People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Like most people who thoroughly enjoyed Michael Bay’s original Transformers movie, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, for the better part of a year. And while it’s getting savaged pretty seriously by critics from what I’ve seen – as I type this it has a 22% Freshness rating on RottenTomatoes – I certainly didn’t hate it. It doesn’t fire on all cylinders the way the original did (I still consider it a near-perfect summer blockbuster), but the action is a lot of fun, and on a scale that appropriately tops the first movie. But where the first Transformers surprised me by keeping me interested during the parts with the talking humans, that’s precisely the problem Revenge of the Fallen runs into.
There’s more action in Revenge of the Fallen than the original, and it’s mostly pretty awesome, but the film itself is sloppier and not paced nearly as well. There’s a chunk in the middle that felt like it lasted over an hour where not much happens other than Sam (Shia LeBeouf) and his crew (Megan Fox as his girlfriend and three to four comedy relief characters) bounce around from place to place chasing some expository MacGuffin (instead of the cube from the previous film, it’s the Matrix of Leadership, a nice reference to the 1986 Transformers animated movie, but it ultimately means nothing). Way too much of the screen time is devoted to what is clearly filler and time-wasting, and for a movie that clocks in at around two-and-a-half hours, it’s just weird. A fun summer blockbuster shouldn’t be a slog to sit through; there’s easily 40 minutes or so (and possibly entire characters) that could have been cut from this film and it wouldn’t have affected the flow of the story one bit. That story is also overly complicated, dwelling a bit too much on the mythology and history of the Transformers universe. I love giant robots more than most, but even I found that stuff tiresome after a while. I don’t care about which Autobot begat which, I just want to see them fight.
Thankfully, when they do, it’s pretty spectacular. I’ve read a few complaints that the action is hard to follow – most of the robots look similar enough to each other that it can be tough to discern who’s doing what to whom when they fight – but I didn’t really find it to be much of a problem. There are also a ton of new robots, most of whom go unnamed and don’t get much to do, but they make the final battle scene feel more epic compared to the first movie, which ended with a skirmish between a handful of Autobots and Decepticons. Some of the new characters are awesome, like the Autobot Corvette, Sideswipe (a personal fave from childhood), and the massive Decepticon, Devastator.
My other big problem with Revenge of the Fallen is that there are way too many comedy relief characters. There are at least five characters in this movie, human and Transformer, that serve no purpose other than to act goofy and try to elicit laughs. I realize this is a movie aimed largely at younger audiences, so I understand the need for that sort of thing (I appreciated LeBeouf’s comic talents in the first movie; sadly he gets very little of that this time around), but FIVE is simply too many for one movie (especially considering they spend most of their screen time together). Worst of all, the filmmakers – the jury appears to be out on whether the responsibility for this lies with the screenwriters, Michael Bay or the voice actors; everyone’s passing the buck it seems – have an unfortunate tendency to rely on cringe-inducing ethnic stereotypes for the comic relief Transformers. The two getting the most attention are Skids and Mudflap, a pair of twin Autobots who seem to have adopted hip-hop style. They have gold teeth, goofy features, and can’t read. A mini-controversy seems to be brewing over them, and while I didn’t like them much either, for me it was more because they were just unfunny and annoying rather than my being offended.
Overall I still had fun for the most part while watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In terms of story it’s an unfortunate step backwards from the first, but the action is more plentiful than the first Transformers, and considering that’s what I was there to see, I’m more able than most to forgive an overlong, occasionally plodding plot. I’m not going to say I wasn’t a little disappointed that Revenge of the Fallen isn’t as tight and efficient as the first film, but it’s still a pretty good time at the movies.
Labels: Movie review, Theme weeks
DVD Review: Transformers - Season 1
To celebrate the release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it's Transformers week here at the Captivate movie blog. Today I'm sitting down with the new DVD release of the first season of the original 1980s cartoon, and on Friday I'll be reviewing Revenge of the Fallen. So kick back and enjoy my ramblings about giant robots who turn into trucks and jet planes.THE SHOW
Ah, nostalgia. I’m guiltier than most of looking back on beloved things from my childhood with rose-colored glasses, except I usually find that when I revisit those things as an adult, they’re actually pretty bad (see The Neverending Story). Such is the case with most children’s entertainment; it typically just doesn’t hold up to adult scrutiny. There are obviously some exceptions to this – I love the original Star Wars movies as much today as I did as a kid – but my expectations going into reviewing the spiffy new 25th anniversary DVD collection of the first season of the original Transformers cartoon were guarded at best (also: I am old). While I was pleasantly surprised by the show – which has the same basic story of the blockbuster movies, following a war between sentient alien robots taking place on Earth – I still can’t really discern how much of my being entertained was due to nostalgia (but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say “quite a bit”).
The original Transformers, for context’s sake, was probably the one thing (or “property,” in the more cynical parlance of our times) I loved more than Star Wars when I was a kid. That changed as I got older, somewhat predictably, but back in the day before I was a geek who watched cartoons and collected toys (as I write this I’m looking at Japanese import figurines of the ‘80s-era Megatron and Starscream I picked up a few months ago sitting among the menagerie of toys on my desk), I was a kid who watched cartoons and collected toys, and Transformers was as good as it got. I distinctly remember watching all 16 episodes from this DVD set sitting on my living room floor as part of my weekday Transformers/G.I. Joe afterschool double-bill. While Transformers is obviously a show intended for children, and one with the primary objective of selling toys (a box full of old plastic doodads at my parents’ place proves it was quite effective), the storytelling is more complex than I remember it being. Storylines and plots go across several episodes, and because the characters are giant robots, the creators seem surprisingly free to show the Autobots and Decepticons get violent with each other. The animation ranges from decent to sort of sketchy, but it’s nowhere near as crude as some of the other cartoons of the era. Overall the show holds up pretty well considering it’s a quarter-century old.
The new DVDs are clearly intended to capitalize on the new movies and if you were a fan of the original show like I was, the new Season 1 set is fun little blast of nostalgia. If you’ve got kids of your own and they’re into the new movies, then I’m sure they’ll appreciate the classic cartoon.
The bonus features on this new Transformers DVD set is aimed squarely at the nostalgia crowd. The main attraction is a featurette on the origin and evolution of the Transformers brand through toys and cartoons and comic books, featuring interviews with Hasbro execs and comic writers and such. It’s really interesting stuff for an old fan like myself, especially learning that Transformers started when American toy executives tried to market Japanese transforming-robot toys (which were all the rage overseas) to North American audiences by attaching a story to it – the now-familiar tale of Cybertron and the war between the Autobots and Decepticons – and that was the spark that ignited the whole phenomenon. Considering it was dreamed up by a bunch of marketing people at a toy company (aided by comics writers), the storyline at the core of Transformers really has stood the test of time to a rather remarkable degree. It’s probably tied to my childhood attachment to the Transformers franchise, but I actually found myself wishing the featurette ran beyond its 15 minutes.
There’s a handful of vintage toy commercials from when the toy line launched in the ‘80s, and even more than the show itself, it prompted a flood of old memories. But even better is a rarely-seen (I don’t remember it and I watched this show religiously) PSA with Bumblebee in the mold of the classic G.I. Joe “knowing is half the battle” spots. Running away from home, apparently, is a bad idea. Thanks Transformers!
Labels: animation, DVD review, Theme weeks
DVD Review: Defiance
Defiance is a movie about the Bielski partisans, Jews who fought the Nazis guerilla-style during World War II from the forests of what was then German-occupied Poland (now Belarus) led by the Bielski brothers. It was co-written and directed by Edward Zwick, who also made Glory, Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. Zwick certainly has a taste for historical dramas with lots of action, and Defiance is no different. It’s a very well-made film that’s very respectful of the true-life story it’s telling, and it succeeds largely because of the cast of actors Zwick has assembled to tell the Bielskis’ story.
Daniel Craig, easily the most talented actor to play James Bond since Sean Connery sipped martinis and karate-chopped Russian spies, does some quality work as Tuvia Bielski, the reluctant leader of the Bielski Otriad, who, along with his brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael(Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, who has turned into an excellent actor), turned a group of Jews hiding out from the Nazis in the forests into a band of resistance fighters. Usually the “reluctant hero” is just a quick way for screenwriters to give the protagonist an artificial character arc, but in this case, Craig really makes you believe that this guy initially wanted no part of being any kind of leader. At first he’s just concerned with keeping himself and his two brothers alive, and he initially almost resents the growing number of refugees coming to him seeking shelter and some semblance of security. If you only know Craig from the new Bond movies, Defiance will set you straight: this guy can act.
I’ve liked Liev Schreiber in everything I’ve seen him in, and Defiance may be the best work of his I’ve watched. He gets the meatier, if smaller, role of Zus, the more hot-headed of the two senior Bielskis who eventually quits the Otriad to join the Russian army in its fight against the Nazis, but his loyalty to and love for his brothers is never in doubt. The relationship between Zus and Tuvia forms the core of Defiance, and having two great actors in those roles goes a long way to making this movie as good as it is.
Zwick treats his subjects with great respect, and wisely doesn’t try to turn Defiance into a history lesson (his own words, from the commentary) and keeps the scale of the story small. Aside from some text at the opening of the movie, Defiance takes for granted that the viewer is familiar with the plight of European Jews during World War II (and really, there’s no excuse not to be). It helps him tell the Bielski brothers’ story clearly and concisely, and he never gets bogged down with details of what was going on elsewhere during the war. In that sense, Defiance seems less like a World War II movie than a movie that happens to be set during World War II. Part of this is likely due to the fact that Defiance had a relatively small budget, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers that you wouldn’t know it to look at it; Defiance, like all of Zwick’s work, is a great-looking movie.
As much as the marketing tried to sell it as an action movie – and there are more than a few battles, but they’re nasty affairs rather than sexy, stylized shoot-‘em-up sequences – it’s really a drama about what these people went through during their time in the woods, and its fascinating, compelling stuff. It’s serious without being depressing, and it never feels preachy (which was my primary complaint with Zwick’s last movie, the noble yet heavy-handed Blood Diamond). And as much as Craig’s character is heroic through his deeds and the lives he and his brothers save, Zwick also doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes their actions were brutal and difficult to justify. Guerilla-style warfare doesn’t really lend itself to honour and nobility, and it never feels like the movie tries to gloss over that fact.
Overall I was quite impressed with Defiance. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a solid film that blends gritty, well-executed action sequences and human drama to tell a remarkable true-life story of heroism.
There’s a commentary track from Zwick that starts off sounding oddly prepared, sort of like he’s giving a lecture, but he soon relaxes into a more conversational tone. But the fact that he seems to have prepared for the commentary means it’s actually quite informative both in terms of the historical origins of the story as well as details of the production itself.
There’s also a pair of above-average featurettes, one focusing on the production, which is surprisingly in-depth considering it’s relatively brief running time, covering everything from the cast to the costumes, as well as a very nice mini-documentary about the children and grandchildren of the Bielskis. It’s quite affecting watching Tuvia Bielski’s children talk about their father opening up to them to discuss his experiences, and it’s hard not to be moved watching them get choked up talking about the harrowing experiences of their fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles. And watching them visit the movie set – clearly a special experience for all of them – is the sort of thing that elevates the Defiance disc above the usual extras you find on most DVDs.
Labels: DVD review
DVD Review: Fanboys
Fanboys is a horrendously bad movie, possibly the worst thing I’ve reviewed for this blog. The story of this “comedy” follows a group of geeks who embark on a road trip to break into George Lucas’ ranch to steal a copy of Star Wars: Episode I months before its release in the summer of 1999 because one of them is dying of cancer and won’t survive to see its theatrical release. On its own, that premise could be mined for laughs, but it would have to be by more talented people than the creators of Fanboys, because this movie sucks. Hard.
I’m enough of a Star Wars geek that Fanboys should be right up my proverbial alley. It’s filled with references large and small to George Lucas’ sci-fi/fantasy saga, and I got every single one. But none of them are funny. To their credit, the filmmakers do expand their jokes beyond purely Star Wars references, but those aren’t funny either. One of two good jokes in the entire movie is that the security guards at Lucas’ ranch are dressed like the android guards in Lucas’ debut feature film, THX-1138. Aside from that, Fanboys is a collection of nerd stereotypes and weak sophomoric humour.
The cast of Fanboys isn’t terrible, on paper. Dan Fogler is capable of making me laugh (I’ve caught bits of Balls of Fury on cable and it seems surprisingly watchable), but here he’s just a standard obnoxious loudmouth. Jay Baruchel, one of the secret weapons in Tropic Thunder, is wasted. (He’s a nerd with big glasses! And he’s called “Windows” because he’s into computers! Get it?!?!?) The only cast member who acquits herself well is Kristen Bell as the token girl. Leaving aside the implausibility of a girl that smart and cute hanging out with a bunch of losers like this (and I say this while sitting comfortably on the “losers” side of the cosmic equation; I speak from experience), her character of a ballsy, take-no-guff chick who’s more capable than all the guys put together, is a nice echo of Princess Leia’s character in the original 1977 Star Wars. For all the geek references and cameos peppered throughout Fanboys, the movie’s ultimate undoing is that it’s just not funny. Nothing is clever, the bulk of the jokes are obvious, and when they’re not they’re just stupid. (If you’re a comedy screenwriter and you come up with a scene where the male heroes unwittingly enter a gay bar, just go ahead and kill yourself. Or, if you’re not into dramatic gestures, find another job.) I vaguely recall reading somewhere that there was a mini-controversy over the studio’s handling of Fanboys’ release – it sat on a shelf for a couple of years and apparently the studio was a bit apprehensive about a so-called comedy in which one of the leads has terminal cancer – but a far more plausible explanation is that they saw that this movie is terrible and were reluctant to dump it on an unsuspecting public. My inner geek could never imagine I could write this, but even Kristin Bell in the Slave Leia bikini can’t save this one. Ninety minutes staring at a wall would be time better spent.
There’s a commentary track with director Kyle Newman and the cast, which has a nicely jovial tone, particularly when the actors, who seem to get along famously, swap jokes and amusing stories from their time filming the movie. Newman steps in to moderate a few times, but the more he tries to discuss why certain things are funny (and they never actually are), the more ridiculous he sounds.
Also included are a pile of deleted scenes, a handful of fluffy featurettes about how great the movie is, and a series of webisodes made during production. It’s a nice enough DVD package; too bad the movie sucks.
Labels: comedy, DVD review, Star Wars
DVD Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button divided audiences when it was released last Christmas. And by “divided audiences” I mean that as shorthand for “most people didn’t seem to like it very much.” It was too long and boring, the story went, and nothing really happened. Personally I was intrigued, not so much due to the premise – it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages in reverse – but because it was directed by David Fincher, one of my favourite directors (Se7en and Fight Club were the first two DVDs I bought when I got my first DVD player). Given that I think Fincher’s previous film, the criminally underseen thriller Zodiac, is an unappreciated masterpiece, I wondered if Benjamin Button had been similarly overlooked or misunderstood.
The truth is, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is . . . pretty good, but not great. It’s nowhere near as brilliant as Zodiac, but contrary to the prevailing public opinion, I was never bored (and for the love of god, it’s the same length as the Sex and the City movie; perspective, people!) But I can see how it’s not a particularly “marketable” movie. Handsome Movie Idol Brad Pitt spends the first hour and a half of the movie in various stages of CGI-assisted old-age makeup, and Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth do tell Benjamin’s story at a fairly leisurely pace. Roth also wrote the script for Forrest Gump, which I mention only because that movie and Benjamin Button are similar in structure – both films follow a man through pretty much the entirety of his life, though Benjamin doesn’t walk through a series of big historical moments the way Gump did. He instead experiences events like World War II and the first space shuttle launch and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan peripherally; they’re used primarily to place Benjamin’s story in time.
The performances range from solid to fantastic. In addition to Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles, the movie is also filled with great actors like Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris in smaller parts, giving the assortment of characters Benjamin encounters lives of their own. Even if they’re only in a handful of scenes, their presence resonates not just with Benjamin but with the viewer.
I know it’s easy to rag on Brad Pitt’s abilities as because he’s so handsome, but I’ve always thought he was a good actor (especially in his other collaborations with Fincher), and he’s pretty excellent here. He really makes Benjamin, particularly in the early parts of the movie when he’s a kid (who looks like a little old man), a quiet, humble little southern gentleman, and he becomes more and more charming as he gets “older.” And the fact that he manages to act through motion-capture technology (in which his CGI face was inserted onto the body of other actors) is pretty astounding. Cate Blanchett is, for my money, the best actress working today, and she’s great as Daisy, the love of Benjamin’s life, convincing as both a brash, twenty-something spitfire and a wiser, middle-aged woman.
Taraji P. Henson definitely deserved her Oscar nomination for playing Queenie, the caretaker at a New Orleans old folks home who takes Benjamin in as a baby and raises him as her own. The Benjamin-Queenie relationship was the real emotional centre of the movie for me, and I found it more interesting and moving than the more traditional plot of Benjamin and Daisy spending the two-thirds of the movie not quite connecting (in true love-story fashion).
The most impressive aspect of Benjamin Button is clearly the effects work. Fincher is a former special effects guy (he got his start at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic; I seem to recall reading that his first job was on The Empire Strikes Back), and there isn’t a director working today with a better understanding of how special effects can help tell a story on film. CGI in Fincher’s films is usually invisible, used purely to serve the story, rather than to “wow” audiences (except maybe for Panic Room, which feels more like a string of admittedly cool filmmaking tricks than a movie). The effects in Benjamin Button are some of the most impressive I’ve seen, if only because I stopped noticing them fairly early on. Even more amazing was finding out how much of the early Benjamin stuff is done with CGI – his face is basically all motion-capture effects for the early chunk of the movie (think Beowulf or Polar Express), and it’s more or less seamless, though I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few scenes where the signature blurring left by digital touch-ups weren’t visible. Still, on the whole this is some pretty amazing stuff.
All the digital wizardry, of course, means nothing if the movie itself doesn’t hold up. And while I did enjoy Benjamin Button more than I expected to, it’s not a capital-G Great Movie from that standpoint (which is only made worse by its positioning as an Oscar-baiting prestige film). It’s ultimately an incredible technical achievement that’s also a pretty good movie. Initially I really disliked the modern-day sequences showing Cate Blanchett’s character dying in a New Orleans hospital bed alongside her daughter as Hurricane Katrina approaches the city, because I was so interested in Benjamin’s story that I resented being pulled out of it for what I first took to be pointless interstitial sequences. By the end though, Fincher and Roth tie it all together fairly nicely (though the Katrina aspect doesn’t really add anything to the story other than to ground it in modern-day reality). Still, it was a distracting storytelling detail that almost certainly could have been handled better.
Like all David Fincher movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an amazing technical achievement. It’s a remarkably ambitious movie that’s largely successful. It’s not perfect – as much as I liked it, I can’t really argue with those who thought it was too long or “boring”; different strokes and all that – but, with the exception of the early scenes in the modern-day hospital, I was fully engaged by the movie, and I was fascinated by the story Fincher and company told.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes to DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which movie geeks know is the cream of the crop in terms of special edition DVDs, and this one’s no exception. The two-disc Benjamin Button DVD is packed with stuff, including an excellent commentary track from Fincher. I found the track surprisingly compelling (I paused it when I left the room, and actually paid attention the entire time, which I don’t always do on commentaries). He’s an amazingly smart guy who comes across as quite affable and funny in his commentaries, and listening to him talk about movies is a pleasure. He gets into technical details but without it being dry. I feel like I understand more about the craft of filmmaking when I listen to his tracks, which is about the highest compliment I can pay to a commentary.
Disc 2 consists of an exhaustive making-of documentary that can be viewed either in parts (divided into pre-production, production, post-production, release, etc.) or as one big feature-length doc that covers every aspect of production in amazing detail, including extended discussions of different cameras and lighting techniques. A lot of it is for serious cinephiles only; by the end it proved itself to be a little overlong (a LOT of time is spent on things like composing the score and editing the sound). I found it to be a little dry in parts, and I’m usually a pretty serious geek for this stuff. But the wealth of extras really hammers home the staggering amount of craftsmanship that went into making this movie, most of which was invisible to me when I was actually watching it. Overall this is about as in-depth a DVD as I’ve reviewed for this blog. If you dig the film, this DVD is about as good as it gets.
Labels: DVD review
Under the Radar: Spartan
I’ve mentioned here before how much I enjoy the movies of playwright and filmmaker David Mamet (despite not being terribly familiar with his stage work, aside from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which I love; I’m not much of a theatre guy). I especially enjoy his military/spy stuff – I’m sad that CBS just announced they’re cancelling The Unit, a military drama co-created and produced by Mamet and Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield – particularly because his stylized dialogue turns soldiers and spies into warrior-poets who regularly drop Zen-like koans. One of my favourite movies of his is Spartan, the 2003 thriller he wrote and directed starring Val Kilmer that came and went with almost no fanfare. It’s a perfect candidate for Under the Radar, because a lot of people haven’t even heard of it, and it’s an awesome little movie.
The plot of Spartan is, on paper, relatively standard fare if you’re into shows like 24: the daughter of some big-shot politician (most likely the president, but it’s never made entirely clear; it could just as easily be a particularly famous senator or something) has gone missing, and the Secret Service taps all-purpose badass Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) to lead the search for her, which is on a strict deadline, as the goal is to locate her before the media gets wise to the story. Scott eventually comes to realize that (in true Mamet fashion) there’s far more going on than he initially thought.
One of the things I love most about Spartan is the way in which Mamet lays out the story. The film just unfolds as you watch it. Mamet doesn’t hold your hand, but rather expects you to simply pay attention and figure out the situation and the characters and their relationships on your own. There’s also almost no exposition in this movie, at least not in the traditional sense. The title doesn’t only refer to the Sparta of ancient history (one character makes reference to King Leonidas, probably best known now in pop culture through Gerard Butler’s portrayal of him in 300), but also the broader definition; this is very much a spare, bare-bones movie in terms of storytelling. Mamet never gives you any more than the absolute bare minimum of information you need to understand what’s happening (though this is not to say that the movie obfuscates things or is consciously difficult to follow; it’s not). The reason it’s never clear who exactly “the girl” is the daughter of is that none of the characters refer to her (or her father) by either their names or their titles. The tagline for the movie is simply “She’s missing,” and that’s really all anyone says about it. It gives Spartan an air of realism; we all know that nobody really talks like a movie character (“We must rescue the president’s daughter before it’s too late!”), and neither do the people who populate Spartan.
I love Spartan in part because it makes a point of not explaining certain things that other, similar movies would, though it’s never anything that takes away from the viewer’s ability to follow what’s happening. Most movies would explain the specific background of Kilmer’s character (if he was with the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Green Berets, etc.), but Spartan opens on him training special forces soldiers, and while he commands the respect of all the senior officers and seems to know them all, it’s also clear that he’s not really a part of the military, at least not anymore and not in any official capacity. Mamet’s style of writing is so specific and stylized that not every actor can handle it, but he’s got a great leading man in Kilmer. (I realize that between my previous Under the Radar entry, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it may seem like I’m just a huge Val Kilmer fan, which isn’t exactly true; I do like him a lot, but it’s more that he just tends to turn up in smaller, really cool movies.) Kilmer’s relaxed into just being an excellent actor now that the buzz around him being the Next Big Movie Idol has faded. He can just inhabit roles in a way that, say, George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise can’t. In Spartan he doesn’t come off like he’s trying to be cool or tough; he just has the demeanor of a guy who, no matter what’s happening, has been in a situation that was far worse, and managed to walk out of it. He truly carries the movie, if for nothing other than he’s almost literally every scene, and the film is riveting.
If you’re in the mood for a smart, twisty political thriller packed with memorable, quotable lines, check out Spartan. It may not be for everyone – it doesn’t have a lot of “action” in the traditional sense – but it’s one of the best spy thrillers I’ve seen.
Labels: David Mamet, Under the radar
R.I.P. David Carradine, Shih Kien
So David Carradine died yesterday at 72. I was pretty bummed out by the news (and I’m not a guy who tends to get bummed out by celebrity deaths, generally speaking), as Carradine was one of my favourite things in one of my favourite movies ever, Kill Bill. It’s a testament to his on-screen charisma that he spends the entire first movie largely off camera but still manages to be an effective villain. (Also impressive is the fact that he’s so cool in it that I don’t even really think of him as the villain.) I dig the movie so much that I read Carradine’s book about his experiences making it, Kill Bill Diary. He writes in an easy, conversational style, and comes across as a pretty cool and laid-back dude. The original Kung Fu was before my time, and all we get in syndication up here in Canada is the crappy ‘90s revamp, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, but as a fan of martial arts movies, his impact on the popularity of kung fu movies in North America really can’t be overstated. A lot of people forget he was a pretty damn fine actor too, and turned up in “real” movies like Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and was the lead in Hal Ashby’s biopic of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory. But to me he’ll always be Bill, and it sucks that he’s gone.
* * *
It was a bad week for fans of martial arts flicks. The news came in today out of Hong Kong that veteran actor Shih Kien has died at the age of 96. He’s best known for playing the villainous Mr. Han in Bruce Lee’s seminal 1973 film, Enter the Dragon (the guy with the metal hand). Shih acted in some 350 movies starting in the 1940s, including playing villains in a long-running series of Hong Kong movies about Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, a character who was later played by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I’ve only seen a handful of the movies he’s been in, but he’s one of the most iconic villains in kung fu movie history.
Labels: martial arts
DVD Review: Outlander
Outlander is a sci-fi/fantasy movie with one of the greatest high concepts in recent film history: an intergalactic soldier crash-lands in Norway in 709 A.D. with a vicious alien monster in the middle of a war between Viking clans. It’s a movie about Vikings teaming up with a spaceman to fight an alien dragon. Outlander may be the best movie ever made.
I’m kidding, mostly; it’s not. But Outlander is a totally fun genre movie that knows exactly what its appeal is (Vikings vs. Space Dragon!), and it’s a blast. When I say the movie knows what it is, I don’t mean it in the sense that it winks at the audience or acknowledges the silliness (or awesomeness, depending on your outlook) of its central premise; everything is played pretty straight – it’s nowhere near as tongue-in-cheek as, say, Doomsday (read my review here) – but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s still a riot.
Jim Caviezel plays Kainan, the futuristic soldier who accidentally unleashes the creature, known as a Morwen, on iron-age humanity. He’s not really an alien per se, but the film rather hints that humanity is instead a sort of offshoot of whatever advanced, space-faring race he belongs to (one of Kainan’s gadgets calls Earth an “abandoned seed colony”). He quickly ends up in the grip of a Viking tribe led by John Hurt (biting into his role as a Viking king with Shakespearean aplomb), and eventually convinces him that they need his help slaying the monster before it destroys their entire society.
The action in Outlander is well-staged, and there are some legitimately creepy and tense moments when the Morwen stalks doomed Viking warriors. Just about all the actors seem to be having a lot of fun, particularly Hurt and Ron Perlman, who turns up in a too-brief role as the leader of a rival Viking clan. Caviezel is a serviceable action hero – his odd blankness works in his favour, making him seem more like an outsider, and unlike most movies of this type, his backstory (which is quite elegantly handled in a cool little flashback sequence that really helps add to the scope of the movie) actually does give some more depth to his character, making him more than just a grim monster-hunter.
The special effects in Outlander are surprisingly decent for a relatively low-budget genre flick (the small budget is mentioned more than a few times on the commentary), and the sets, costumes and character designs all contribute to making it seem like a much bigger, more epic movie than its budget would suggest. If any of this sounds even remotely entertaining to you, Outlander is worth your time. Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s a wonderfully unapologetic B-movie that’s loads more fun than a lot of A-list summer blockbusters.
The commentary track on the Outlander DVD, with co-writer/director Howard McCain and a couple of producers, is a bit on the dry side – they spend a lot of time discussing the ins and outs of production and McCain has a habit of incessantly pointing out the various homages to different films and filmmakers (“That’s from Jaws.” “That’s a very Michael Bay shot.”) – but McCain is also pretty honest about things he thinks don’t quite work, so it’s not like he’s acting like he’s the next Spielberg. There’s also a ton of deleted scenes, most with unfinished special effects, mostly smaller character moments dropped for time reasons (the film’s already almost two hours). Also included are a handful of effects tests, animatics and conceptual artwork, which is sort of interesting but also pretty technical. It’s a decent enough DVD, but the movie is really the main attraction here.
Labels: DVD review
A blog about movies, by a guy who probably watches too many.