, stuttering altar boy than meets the eye.

My main problem with Primal Fear – and in fairness I should say I’m not into “courtroom thrillers,” as I find movies about law loopholes and obscure legal precedents considerably less than thrilling – is tRichard Gere, Handsome Manhat it’s basically a below-average Law & Order episode drawn out to two hours, only with more violence, swearing and nudity. The only thing that sets it apart is the top-shelf actors who populate the movie. The central mystery of what happened isn’t presented in a way where viewers could try to figure out what’s going on, so you’re really just waiting for Gere to gather evidence piece it all together. But there’s very little in Primal Fear which hasn’t been seen before – Gere as the slick, cynical defense lawyer who doesn’t believe in anything except for his own ability to manipulate people (only it turns out he’s a closet idealist); the excellent Laura Linney as the tough prosecutor (who also happens to be Gere’s ex, natch) who we know is tough because she swears and keeps lighting up cigarettes in places she shouldn’t (though Linney does a solid job with what the script gives her to work with). It’s also unclear what she ever saw in Gere’s character, as he’s only ever an arrogant jerk to her (I think it’s supposed to be “charming,” but he just comes across as a smarmy prick).

There are also a few minor “action sequences,” usually involving Andre Braugher (formerly of Homicide), who plays Gere’s ex-cop investigator, who chases around some guys and gets into a fight or two just to inject a little excitement into the movie. But instead it just makes it seem silly – I admit I don’t know much about the U.S. justice system, but the idea of a high-profile lawyer like the guy Gere plays chasing a potential witness through grimy back alleys and wrestling him to the ground in between court appearances just struck me as ridiculous.

The best thing about Primal Fear is that it’s a hit parade of really talented actors like Norton, Linney, Braugher, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard and John Mahoney (it’s kind of awesome hearing Frasier’s dad swear). Norton, though, is clearly the main attraction here. Relatively early in the film, it’s revealed that his character seems to have a split personality, as he switches from being the overly polite, sweet manchild we’ve been watching to something very different. I really can’t say enough about Norton’s work here – the scene where he initially shows his split personality to Gere is electrifying. Just seeing him switch from a meek, stuttering wallflower to a quick-tempered, violent redneck in a split second is astonishing, even if you know it’s coming. And his final scene with Gere really just confirms how talented he is. It’s not too often that a capital-G Great Actor’s career can be linked to one specific movie (I couldn’t be bothered to look it up on Wikipedia, but I don’t think the list of actors who got an Oscar nomination for their first movie role is particularly long), but Primal Fear is one of those movies.

Overall, if you’re a fan of legal thrillers – or of Edward Norton – this new Primal Fear DVD is likely worth your time. But for a guy who finds legal thrillers tiresome, there wasn’t much more to Primal Fear than the admittedly fantastic acting.



The best thing about the new Primal Fear DVD – which comes in a cool little plastic evidence bag – is the extras. (First, there’s a commentary track from the director, writer, and some producers, but it’s boring as hell; I didn’t make it very far in.) While Edward Norton doesn’t have a reputation for being the easiest actor in the world to work with, he’s a happy participant in this new DVD, which could easily have been billed as the "Edward Norton Edition."

I love retrospective making-of documentaries –watching the cast and crew look back several years (or even decades) to recall their experiences on a movie greatly increases the odds of them just being honest about it. It’s far more interesting to me than the usual “the movie’s about to come out so we better hit the press-junket circuit and talk about how great it is” making-of featurettes on most DVDs. And the mini-doc “Primal Fear: The Final Verdict” is exactly the kind of featurette I love, featuring interviews with Norton, Linney and the filmmakers. Norton and Linney, specifically, have some amusing anecdotes about their experiences on what was a fairly high-profile movie as unknown actors. (Gere, curiously, is absent from all the extras, but he’s not really missed; this is all Norton's show anyway.) The producers discuss the process of putting the film together – and fighting for unknown actors in pretty key roles – through production and release. It’s really interesting stuff for a movie geek like myself.

There’s also a featurette just on casting Norton, called “Star Witness: Casting Edward Norton,” that’s almost as much about Norton’s life as a struggling actor as it is about his being cast (interesting factoid: the producers’ first choice was Leonardo DiCaprio, who eventually passed). Finally, there’s a very cool little piece called “The Psychology of Guilt,” about the mechanics of the insanity plea in the American justice system, and how movies have really blown things like pleading insanity and “multiple personality disorder” (which doesn’t really exist, at least not in the way most people think it does). I love when DVD producers include faturettes like this, that aren’t really about the film itself, but rather provide some real-world context for the fictional story.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009
  DVD Review: South Park - Season 12

I’m not really a South Park fan. I’m familiar with the show, and I think it’s had some pretty hilarious and smart stuff on it (which I’ve seen primarily in clips on the Internet – there’s a Wheel of Fortune gag that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, ever), and because of an ex-girlfriend who was REALLY into it, I’ve seen the 1999 movie, Bigger, Longer & Uncut, more times than I care to think about. (It’s a pretty funny movie, I’m not knocking it, I’ve just probably seen it 10 to 15 times more than was necessary for me.) Basically I think South Park is okay from what I’ve seen, but I haven’t been blown away enough to seek it out and watch it. So what does the show’s 12th season have to offer a guy like me? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
The first thing that struck me about season 12 of South Park is that if there’s a true successor to The Simpsons out there, it’s this show (Family Guy seems like the more obvious choice, because it’s a total ripoff from The Simpsons; working against it however, is the fact that it’s repetitive, hackneyed drivel). It went through the same period of almost gag-inducing mainstream popularity when it first hit (remember how ubiquitous Cartman t-shirts and dolls were when it first hit?), and once that faded the show sort of evolved into being a satire of media, society, and – eventually – the show itself. South Park a smart show made by smart people, that often – arguably too often – traffics in decidedly lowbrow humour, but make no mistake, there are some legitimately sharp minds at work here. It’s funny and it’s actually about things, and even when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone err on the side of heavy-handedness in getting their message across (often in the form of a somewhat tongue-in-cheek speech from one of the kids at the end), the point they’re making is more often than not a good one.

Season 12 of South Park is far enough in that, if you’re not buying what Parker and Stone are selling at this point, the show’s probably just not for you. But it’s packed with awesome and hilarious pop culture referenWhat comes next is...not prettyces ranging from the somewhat obscure (the Heavy Metal parody “Major Boobage,” which had me in stitches the entire time) to the very obvious (a ham-fisted spoof of High School Musical). But for a season of television that ran last year, some of the jokes seemed weirdly stale (they just got around to making fun of goth kids? Really?), and in the aforementioned High School Musical spoof they actually directly reference the hugely successful tween franchise, despite the fact that, by that point in the episode, it’s beyond obvious that that’s what they’re satirizing.

But despite the crude animation, they manage to make a running gag of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg literally raping Indiana Jones (a metaphor for Crystal Skull’s crappiness) actually sort of creepy and disturbing – particularly when they riff on the infamous scene in The Accused. And the post-election night episode (which the staff remarkably turned around in 24 hours), “About Last Night…”, reveals that rather than being bitter political rivals, Barack Obama and John McCain are actually comrades in an elaborate Ocean’s 11-esque scheme to steal the Hope Diamond (also: Michelle isn’t actually Barack’s wife, and Sarah Palin is actually a brilliant British burglar merely disguised as a folksy hockey mom of questionable intelligence). When South Park is firing on all cylinders like that, it’s right up there with The Simpsons. A very funny show.



I guess it’s because I don’t watch much South Park and therefore don’t have any of the previous season-set DVDs, but apparently Parker and Stone only do “mini-commentaries” on most of the episodes (as opposed to full commentaries), and evidently what tDoes stealing a priceless diamond count as stimulus?his means is that they only talk for the first couple of minutes of each episode, and then they just stop. It’s a move that makes a certain amount of sense – it’s better than them trying to find ways to fill time for 20-odd minutes at a time. I respect it, even if I would have enjoyed hearing from them some more, as they’re both incredibly smart, funny dudes – but at the same time it’s sort of weird that after five or so minutes, the commentary ends and you’re left just watching the episode. It’s an odd choice, but I’m late enough to the South Park DVD party that I’m sure fans are used to it now.

There’s also a nice range of featurettes, including brief making-of bits about specific episodes (like the post-election show), and a six-part making-of mini-documentary, “Six Days to South Park,” which follows the day-by-day creation of an episode. It features six animators and producers and directors and editors explaining the process for creating the show, but conspicuously absent are Parker and Stone; I guess at this point they’re more the idea men, focusing on writing and other stuff, and now the nuts and bolts are handled by other folks (I could be wrong but I seem to recall reading that in the early days they did much of the animation themselves), and it’s cool that they share the spotlight with their incredibly hard-working crew (they regularly turn out episodes in a matter of days, which is pretty amazing, regardless of what you think of the “crude” animation). Overall this is a very solid DVD set.

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Friday, March 20, 2009
  So Say We All
Tonight’s a big night for fans of quality TV: it’s the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, the best show currently on television (this is not to be confused with my previously labeling The Wire as the best TV show of all time, as it’s no longer on). I’m aware that a lot of people, particularly people who don’t usually go in for science fiction, can be a little skeptical about BSG devotees telling them that a show about a spaceship is “the best thing on TV,” but believe me, Battlestar Galactica’s the real deal. As much as I dig sci-fi movies, I am not a Star Trek fan, and I usually loathe shows about crews of spaceships (any Star Trek show, Andromeda, any of the Stargates, etc.), but Battlestar Galactica couldn’t be further from series like that. Like the best science fiction, BSG uses its fantastic conceit – the remnants of the human race, numbering less than 50,000 souls, seeking the mythical planet known as Earth to start society anew after humanity was all but wiped out by the robotic Cylons – to make some very profound statements about war and its effects on the people who fight it, as well as society in general.

Battlestar Galactica is a great show filled with great writing, characters, and actors (if I had a dollar for every time Edward James Olmos moved me to the brink of tears, I’d…have a few dollars, but no other TV show can make a similar claim, not even The Wire). If you can look past genre trappings like robots, spaceships and made-up cuss words (you get used to it, believe me, and it eventually becomes a wonderfully clever way for the writers to kinda-sorta sneak swearing into the show), Battlestar Galactica gets into some pretty serious – and grim – human drama. It’s also filled with hot chicks (and dudes – Apollo is ripped), so there’s also an eye-candy factor as well, if that’s a selling point for you.

So if you’re not a follower of Battlestar Galactica, I won’t tell you to watch tonight’s finale, as it will almost certainly make no sense to you whatsoever (for example, the few times I’ve flipped by Lost – a show I don’t follow – I feel like I’m watching a TV show from another dimension). But what I will do is recommend that you check out the season one Battlestar Galactica DVD set, if anything I’ve said here sounds even remotely interesting to you. The show develops as it moves along – the first season features more dogfights and action sequences than later seasons, when the producers and writers really run with the more interesting thematic stuff that sets the show apart from other “space” shows, and the miniseries that precedes the main series isn’t quite as compelling as the show itself, as it’s mostly set-up – and it’s filled with genuinely shocking twists. And having a finite, four-season run means it has a concrete beginning, middle and end (which, as I’ve said here before, is probably the one thing that holds Deadwood back from being as good as The Wire). The bottom line is, Battlestar Galactica is a truly special show, I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up tonight.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
  DVD Review: Milk

Milk is a film about the life of ‘70s gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. The film falls squarely into the “inspirational biopic” subgenre, but that’s not to say it’s a paint-by-numbers affair. With a top-notch director like Gus Van Sant behind the camera and an excellent script by Dustin Lance Black (who recently won the best original screenplay Oscar for his work), Milk is the kind of biopic that most filmmakers seem to be trying to make when they take a stab at the genre. It’s educational, uplifting and gets its message across without being heavy-handed about it.

The first thing that warrants mention about Milk, and it’s probably pretty obvious at this point, is that Sean Penn is absolutely brilliant in the title role (which is somewhat unsurprising considering he just won the Oscar for it). He really is amazing in Milk; I went into the movie with the belief that Penn is one of the best screen actors working today, and I was still blown away. I haven’t seen any footage of the real Harvey Milk in action so I can’t speak to Penn’s accuracy in terms of mimicking his voice and mannerisms, but he really makes Harvey Milk come alive as a character. Van Sant, Black and company do an excellent job of extrapolating Milk’s campaign for equal rights for gays and lesbians into a crusade for equal rights for all people, elevating him into a figure on par with Martin Luther King Jr.

But as impressed as I was with Penn’s performance, it was Josh Brolin who really wowed me, mostly because Penn got so much attention that I almost forgot Brolin was even in Milk. Between No Country for Old Men, Oliver Stone’s W. (which I actually quite liked, and Brolin was astonishing in it) and now Milk, his career renaissance is truly complete. He’s transitioned from being an actor on a great comeback streak to simply being a great actor.

I also have to single out director Gus Van Sant for praise. He’s a filmmaker I find very interesting (even if I don’t always like his movies), and his drive to experiment with the form usually elicits some pretty fascinating results (like the school-shooting drama Elephant) – as well as some odd misfires (like his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho). But with Milk Van Sant returns to “mainstream director” form previously seen in Good Will Hunting. He brings just the right amount of style to Milk, never losing sight of the fact that this is Harvey Milk’s story, not an excuse to showcase cute new camera tricks. (Many of the scenes between Harvey and Brolin’s character, Dan White – whom Harvey suspects might be a closeted, frustrated gay man himself – are framed as wide shots of hallways and chambers with the two characters sort of shunted off in the corner, illustrating the tension between them, but it's never distracting.) As frustrating as Van Sant’s more experimental films can be, he hits it out of the park with Milk.

If there’s a knock against the movie, it’s that it’s maybe too nice to Harvey Milk. Aside from some personal-life troubles, he’s portrayed here as one of the nicest, kindest, sweetest, most noble men who ever lived. Which he very well might be – as I said, I know next to nothing about Harvey Milk aside from what’s in this movie, and I find boning up on stuff like this on Wikipedia just for a review kind of intellectually dishonest – but it felt like Black’s script came a little too close to total lionization. It’s a minor gripe – and one I confess to including out of a sense of obligation, because I really couldn’t find any legitimate problems with the movie – because Milk really works on just about every level. If the price of this movie’s message (it’s sort of amazing to me that many of the issues Harvey Milk fought for in the 1970s remain “controversial” to this day, and I don’t mean that in a good way) is that Harvey Milk, the film character, is an almost unreasonably good a person, then it’s a small one, and I think it was well worth paying. Milk is pretty much exactly what a biopic should be; by the end credits, I felt like I learned something (a lot actually), I was entertained and even moved. It’s a wonderful film that doesn’t sacrifice being entertaining to get its point across, and I recommend it highly.



The Milk DVD is another example of a DVD that doesn’t have a ton of bonus features on it, but what’s there is high quality. The best featurette is ‘Remembering Harvey,’ a retrospective on the real Harvey Milk, with interviews with the real-life versions of many of the characters in the movie. I was actually quite moved when the real-life Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in the film) recalls the candlelight vigil in San Francisco immediately following Harvey’s death. It’s a great look at the man whose life and struggle inspired the movie.

Also included are featurettes on the production in San Francisco and the importance of filming at the locations where the events in the movie really took place, as well as a look at the recreation of the San Francisco vigil scene. Finally there’s a couple of deleted scenes, and as usual, the decision to remove them makes sense, but they’re nice glimpses at Penn doing his thing. Overall, this is a solid DVD for a great movie.

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Friday, March 13, 2009
  DVD Pick: Let the Right One In
This week is a good week for me, dear reader, as the best movie I saw last year was released on DVD. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's adolescent vampire love story Let the Right One In topped my Best of 2008 list (I also rave about it in a long-form review here), and while it got great reviews and received a decent little theatrical release, it's the exact kind of film that will (hopefully) find the audience it deserves on DVD.

As I said about the film before, I know Twilight is the vampire romance that got all the ink in the mainstream press last year – and it's back in the news now that the producers are hunting for a director for the third film in the series, Eclipse – but Let the Right One In is the real deal. It's beautiful and heartbreaking and wonderfully subtle; if you're looking for bloodsuckers who look like Calvin Klein models and wire-fu action sequences, this movie may not be for you (and I say that as a guy who enjoys wire-fu action sequences more than just about anyone I know). But if you like movies with well-drawn characters, a truly affecting story and genuine atmosphere instead of cheap jump-scares, Let the Right One In comes with my highest possible recommendation.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
  DVD Review: Blindness

Blindness is an apocalyptic drama based on the novel by Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who also helmed City of God (which is meant to be amazing but I’ve never seen it) and The Constant Gardner (which I have seen, and it’s excellent). It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but didn’t seem to make a ton of noise either at the box office or with critics. The concept is genuinely unsettling – the world is stricken by an epidemic of blindness that’s apparently contagious and incurable – and the film trods some very grim ground indeed. I pride myself on being a pretty hard guy to shock or disturb when it comes to movies, but Blindness had some things in it that have been rattling around in my head since I watched it a few days ago, and that doesn’t happen to me very often. But while I appreciate what Meirelles and Canadian screenwriter Don McKellar (who also has a small but important role in the film as a petty thief) are going for, it’s darkness makes it almost too much to handle; it’s as emotionally grueling as any movie about the Holocaust I’ve seen. Which doesn’t mean Blindness isn’t good – it’s actually very good – but it’s definitely not for everyone.

The film gets right to it from the opening frames. A Japanese man in an unnamed North American city is sitting behind the wheel of his car when suddenly a strange whiteness begins to bleed into his vision until, seconds later, he’s completely blind. From here his strange affliction moves from person to person – apparently via contact, though this is never explained, which makes it all the more frightening; many filmmakers don’t realize that one of the keys to crafting a truly scary film is to not explain as much as possible – until it’s eventually a worldwide phenomenon that effectively shuts down the world as we know it. Before the epidemic causes the collapse of civilization, however, we’re introduced to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who the Japanese man’s wife takes him to for an examination. (A stylistic choice borrowed from the book is that none of the characters in the film have names, just titles or descriptions.) The doctor’s stumped, and tells his wife (Julianne Moore) about the strange case that night over dinner. Then, the next morning, he wakes up blind. It turns out over the course of the previous 24 hours or so (though this isn’t clear; the movie also doesn’t spend much time dwelling on exactly how much time has elapsed, but it’s never confusing) the blindness has spread, to the point where when Moore calls 911 and tells them her husband’s symptoms, a team of guys in hazmat suits show up to take him away. When they refuse to let her accompany him to wherever they’re planning on taking him, she lies and says she’s blind as well.

With this decision, the film becomes about Moore’s character; through the whole movie, she’s the one person who remains immune to strange disease, and, again, it’s never explained why. Her selfless act of subjecting herself to all sorts of horrors in the decrepit hospital ward where the blind are quarantined just to look out for her husband is the emotional core of the film, and Moore makes her into the closest thing I’ve seen to a true saint I’ve seen in a movie in a while. (It also helps greatly that Moore is a supremely talented actress.) As the ward fills up with other afflicted folks, she sticks to the charade that she’s blind as well, and essentially becomes the den mother to the ever-growing group, while her husband evolves into their leader and spokesman. But as the wards fill with more and more of the quarantined, conditions go from bad to worse, and the hospital basically transforms into an internment camp. The soldiers watching over them fade more and more into the background – they don’t want to get too close to the people, lest they become infected by “the white sickness” themselves – and eventually they pretty much stop doing anything, not even delivering food. It’s never made clear if abandoning the people in the hospital and leaving them to fend for themselves like sick animals left in a kennel is an actual policy decision from on high or just a consequence of the epidemic spreading to affect everyone, but either way the deteriorating conditions – and the actions taken by some of the “inmates” – become truly disturbing in ways I wasn’t prepared for. As I said, there’s some pretty tough stuff in this movie.

The performances in Blindness are uniformly great. Ruffalo injects his character with a stoic dignity, and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch him surrender it bit by bit as the situation in the hospital worsens. Gael García Bernal plays totally against type as the self-appointed “King of Ward 3,” who terrorizes the other blind people with the gun he managed to get his hands on. Watching an actor with such delicate features and such an otherwise likeable demeanor play a loathsome scumbag was something to watch indeed.

As for Meirelles, this guy really knows how to make a film. His use of whiteness in the film to mimic the effects of the disease are truly chilling at times, specifically in a sequence near the beginning where Moore and Ruffalo are pleading with the assault rifle-toting guards for medical help for an injured patient. All you can see are dark shapes swimming in milky white, except that the shapes keep shouting that if they get any closer they’ll shoot them. Meirelles puts the viewer in the proverbial shoes of the characters, and it’s really disturbing. And there’s something just unsettling about the use of whiteness instead of the more traditional darkness to represent the blindness epidemic; it’s a small detail that makes everything seem even weirder and more alien, and in terms of film, all that literal blackness onscreen would have been too obvious a representation of the emotional and psychological darkness in the film. Another chilling scene is when Danny Glover, as a kindly, one-eyed man in the “good” ward, tells them all, campfire-style, about how a handful of major disasters caused by the sudden blindness (plane collisions, horrible car accidents, etc.) basically prompted everyone to just hole up at home, turning the world’s cities into empty ghost-towns. The whole sequence is only a few minutes long, but it’s packed with some genuinely scary images, and Meirelles does a great job of making the utter collapse of society seem frighteningly plausible.

My main issue with Blindness was that, if anything, it’s a bit too grim. While there is a kind of light of sorts at the end of the tunnel (I don’t want to spoil anything, obviously, but two hours of things Just Getting Worse would have made the film depressing to the point of being unwatchable), it felt almost like it was too little, too late. By that point I’d been on such a punishing journey that it felt almost tacked on. But the film never devolves into what feels like cheap heartstring-pulling; all the emotionally-challenging stuff feels completely earned, and that’s a testament to Saramago, McKellar and Meirelles.

The other problem I had seems sort of minor, but I couldn’t really shake it. The government literally just dumps the afflicted in a run-down hospital and leaves them to fend for themselves. It’s the one aspect of Blindness that’s a little bit too much like a traditional apocalyptic sci-fi movie; it reminded me of similar actions taken by the mustache-twirling government/bureaucrat villains in similar (but much sillier) movies like Doomsday (read my review of this wonderfully fun action flick here; it couldn’t be more different from Blindness, and still it is totally awesome). That sort of thing works in a comic book-y movie like that, or Escape From New York or whatever zombie movie you want to name, but here it’s a distracting detail that feels at odds with the otherwise serious, intense material. Though the filmmakers’ decision to leave the “voice of authority” to a handful of increasingly distorted images on a television in the hospital is an effective and efficient way of conveying the idea that the government is saying one thing publically and doing another privately, it still felt oversimplified and cartoony.

Overall though, Blindness is a movie that really got under my skin for all the right reasons. It’s a truly affecting film filled with amazing performances, and Meirelles continues to prove himself to be an incredibly talented filmmaker. If you feel like you can handle the heavy stuff this movie will throw at you, I highly recommend it.



The DVD copy of Blindness I received to review was a two-disc special edition that I believe might be exclusive to Canada (the film was a Canadian co-production with Brazil and Japan, or so sayeth IMDB) thanks to the film’s Canadian distributor, Alliance Films. At any rate, the two-disc version doesn’t have a ton of extras, but what’s included is of very high quality.

The main attraction on disc 2 is the feature-length making-of documentary, Visions of Blindness, which follows the film’s production from the pursuit of the film rights to Saramago’s novel through a screening for the author (by that point the filmmakers had made the point over and over again how important it was to them for Saramago to approve of their adaptation, and his reaction to the movie as the lights go up in the theatre – with Meirelles sitting right next to him – is actually quite moving). It’s one of the most comprehensive and watchable making-of docs I’ve seen on a DVD in a long time, going beyond the usual press-kit fluff. Certainly it helps that the movie is as unique as it is, as does the fact that it’s based on a book by a Nobel Prize-winning, 86-year-old author who has never allowed a film to be made from one of his books before. Add to that a cast of acting powerhouses discussing their process (the cast participated in weeks of “blindness training” in which they all wore blindfolds and practiced working together to do simple things like cross a parking lot), and you’ve got a damn fine documentary. Top-shelf stuff.

Also included are a handful of deleted scenes, each of which features a brief text introduction from Meirelles, and his insight provides an extra level of understanding as to why things were cut. And finally there’s a cool little optional feature on disc 1 called ‘The Seeing Eye’ that allows the viewer to look at behind-the-scenes footage for certain sequences via branching technology when a little eye icon appears on the screen during the movie. It’s the sort of thing that’s quite popular on Blu-Ray discs, and it’s nice to see it replicated on a standard DVD.
The two-disc edition of Blindness is a great DVD for a great movie.

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Monday, March 9, 2009
  I watched the Watchmen...
So I guess today I have to write about Watchmen. I’ve been fighting to contain my excitement (and, I believe, have been largely successful) about this movie for the past several months, and it finally came out on Friday and I finally saw it (also on Friday). So while this won’t be a proper review, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention it in some way now that I’ve seen it.

First of all, I loved it. Watchmen is not a perfect film by any means – I could pick nits about tiny plot points and what was excluded or changed from the graphic novel, or which performances didn’t quite work for me – but that’s sort of one of the reasons I loved the movie as much as I did. If I’d walked out of Watchmen saying to myself that I’d just seen something akin to a perfect movie, I’d know deep down that I was lying to myself. But I’m a big fan of the book, and Zack Snyder has done what I (and many, many others) had long thought impossible, and actually translated the “unfilmable” graphic novel into a movie. It hits all the notes the book does, and the changes, while minor, are for the most part totally understandable (I’m also not the kind of person who gets all uppity just because something was changed; I try to understand why it was changed, and with maybe one or two very small exceptions, I get and agree with all the changes Snyder made), and I got a huge charge out of seeing characters I love in the book truly represented on the big screen. There’s a small moment between Rorschach and Nite Owl late in the film where Rorschach basically apologizes for being so difficult that’s probably my single favourite scene in the book, just a tiny little character moment, and I got chills seeing it recreated onscreen – it was a scene that very easily could have been cut with little or no effect on the plot, but Snyder included it. Snyder’s on record saying he’s as big a geek for the source material as just about anyone, and his goal was to make a film for Watchmen fans, and on that count he was amazingly successful.

But that same devotion to the graphic novel is also what’s been dividing many critics because of the film’s density and the argument that you need to be familiar with the book to follow what’s happening. While I’d say the latter argument probably has some merit (if I hadn’t read the book I very well may have been lost too, or at the very least needed to see the movie once or twice more to fully process everything, but obviously I can’t really access the headspace of someone going into the movie cold), and I guess how the movie performs at the box office beyond the first week will reveal whether the word-of-mouth on Watchmen is positive or negative. It made a ton of money this weekend, but it’s still unknown how much of that was due to the hype. I have no empirical evidence on this, but in the Friday afternoon screening I attended, I detected more than a few people who seemed to be losing patience with the movie by the mid-point. Whether this was due to a lack of traditional “action” or the dense, more cerebral story I have no idea, but I think people who paid their money thinking they were getting the next Dark Knight or, god forbid, Iron Man probably were disappointed, and rightfully so. Watchmen is nothing like any other superhero movie; it’s an attempt to examine how superheroes would affect American culture and society, not just an excuse to show people in cool costumes beating up thugs (though there is a bit of that as well). It’s less a “superhero movie” in the traditional sense than it is an “alternate history” sci-fi story about a world very much like our own in which superheroes live. Which probably sounds like a minor distinction to make, but I think it’s a distinction that will help people who aren’t familiar with the graphic novel understand why this movie isn’t hitting the traditional superhero-movie beats.

I’ve heard the comparison to Blade Runner already, and while I’m reluctant to make that comparison myself (if I had to pick one, I’d probably take Blade Runner as my No. 1 favourite movie of all time, so I should excuse myself from any comparisons between it and Watchmen, a movie that just came out and I’ve only seen once), I can sort of see the argument. Blade Runner was seen as a flop when it came out, and audiences largely didn’t “get” it. It took years and the advent of home video for Blade Runner to find its audience (I know I didn’t care for it the first time I watched it back when I was in high school), and despite the big opening weekend, I suspect things will go similarly for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. There’s a lot of information in the film to chew on (and Snyder’s already said he’s planning an even-longer extended cut either for a limited theatrical run this summer or, at the very least, on DVD), and my first-hand experience watching the film in a packed theatre left me with the impression that a sizeable chunk of the audience didn’t really “get” the movie either. While Watchmen obviously isn’t for everyone, I suspect a number of people who were initially left cold by the film will eventually come around, presumably on DVD. Another reason I’m sort of reserving final judgment on Watchmen is that I still haven’t seen the full version (there’s a comic-within-a-comic pirate story subplot from the book that was animated and will be released in a couple of weeks on DVD as Tales From the Black Freighter, and it’s expected some or all of that footage, as well as many more smaller moments from the book, will be incorporated into the “final” DVD version of Watchmen). Now that superheroes are a full-on film genre of their own, the time is right for a movie that examines them as seriously as Watchmen does. Whether or not audiences are ready for it right at this moment will remain to be seen – I know that most people ascribe Blade Runner’s initial failure to it being too far ahead of its time, and I have a feeling the story on Watchmen will run somewhat similarly. Either way, the movie was made, and it’s an amazing piece of cinema, and as a Watchmen fan, the movie’s existence is enough for me.

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Friday, March 6, 2009
  Public Enemies trailer
I don't often get excited enough about trailers alone to bother writing about them here, but there's a movie coming out this summer that I've been patiently (and eagerly) waiting to see some actual footage from, and that movie is Public Enemies, the new film by Michael Mann. Mann's one of my favourite directors – Heat is simply a masterpiece, I love Collateral and his remake of Miami Vice (he executive-produced the original show) was one of my favourite movies of 2006 – and the idea of him making a movie about legendary bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is enticing, to say the least. Mann is one of those filmmakers who has embraced shooting his films digitally, and there's something really arresting (in the best possible way) about seeing a Depression-era movie shot on digital.

Add to that a cast of ringers like Christian Bale, Billy Crudup (as J. Edgar Hoover; check out his pitch-perfect '30s newsreel voice), Giovanni Ribisi and Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, and, well...let's just say that I enjoy movies about giant transforming robots as much as the next guy – hell, probably more – but Public Enemies is one of the movies I'm most looking forward to this summer.

See the trailer for yourself here at here Apple.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
  DVD Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I’m not a Woody Allen fan, and I don’t mean that as a euphemistic way of saying I don’t like his movies, but rather it’s an admission that Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers who, despite being acclaimed and beloved by a great many film buffs, for one reason or another I’ve just never gotten around to seeing his movies. (I think the one Woody Allen movie I’ve seen is Deconstructing Harry, which I didn’t really care for, but I realize that it’s widely considered one of his minor films; Annie Hall it ain’t.) The reason I mention all of this is to convey that my context for viewing the neurotic New Yorker’s (I think he lives in Europe now actually) latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, will therefore be a bit different from most reviews, because I can really only look at it on its own, so if you’re looking to find out if it’s better or worse than Match Point or Manhattan, I can’t really help you.

Anyway, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of the “new” spate of Woody Allen movies, meaning it doesn’t feature the writer/director in any on-screen role and it’s set in Europe. The story follows two young American women, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, respectively), best friends traveling through Spain on vacation. Vicky is the responsible one, the pragmatist with a fiancé and sensible condominium waiting for her back in New York City, while Cristina is a flighty would-be bohemian who bounces from man to man, unable to remain satisfied with any one guy for more than a short while. While on vacation, the two gals are propositioned by a handsome Spanish artist named Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem, who couldn’t be more different here from his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men), who invites the pair back to his villa in a nearby town for a weekend of wine and sex. Vicky, predictably, is aghast at his bold request, but Cristina, just as predictably, is intrigued. Long story short, they end up both going (Vicky to keep an eye on Cristina, Cristina to sleep with Juan Antonio), but things turn out…..differently. And eventually Juan Antonio’s ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), who he’s rumoured to have tried to kill, shows up to reinsert herself into his life, and for fear of spoiling major plot points, I’ll only say that things just get even more complicated from there.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sex comedy, but I don’t mean that term in the American Pie sense (the word “urbane” came to mind a lot while watching it); it’s not vulgar, but rather is about sex and relationships. I guess this sort of thing is old hat for Woody Allen at this point, but I was quite refreshed at a movie about actual adults doing and talking about this stuff rather than teenagers or, even worse, infantilized adults doing and talking about this stuff.

I really had no idea what to expect from Vicky Cristina Barcelona (though the romance-novel vibe of the DVD box art had me worried I was in for a “chick flick,” but luckily I was not), and I was pleasantly surprised. Initially I was struck with how none of the characters were particularly likeable, but not long after I realized that that’s how life actually is; most people, in their day-to-day lives, wouldn’t necessarily make for the most “likeable” movie characters. Johansson’s Vicky is pretentious and flighty and more than a bit annoying, and I’ve known a few girls almost exactly like that. With no real artistic talent of her own (but with an intense desire to be “artistic”), her goal seems to be to set herself up as the muse for an actual artist, which she does with Bardem’s Juan Antonio for a little while. The tension really enters their relationship when Cruz’s Maria Elena comes whirling back into his life after some kind of suicide attempt, at which point Vicky learns, to her dismay, that she will always be Juan Antonio’s muse, even if they’re apart (it doesn’t help Vicky’s insecurities that Maria Elena is quite an artist herself, and that real artistic collaboration is just one more thing she can never give him).

The movie is still quite stylized in many ways, most obviously in terms of its dialogue. It’s a Woody Allen film, after all, so the characters are all incredibly witty and urbane (there’s that word again), and the script is filled with clever lines. And given Allen’s stature in the movie industry, he pretty much gets his pick of actors, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is no different. Penelope Cruz just won an Oscar for her work as Maria Elena, and I can’t disagree with that choice. Cruz is an actress who’s done nothing but annoy me in everything I’ve seen her in until this film (I always heard she was miles better in her native Spanish, and that’s apparently true), but she’s excellent here. Bardem, the other Oscar-winner in the cast, is great as well, giving Juan Antonio a confidence and smoothness that doesn’t come off as sleazy (which it very easily could have), and in his scenes with Cruz they two actors manage to convey a surprising amount of background information about their long and complicated relationship with just a few expressions or exchanges. Both Bardem and Cruz bring their A-game.

Johansson and Hall are the biggest parts of the cast, however, and they do pretty well. As easy as she is on the eyes, I think Johansson is an awful actress (Allen, apparently, begs to differ, as Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks his third collaboration with her in the past five years), but she didn’t make me cringe in this movie, which is the closest thing I can muster to praise for her work. Hall, whom I’ve never seen before, is actually very good, and her character has the biggest arc of anyone in the movie. Between Allen’s script and Hall’s acting, Cristina rises above the clichéd “good girl” the role probably would have become in just about any other version of this story.

The film is also gorgeously shot, with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe bathing just about every frame in a lush, golden glow that really makes you feel like you’re there spending a lazy summer in Spain with the characters; it’s a great movie for a cold winter night. Overall I was quite impressed with Vicky Cristina Barcelona (particularly as it’s not really my cup of tea, genre-wise), and if you’re a fan of Woody Allen or sharply-written romantic farces, this movie’s for you.



The Vicky Cristina Barcelona DVD has literally nothing on it. Not even a trailer.

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