The 5 best movies of the summerIt’s the last weekend of summer, at least as far as movies go – there’s a couple of minor releases today, and I’ll be sure to check back in next week on the off chance that Halloween 2 knocks my proverbial socks off – so I figured I’d run down the five best movies I saw this summer. I should mention there’s a few films I didn’t get around to seeing this summer (I bizarrely managed to miss Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, but nothing I’ve heard about it suggests it would have made this list, though I may have to offer a mea culpa once I check it out on DVD, and I also never did see Brüno or Up). That said, here’s a list of the five best movies I saw this summer.
5. Star Trek – I’m really not a Star Trek fan, aside from a passing interest in The Next Generation when I was young, and in particular I never got into the original Kirk and Spock series. I get its appeal and I respect its place in pop culture, but it’s just not for me. So to say I was skeptical about J.J. Abrams’ revamp of the franchise is an understatement. I dug Abrams’ feature-film debut, Mission: Impossible 3, okay, but not enough to get excited about him helming a rebooted Star Trek. But Abrams’ stated preference for Star Wars growing up really lent his Trek a sense of fun that’s seemingly been absent from the franchise for a long time. I was surprised at what a blast I had watching Star Trek; the characters were great, the actors were pretty much perfect, and the action was awesome. An excellent summer blockbuster, and I’m on board for as many sequels as they want to crank out.
4. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra – This summer’s real pleasant surprise for me was the adaptation of my beloved toy line/cartoon/comic series. Between the director (the guy who made Van Helsing!) and its cast (Marlon Wayans?!?!) and the apparent rushed nature of the production (it was assembled to beat the writers’ strike), I thought things looked dire for G.I. Joe. But my doubts proved unfounded, as The Rise of Cobra was a blast. It’s a great summer popcorn flick of the “turn your brain off” variety, similar to the first Transformers movie (you’ll notice the sequel is absent from this list); the action’s great and never lets up, most of the cast seems aware of what kind of movie they’re making (except for Channing Tatum in the lead as Duke, who was a stiff as a board), and the result is a good, old-fashioned sci-fi action movie about high-tech terrorists trying to take over the world. Hooray for summer!
3. The Hurt Locker – When I declared this the best movie of the summer at the beginning of this month, I obviously hadn’t seen the two remaining films on this list. But that doesn’t mean The Hurt Locker isn’t an amazing movie that everyone should see. Director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and actors Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie prove you don’t need a big budget or a goofy high concept to make a crackerjack action picture. If entries number 1 and 2 weren’t such genuinely special movies, The Hurt Locker would be a lock for the top spot on this list.
2. Inglourious Basterds – I just raved about this one yesterday, so I won’t risk repeating myself beyond saying this movie is the culmination of everything we’ve seen from Quentin Tarantino up until this point. Just great stuff.
1. District 9 – It’s very rare that I get myself this excited about a movie before its release (and I really was dying to see this thing, to the point where I got irritated with all the ads about two weeks before it opened; I just wanted to see it already) and am not let down. But Neill Blomkamp’s mind-blowing announcement to the movie world that there’s a new genius filmmaker in the house actually went so far past my expectations that I still can’t believe it. And it’s even rarer that a movie I’m so blown away by – especially such a legitimately strange one like this one – is actually a big hit at the box office, but District 9 not only blew my geeky mind, it gave me renewed faith in movie-going humanity. Not only one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
Inglourious Basterds: Who knew WWII could be this much fun?
When I was growing up reading comics, Marvel had a book that I bought sporadically (and, in retrospect, I wish I’d picked it up more) called What If...?, and the concept was to tell single-issue, “alternate universe” stories that diverted from famous (as well as obscure) stories, like “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?”, a twist on Spidey’s unsuccessful bid to join the FF in Amazing Spider-Man #1. Most of the fun of the What If...? books was due to the fact that they weren’t chained to Marvel continuity, so crazy things could happen, usually involving the deaths of major characters (one issue I remember reading, “What if the Punisher killed Daredevil?”, included not just Daredevil’s death, but also the demise of Aunt May, Spider-Man and eventually the Punisher himself), and that unpredictability was the main thing that made the books fun in a way that no other comics were. Superhero stories already take place in a realm of fantasy, but What If...? took that fantasy to another level.
Which brings me, in typically meandering (and comic book-related!) fashion, to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II What If...? story. It’s already topped the box office and garnered plenty of critical acclaim, but as a movie buff and Tarantino fan (also, as a guy with a movie blog) I have to add my voice to the chorus singing this movie’s praises. Inglourious Basterds is an absolute blast. It’s the film where Tarantino combines the promise hinted at in Jackie Brown – still considered by some to be his best film, at least pre-Basterds – with the flair for balls-out action he displayed in his genre diversions Kill Bill and Death Proof, though to be honest, I was actually struck with how little violence is actually in Inglourious Basterds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got moments that will have some people cringing – Tarantino’s never shied away from violence, and more than one Nazi scalping is shown in grisly detail – but much of the action in Inglourious Basterds is verbal. That’s not a complaint either, as the dialogue is easily among some of Tarantino’s finest.
Speaking of finest, I also have to jump on the “Just give Christoph Waltz the Oscar now” bandwagon. He’s utterly amazing as the film’s villain, Col. Landa, a.k.a. the Jew Hunter. Tarantino’s always had a knack for finding excellent, little-known actors, and Waltz may be his best discovery yet. His performance as the surprisingly pleasant Nazi officer (who can turn to terrifying violence on a dime) is easily one of the best of the year, and right now Waltz appears to be a Heath Ledger-like slam dunk.
Tarantino’s known for filling his films with references to other movies, with the most obvious example being Kill Bill, which is more of a 4-hour homage to genres Tarantino loves than a proper movie on its own merits (but that’s also why I personally love it more than his other movies), but Inglourious Basterds is his gushiest love letter to the cinema yet. It’s dripping with movie references (the climax is in a movie theater, one of the characters is a former film critic, another a German movie star...there’s easily a dozen similar references in there, if not more). While they never threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, Inglourious Basterds is as much about the movies as it is World War II or Nazis or anything else. And while I’m reluctant to spoil too many details about the story, Inglourious Basterds is also Tarantino at his most audacious: what other filmmaker would have the stones to make a movie that changes the ending of World War II?
A few months ago, I was resigned to seeing Inglourious Basterds purely as part of my personal duty as a movie fan, but I wasn’t really excited about it at all (World War II movies have never been my thing). Imagine my surprise that it turned out to be a potential masterpiece by one of the best filmmakers working today, and proof that just because a movie’s set in the darkest period of the 20th century that doesn’t mean it can’t be one of the most fun movies of the year.
It’s been too long since I got to review a kung fu movie for the blog, and it’s fitting that my return to the genre is for one of its bona fide classics. The 5 Deadly Venoms is one of the all-time greats of vintage Hong Kong martial arts cinema, and Dragon Dynasty maintains its stellar run of bringing classic Shaw Brothers (the studio for classic Hong Kong flicks of the ‘60s and ‘70s) movies to Western audiences with top-quality DVDs. Director Chang Cheh was the man at Shaw Bros., having helmed other classics like The One-Armed Swordsman, and in 1978 he released The 5 Deadly Venoms, a modest hit in Hong Kong that grew to become a cult hit in the West. The five actors in the titular roles became commonly known in Hong Kong simply as “The Venoms,” and the film spawned several unofficial sequels with the actors playing similar roles.
Appropriately, The 5 Deadly Venoms is an awesome old-school kung fu movie, easily the best such film I’ve reviewed here. The fights are a lot of fun, but one of the main reasons for the film’s legacy, oddly enough (particularly for this genre), is its story. It opens with the dying master of the Poison Clan giving a mission to his lone remaining student: he must track down five of his former students, whom he now believes are using their unique, individual skills for evil. The young student has been trained in parts of each of their styles – centipede, lizard, scorpion, snake and toad – but his lack of deep knowledge in any one particular style means he’s no match for any of them one-on-one. He’s told to track down one of his master’s old colleagues, who’s hiding a treasure the Venoms are looking for. The Venoms are all living under new identities in the big city, and part of the fun of the early part of the movie is trying to figure out which character is which Venom. (In some cases its remarkably easy, but the identity of the Scorpion is left mysterious basically until the climax.) And not all of the Venoms have turned to evil.
The 5 Deadly Venoms is a bit of an odd beast – not too many kung fu movies are renowned for their stories – but its twisty, surprisingly intricate plot is a lot of the fun, and it’s unquestionably a big part of the movie’s appeal. Having an ensemble cast also means it’s a bit of a change of pace from more traditional “lone hero on a quest for revenge” stories; The 5 Deadly Venoms has no real single protagonist, as the young student initially sent to find the Venoms actually has a fairly small role in the story, serving more as the audience’s entry point in the first act (though he does show up for the climactic battle).
I’d actually only seen The 5 Deadly Venoms once before, back the days I spent copious amounts of time tracking down Hong Kong action movies of the ‘70s through the ‘90s (this was before you could easily find cult foreign movies via small DVD distributors online), and I remember loving it. A lot of that was because the film is basically set up like a kung fu superhero movie; it’s got characters with unique powers who occasionally don themed masks and outfits, and plays with themes of power and responsibility (perhaps Chang was a fan of classic Spider-Man comics). But getting to watch it again to review it was a treat, and I was happy to learn it holds up. The fights are awesome, and the film shows why Chang Cheh was such an important director of that era. He was ahead of his time, using clever camera tricks for Lizard’s wall-walking abilities, including a very cool, proto-Matrix “speed-ramping” technique of subtly switching to slow-motion to create the illusion that he’s calmly walking up the wall. It’s cool stuff for a 1978 movie, and it’s very effective. The 5 Deadly Venoms is known as a classic piece of martial arts cinema, and it’s deserving of its reputation. Obviously these sorts of movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re a fan of old-school kung fu movies, this DVD is a must-have. If you’re only casually interested in classic martial arts movies, it’s one of the best the genre has to offer. Highly recommended. GRADE: A- THE EXTRAS
The lone extra on the 5 Deadly Venoms DVD is commentary from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, who provides commentary on just about everything Dragon Dynasty releases. That’s not a complaint, as this guy is a walking encyclopedia of Hong Kong cinema, casually reciting actors’ entire resumes, right up to the present, as they walk through the frame. He does an excellent job of explaining the impact the film had on pop culture, particularly in America (a number of rap groups, most prominently the Wu-Tang Clan, sample dialogue from the movie); if I’m not mistaken, 5 Deadly Venoms was featured in an Entertainment Weekly list of the top cult movies of all time. Logan manages to quote Shakespeare in virtually the same breath as a lyric from semi-obscure rapper LA the Darkman, and discusses everything from the movie’s potential influence on Toad in the first X-Men movie to the reason the dubbing in classic kung fu flicks sounds so weird and similar. As effusive as Logan is in his praise for 5 Deadly Venoms, he also points out that the new remastered Dragon Dynasty DVDs (which really do look quite spectacular, particularly the vintage Shaw Brothers flicks) do no favors to the late-‘70s Hong Kong makeup. The wigs and fake beards are incredibly phony-looking, but for me, that’s just part of the charm.
Wolf Man trailer and . . . Shazam!Another interesting trailer today (though nowhere near the “big deal” yesterday’s Avatar teaser was), this time for the much-delayed remake of Universal’s classic The Wolf Man, starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. This thing was originally supposed to come out, if I’m not mistaken, last November (I believe I saw footage from it after ComicCon in 2007), but it’s now set for release on February 12, 2010.
This trailer actually looks pretty cool. I know that usually when a studio delays a movie as much as The Wolf Man has been delayed, it’s often seen as a bad sign, but this trailer’s got me interested. It’s got top-class acting talent, a nice, slick look, and I appreciate the period setting. And those transformation sequences look like they could be awesome. And because I can tie just about any movie news back to comic books, another reason I’m looking forward to checking out The Wolf Man for myself is that director Joe Johnston was signed a few months ago to direct the Captain America film for Marvel. And you can bet your sweet can I’ll be covering that movie as more information surfaces. Stay tuned, true believer!
To keep the comic book movie theme going, The Hollywood Reporter is, erm, reporting that Warner Bros. has hired actor-turned-director Bill Birch (he was on Grey’s Anatomy, a show I don’t watch) to write a script for Shazam!, an adaptation of the DC Comics title. (The character is actually called Captain Marvel, but he’s always better known by the magic word he exclaims to transform from a young boy into a barrel-chested Superman riff. It’s also more fun to say.)
A Shazam! movie’s been in the works for years, and last I heard WB cooled on the more kiddie-friendly superhero after Speed Racer (which was geared at younger audiences) tanked and The Dark Knight (which was most definitely aimed at adults) was a box office phenomenon. Personally I’ve always thought a superhero movie specifically targeted at kids is a brilliant idea; superhero stories are all about adolescent wish fulfillment, and a movie about a 12-year-old boy who can transform into a beefy adult with amazing powers seems to me like a license to print money. Get Smart director Peter Segal is apparently still attached to direct, and while that movie didn’t blow me away, Segal proved he can balance action and comedy quite astutely. As awesome as The Dark Knight was, Iron Man shows there’s still plenty of room for “fun” superhero movies as well, and if done right, there’s no reason Shazam! can’t be similarly successful.
Hey, another trailer! This time it’s a proper trailer (as in, includes actual footage from the movie) for Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Say what you will about Moore and his previous movies, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a movie about this subject. If nothing else, it will hopefully spur some more discussion about some very real issues facing not just America, but the world. I know I’ll be checking it out.
Talk about an about-face. A few months back, following a decidedly unspectacular debut at Cannes, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was being talked about in some circles as a potential misfire for the one-time Hollywood golden boy, especially after he underwhelmed just about everyone with his half of Grindhouse, Death Proof. Now QT’s World War 2 flick is looking like one of the best-reviewed films of the year. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, particularly Christoph Waltz as the movie’s villain. I mentioned not long ago that up until the latest trailer I wasn’t really all that excited about Inglourious Basterds, but now I can’t wait to see it. Watch this space for my take on it next week.
Trying something a bit different today...pictures! A handful of stills from James Cameron’s upcoming 3D sci-fi epic Avatar have been released, and, well…it looks like this movie has quite a few scenes in which people stare intensely at the camera and each other.
I’m mostly kidding. These shots did inform me that there are a few actors in this film I didn’t know about (like Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez). And what geek isn’t stoked about Cameron re-teaming with Sigourney Weaver?
Details about Avatar have been closely guarded for years, with the first pic below being the first official shot released of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned alien race in the film. The plot, as I understand it, is basically a sci-fi spin on Dances With Wolves: Sam Worthington plays a crippled soldier who jacks his consciousness into a synthetic alien body (hence the title) so he can move around on the planet Pandora with the human military (I recall Cameron saying something about the planet’s atmosphere not being friendly to humans). He gets separated from the other Earthlings, falls in love with a Na’vi girl, and is eventually forced to choose sides when war breaks out between the high-tech humans and the decidedly low-tech Na’vi (though the aliens do have home-field advantage).
Personally, I’m managing my expectations for Avatar; I’m expecting a cool sci-fi action movie in kickass 3D (I’ve only seen a few movies in proper IMAX 3D, including Beowulf, and it is indeed the business), but what I’m not expecting is the fundamental paradigm shift in moviemaking that Cameron’s been promising. (I read an article by someone who saw the 24-minute Avatar preview shown at ComicCon in full 3D, and while he thought it looked pretty cool, he said the effects in District 9 were actually more impressive.)
All that said, I’m very much looking forward to Avatar. Cameron’s made some of the best action movies ever, and the geek in me loves that even after winning Oscars for Titanic, he’s gone back to making movies about aliens and robots and space wars. Talk about dancing with who brung you.
Final, personal note: as cool as Avatar looks, I’m hoping Cameron sticks to his word and follows it up with another, even more ambitious 3D sci-fi action flick, his long-promised adaptation of the Japanese manga Battle Angel Alita (Cameron has said he wants to have the lead character done with CGI/motion-capture, but surrounded by human actors). I’m a fan of that comic, and prospect of Cameron doing that in 3D is sweet indeed.
I have a bit of an odd tendency to mentally rank comedies, which I’ve found to be a nice way to manage my expectations going in. So I wasn’t really expecting as much from I Love You, Man as I would from, say, a new Will Ferrell-Adam McKay movie (though Step Brothers was a bit of a letdown), but there’s some really funny people in this movie. And as much as I enjoyed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Role Models (especially Role Models; that movie is awesome), I Love You, Man isn’t on par with those movies. But it’s still pretty funny.
In case you’re unaware, the movie follows Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), a “girlfriend guy,” someone who’s always focused more on his relationships with women, at the expense of his male friendships. In the first scene he proposes to his girlfriend (played by Rashida Jones of The Office), and minutes later realizes he has no guy friends to call, and no candidates for his best man. At the advice of his gay younger brother (Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg), he goes on a series of “man dates” to find his new best friend, eventually meeting Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). The two hit it off, and there is much male bonding.
I loved Role Models mostly because of Paul Rudd, one of my favorite comic actors (it also helped that in that movie he basically plays a more handsome version of myself), and not only is he also hilarious in I Love You, Man, but he’s hilarious playing essentially the exact opposite of his Role Models character. In that film he’s a cynical, impatient, vaguely arrogant jerk, and here he plays an incredibly sweet pushover, the sort of guy who spontaneously surprises his girlfriend and her friends with root beer floats. It’s a testament to Rudd’s talent that he’s totally believable – and funny – in both roles.
Jason Segel got a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the excellent romantic comedy he wrote and starred in. He’s hilarious here as well as the ostensible “man’s man,” but he never really steals the movie the way it seems like he was supposed to. But to credit writer/director John Hamburg, Sydney’s more than just some super-macho ideal – he actually seems sort of pathetic at times, his persona occasionally seeming a bit like an act – and I Love You, Man actually manages to make some interesting observations about modern masculinity. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club this ain’t, but I was impressed that Hamburg resisted the urge to idealize Sydney and make Peter just a spineless metrosexual who has to be taught how to be a “real man.”
My only real gripe with I Love You, Man isn’t even specific to the movie, but rather it’s an issue that seems to affect all studio comedies nowadays, which is the third-act Part Where Things Get Serious. It’s a conflict that’s both entirely tacked-on and totally predictable – Peter’s new friendship with Sydney eventually leads to friction with his fiancée on the eve of their wedding – but thankfully it’s mercifully short.
Overall I Love You, Man is a pretty funny comedy with a nice little message, and thanks to two great performances from its leads, as well as a murderer’s row of hilarious actors in supporting roles (Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, Jon Favreau, Jaime Pressly and Reno: 911!’s Thomas Lennon), it made me laugh a lot more than I expected it to. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s pretty good.
I Love You, Man continues the proud tradition of comedy DVDs packed with funny extras. There’s a standard making-of featurette, which isn’t anything special. The main draw is the copious amount of deleted and extended scenes (which are pretty much all funny; I think I laughed harder at the extras than I did at the actual movie, and that’s not a knock on the movie at all) as well as a gag reel and a wealth of alternate takes. Like a lot of comedies, I Love You, Man is very improv-heavy, so many of the alternate takes feature lines and gags that are totally different from the ones in the finished film. Just getting to watch Jon Favreau improv with Jaime Pressly – they play a not-quite-happily married couple, and I’d happily watch a spin-off movie just about their bickering characters – is a treat. Favreau’s a big-deal director now thanks to Iron Man, but anyone who’s seen the Swingers or Made DVDs (two great movies and two phenomenal DVDs) knows how brilliant and funny he is when improvising.
There’s also a commentary track from writer/director John Hamburg, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, and it’s quite a lot of fun. Hamburg, while a funny guy himself, focuses more on production details, while Rudd and Segel just try to make each other and Hamburg laugh, with Segel spending the first section of the movie apologizing repeatedly to viewers that his character hasn’t shown up yet. A great DVD for a solid movie.
I've had this problem with hyperbole for a very long time, and it sort of gave me pause when I first started this blog. See, when I love a movie, I really love it, and that means I sometimes make big statements that I later have to climb down from. In this very space just a few weeks ago, I declared The Hurt Locker the best movie of the summer (though, to be fair, I did add the caveat in my review that it wasn’t really a summer movie in the traditional sense, like, say, Star Trek or Transformers, movies that would seem weird getting released in February or March, but rather a “real movie” that just happened to come out in the summer...but I’m digressing), and now, after having finally seen District 9 – which regular readers were probably starting to get sick of me getting worked up about – I have to eat some crow.
District 9 is amazing. It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen this summer, and a lock for my year-end best-of list. Despite my rabid excitement going into the movie, I didn’t really know what to expect (as opposed to Watchmen, another film on my best-of-the-year shortlist, but I was a devoted fan of the book so aside from the acting and some of director Zack Snyder’s choices, I had a pretty good idea of what the movie had in store for me), and Sweet Fancy Moses was I blown away. No joke, I spent probably about 30%-40% of District 9’s running time with my mouth hanging open.
I’m a science fiction fan, and District 9isone of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in years. Like the best of the genre, it uses its fantastic conceit – it’s set in 2010 Johannesburg, 20-plus years after an alien mothership filled with sickly refugees appeared over the city, and in the ensuing decades a fenced-in slum for the alien “prawns” has been created, much to the chagrin of Johannesburg’s human denizens – to make a statement about human nature and society. Director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp grew up in South Africa under the apartheid regime, but District 9’s allegory can be applied to countless similar situations and regimes across the world over the years. District 9 is real sci-fi; it’s not just a fantasy adventure with rayguns and aliens, it’s about something.
Which brings me to the main thing about District 9 that I hadn’t been expecting: it’s the best damn action movie I’ve seen in recent memory. This is a movie that cost somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million (almost literally a tenth of what a major studio will spend on a “tentpole” franchise film once the promotional and marketing costs are factored in), and the climactic sequence is some of the most incredible action I’ve seen this year. Blomkamp is going to be a big deal. He was formerly attached to direct the adaptation of the massive game franchise Halo with D9 producer Peter Jackson up until the ballooning budget caused the studios that were co-funding it to effectively kill the project, and that’s a damn shame. I’m positive it would have been the first genuinely great video game movie, and it’ll go down as one of the coolest movies never made.
There’s one last thing I have to mention about District 9 (aside from the special effects – by WETA, the guys who did The Lord of the Rings movies – which are among the best I’ve seen; there’s no practical alien effects in this movie at all, and I still sort of can’t believe that) and that’s Sharlto Copley as the main character, Wikus Van De Merwe. I can’t discuss too much of what he does lest I give anything away, but this guy’s gonna be a star. Wikus’ transformation from a dorky bureaucrat to a heartbreaking action hero is some of the best acting I’ve seen since The Hurt Locker. Which sounds like I’m damning him with faint praise, as I just saw that movie a few weeks ago, but that was some of the best acting I’ve seen all year.
District 9 is an amazing piece of cinema, and I can’t wait to see it again.
New film from Hurt Locker team, plus some awesome trailers
A few weeks back I raved about director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and also lamented how few and far between her films have been of late. Well, the movie gods have evidently answered my plea, as Variety is reporting that Bigelow will re-team with Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal on an ensemble action movie called Triple Frontier, about the triple-border zone between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil that’s become almost like a lawless no-man’s-land. That sounds like a pretty cool idea for a movie, but if these two adapted the Yellow Pages into a film I’d be excited. The producers hope to have Triple Frontier filming some time next year.
I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean movies with religious themes don’t interest me; I look at biblically-themed movies the same way I do films involving, say, Greek or Norse mythology (one of the best comics I’ve ever read is the DC/Vertigo series Preacher, which deals heavily with these sorts of ideas; click here to buy the first volume from Amazon). Legion, which comes out in January, is a crazy-looking action flick that resembles 2005’s Constantine, which is fine by me; I thought Constantine was hugely underrated (even if it bears virtually no resemblance at all to Hellblazer, the comic it’s ostensibly based on). Movies about angels can be cool; movies about angels with automatic weapons will almost certainly have me in a theater on opening day.
Legion stars Paul Bettany as the angel Michael, who must defend a diner in the middle of nowhere filled with random strangers (including Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Lucas Black and Charles S. Dutton) from an onslaught of other angels seeking the child of a pregnant woman, which is apparently important for some reason. (I’m thinking something to do with the Antichrist, but the trailer doesn’t make it clear.) This looks like a cool little horror/action flick with a biblical theme. And that fight between Michael and Gabriel (Kevin Durand) looks nuts.
I should probably also mention that this is a “red-band” trailer, and is filled with violence and cussing, which might make it NSFW. View at your discretion, I don’t want to get you in trouble with your boss.
Sometimes the world sucks. You sleep through your alarm clock, miss your streetcar, spill your morning coffee, find out one of your friends got laid off, get your request for a raise turned down. But sometimes, just sometimes, the universe lines everything up nicely, and the trailer for Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day hits the web. And for two minutes and eleven seconds, you realize everything’s going to be all right.
(Heads up, this one also may be NSFW for language, drug references, and maybe just a little bit of window-pissing. Just a bit.)
Also, today I will see finally see District 9. If you hear a distinct, keening wail outdoors at some point later this afternoon, that’s just me squealing with delight. Check back Monday for my thoughts.
Longtime readers know I’m a comic book geek, and superhero movies always get my attention. One of the more curious movies in the pipeline (and it’s been in the pipeline for quite some time now) is Columbia’s big-screen version of The Green Hornet, starring and co-scripted by Seth Rogen, and helmed by Michel Gondry. Before Gondry signed on to direct, Hong Kong actor/director/comedian Stephen Chow was going to be behind the camera, and also playing the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato (this news excited the hell out of me, as I think Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle are modern classics). Then Gondry came on board, and Chow was relegated to just acting. And then nobody heard anything for a while, until Comic-Con last month, where it was revealed that the production was seeking a new Kato, confirming rumors that Chow was totally gone from the project. (Comic-Con also saw the confirmation that Nicolas Cage would play the villain and Cameron Diaz will be Rogen’s love interest.)
Now Columbia has found its Kato in Taiwanese pop star/actor Jay Chou. Chou’s very big in Asia, starring in the 2005 Hong Kong adaptation of the Japanese comic and anime street-racing series, Initial D, which was a huge hit in China. While I’m still sort of bummed by Chow’s exit, Chou’s casting at the very least confirms that this movie will get made. The only thing I’ve seen Chou in myself is Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen; there isn’t a shot in that film I wouldn’t hang on my wall as a poster), and he was decent, if a bit stiff, in that. But he's saying all the right things so far, like that he's not going to try to ape Bruce Lee (wise decision).
The thing that’s still sort of blowing my mind about this Green Hornet movie is Michel Gondry. He’s definitely one of the most visually unique directors out there, having gotten his start making some of the coolest music videos I’ve ever seen (he did the White Stripes’ breakout Lego-themed video for “Fell In Love With A Girl” as well as some great clips for Björk, the Chemical Brothers and the Foo Fighters). He also directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the most mind-crushingly awesome movies of the past decade, before disappointing me (and a great many others) with Be Kind Rewind (check out my DVD review here). He proved with the concert film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that he can, in fact, make a pretty straightforward film, although that was a documentary. I’m assuming he won’t fill Green Hornet with bizarre dream imagery (one of his specialties; he's remarkably good at it), and his best films have been the ones where he’s working off of someone else’s script, so that also bodes well. And I’m getting the feeling Columbia/Sony has high expectations for The Green Hornet next summer, so I doubt they’ll let Gondry get too nuts with it. That said, I just rewatched a DVD collection of Gondry’s music videos (they’re pretty much all amazing for one reason or another), and I’m very, very interested to see what his Green Hornet is like. I'm sure one way or another it will be unlike any other movie of this kind we've seen so far.
Like an apparently large number of people, I caught G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra last weekend and I was surprised at how much fun it was. If you’d told me four months ago that of Paramount’s two toy-related franchise flicks, G.I. Joe would be better than Michael Bay’s Transformers sequel, I would have called you crazy, but…here we are. I had pretty low expectations going in (aside from a couple of pretty positive website reviews that came out a few days before its release), so that may have been a factor. But I had a riot from beginning to end. It was surprisingly violent (heads are blown off; several people get stabbed in the eye), and it found the perfect balance of being just ridiculous enough to be fun without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. I still can’t get over the fact that the two best big summer blockbusters were the two I was most skeptical about going in, Star Trek and G.I. Joe. The world of movies can be a strange place.
Lovely By Surprise is an indie movie from rookie writer/director Kirt Gunn that really probably shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s an incredibly ambitious film, tackling big concepts (the lines between reality and fiction and past and present, the purpose of art, etc.) that more well-known filmmakers have botched terribly, and it’s funny as hell to boot. The story follows an author, Marian (played by Carrie Preston), who’s writing a novel about two brothers living on a boat (marooned on land) in the middle of nowhere, totally cut off from society – except for regular deliveries from a milk truck. (All they eat is cereal, so this detail kind of makes sense, in an odd way. Sort of.) The only problem – in addition to Marian’s writer’s block – is that one of the brothers seems to have figured out that she’s writing him. When she brings this to her mentor, her old professor and on-again-off-again lover, he tells her she has to kill her protagonist to give her book meaning.
Wrapped up in all of this are flashbacks to the ‘70s where we meet Bob, a struggling car salesman. He’s far too philosophical for his new job, discussing concepts like love and fear with his customers, and eventually talking them out of buying cars altogether (“He wasn’t ready,” Bob tells his boss after another potential sale walks out the door following an existential chat.) Pretty soon it becomes clear what ‘70s Bob has to do with modern-day Marian, but I won’t spoil it. As Gunn flashes back and forth between eras, we see the stress of her decision to “murder” her main character, as Marian’s mind begins to unravel.
If all of this sounds a little bizarre, it sort of is, but in a good way. Lovely By Surprise is a very ambitious film, but Gunn pulls it off with aplomb; there’s a dozen different ways in which the movie could have fallen apart in less delicate hands, but somehow Gunn makes it all work. I’m still a little amazed by it, and I’ve watched it twice now.
Lovely By Surprise has a similar quirky aesthetic to Wes Anderson’s early work (specifically Bottle Rocket), before he started making films that take place entirely within odd little fantasy worlds – the final shot of the movie, in particular, is right out of The Royal Tenenbaums. And of course Gunn’s subject matter, the angst of the artist and the blurring of the border between fiction and reality (a theme I’m always interested in), is probably best known these days as the artistic stomping grounds of Charlie Kaufman, but Lovely By Surprise isn’t as consciously difficult to penetrate as, say, Synecdoche, New York (a movie I quite enjoyed, but seriously, what a mindf**k).
The other thing that grabbed me about Lovely By Surprise was the acting. Carrie Preston is excellent as Marian; much of the film rests on her shoulders, and she really makes it work. Late in the film she does and excellent job of making Marian plausibly seem like she’s starting to lose her grip (at one point she hits one of her characters with her car), but she doesn’t go too far over the top with it. And as a guy who’s dealt with writer’s block in the past (obviously not to this extent), I can sort of sympathize with her character’s desperation in some of the scenes. But the performance that really blew me away was Reg Rogers as Bob, the would-be car salesman. Rogers manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, especially the way in which he reveals through his performance the tragedy underlying his initially “quirky” exterior. Much of the story of Lovely By Surprise is the exploration of WHY Bob seems like such a space cadet. It’s not too often a movie has such a genuine emotional core and makes me laugh this hard, and Rogers is largely responsible for that. He’s amazing.
If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that it wasn’t until I watched it with the commentary that I felt like I fully understood how every little piece fits together (though, to be fair, I’m only talking about some minor details; the overall arc of the film – including something that, I suppose, amounts to a “twist” at the end – is quite impressive and emotionally affecting, and not confusing at all if you’re paying attention). But that was also the case with Donnie Darko, and I quite liked that about it. The high concept at the center of Lovely By Surprise is a total tightrope walk, and Gunn never falls.
Lovely By Surprise a great exploration of the artistic process and how creative people channel their experiences into becoming art. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a fully-realized vision from a first-time filmmaker. I’m not in the business of predicting future Great Directors, but I’m pretty eager to see what else Gunn has in store. I hope he keeps making movies, because Lovely By Surprise is a hell of a debut.
The Lovely By Surprise DVD has a lone deleted scene and a commentary track with Gunn, and, I think, Reg Rogers (I was never entirely sure if it was Rogers; it’s possible they introduced themselves and I just missed it, but I could have sworn it just picked up with them talking). Overall the track is sort of dry, but commentaries on indie movies are often interesting if for nothing other than to learn about making a movie on a relative shoestring; during a party scene filled with extras, Gunn explains that after they were told that they wouldn’t actually be getting any free booze, about half of them left. I love stuff like that.
I’ve been writing about nostalgia a lot recently (mostly in the context of beloved ‘80s and ‘90s TV shows that have received new DVD releases that I’ve reviewed), so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the past. So it seemed oddly coincidental (like, one of those bummer coincidences) that John Hughes just died. Hughes, of course, directed several of the most seminal teen films of the 1980s, like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As much as I never personally was a huge admirer of his better-known teen movies (I always preferred his John Candy movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, though I haven’t seen either in many years), their impact on the culture of the time can’t be overstated. I’m actually one of the few people I know who didn’t grow up watching The Breakfast Club religiously, but when I was a kid I must have watched Home Alone (which Hughes wrote) like 25 times.
Hughes was a bit of a recluse (at least by modern standards) in recent years, and he hadn’t directed a film since 1991’s Curly Sue. He only directed eight films in his career in about a seven-year window, but just about every one of them was culturally important, and there aren’t very many filmmakers at all, living or dead, who can say that.
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A couple of new trailers caught my attention this week. One is the full-length trailer for Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m very excited about. This new one features a lot more footage of the “monsters,” which were only hinted at in the teaser. I gotta say…this looks pretty damn amazing. Can’t wait for October 16, when this comes out.
Next is the first trailer for The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel, and Jackson’s first film as director since King Kong (which I didn’t hate, but it’s nothing close to what he achieved with The Lord of the Rings). It’s about a murdered teenage girl looking down from some sort of afterlife as her family tries to solve her murder. When I first heard about it, it seemed like a bit of an odd choice for Jackson, but after seeing this I can understand what drew him to it. It seems sort of similar to his 1994 movie, Heavenly Creatures, about a pair of murderous teen girls with vivid imaginations. I’m a pretty big sucker for striking visual imagery, and the glimpses of “heaven” seen in this trailer have me eagerly awaiting The Lovely Bones when it’s released December 11.
See This Movie: The Hurt LockerI have seen the best movie of the summer, dear reader, and it is The Hurt Locker.
It almost seems unfair to lump The Hurt Locker in with the typical “summer movies,” as I’m confident it will hold up against the year’s most prestigious of the Oscar-baiting prestige films (which don’t come out until late in the year); comparing The Hurt Locker to, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Star Trek is like comparing a steak dinner to a bag of popcorn (in the case of Star Trek, fancy, delicious popcorn…but it’s still popcorn). It’s a best-film-of-the-year candidate that just happened to get a release in the summer.
The Hurt Locker is a tense thriller about a U.S. Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq, but it’s not really an Iraq War Movie. It doesn’t really bother with big statements about the war itself, aside from making observations about the nature of war and what it does to the people who fight it. It was written by freelance journalist Mark Boal, who penned the screenplay after spending time embedded with an actual bomb squad, so it really takes a soldier’s-eye-view of things; Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow are clearly more interested in the characters and what makes them tick than they are in any broad political statements about the war in Iraq.
I’ve heard The Hurt Locker called an action film (it’s in a quote right there on the poster), and I guess it sort of is – it’s rare enough that a movie pins me to my seat with this sort of intensity just once, but The Hurt Locker did it to me three or four times – but there aren’t really any traditional “action sequences.” The performances are so good and the movie gets its message across so powerfully (and without being heavy-handed about it) that it deserves Oscar attention. Jeremy Renner, who impressed me with his relatively small role in 28 Weeks Later, is amazing as the reckless new leader of a three-man bomb squad, and Anthony Mackie (who blew me away in the indie drama Half Nelson) is just as good as a combat-weary soldier who just wants to make it through the few weeks left in his rotation. That the new leader of his team seems to be trying to get himself and the rest of them blown to hell provides natural tension, and seeing two great young actors going head-to-head is a treat.
But the thing that drew me to The Hurt Locker, and the thing that ultimately made it for me, was Kathryn Bigelow. I love the fact that one of the best action filmmakers is a woman; though The Hurt Locker is her first feature since 2002’s submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker (which I never did see), she’s helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, Point Break (in my personal Top 5, easy) and Near Dark (the best vampire movie ever, for my money), as well as the underrated sci-fi thriller Strange Days. I don’t know why Bigelow doesn’t work more, but it’s almost criminal that her films are as few and far between as they have been in the past decade and change. (Though she was the protégé – and, briefly, the wife – of James Cameron, and he’s hardly the most prolific director going.) I was excited enough about a new Kathryn Bigelow movie, but The Hurt Locker exceeded even my sky-high expectations. Even if a movie about soldiers in Iraq doesn’t seem like your thing (and it really isn’t mine), I can’t recommend The Hurt Locker enough.
DVD Review: Parker Lewis Can't Lose - Season 1THE SHOW
Ah, ‘90s nostalgia. As a guy who came of age in the decade that brought us grunge, round sunglasses and….’60s nostalgia, getting a chance to immerse myself once again in the gelled hair and brightly-colored shirts that were the height of ‘90s fashion thanks to the recent DVD release of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was a special experience. I watched the show pretty religiously when I was a teenager, and I think I even used it as a sort of guide to what to expect when I transitioned from junior high to high school (I was pretty disappointed by the reality, let me tell you). Parker Lewis Can’t Lose is an interesting show in that only a relatively small niche, generationally speaking, is even aware of it. But it seems like EVERYONE within that age bracket remembers the show vividly. So when I got the opportunity to review the long-awaited season 1 DVD collection, jumped at it. I desperately wanted to know if it held up to scrutiny a decade and change later.
And the verdict is….shockingly positive. Given that it was such a quintessentially ‘90s show (seriously, check out the haircuts on these guys), and that it was created with teens in mind, I feared that the harsh light of 21st-century scrutiny would be more than Parker Lewis could handle, but I was wrong. Sure, the fashion and pop culture references can be a little jarring (I had no idea Tom Petty was considered the peak of cool back then; he’s referenced in several episodes), but on the whole Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was pretty far ahead of its time when it debuted in 1990. It’s the first sitcom I’ve seen that really aspires to be a cartoon, utilizing sight gags and sound effects ripped straight from classic Looney Tunes shorts. It aired on Fox when that network was still the young upstart (if I’m not mistaken, Parker Lewis led into The Simpsons, which at the time was the hot new show everyone was talking about), and the producers’ desire to make something totally unlike anything else on the air at the time is evident even by today’s standards.
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, in case you don’t know, follows a high school kid named Parker Lewis, who rules his fictional California high school, Santo Domingo High, through his coolness. It’s sort of like a TV version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (which itself spawned a short-lived TV series that wasn’t nearly this good or funny), except Parker’s a much nicer guy who’s genuinely concerned with the greater Santo Domingo student body (unlike Bueller, who was always just in it for himself). With Parker are his best buds, rock star-wannabe Mikey and their faithful freshman sidekick, Jerry, who can produce almost literally anything from his apparently magical trenchcoat. Together they try to have fun (or in their slang, “achieve coolness”) while dodging their semi-evil principal, Ms. Musso, and her vampire-like student lackey, Frank Lemmer.
First and foremost, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose is just a fun show. It’s still really funny, and the wonderfully goofy, cartoonish vibe and neat camera tricks (there’s a cute little running gag of each episode opening with a POV shot from inside a locker or a fridge or something, with several characters checking in while the credits run) make it more than just another teen sitcom. There’s also no laugh track, something that’s a lot more common today than it was in 1990, when a sitcom without canned laughter was a pretty mind-blowing concept, but it’s definitely for the best, as many of the jokes in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose fly way too fast for any laugh track to keep up.
Corin Nemec gives Parker the right amount of cockiness without making him unlikeable, which is something of a feat considering how often Parker manipulates other people for his own ends. But he’s so unflappable in the face of expulsion or potential violence at the hands of school bully/giant Larry Kubiac (Abraham Benrubi, who went on to a lengthy stint on ER) that you always know the show will end with him declaring “coolness” with his buds. Overall Parker Lewis Can’t Lose is an amazingly fun and funny show that can now be discovered and re-discovered thanks to this excellent DVD set.
Shout Factory has once again gone above and beyond to provide a beloved cult show with a deserving DVD package. Parker Lewis is one of those shows that fans have been clamoring for basically since the dawn of the DVD format, and the wait was definitely worth it. The episodes look quite good, the original music has been mostly/all licensed (I heard Hendrix's 'Foxy Lady' in an episode, and I know that didn't come cheap), and the set is packed with commentaries with the cast and crew. There’s also a cool little featurette looking back on the show with new interviews with the entire cast. Everyone makes points similar to the ones I’ve made myself (the show was ahead of its time, a lot of people didn’t quite know what to make of it but its intended audience totally got it), and everyone’s got fond memories of the whole Parker Lewis experience. This DVD collection most definitely achieves coolness.