People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Review: Ninja Assassin
Watching Ninja Assassin was like getting a date with the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, only to realize minutes into dinner that she’s actually dumb, boring, and incapable of holding up her end of the conversation. I sat there in the darkened theater less than halfway into Ninja Assassin’s running time, wondering how a movie with that title (and that trailer!) could be so dull and uninteresting. Ninja Assassin is an old-school martial arts movie in the sense that any time there isn’t a fight happening – which is all too often in this film – it’s about as much fun to watch as drying paint.
Ninja Assassin’s plot (and for a martial arts flick, far too much time is devoted to it) follows Raizo, a rogue member of an ancient ninja clan (inhumanly pretty Korean pop star Rain, shredded to almost Bruce Lee proportions) whose one-man campaign against his former family lands him in the path of a researcher at a fictionalized version of Interpol (Naomie Harris), and, naturally, they team up to fight the ninja clan.
The stuff that works in Ninja Assassin is, as you'd expect (or in my case, hope), the ninja stuff. Director James McTeigue is a competent action director, and the action scenes are generally fun and fast-paced. They’re also quite dark, literally, which might make them a little hard to follow. I didn’t really mind though, as it’s thematically appropriate (ninjas don’t exactly favor broad daylight to operate), and I found I could follow the fights if I paid attention. Ninja Assassin is, however, hampered by the fact that the most fun action bit is actually right at the beginning. It’s a gleefully violent scene – not really a fight as much as a wholesale slaughter of some yakuza thugs – that unfortunately sets the bar at a point nothing else in the movie can quite reach. It also establishes the film’s style: fast action, severed limbs and torrents of CGI blood.
The stuff that doesn’t work is basically all the non-action bits, which, unfortunately, make up a lot of the movie. After that awesome opener, Ninja Assassin’s first half consists almost entirely of dull, drawn-out flashbacks (seriously, I’d guess about 30-35% of this movie is flashbacks) to Raizo’s training with his ninja clan (with a regrettable emphasis on a leaden romantic subplot with a female student), him training in his Berlin apartment in the present day, and Harris investigating the ninjas with her boss. It sucks.
The thing I just couldn’t understand is why the filmmakers – especially bona fide geeks like the Wachowski Brothers, who produced the film with V for Vendetta director McTeigue – decided to spend so much time on the Naomie Harris/Europol subplot. The whole movie slows to a crawl whenever it becomes the focus, and that happens a lot. Whoever had the notion that the audience for a movie called Ninja Assassin wanted to spend this much time watching a third-rate Bourne rip-off should rethink their career in popular cinema. Why do movies like this always have to have tacked-on global-police subplots? It’s like the makers of Ninja Assassin watched the cruddy 2007 video game adaptation Hitman and decided to emulate all the things that similar missed opportunity did wrong. Harris’ researcher has about as much (if not more) screen time that the ninja assassin of the title, which would be fine, I guess, if the movie was called Forensic Researcher, but it’s not. It’s called Ninja Assassin. So yeah. Problems.
In terms of craft, Ninja Assassin really did feel like a step backwards from V for Vendetta. McTeigue’s 2005 adaptation of the rightfully-acclaimed Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel was quite good, easily the best film of an Alan Moore comic until Watchmen. It had excellent performances, looked great, and managed to tell a fairly complex story in a way that was easy to follow. The buzz around V was that the Wachowskis were far more hands-on producers than is the norm, and essentially directed chunks of that movie themselves. No idea how true that is, or if the same is being said about Ninja Assassin, but there’s a sloppiness to the storytelling (which, to be fair, is probably tied to the weak screenplay by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, but the Wachowskis got their start as writers, so that’s not much of an excuse either) that I didn’t see in McTeigue’s previous film. The sharpness of V for Vendetta was one of the reasons I’d had high hopes for Ninja Assassin, but the movie was a significant letdown. All Ninja Assassin had to do was showcase fun action and not drag on too much during the scenes where there’s no fighting, but they filmmakers only get half of that equation right, and even then the action isn’t sufficiently mind-blowing to excuse the limpness of the rest of the movie. For a martial-arts movie geek like me, it’s one of the more disappointing movies of the year.
Labels: martial arts, Movie review
Trailers for Green Zone, Kick-Ass and Clash of the Titans
Sorry, folks. Nothing about New Moon here.Now that that's out of the way, today I'm looking at a few trailers for movies coming out in the first half of 2010 that I'm looking forward to seeing, including the latest work from director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, the team behind the fantastic latter two Bourne movies (no disrespect to Doug Liman; The Bourne Identity laid the groundwork excellently, but it was Greengrass that added the almost documentary-style realism that makes his entries sing. But I'm digressing again.), called Green Zone, opening March 12. I believe it's based on a non-fiction book called Imperial Life in the Emerald City, about the early days of Baghdad's Green Zone shortly after the U.S. invasion. My understanding of the book (which I haven't read) is that it focuses more on the policy-making and the often absurdly out-of-touch U.S. diplomats than combat, but Greengrass' film looks like much more of an action movie. It follows an idealistic U.S. soldier trying to uncover a sketchy source that may have given U.S. officials false information about Iraq's WMD program. The trailer has a very Bourne feel (it could easily be subtitled Jason Bourne Goes to Badgdad), but hey, a new action flick steeped in real-world issues from Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon? Sign me up.Check out the trailer for Green Zone at Apple.
Kick-Ass is a new superhero spoof based on a new comic that's still being published (production on the film started shortly after the first issue hit comic stands) that basically explores the idea of "what if people actually dressed up to fight crime?" It's a fairly old-hat concept in comic books –Watchmen is really the first and last word in that conversation, and that came out in the mid-'80s – and I have a....difficult relationship comic scribe Mark Millar, one of the most popular writers in the medium right now. He's a very solid writer of superhero comics, and has some interesting ideas, but he's nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, and the concept behind Kick-Ass (the comic, I mean, the first issue of which ends with the titular hero getting beaten almost to death in his first outing as a "superhero") just screams more of the same.
That said, Kick-Ass, the film, was directed by Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie's former producer who made the under-appreciated Layer Cake, a slick little crime flick with a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, as well as the even-more-under-appreciated Stardust, and I like his movies quite a bit. It gives me hope that the movie will rise above the dangerously one-note premise, and the buzz coming out of last summer's Comic-Con, where big chunks of the movie were shown, was overwhelmingly positive. (The film is also a hard-R, filled with tons of over-the-top violence that the trailer can't really showcase.) Lionsgate's releasing the movie April 16, and I'm very, very intrigued to see it for myself. The last adaptation of a Mark Millar comic was Wanted, which changed tons of details from that awful, awful comic and made a fun little action flick out of it. Here's hoping Kick-Ass can similarly rise above its source material to be something awesome.
Last, but certainly not least, is the teaser for director Rob Cohen's remake of the 1981 cult classic Clash of the Titans, starring current It Boy Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation, Avatar) in the role that Harry Hamlin made famous, at least for children of the '80s like myself. I must admit I'm sort of bummed that they went with the military buzz-cut for Worthington instead of trying to recreate Hamlin's more classical ancient-Greece hairstyle, but it looks like Cohen, who's made fun genre movies like The Fast and the Furious and truly awful genre movies like Stealth, looks to be hitting all the right notes. Of course, I could just be saying that because of my fond memories of the original movie (I wanted my own mechanical owl so bad) and my childhood fondness for ancient mythology, so naturally the idea of a big-budget Hollywood adventure with Pegasus and Medusa and giant scorpions has me pretty stoked. And any movie that stars Liam Neeson as Zeus already has my $12.
Labels: superheroes, trailers
Planet Earth (or, looking into the face of God in high-definition)
I mentioned not too long ago that I recently got a Blu-ray player after some initial skepticism about the high-definition revolution. Hi-def does look awesome, but it was really not enough of an improvement on my standard-definition DVDs to warrant shelling out for what were then still fairly prohibitively-priced Blu-ray players, not to mention the groan-inducing prospect of re-buying some of my favorite DVDs on Blu-ray. The problem with this whole thing, though, is that I’m also a fairly avid gamer, and I’d been coveting a PlayStation 3 for a long time, and eventually cracked under the pressure and bought a PS3 (about a month before the well-publicized price drop; this is how my life works), basically so I could watch Watchmen in hi-def and play inFamous. (For the record, it was totally worth it.)
Video game-related digression aside, I’ve been very impressed with my Blu-ray player. Recently I picked up the 2006 BBC documentary series Planet Earth (which I’d actually also been looking forward to experiencing in hi-def well before I had a Blu-ray player), and Sweet Christmas was I blown away. I’ve mentioned more than once here that a great-looking movie can score a lot of points with me – occasionally more than it may actually deserve – and this six-part nature documentary series, which was chopped down into a feature-length film by Disney and released simply as Earth in 2007, had more moments that made me exclaim things not fit for print here in the first episode alone that a lot of entire fiction films do. Between the flat-out brilliant cinematography fact that everything’s in high-definition, Planet Earth has some of the most amazing shots of anything, fiction or documentary, live action or animated, that I’ve seen in a very long time. (It’s also just an excellent nature documentary that, as clichéd as it sounds, really does make you appreciate how amazing the world is.)
If you have a Blu-ray player and you don’t have Planet Earth yet, you should be ashamed of yourself (I certainly was). This is essential high-definition viewing. previous post
Labels: Blu-ray, documentary
My 10 Favorite Movies: Part 2
Welcome to the second of my two-part rundown of my favorite movies of all time. I rambled on enough in the preamble to Part 1, so let’s just get to it.
My favorite movie by Wes Anderson (one of my favorite directors) is also his first. I saw Bottle Rocket in theatres in 1996 (I was in high school and talked a couple of friends into seeing it with me based on a small TV item on it I’d seen that made me laugh), and I laughed as hard as I ever had at a movie. Anderson’s later films would solidify his reputation for quirky movies with quirky characters, and while the same can definitely be said for Bottle Rocket, it’s not as stylistically out-there as his better-known movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s also more obviously a comedy – it’s basically a riff on the post-Tarantino crime movies that were then flooding the movie landscape, following a trio of privileged kids-turned-wannabe criminals more interested in the lifestyle than with committing actual crimes – than his later movies, though Bottle Rocket has tons of heart, especially in the relationship between old friends Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson). This is a movie I watch when I’m feeling down, and it never fails to pick me up, and the final shot of Dignan waving to Anthony and Bob (Robert Musgrave) makes me smile just thinking about it.
Since this movie’s release, both of the Wilson brothers have become big movie stars, but I’ll always reserve a place in my heart for them, no matter how many crappy movies they make, because of Bottle Rocket.
There isn’t a whole lot in movies I like more than samurai. I’ve always found them fascinating, and I’ve read more than a few books on Japanese history, and that fascination can be traced back to the films of Akira Kurosawa. I actually saw Yojimbo first, and it knocked me on my ass, but when I got around to seeing his 1954 masterpiece, it was a revelation. I’d always enjoyed action movies about an ragtag group of guys who have to defend something (a building, a town, a planet) against a much larger force, and Seven Samurai is the template, in one form or another, for all of those movies (most obviously The Magnificent Seven, itself a really cool movie). About midway through my first viewing of this movie, I understood why it’s considered one of the greatest films ever made. The performances are incredible – especially the legendary Toshiro Mifune, whose character is almost the exact opposite of his iconic turn in Yojimbo – the characters are great, the story is totally gripping (the last hour-plus of the movie, basically, is an extended siege sequence)…there’s almost no aspect of this film that susbsequent action/adventure movies didn’t draw from. I’m an action movie guy, and to watch Seven Samurai is to witness the creation of the action movie as we know it.
This is the Akira Kurosawa movie I actually came to first – I’m embarrassed to admit, after watching Walter Hill’s so-so prohibition-era 1996 remake with Bruce Willis, Last Man Standing – and it remains one of the formative movie-watching experiences of my life. I’d rented it after seeing Last Man Standing (which I’d quite enjoyed, but seeing the real deal has since ruined it for me), and I watched it, rewound the tape, and immediately pressed “Play” again. I’ve never been much of a fan of westerns (though I can appreciate a good one when I see one), but this was a western with, to me, an even cooler lead than Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Toshiro Mifune’s chin-scratching swordsman, and the story, in which he plays two warring groups of bandits off one another as a hired bodyguard, managed to be gripping and absurdly hilarious at the same time. (Kurosawa and Mifune emphasized the comedy even more in the 1962 sequel, Sanjuro). Yojimbo is one of those movies that I’d been waiting my whole life to see, I just didn’t know it at the time.
I’ve mentioned more than once how much I love director Kathryn Bigelow, and this is my favorite of her movies. I realize Point Break has become something of a camp classic, but my appreciation of this movie, about an FBI agent who goes undercover to crack a ring of surfing bank robbers, has nothing to do with camp or irony. I do think it’s hilarious – Gary Busey and John C. McGinley provide two of the funniest supporting performances in any action movie I’ve seen – and some of the plot twists are hokey (it’s an action movie from 1991 after all), but the surfing and skydiving sequences are gorgeously shot, Patrick Swayze is a fantastically charismatic villain, and it’s got one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen Point Break so many times I know the script almost by heart, and it never gets old to me.
The Last Boy Scout
Yes, another early-‘90s actioner; I will never deny that I embrace my roots. Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout is one of the first movies I watched incessantly, and I still do to this day. The primary reason for this is the sublime script by Shane Black, who’s riffing on classic detective stories (Black, who penned the original Lethal Weapon before eventually almost destroying his career with the screenplay for The Last Action Hero, would later go even further down this route into full-on homage in his directorial debut/comeback, 2005’s brilliant Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – read more about it here). Black’s scripts share a lot of common threads – a pair of bickering guys reluctantly thrown together to solve a case that they eventually realize is a much larger conspiracy, oddly articulate henchmen, a truckload of wonderfully quotable lines – but this one’s my favorite.
The story follows a burned out private eye (Bruce Willis) who teams with a washed-up former quarterback (Damon Wayans, with a stripper girlfriend played by a then-unknown Halle Berry) to unravel a conspiracy surrounding legalized gambling and pro football. That’s all beside the point though, as the exchanges between Willis and Wayans are what make this movie, and the way Black plays with the conventions of action movies, without going overboard with meta-humor like The Last Action Hero did. (“You’re the bad guy, right?” Willis asks Taylor Negron’s deliciously evil Mr. Milo shortly after they first meet. “I am the bad guy,” Milo responds enthusiastically.) More than any other movie on this list, The Last Boy Scout is far and away the movie I quote the most; there isn’t another movie I can think of that I’ve seen that has so many amazing and hilarious exchanges, my favorite being the brief scene in which Willis and Wayans discuss the latter’s leather pants. I’ve watched it probably 100 times, and it’s never not made me laugh like an idiot. Of all the movies I’ve listed here, The Last Boy Scout is probably the one that’s the least defensible from an objective standpoint, but it’s also the one that I probably get the most pure enjoyment out of watching. I don’t watch The Last Boy Scout to appreciate the craftsmanship or the technical achievement on display, I watch it because it’s 105 minutes of violent, foul-mouthed fun.
Labels: Lists, self-indulgence, Shane Black
My 10 Favorite Movies: Part 1
I recently turned 31, and like most people, a birthday gave me cause to reflect a bit. I’ve been watching movies for a long time, and they’ve been a big part of my life for just about all of it. And as someone who loves movies to the point where I’ve finagled a gig writing about them, I’m often asked what my favorite movies are. Naturally, this is not an easy question to answer, as I’ve always found that no self-respecting movie buff can honestly offer a simple reply. So between the fact that I don’t have much to write about for the next couple of days and that I’ve been constantly referring to my favorite movies in passing on this blog since it started, I figured now’s as good a time as any to get into my favorites. So for the next two days, I’ll run down my 10 favorite movies, in no particular order.
Keep in mind, this is a list of my favorite movies. That’s not the same as “the best” movies; I’m not trying to argue that Kill Bill is a better film than The Godfather or Citizen Kane, just that I have a special place in my heart for that movie that I don’t have for those classic films. (Both of which are brilliant and deserve their places in history, for the record.) These are just the movies that remind me why I love movies in the first place. I can watch them over and over again, any time, sometimes finding new stuff to love each time, sometimes just curling up with them like an old sweater.
Some of you will also probably notice that these are relatively recent movies. It’s not that I don’t appreciate older classics, but I didn’t grow up watching them and therefore they’re not as crucial to my development as a movie geek. So yeah, most of these films were released within my lifetime. Regardless of their genre or their place in the annals of cinema history, these are the movies that always do it for me no matter how many times I watch them (and most of them I’ve been watching regularly for years, even decades).
So without further ado, for those who care, my 10 favorite movies of all time.
If I had to pick one film here as No. 1, it would be this one. I realized a few years ago that Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic has been creeping up my ever-shifting mental top 10/20/50/100 list consistently for some time. I didn’t really like Blade Runner very much at all the first time I watched it; I was too young to appreciate it and I was disappointed there wasn’t more “action.” But I got into it a few years later and have been watching it regularly ever since. I realized it was probably my favorite movie, period, when I noticed that, unlike all the other movies mentioned here (and in history), I fall in love with Blade Runner more each time I watch it. There isn’t anything about this movie that I don’t love, from the story to the production and set design to the music to the acting and the characters (Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty is easily one of my favorite movie villains of all time) to its central theme of what makes us human to just the overall feel, Blade Runner is, for me, just about as good as movies get.
For a while after this movie came out, it was the one I mentioned when asked for my favorite, but I always sort of cringed when I answered, as I felt like there were some important caveats that were difficult to explain. (I always think it’s sort of lame when people cite such a recent movie their favorite; films have to marinate in the psyche, I think, before they can honestly be called a person’s favorite.) But seeing Volume 1 for the first time in the theater remains one of the most mind-blowing movie experiences I’ve had. My love for Kill Bill (specifically Volume 1; it’s the one with all the martial arts, after all) is intensely personal; I wouldn’t even argue this is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, but I grew up a geek for much of the same stuff he did, so his mash-up of samurai movies and kung fu movies and spy movies and westerns, as well as a lot of weird European movies I’ve never seen (with Sonny F***ing Chiba and an anime sequence tossed in for good measure) felt like someone made a movie just for me. I love martial arts movies, and the House of Blue Leaves fight scene in Volume 1 remains the most incredible on-screen fight I’ve seen. Things slow down a little for me in Volume 2, as there’s less fighting and more talking (though I love David Carradine’s performance, and it’s all in the second one), but Tarantino’s take on hardcore action flicks still turns my crank like few other movies ever have.
I’ve never really considered myself that much of a Quentin Tarantino fan, but he’s connected to two movies on this list, so I guess I should reconsider that stance. He only wrote True Romance (it was directed by Tony Scott, who has another movie on this list), but I’ve been a freak for this movie since I first saw it as a teenager. I’ve seen this thing dozens of times, but I still get goosebumps during the scene near the beginning where Patricia Arquette’s Alabama confesses to Christian Slater’s Clarence that (1) she’s actually a call girl hired by his boss to show him a good time on his birthday and (2) she’s in love with him. Throw in flat-out brilliant supporting performances from Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini and Gary Oldman (reigning King of Movie Villains), and what is still my favorite Brad Pitt performance ever, and I almost stopped writing this to watch it again.
I guess this is the only movie on this list that isn’t really a genre movie in the traditional sense, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about the golden age of the porn industry is one of the few three-hour-long movies that I can watch over and over and over again. This movie manages to be sad, hilarious, uplifting and terrifying at various points (occasionally all at once), and no matter how many times I watch it, I’m still amazed how well Anderson (and his fantastic cast) pulls it all off. Boogie Nights came out during a crucial stage in my development as a film lover; within about a year or two, this, Three Kings, Fight Club and Rushmore all came out, all of them blowing my mind, and it felt like a mini-renaissance was taking place in American film (and the directors behind all of those movies are still filmmakers whose careers I follow closely up to this day), but Boogie Nights was so audacious and unlike anything I’d seen up until then (I’ve subsequently seen a lot of the movies Anderson was drawing from, but it doesn’t change how much I love this film) that it's permanently etched into my mind. Anderson has yet to make a movie I haven't liked (I even dig Magnolia), but this is still the movie I think of when I think of him and his work.
Out of Sight/The Limey
At my old job, working at a music magazine, my editor would ask us all every holiday season to compile a list of our favorite albums and singles of the year, and every year I’d try to cheat by putting the last one on my list as a tie. I never managed to slip this past him – he always made me discard one – but this is my list, and nobody edits this blog but me, so eat it Steve, this one really is a tie.
Actually, the real reason I included these two films together – made by my favorite director, Steven Soderbergh, within a year of one another – is that they’re so similar in many ways that I can’t help but associate them. Out of Sight was the movie the movie where I fell in love with Soderbergh’s movies. I love how it veers from being as funny as any comedy one moment to being tense and scary (like any good crime movie) at its climax. (I gather this is actually common to many Elmore Leonard’s novels, and it seems to be a balance that few filmmakers who’ve tried to adapt his stuff can pull off.) It’s also the first movie in which George Clooney truly was a movie star (and the last time I took Jennifer Lopez seriously as an actress), and it’s filled with crackerjack supporting actors like Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames and Steve Zahn. And the bit between Clooney and Cheadle in the prison library may hold the record (in my head at least) for the most great lines in a single scene.The Limey sees Soderbergh taking many of the vaguely arty editing tricks he played in the more commercial, studio-produced Out of Sight (like cutting to shots of characters just staring at each other while dialogue plays out, as if they’re communicating with their minds) even further with this low-budget riff on revenge movies. Terence Stamp is simply amazing as Wilson, a British ex-con trying to get to the bottom of his daughter’s mysterious death in L.A., and Peter Fonda is equally brilliant as a slimy record producer who played a role in her demise. (Fonda also manages to be a great movie villain without ever really doing anything particularly villainous on screen; he just feels evil.) The Limey manages to be artful and sort of experimental while still working as a satisfying genre movie; the scene where Stamp walks back into a building after being roughed up by thugs to kill a whole bunch of people (none of which we actually see) remains one of the most supremely badass sequences I've ever seen in a movie.Tomorrow: The final five movies in my Top 10 (which the more astute among you have realized is actually a Top 11), including a few movies made before I was born...!
Labels: Lists, self-indulgence
Wanna be in the Paranormal Activity credits?
So this Paranormal Activity business.
I always think it’s cool when a movie becomes a success in a genuinely grassroots way, especially when it climbs the top box office list over the course of several weeks. It almost never happens anymore, when positive word-of-mouth fuels a movie’s success rather than a “trick millions into going to see it the first weekend” marketing blitz. And as much as Paranormal Activity isn’t really my thing – I more appreciated it than liked it, and I thought it was very well-made and effective, but I wouldn’t really call it “scary,” but that’s just me – Paramount clearly has something special on their hands. The film was made for a pittance ($15,000!) a few years ago, and is currently nearing the $100-million mark. (It was also the horror film that finally broke the Saw franchise’s grip on the Halloween box office, and for that I am thankful.)
The ‘Demand It’ campaign, which prompted people who watched the trailer online to go to the movie’s website and demand that the film be released in their city too – Paranormal Activity only opened in a handful of theaters initially – eventually got millions of votes, and directly led to the film now being in just about every cinema in North America. I remember when it opened here in Toronto at one theater just for midnight showings, and now it’s everywhere. And to thank fans, Paramount is allowing anyone to register at http://www.ParanormalActivityProject.com/ any time before next Monday, November 9 at noon PST to have their names included in the credits of the Paranormal Activity DVD (for which there’s still no official release date, but that’s undoubtedly coming soon).
I think this is a great little thing for fans of the movie. Paranormal Activity, more than just about any hit movie this year (with the possible exception of District 9), was a success because the movie really connected with people, and the “buzz” had less to do with a marketing campaign than with people just getting excited about seeing it and genuinely digging it and telling their friends to check it out. It’s a nice acknowledgement of the role that “the people” played in the movie’s success, and it’s cool that basically anybody who wants to can get their name into the DVD credits.
Look for a proper DVD review of Paranormal Activity in the coming weeks or months (assuming Paramount sends one along for me).
Labels: DVD, horror movies
...And knowing is half the battle.
I found G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to be one of the more pleasant surprises of this past summer. It’s not going to be in my year-end top 10 list or anything, but it’s a solid popcorn blockbuster that entertained the hell out of my inner 12-year-old. It’s big and dumb enough to be fun, but not so much so that it insults viewers’ intelligence. It’s the sort of movie I tend to enjoy on repeat viewings, so I dutifully picked up the Blu-ray when it came out (I actually appreciated it a bit more the second time, though the film obviously has its flaws; Citizen Kane this ain’t).
That sense of fun carries through to just about the entire cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a great young actor, is clearly having a ball as a scarred scientist who evolves into Cobra Commander (one of the DVD featurettes opens with him in full costume reciting Hamlet with the aid of his plastic Cobra Commander mask), and Dennis Quaid is having the time of his life channeling John Wayne to play General Hawk. I even found Marlon Wayans tolerable, and I usually hate that guy. The only real problem in the cast is, unfortunately, the lead: Channing Tatum, who I’ve been told more than once is actually quite a good actor, is wooden and mush-mouthed as Duke, as if he’s the only one in the cast unaware of what kind of movie he’s meant to be in. Hopefully in the sequels (which are coming, as this thing made some pretty decent coin at the box office), he’ll get with the program. The other guy who deserves a shout-out is Ray Park as Snake Eyes; there isn’t really much “acting” here, as Snake Eyes doesn’t talk, but Park, who will be a geek icon forever and ever after playing Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I, is a lot of fun to watch in the fight sequences. Snake Eyes gets a lot of the “wow” moments in the movie, and it was the only real aspect of The Rise of Cobra that turned my nostalgia crank (everyone who grew up with G.I. Joe knows that Snake Eyes is the coolest one; its an immutable rule of G.I. Joe.)
The Rise of Cobra looks pretty sweet on Blu-ray; movies with a lot of fast action and quick edits, I find, tend benefit from high-definition, as the sharper images make it a bit easier to follow all the on-screen motion. (Unfortunately, HD is not as kind to some of G.I. Joe’s frequent green-screen shots; some of the scenes look like they're from a movie made in 1997.) And given that the appeal of this movie is essentially purely visual, that counts for quite a bit.
But as much as I dug The Rise of Cobra, it wasn’t even the best G.I. Joe DVD I bought that day. That honor goes to the animated G.I. Joe: Resolute, which began as a web series of five-minute episodes, assembled here on DVD into an hour-long story. The angle of Resolute is that it’s basically the more grown-up interpretation of G.I. Joe geared more towards the hardcore fans of the cartoon and comic series, who are now, like me, in their 30s. Guns fire real bullets, not lasers, and people – including the Joes – die. It's the version of G.I. Joe that grown-up geeks have been waiting for.
G.I. Joe: Resolute was written by British comic writer Warren Ellis (a personal favorite of mine), and he gives the proceedings a sense of near-future realism he injects into a lot of his comics. Ellis is big on research, regularly drawing inspiration from magazines like Scientific American, and Resolute feels far more like it’s set in the real world than Rise of Cobra in terms of the technology used. Resolute still has a sci-fi edge, but nothing here is as out-there as the wacky stuff seen in the feature film. Ellis is great at writing smart, capable, clever characters, and the dialogue in Resolute run circles around the Rise of Cobra script. And Ellis’ take on Cobra Commander, who manages to be both funny and scary at the same time, is probably the best version of that character I’ve seen in any incarnation of G.I. Joe.
It’s a bit odd that the actual cartoon version of G.I. Joe is more realistic and hard-edged – and just all-around better – than the live-action movie, but there you have it. The world of movies (particularly movies based on a cartoon based on a toy line) can be a strange place.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra: B
G.I. Joe: Resolute: A
Labels: animation, Blu-ray review, geek alert
Blu-ray Review: Monsters vs. Aliens
One of the central ironies of my movie-geek existence is that I love animation but have no patience for kids’ movies. Sometimes this means I’m pleasantly surprised by the animated children’s movies I do end up reviewing; nobody was more shocked than I was that I picked Kung Fu Panda as one of the best movies I saw last year (check out my original review here). But on the whole, I try to avoid kiddie comedies about animals with celebrity voices; I’m not their target audience, and I haven’t had the patience to wade through a movie’s worth of flatulence-related jokes and tired pop-culture references for one or two gags actually aimed at people old enough to shave since I suffered through the original Shrek in theaters (the last time I went to see something “to see what all the fuss is about”). So I was sort of dreading reviewing Monsters vs. Aliens. And while it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it might be, it also wasn’t anything special.
The premise of Monsters vs. Aliens will pique the interest of any other kid who used to fill spiral notebooks with drawings of, well, monsters fighting aliens. It opens with Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a normal gal who’s irradiated by a mysterious meteor on the day she’s supposed to marry a buffoonish local weatherman (Paul Rudd). Needless to say, spontaneously glowing green and growing to 50 feet in height while at the altar puts a kibosh on her nuptials. She wakes up in a mysterious U.S. government prison built in the 1950s to contain what was then an increasing number of freakish monsters sprouting up on American soil. There Susan meets Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a brilliant scientist who accidentally crossed himself with a cockroach, à la The Fly; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a sentient (if technically brainless) blob of blue goop accidentally created by an attempt to combine a genetically-engineered tomato and a desert topping; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a merman believed to be the missing link between humans and fish; and Insectosaurus, a Godzilla-sized insect grub that was the result of some Godzilla-style atomic testing.
Monsters vs. Aliens is a light-hearted superhero-style movie (maybe it’s because I’m a comic fan, but I got a heavy X-Men vibe from the concept of a group of freaks with amazing powers protecting a world that hates and fears them) with a nice message for kids to be yourself. Susan’s personal journey through the film, learning to accept her situation and to stop looking for her own self-worth through other peoples’ acceptance of her, makes her particularly positive role model for girls.
There’s a little less for adults to latch on to, but there are some really clever references to classic ‘50s monster movies (Link is obviously patterned off of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Ginormica/Susan is a riff on the 50 Foot Woman; the recording booth glimpsed in the extras shows some really cool, retro-style movie posters for each of the monsters as if they actually were featured in films of that period).
My problem with Monsters vs. Aliens was that it never quite gelled the way the better movies of its kind does. The action, while there’s a considerable amount of it, is largely unspectacular, and the best setpiece in the whole movie comes at the mid-point (a pretty cool sequence set on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge), and even then it doesn’t hold a candle to anything in, say, Kung Fu Panda. The character designs are passable, if a little generic, and the voice work is solid but unspectacular (as a devoted Arrested Development fan, I kept waiting for Arnett to cut loose and crack me up, but he never quite gets there).
Sometimes I feel bad about ragging too hard on a kids’ movie – I’m the first to admit I’m hardly the target audience for Monsters vs. Aliens – but then I think about movies that I really genuinely like that also happen to be aimed at younger audiences, like the aforementioned Kung Fu Panda and The Incredibles (which I realize I mention as the gold standard just about every time I discuss animated movies, but I happen to think it is the gold standard for movies like this). Movies like that, as well as WALL-E and 9 (read my review of that cool little movie here), prove that a movie can be entertaining for kids and not be bland and unimaginative.
Which sounds a bit harsh for a movie like Monsters vs. Aliens; it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just very content to aim for the middle of the road (one of the directors helmed the second Shrek movie, and I hate that franchise with a white-hot passion; it represents exactly the kind of garbage that I rail against whenever I talk about animated movies), and I think kids deserve better. The premise of Monsters vs. Aliens is perfect for a fun adventure movie for children, but there’s a strange hollowness to the proceedings. I didn’t hate Monsters vs. Aliens, and it’s certainly decent enough to hold a parent’s attention as they watch it with their child, but given the standards set by superior movies in this genre, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Monsters vs. Aliens is the first Blu-ray Disc I’ve reviewed, and it looks fantastic. Pretty much everything looks great in hi-def, but I find animation in particular looks really fantastic. (I’ve only picked up a few BDs since I got a Blu-ray player – well, technically, a PlayStation 3 – but roughly half of them are animation of some form or another.) The level of detail in the characters, from Link’s scales to Insectosaurus’ hair to Susan’s skin, is remarkable, and the bright colors in the movie’s palette (this is a kid’s movie after all) really pop from the screen.
Blu-ray, of course, also allows for even more special features, and the Monsters vs. Aliens disc is no exception. There’s a standard commentary track from co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and producer Lisa Stewart that’s actually quite dry, but the ‘Animators’ Corner’ Blu-ray-exclusive feature is far superior, basically a video commentary track that showcases storyboards and rough animation, cast and crew interviews and footage of the actors recording their lines. It’s pretty cool stuff, combining what are now standard DVD bonus material like commentary and making-of featurettes into something even cooler.
The other main extra feature is the new short film, B.O.B.’s Big Break, which is in 3D (the disc includes four pairs of old-fashioned, two-color 3D glasses). It’s not much different than the proper film in terms of its tone and style, but in the past these sorts of extras have sometimes been packaged as separate discs, so its inclusion on the disc is a nice touch. As great as this new 3D technology is in theaters (I didn’t see Monsters vs. Aliens in the cinema, but I have a friend who did, and while he really didn’t care for the movie, he said the 3D was amazing), it doesn’t seem to have evolved much in terms of the home experience. Like a lot of similar recent home-video 3D releases, like My Bloody Valentine 3D, the 3D in B.O.B.’s Big Break is sort of hit-and-miss; sometimes it really seems to work, and other times I just got a minor headache from looking at everything through green-and-red glasses.
There’s also a pile of standard DVD extras (albeit in HD), including some deleted scenes, a character-specific karaoke game, a look at other DreamWorks animated properties, including the Shrek Broadway musical. Overall this is a disc filled with stuff to keep the kids amused for hours.
Labels: animation, Blu-ray review