People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
DVD Pick: JCVD
JCVD was one of the best movies I saw last year, but as I mentioned in my initial review from the Toronto Film Festival, my history with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movies during my early years as a movie geek sort of predisposes me to liking it (as does my love of meta-humour), so while your mileage with this very odd, very ambitious film may vary, I personally love it, and it just came out on DVD in North America this week.
The film is about Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing himself), a washed-up Belgian action star whose glory days are long behind him, and he now scrapes by making cheesy action flicks for barely-interested schlock directors while trying to win back custody of his daughter. If this all sounds a little too real, that’s because it is – not even Van Damme’s battles with drug addiction are off-limits in this movie, and much of the drama going on the life of his “character” is drawn directly from Van Damme’s real-life trials and tribulations. He returns to his home country of Belgium, where he’s still very famous (as a Canadian, the idea that even though he’s considered a joke almost everywhere else in the world, hometown pride wins out, really resonates; Bryan Adams is still a huge star here), where he unwittingly gets caught up in the robbery of a post office-slash-bank. Due to a miscommunication with the police, they come to believe that Van Damme is actually one of the robbers, which in turn sets off a media frenzy.
I love JCVD largely because it feels like a film made just for me. It stars a has-been actor having fun with his reputation and iconography (there’s a scene where he grudgingly re-enacts a famous bit from one of his movies, and it’s utterly hilarious), is filled with self-referential jokes, and has a lot of things to say about fame and the media. It also looks great – young director Mabrouk El Mechri really has a great eye, and I’d love to see what he does next – and, in the biggest surprise of all, proves that Jean-Claude Van Damme can actually act. There’s a sequence where he talks to the camera in an extended monologue, and it’s completely riveting. It’s sort of unfortunate that it took 20-some years, but Van Damme proves he has talents beyond kicking dudes and flexing his muscles.
If any of this sounds even remotely interesting to you, I highly recommend you give JCVD a rent. It’s a really cool, strange, awesome little movie.
Labels: DVD, JCVD
Under the Radar: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
This is the beginning of a new regular feature here at the Captivate movie blog. Every now and then I’ll spotlight a smaller movie that you may have missed. These aren’t necessarily tiny little obscure movies (they may be would-be blockbusters that failed undeservedly), but rather great movies that just, for whatever reason, a lot of people seem to have either not seen or even heard of. They’re movies that I feel are worthy of attention. And if you’ve seen them already, well, you have excellent taste. Consider this an excuse to watch them again.
First up is a movie I love so much I could punch someone, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It’s the directorial debut from screenwriter Shane Black, who penned the original Lethal Weapon and subsequently became one of the few “famous” screenwriters in Hollywood history, though in his case it was mostly because of the huge amounts of money he was paid for his work. He earned a princely sum to pen the notorious Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb The Last Action Hero, which he followed in 1996 with another flop, the Geena Davis/Samuel L. Jackson spy actioner The Long Kiss Goodnight, and then took a break from Hollywood until Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang came out in 2005. Black also penned another of my all-time favourite movies, the underappreciated Bruce Willis/Damon Wayans detective flick The Last Boy Scout (for my money there’s no other movie so chock-full of wonderful lines; I’ll find an excuse to write about it at length one day), but Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang marks the first time Black directs the action as well, and the result is something very special indeed.
Most of Black’s movies cover similar thematic territory; they follow bickering “odd couple” duos exchanging witty banter, and they usually have twisty, mystery-laden plots. This isn’t to say his movies are same-y, but rather that he has a formula he sticks to, and it works pretty magnificently. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is about Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a petty thief from New York, who, on the run from the cops, ducks into an open casting call, wows the producers, and is whisked to L.A., ostensibly as an up-and-coming, unknown actor. He’s paired with “Gay” Perry van Shrike, a (gay) private detective, (Val Kilmer, doing James Bond cool) and film consultant so he can learn the ropes of real-life detective work.
Harry and Perry (seriously, how much balls does it take for a writer to name his two lead characters “Harry” and “Perry”? Shane Black-sized balls, apparently) stumble across a dead girl, and soon find themselves entangled in a web of murder and intrigue, which also happens to involve Harry’s long-lost high school crush (Michelle Monaghan), a wannabe actress whom he convinces that he’s an actual detective (rather than a crook pretending to be an actor learning how to pretend to be a detective). It’s heady stuff, and if it sounds a little complicated, it is; Black is clearly a fan of classic detective movies and novels, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is his own modern take on the genre, with the Hollywood angle allowing him to sneak in more than a few wonderfully bitter jokes at the movie industry’s expense. But it never gets so confusing that a viewer paying attention can’t follow along (Downey’s narration, among the funniest I’ve ever heard in a movie, also helps a lot).
The main thing to know about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is that it’s funny. Really funny. Like, funnier than most straight-up comedies. Black is a genius with snappy dialogue, and with actors as awesome as Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer as the focus of just about every scene, it’s movie alchemy for pure goddamn magic. Like the best of Black’s work, it manages to both have fun with a genre – in this case, detective movies – while also being one of the best detective movies I’ve seen in years. It’s smart, funny as hell, and rewards multiple viewings. I’ve seen it quite a few times (I’ve watched it three times in the last two days to refresh my memory, once with the commentary with Black, Downey and Kilmer, which is also great), and it’s filled with lines that make me laugh every time, as well as lines I initially missed because I was laughing too hard to catch them previous times.
If it’s a little dry at your local video store and you’re looking for something fun to watch, try Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It’s sheer brilliance, and in a perfect world, new Harry Lockhart/Gay Perry flicks would come out every couple of years, like James Bond movies. Sadly, we’re stuck with this woefully imperfect one in which there’s only one. Cherish it with me.
Labels: Shane Black, Under the radar
DVD Review: The Wrestler
The Wrestler is a great movie. I’ve written about it a few times in this space before – including naming my second-favourite movie of 2008 – and I’m more than happy to write about it once more now that it’s been released on DVD.
The film follows a washed-up pro wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a Hulk Hogan-level star in the 1980s, who 20 years later finds himself wrestling in dingy school gyms before crowds of a few dozen people for meager pay. He eventually has a heart attack, and after doctors warn him never to wrestle again lest he put his life at risk, he reconnects with his estranged daughter on the advice of the stripper he’s trying to get closer to.
The Wrestler was fascinating (to me at least) in part because it shows the reality of the pro wrestling business and what it does to people. (I used to be a fan of wrestling up until about 5-7 years ago before I just sort of lost interest, but it's a crazy, crazy industry.) It also works because Rourke is, in a lot of ways, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself. His own story is one of the most famous rise-and-fall (and now, resurrection) tales in recent Hollywood history; 20-some years ago he was being compared to Marlon Brando, and the last thing I saw him in before he appeared in before Robert Rodriguez dusted him off for Once Upon A Time in Mexico and Sin City (the latter for a role nobody who’s read the comics can imagine anyone else on the planet playing) was Double Team, the campy Jean-Claude Van Damme flick in which he co-stars with former NBA player Dennis Rodman. (Don’t get me wrong, Double Team is a ridiculous good time, but it’s depressing seeing an actor with Rourke’s talent say things like “Man is strong, but the tiger is stronger” before unleashing a live tiger on a minefield to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme. Incidentally, I recommend that everyone reading this seek out Double Team immediately.)
One of the things I like best about The Wrestler is that, despite it’s fairly well-trodden sports-movie conventions (washed-up former star, stripper with a heart of gold, etc.), Robert Siegel’s script never once veers into cliché territory. I won’t spoil anything, but almost nothing in this movie goes the way it would in a “typical” sports movie, which gives The Wrestler a tangible true-life authenticity.
Adding to that sense of realism is Darren Aronofsky’s direction. Before The Wrestler, Aronofsky had a reputation for flashy visuals and aggressive editing – Requiem for a Dream is an amazing film to look at, and The Fountain brought comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – but here he shoots the film in an almost documentary style. Aside from a few subtle stylistic flourishes, like the faint sound of a cheering crowd as Randy stalks the back corridors of the supermarket where he spends his days supplementing his wrestling income, Aronofsky plays The Wrestler pretty straight, allowing the actors to do most of the storytelling.
And I really can’t say enough about the acting in The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his work as the Ram, and while I can’t say he was robbed – Sean Penn was pretty spectacular in Milk – I suspect this will go down as one of those performances that, years from now, people will marvel didn’t earn him a gold statuette. It's a truly moving performance.
Also fantastic is Marisa Tomei as the aforementioned stripper the Ram falls for. She brings just the right amount of toughness to the role, never going too far to make her into a broad “tough chick” caricature. She’s just a woman who forces herself to live by a set of strict rules (first and foremost, never date customers) in order to get by. Aronofsky does a nice job of paralleling their respective stories, as she’s also realizing her best days in her profession are behind her. Finally, Evan Rachel Wood is brilliant as Randy’s daughter. Wood is a fiercely talented actress with a very bright future ahead of her, and she manages to make her character’s presence felt throughout the entire film despite only being in about three scenes.
The Wrestler is a near-perfect movie. I’ve seen it three times now, and I’m at a loss to find any problems with it. It’s an incredibly well-crafted film (seriously, I can’t get over how little attention Aronofsky got for his work here) filled with amazing performances, and if it doesn’t touch you emotionally, then surely you’re some sort of robot. It’s one of the best films in a long time, and if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour.
I’m not sure if the American DVD is any different, but the DVD for The Wrestler released in Canada by Alliance Films has just one extra feature, the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s song written for the film (also called ‘The Wrestler’). It’s a nice enough clip, combining shots of Springsteen singing with scenes from the movie, but it’s the only thing on the DVD. Given that Aronofsky often does audio commentaries and the legitimately interesting process of making the film (the producers staged actual wrestling shows with actual wrestlers and shot sequences with Rourke in between matches), I’m hoping/assuming a more in-depth DVD of The Wrestler is in the offing. More bonus content would have been nice, but whatever. The movie’s great enough to justify a purchase.
Labels: DVD review
The Spirit is...um, well, it's complicated.
So I finally saw The Spirit, a movie I’ve been incredibly curious about for a long time (though, apparently, not curious enough for me to have seen it in theatres; it flopped and was only in cinemas for a couple of weeks, lost in the Christmas glut). It’s based on a comic strip started in 1940 by the late Will Eisner, who was kind of like the Orson Welles of comics, and written and directed by Frank Miller, the cartoonist behind Sin City and 300, as well as 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, considered by many to be the best Batman story of all time, almost always mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen. I’ve loved Miller’s work since I was in high school, so the prospect of him making a movie on his own (he co-directed Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City) was, to say the least, very intriguing to me.
Speaking objectively, as a guy who reviews movies, The Spirit is not a “good” movie. It's bad, even. Miller’s writing is incredibly stylized even by comic book standards, so for the medium of film it’s pretty out-there, often coming across as painfully hokey. And as much as I appreciate Miller’s eye for casting beautiful actresses like Eva Mendes and Scarlett Jonahsson, they’re really not up to the task of delivering his dialogue in a way that doesn’t induce cringes in the viewer (see also: Rosario Dawson in Sin City). And the over-the-top visual style – take Sin City and multiply it by 10 – worked for me (I can forgive a lot if a movie looks cool), but it may be too much for some viewers.
All of that said, I sort of loved The Spirit. As much as the film has a truckload of flaws, it just felt like a Frank Miller movie, and the mere fact that I’m sitting here typing that phrase (“a Frank Miller movie”! Awesome) earned it major points with me. While there are individual writers I prefer and artists whose work I like more, Miller mostly writes and draws his own stuff, giving his work a very singular vision that even an amazing collaboration between writer and artist can’t quite match (though such collaborations obviously have their merits, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen). The Spirit has a similarly unique aesthetic, which is particularly impressive given how much more collaborative filmmaking is as a process – Miller is, after all, working with a cast of actors and is filtering his ideas through a cinematographer and a film editor, etc. The scene where the Spirit runs across power lines above the city streets is kind of silly, but it’s also so Frank Miller I couldn’t get over it, and as a guy who’s followed his career for over 15 years, I got a huge charge out of seeing stuff like that on the screen.
Also, the two-disc Spirit DVD is pretty sweet. I can’t wait to watch the movie with Miller’s commentary, and there’s a great featurette in which Miller discusses his career, and comics in general. I could listen to him talk about this stuff for hours, but 15 minutes was all I got.
Overall, I can’t say I really recommend The Spirit to a broad audience, but I‘ve been thinking about it almost non-stop since I watched it last night, and I can’t wait to watch it again. That’s not normally something I say about a movie I don’t like. It’s a fascinating bit of cinema, and, unfortunately, given its weak showing at the box office, it may be Frank Miller’s first and last chance at directing a movie on his own. I’m just happy it exists.
Labels: comics, DVD
DVD Review: Andy Richter Controls the Universe
Andy Richter Controls the Universe was a short-lived sitcom from 2002-2003, Richter’s first major project since leaving his sidekick duties on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I’d never watched it when it was on, though I remember hearing that it was really smart and funny and never really got a chance to find its audience. So when I got the opportunity to review the DVD collection of the complete series from Paramount (which the show’s devoted cult of fans has been demanding for years), I leapt at it. After all, I’m a huge Arrested Development fan, so I’m sympathetic to an ostensibly brilliant sitcom that was cancelled too soon. (Though I must say, as much as I miss Arrested Development, we got three seasons of it, which is actually pretty awesome, and probably more of a “fair chance” than most networks would give such a decidedly odd show.) I’m happy to say that Andy Richter Controls the Universe is indeed a great little sitcom that, as the cliché goes, was too far ahead of its time.
The show follows a frustrated writer named Andy Richter who spends his days writing technical manuals for a weapons manufacturer. His core of friends also happens to be his circle of co-workers – his neurotic boss, Jessica, his impossibly-handsome best office buddy Keith, his nerdy cubicle-mate Byron, and sexy receptionist – and Andy’s secret crush – Wendy. The show’s title comes from its premise that, as a writer, Andy’s imagination is running full-tilt all the time, so the show constantly shoots off on bizarre tangents based on his fantasies (everything from simple things like having all his co-workers laugh like maniacs at his jokes to absurd stuff like imagining himself wearing a suit full of puppies to be more well-liked around the office). Richter makes for just about the most unreliable narrator ever, except he always comes clean, informing the viewer that, say, his boss didn’t ACTUALLY physically beat him for meddling in her relationship, but the reality wasn’t that far off. Basically, it’s an excuse for the show to veer off on wacky little five-second tangents every minute or two, à la Family Guy, except here, unlike in Family Guy, it works and is very funny. (In case it's unclear, I really do not like Family Guy.)
The other aspect of Andy Richter Controls the Universe that proved to be ahead of the curve is the removal of a laugh track (it’s also another way that it’s similar to Arrested Development). As with AD, not only does this make it seem less phony and staged, but it also allows for rapid-fire comic dialogue. Like Arrested Development and The Simpsons, the absence of a laugh track allows the jokes to come fast and furious without having to pause for canned laughter. It’s far more common now to have sitcoms sans laugh tracks, but when this show debuted, it was a crazy concept.
But all the high-concept gimmickry in the world doesn’t mean anything to a show like this if the laughs aren’t there. Luckily, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is freaking hilarious. For me, top-shelf American TV comedy includes shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Arrested Development and 30 Rock, to name a few, and at the risk of being hyperbolic, this show is almost up there in that rarified company. If the Andy Richter Controls the Universe had gotten another few seasons to continue to develop its characters and really hit its groove, it easily could have been a hall of fame contender. But instead we only have 19 episodes – 14 were broadcast, and five more that never aired on network TV – of something approaching sitcom brilliance. There’s some great comedy writing on display here; not for nothing was the show nominated for an Emmy.
Of course, no show could be this funny without a solid cast, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe has one in spades. At first Keith (James Patrick Stuart) seems like the stereotypical “handsome guy” – superficial, a bit dim, and oblivious to the world around him – but Stuart makes him more than that. He’s actually a good friend to Andy and while he’s not necessarily the smartest guy on the show, he’s also not the typical sitcom dumb-guy, and the writers have a lot of fun playing with that archetype. But for me, Paget Brewster’s Jessica was the real highlight of the show. I’ve seen Brewster in movies and stuff before (she’s quite good in a weird, funny little low-budget superhero spoof from 2000 called The Specials; it's very clever, and pre-dates the current superhero-movie boom, which makes it even odder), and she’s both incredibly funny and ridiculously hot. After watching 19 episodes of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, I am THIS close to starting a creepy web-shrine to her. Such a lethal combination of hotness and genuine talent is pretty rare, and how she’s not totally superfamous by now is a total mystery to me (though she’s a regular on Criminal Minds, which, while great for her, is a serious loss to the comedy world). If there was justice in the world she’d be Tina Fey levels of famous. And I would control the universe, with my beautiful and terrible wife Paget Brewster at my side. Moo hoo ha ha.
The three-disc DVD set for Andy Richter Controls the Universe has a decent assortment of extras, including commentary from Richter and show creator/executive producer Victor Fresco on two early episodes. Both are funny and have interesting stories, and years between making the show and recording the track allows them some decent perspective.
The main extra is a 25-minute retrospective featurette on the show called ‘How Andy Richter Controlled the Universe,’ featuring interviews from all the cast members and Fresco. It’s quite interesting, as the show has developed a fairly devoted cult audience through reruns on U.S. cable television (Irene Molloy, who plays Wendy, says she receives emails from fans of the show regularly to this day, and is often recognized for this show, which was on for less than a year). The fact that everyone being interviewed is funny elevates There’s also a brief bit called ‘What if Andy Richter Controlled the Universe?’ in which Richter explains what would be different if he actually controlled the universe, and the other cast members give their takes on Andy’s World, as well as what they’d do if they controlled the universe. It’s really a little bit of nothing, but again, everyone’s very funny, and at less than five minutes in length, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Overall this is a very solid DVD set for an excellent show. If you’re a fan of Arrested Development, I highly recommend Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
Labels: comedy, DVD review, TV on DVD
Wolverine vs. Pirates!
So apparently a full version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine has leaked onto the Internet (albeit unfinished effects and music) weeks ahead of its May 1 theatrical release, and as anyone who knows even a little bit about the web understands, once this happens it's virtually impossible to get the toothpaste back into the tube (i.e. get it off the Internet). I used to work in the music business right as the industry was grappling with the catastrophic impact that illegal online file-sharing had on its decades-old business model; it wasn't pretty (people losing their jobs, companies losing exorbitant amounts of money etc.), and once the boulder starts rolling down the hill pretty much nothing can make it stop. Internet piracy delivered a serious blow to the music industry – ultimately time will tell if it's crippling or even fatal – and now it's the movie industry that's trying to figure out exactly how to deal with the issue.
Bootlegging is a growing problem for the movie and DVD industry – I bought a transit pass the other day at a corner store in my neighbourhood and the wall behind the clerk was filled with DVDs of movies that had just been released theatrically or were due for an official DVD release in the coming weeks – and I think the decision-makers in the film business should look at the mistakes the music industry made in the early days of Napster to see what not to do. (For example, I've never been a big believer in the idea that suing some college kid into destitution because he downloaded a Metallica album or The Dark Knight onto his computer will act as any sort of deterrent for thousands of other people worldwide who do the exact same thing, but mine is not a popular viewpoint in the industry.) I think including digital copies of movies on DVD is a step in the right direction, as one of the reasons (though certainly not the only one) that I've never bothered with downloading movies or buying bootleg DVDs is that the quality is often awful. Apple's iTunes store proved that giving consumers reliably high-quality products, even if they could still ostensibly find an illegal version of the same with minimal effort, can work if implemented correctly.
It'll be very interesting to see if this leak impact's the film's box office success (or, more specifically, in the event that Wolverine is seen to underperform, if it'll be used as an excuse). Personally, I think the movie looks pretty crappy. And I say that not only as a comic book geek, but as a comic book geek for whom the X-Men franchise holds a very special place in my heart, as the first comic book I really got into in my formative comic-reading years. I've been hearing for years that 20th Century Fox is a studio that doesn't treat its "genre" properties (i.e. comic book movies, sci-fi, action, horror, crime, etc.) with any respect – with the exception of the first two X-Men movies, all their comic book movies have been mediocre-to-downright awful – instead viewing them purely as ways to make money with the effects-driven blockbusters that are in vogue, and Wolverine looks pretty damn generic (and talk that director Gavin Hood, who won a damn Oscar in 2006 for Tsotsi, is unhappy with the studio-imposed changes, is not an encouraging sign either).
The bottom line is, if some people want to seek out a crappy version of Wolverine with unfinished special effects and temp music to watch on their computers, I can't see that affecting the movie's bottom line all that seriously; hell, I'd argue that anyone willing to spend the time and energy it takes to find this thing online is probably interested enough in the movie that they'll pay to see it theatrically no matter what they think of the cruddy bootleg they downloaded. But as technology continues to move forward, it presents a myriad of potential problems for the movie industry to navigate. But considering the dozens, often hundreds of people who work on a film's production nowadays, coupled with the fact that the industry relies almost exclusively on easily-uploaded digital files for effects and editing work, and it's actually kind of amazing this sort of thing doesn't happen more often than it does. I guess we'll see how this plays out.
Labels: Movie news, Random thoughts
Where the Wild Things Are trailer
I've mentioned in this space before that I really should assemble a list of my favourite movies and/or directors, because I feel like I'm regularly referring things as being among my favourites, and I don't want to seem like I throw the term around lightly (I don't, I just keep fairly exhaustive mental lists and am clever at finding ways to talk about stuff I like).
So with little self-conscious preamble in mind, Spike Jonze is one of my favourite directors, despite only having directed two feature films since blowing the collective mind of the music-video industry, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. I love both movies, and I don't watch either of them nearly enough as I probably should. And given that Jonze is hardly the most prolific filmmaker – he's been a movie director ostensibly for 10 years now and only has two completed, released films under his belt – it's automatically news that he's got a new film coming out. But add to that the fact that his latest movie is based on the beloved Maurice Sendak children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, and was co-written by acclaimed author Dave Eggers, and it becomes a genuine event. Throw in early rumours that the studio was less-than-thrilled with Jonze's finished product (usually a good sign for me, but I'm something of a misanthrope; the studio folks have since made a point of publically stating how happy they are with the movie), and you've got a movie that's near the top of my personal must-see list for the year – and I'm not even a particularly huge fan of the book. I'm just happy to be getting a new Spike Jonze movie this year, and one that looks like nothing I've ever seen before.
A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.