Hey! It’s the first picture of Chris Hemsworth as Thor! I’m totally psyched for this movie like you couldn’t believe. I’ve had a soft spot for the character of Thor for a long time (Norse mythology + superheroes = awesome), and while this is easily Marvel’s riskiest movie yet (see the above equation), it’s also easily the Marvel movie I’m the most excited about. I like Hemsworth a lot from what I’ve seen him in, and he looks sufficiently Thor-like in this shot. (Though I assume he wears his little helmet at some point; if he doesn’t, I will be upset.)
In significantly less awesome news (though I guess a photo doesn’t really constitute “news,” but I’m digressing), director Adam McKay said on Twitter that Paramount “basically” turned down Anchorman 2. You’d think that when the stars align (i.e. agree to cut their salaries) to make a sequel to probably the best comedy in a decade, any studio would happily open the till to make it happen, but that shows how little I understand Hollywood.
I suppose the possibility exists that another studio could swoop in and agree to finance Anchorman 2 (or maybe not, Paramount may have exclusive rights), but it’s a bummer that apparent lack of studio interest seems to have scuttled the project. The first Anchorman was a pretty big hit, and Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and Christina Applegate had all agreed to return alongside Will Ferrell, but it looks like now that won’t happen.
McKay’s and Ferrell’s latest project (along with Mark Wahlberg, an incredibly underrated comic actor), the action-movie spoof The Other Guys, hits theaters August 6. It looks great. Here’s the trailer.
Hobbit gets a release date, Breaking Dawn gets a director
I’ve made no secret of my love for Peter Jackson’ Lord of the Rings movies, and in my recent review of the Blu-ray set, I confessed to not being a big fan of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. I’ve never read The Hobbit – when I finally got around to reading Tolkien, I went right to the Rings trilogy, as I always understood The Hobbit to be more of a kids’ book, and I was more interested in the epic scale of the trilogy – and I was pretty lukewarm on the idea of making a Hobbit movie, a smaller-scale prequel to The Lord of the Rings. That was until it was announced that Guillermo del Toro was directing The Hobbit, and that it would be made as two films, one more or less adapting the book, and the second acting as a “bridge film” between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, incorporating elements from Tolkien’s many detailed histories of Middle Earth. Suddenly I was interested in The Hobbit.
The thing is, the Hobbit movie is unfortunately wrapped up in the slow collapse of movie studio MGM, and neither Guillermo del Toro nor producer Peter Jackson have stated when The Hobbit is expected to start production (del Toro’s been in New Zealand working on preproduction for like a year), leading to much speculation of “delays,” which Jackson recently debunked by pointing out that there was never an announced start date, therefore there can be no actual delay. But the news just came down that Warner Bros. has scheduled The Hobbit to hit theaters in December 2012 and December 2013 (which is how New Line released the Lord of the Rings movies). I guess part of the problem was that 2011 was originally the target date for the first Hobbit movie when the project was first announced back in 2007, but it’s now looking pretty unrealistic. (While del Toro is using a lot of the same design elements and behind-the-scenes folks who worked on the Rings movies, which cuts preproduction time, it still took Jackson and company the better part of a decade to make those three films, so adapting Tolkien isn’t something you can really rush through to hit an arbitrary release date – which is what Hollywood usually does with big movies.)
So mark it on your calendars, folks. The Hobbit is coming to a theater near you beginning December 2012.
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In news that I don’t really care about, but is sort of a big deal nonetheless, Dreamgirls director Bill Condon has signed on to helm Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final film in the Twilight series. I know nothing of Twilight other than the bits I’ve gleaned from snippets of the first movie I’ve flipped past on the movie channel up here, and I’ll be dead in the cold, cold ground before I try to read one of the books, but I hear the final book is utterly insane. It sounds like Summit Entertainment had been looking for a “name” director for the final film in the franchise – which may still be divided into two films to keep the gravy train running just that much longer – and Condon fits the bill. I’m not really that familiar with Condon’s previous movies, but he’s certainly classing up the Twilight franchise, and from what I’ve seen of this low-rent, high-yield teeny-bobber vampire series, they could use a filmmaker capable of making a movie that doesn’t look like a mediocre episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Good luck to you Bill, but I suspect I won’t be going to see your Twilight film.
Men In Black 3, Escape From New York remake, and...the death of Jason?
I’m really not sure who out there will be excited about this, but apparently Men In Black 3 is getting close to being official. Stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld have all reportedly signed on for the sequel, which will be in 3D (of course) and is due in theaters in May of 2011.
I liked the first Men In Black okay back in the day, but the sequel (often held up as an example of the worst-case example of what happens when you rush a film into production with half a script to beat an impending writers’ strike) is just a sketchy collection of half-baked gags and ideas, and is about as forgettable a big summer blockbuster as Wild Wild West (oops). And don’t even get me started on the use of 3D gimmickry…but Sony needs a big blockbuster in 2011 – that’s when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 was due out until the studio scrubbed it for a 3D Twilight-flavored reboot the following year – so I guess the studio calculated that it’s easier to park dumptrucks full of money in front of Smith’s, Lee’s and Sonnenfeld’s respective homes and get Men In Black 3: A License to Print Money into theaters for Memorial Day weekend next year.
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Breck Eisner, director of the recent not-quite-a-zombie-movie The Crazies, is reportedly in final talks to helm the remake of John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York (one of my personal all-time faves). I’m pretty much over being upset about remakes of movies I love – a remake of Escape From New York, no matter how awful, won’t retroactively erase my DVD of Carpenter’s magnificent original – and Hollywood’s been threatening to remake it for years, so it was bound to happen eventually. The only detail that sort of irked me in the report is that the script apparently combines the story from the original Escape From New York – the President is trapped in a walled-off NYC that now serves as a supermax prison and an soldier-turned-outlaw is promised a full pardon to rescue him – with an origin story for Snake Plissken. One of the coolest things about the original Escape is precisely that you don’t really know what Snake did before or who he was exactly, except through small snippets of dialogue from other characters.
Remaking Carpenter has been a thing the past few years – Rob Zombie remade Halloween in 2007 (check out my review here) and they’re shooting bits of the prequel to Carpenter’s The Thing a few blocks from my office here in Toronto this week. But there’s a magic to Carpenter’s movies that none of these remakes can hope to touch (and I’m one of the few who liked Zombie’s Halloween), but that doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed on their own merits. There aren’t many bigger Escape From New York fans out there than me, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. But nobody will ever top Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken for pure cinema badassery.
Stay tuned for more on this project as I hear about it.
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One final item that I find genuinely confusing. Producer Brad Fuller recently Tweeted that the planned sequel to last year’s Friday the 13th remake is “dead – not happening.” I assume there’s a story behind this – studios don’t typically kill sequels to horror remakes that make more than $100 million worldwide (and I can’t believe that a Friday the 13th movie is that expensive to make). The Friday sequel was planned to be in 3D, and it also would have marked the 13th film in the Friday franchise, obviously an important milestone. I can’t wait to find out what happened here.
The Earth Day DVD/Blu-ray release of James Cameron’s sci-fi epic was no accident (it is a Thursday, after all; usually DVDs are released on Tuesdays), as Avatar lays on the environmental themes pretty thick. And that’s not really a knock; Cameron makes movies for the broadest possible audience – and clearly he’s really good at it – and as much as some adults found the “be good to the planet” themes a tad heavy-handed, the second time I went to see it months after its release, the theater was at least half-filled with children. Just the sort who wouldn’t grasp more subtle environmental themes, but who probably took Cameron’s green message to heart.
As much as I didn’t think it was one of the best films of 2009, I did quite enjoy Avatar, and I found its environmental theme worked quite well within the context of the story. And really, subtlety has never been Cameron’s thing (of all the words I’d use to describe classics like Aliens and Terminator 2, “subtle” would not be among them).
The only problem with the Earth Day Avatar release is that there’s nothing on the disc. Cameron is planning to re-release Avatar in cinemas in August with an additional six minutes or so of footage, so a more proper DVD/Blu-ray release (with extras like commentary and making-of documentaries) isn’t expected until the fall. That’s the version of Avatar I’m excited to own, one that lets me watch picture-in-picture footage of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in motion-capture suits alongside the finished film. But until then, there are worse ways to mark Earth Day than with great bit of sci-fi/action spectacle.
Away We Go
A bit of an odd choice, as the movie itself has no environmental themes (though the main characters, expecting couple Burt and Verona, definitely seem like the types of people who are concerned about their carbon footprint), but rather it’s the production itself that was environmentally-conscious. There’s a short featurette on the Away We Go DVD that explains how the filmmakers tried to make the production as carbon-neutral as possible, and details the lengths they went to in order to achieve that goal. It’s a noble endeavor, and made me realize just how much waste is created by a typical movie production. It also helps that Away We Go, which I picked as one of the best films of 2009, is a wonderfully warm and sweet movie that anyone with a heart will enjoy. (Check out my initial review here.)
The Lord of the Rings
The environmental allegories in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic are quite well-known at this point – the villains, primarily Saruman and his orcs, represent the industrial revolution, while the hobbits and the Shire signify a more traditional agrarian lifestyle that Tolkien saw fading in his lifetime – and Peter Jackson’s film version of the classic trilogy makes good use of those themes without losing focus on the main story. Also, these are phenomenally well-made films that just got re-issued on Blu-ray (check out my review of the new set here), so this it’s as good a reason as any to revisit Middle Earth and hearken back to a simpler time (which never really existed; I guess this is what being a Republican is like?) when men were men, hobbits were hobbits, and if you destroyed half of a forest, the other half would come looking for you and totally ***** up your ****.
Review: Kick-AssI realize it’s unfair to hold a film’s hype against it – especially if that hype is ostensibly grass-roots (i.e. from people who’ve seen it, as opposed to studio marketing people) – but I found myself watching Kick-Ass, the new superhero action/comedy, waiting to have my mind blown. It never happened, and while the film was good – very good, actually – my world, sadly, remains unrocked. This movie’s been getting absolutely insane levels of hype in certain corners of the Internet (“best American action movie in a decade” and “greatest gunfights since Hard Boiled” are the two that stand out in my mind) since last summer’s ComiCon, and I’m not a guy who takes comparisons to vintage John Woo films lightly (check out my review of his 1989 classic The Killer here), to the point where I couldn’t help but let it inform my opinion of the movie. And as much as I went into it with a bit of an “Okay, let’s see what you got” attitude (which is almost never a good headspace to be in going into a review, in my opinion), I must say that while it didn’t rewrite the rules of action cinema for the 21st century, as some have claimed, Kick-Ass is a fun, foul-mouthed and gleefully violent and take on superheroes. I haven’t laughed this hard in an action movie since Punisher: War Zone, a movie I dearly love.
Kick-Ass is about a geeky high school kid named Dave who decides one day to try dressing up like a superhero. His first foray into crimefighting lands him in the intensive care unit, but when he recovers his nerve endings are so deadened that he can barely feel pain. Which helps, as he rises to fame courtesy of an Internet video of him getting beaten up by some thugs. The resulting clip, which becomes the biggest thing ever on the Internet, makes Kick-Ass a household name, and brings into the light the previously unknown father-daughter vigilante team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz) and inspiring the Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). All of this is to the chagrin of the local crime boss (Mark Strong), who finds himself having to add “costumed crimefighters” to his list of career headaches.
The idea of a “real-world” take on superheroes isn’t new – Watchmen is the best, and best-known, exploration of that concept – but instead of going the grim, vaguely depressing route that Watchmen did (as well as the recent Canadian indie flick Defendor – check out my review here), Kick-Ass is an ultraviolent day-glo cartoon. See, the “realism” in Kick-Ass doesn’t go much further than the notion that if someone were to actually don tights and fight crime, they’d probably be horribly injured or killed. And they’d also probably have to be insane.
Dave (Aaron Johnson) isn’t crazy, just a geeky kid who takes a chance and does something he can’t believe nobody’s tried to do before. Naturally, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Johnson is actually very solid in the role (I didn’t realize he was British until after I saw the movie, which is impressive), and he manages to make Dave a loser (and an idiot; it never feels like you’re supposed to think him dressing up like a superhero is a good idea) without making him unlikeable or too much of a pushover (a problem I had with Wanted, another comic-turned-movie from the same comic writer, Mark Millar; more on him later).
As much as he’s clearly the hero of the piece, Dave/Kick-Ass ends up acting almost as an entry point to a larger world that he (and the viewer) didn’t really know about, and that’s the world of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, a hyper-violent riff on Batman and Robin. (Cage is doing an utterly insane Adam West/William Shatner impression while in costume that you have to see to believe.) They’ve been fighting crime for some time, but from the shadows, as opposed to Kick-Ass, who promotes himself with a MySpace page. It’s Big Daddy and Hitgirl that get to do all the cool stuff during the film’s many excellent action sequences, and as much as some people seem to take issue with this (the complaint is that Kick-Ass is a supporting character in his own movie), it really only underlines the reality that the film has set up; Dave isn’t really a particularly good superhero, and usually ends up getting beaten up. But Big Daddy and Hitgirl have been training themselves to do this for years, and they, unlike the amateur Kick-Ass, are very, very good at killing bad guys. When they turn up, the movie’s energy level kicks up a notch, and that’s a credit to both Cage and Moretz (who has gotten a ton of attention as the vicious and foul-mouthed Hit Girl, and she is indeed the best thing in the movie), and the tragedy at the heart of their origin gives weight to characters that could have otherwise just been cartoonish and silly.
But the real star of Kick-Ass is director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake), who shows with this movie that he may be one of the best new action filmmakers working in Western movies. His film moves gracefully from action scenes to character moments, and as much as this is being sold as a superhero action film (and it is most definitely that), I took it more as a comedy about superheroes that happens to have stellar action scenes. Vaughn manages to poke fun at superheroes without being too mean-spirited (though believe me, as a lifelong geek and comic reader, many of the jokes in the film ring very true indeed), and as much as he obviously there’s obviously some mockery of genre conventions here, it never feels condescending or insulting to superheroes or their fans.
Kick-Ass is even more impressive in how it eclipses its source material. The film is based on a comic series from Scottish writer Mark Millar, who also wrote the comic Wanted (which was altered much more heavily for the movie version, which is great, because the comic is among of the worst I’ve read), and the film manages to clean up a lot of Millar’s juvenile tics and make them watchable. As much as I’m slagging on Millar’s writing style, which is too clever by half, he’s actually quite good with the basics of storytelling and pacing; there’s some twists and turns in Kick-Ass that I didn’t see coming and some genuine “how are they gonna get out of THIS?” moments in the third act. But Vaughn is a far superior filmmaker than Millar is a comic writer. As a guy who considers himself more of a comic fan than a movie buff (though it’s a close No. 2, believe me), I usually prefer the original comics to the film versions, but in the case of Kick-Ass, the movie is the better of the two versions, by a wide margin.
Kick-Ass is a riot. It’s crass, violent as hell and definitely not for everyone, but it’s also the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies all year.
Defendor is a small Canadian film (though that’s sort of redundant; a “big” Canadian film is sort of an oxymoron) about Arthur Poppington, a dull-witted but good-natured guy who thinks he’s a superhero. Similar to the bigger-budget Kick-Ass (which coincidentally opens today; look for a review on Monday), Defendor explores the question, “What would happen if someone actually put on a costume to fight crime?” When I first saw the trailer for Defendor ahead of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I noted that it looked interesting and ambitious (which is code for “I have no idea if they’ll pull this off”), and as a lifelong fan of the superhero genre, I can say that while Defendor certainly isn’t perfect, it does manage to ride its unique tone quite well up until the very end, and first-time writer/director Peter Stebbings himself has immediately established himself as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch. Woody Harrelson plays Arthur, a semi-homeless city worker who lives in an old warehouse that he’s turned into a sort of lower-than-low-rent Batcave, where he hones his skills with a slingshot, marbles, lime juice, his grandfather’s World War II trench club, and wasps he keeps in a jar to throw at his enemies. He prowls the streets of Hammertown (it’s never clear if this is the actual name of the city or a nickname) as Defendor – he gets really gets upset when people pronounce it “Defender” – in his homemade superhero costume in search of Captain Industry, a mysterious (and most likely fictional) villain he blames for his mother’s death. He meets a young crack-addicted hooker named Kat (Kat Dennings, from Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) who lies and tells him she has a line on where he can find Captain Industry, and the two strike up a surprisingly sweet relationship as she tries to help Defendor in his fight against crime.
The trickiest part of Defendor is the tone; while the idea of a naïve dimwit (Arthur is said to have an IQ of 80) who thinks he’s a superhero seems like the stuff of wacky comedies (and usually it is), Defendor is much darker and more realistic. There’s certainly a lot of funny stuff here, but Stebbings is more interested in examining what kind of person would actually do that, what would happen to him, and what kind of effect that would have on the people around him. The combination of vaguely goofy comedy and gritty realism is a heck of a tightrope to walk, and for the most part Stebbings succeeds. I was pretty stunned at how well everything holds together for the majority of the film, and while the ending sort of collapses (more on that later), I was on the whole quite impressed.
Defendor is a remarkably good-looking movie given its budget; Stebbings has a great visual eye, and the action sequences are quite well put together. He manages to evoke the superhero genre while also clearly grounding the film in the real world; more than any movie I’ve seen, Defendor shows what would probably actually happen if someone put on a costume to wage a one-man war on crime. It’s never glamorous or sexy, and it never goes the way Arthur planned. Stebbings clearly has an understanding of comics and superheroes, and while he approaches the concept from a decidedly grown-up perspective, it never feels like he’s condescending Arthur/Defendor, or superheroes in general.
None of this would work at all if it wasn’t for an actor as solid as Woody Harrelson in the lead. He manages to make Arthur sympathetic and funny, but I found myself also cheering for Defendor, as silly as he is. It would be pretty easy to make Arthur just a buffoon, but Harrelson gets to show the pain at the character’s core that eventually drove him to become Defendor. Defendor would have been an absolute mess without an actor as good as Harrelson in the lead.
But it’s Elias Koteas that’s Defendor’s secret weapon. Koteas is a Canadian character actor who’s been in a ton of movies over the years (he first caught my eye in 1990’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, playing Casey Jones, a low-rent vigilante who’s weirdly similar to Defendor), and he’s great in every single one. Here he chews the scenery wonderfully as the villain, a crack-smoking corrupt cop who hangs out with prostitutes and Serbian crime bosses, and like most great movie villains, manages to be hilarious and scary as hell at the same time. It’s an incredible performance, and the film takes on a wild energy every time Koteas is on the screen.
Michael Kelly is another excellent character actor I’ve been seeing for years who really gets a lot to bite into here. I first noticed him as the jerky security guard in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (he also completely steals the hilarious/awful Law Abiding Citizen in ONE SCENE), and he’s wonderful and warm as Arthur’s boss and friend. He plays the normal guy who grounds Arthur and his pretty out-there behavior in reality, and he’s brilliant.
As I mentioned, it’s the ending of Defendor where things fall apart. I obviously won’t spoil the details, but its seriousness felt unearned. I understand what Stebbings was going for, and it’s not that he lacks the talent to pull it off, but rather it felt like he’d spent the entire movie slowly (albeit entertainingly) painting himself into a corner, and wasn’t able to work the miracle required to get himself out of it. As much as it definitely took away from the movie, I can’t say it ruined the entire experience, and I’ve always maintained that I’ll take an ambitious failure over a movie that plays it safe and doesn’t take chances. Defendor definitely falls into the former category (though I wouldn’t use the word “failure”; more like an interesting disappointment) and as much as I had my issues with it, it’s the work of a very talented filmmaker assisted by an excellent cast.
The Defendor DVD has a really nice collection of extras on it, including commentary from Stebbings, Harrelson, Dennings and producer Nick Tabarrok. The track has a nice, conversational vibe; everyone’s friendly and cool and funny. It’s bit of a mutual admiration society, but everyone’s charming enough that it doesn’t grate.
There’s also a collection of five featurettes that, if watched back-to-back, works as a nice little making-of mini-documentary that covers almost every aspect of production, from the project’s genesis to the casting to Stebbings himself. I found it all pretty interesting, and considerably better than the standard fluff you that passes for bonus material on most DVDs. There’s also a handful of deleted scenes and a funny little outtake reel. Overall this is an excellent little DVD for a quirky take on superhero movies.
Joss Whedon to direct The AvengersGreat news for comic nerds this week: Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and geek-TV icon Joss Whedon is in final negotiations to direct The Avengers for Marvel Stuidios. It sounds like it’s not completely official at the time of this writing, but as a fan of Buffy (never could get into the spin-off, Angel) and Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi series Firefly and the movie it eventually spawned, Serenity, I think this is wonderful news. As much as he’s being looked at as a director (and he’s pretty good behind the camera, having helmed Serenity and many of the best episodes of his TV shows), it’s his skills as a screenwriter that have me excited. Whether it’s official or not, it’s hard to believe Marvel would be talking this seriously with a guy like Whedon, known more for knack for characters and dialogue than his filmmaking chops, if they weren’t open to him polishing up the Avengers script as well.
The Avengers, in case you’re unaware, is Marvel’s all-star superhero team, featuring Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as a ton of cool B-list characters like Hawkeye, Giant Man, the Wasp and the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson in this summer’s Iron Man 2). Marvel has been slowly building up to The Avengers since Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury in the first Iron Man, having signed the main actors in their movies, including Robert Downey Jr., Captain America’s Chris Evans and Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, to multi-picture deals that include The Avengers. A movie featuring Captain America, Iron Man and Thor all together is the stuff of fanboy dreams, and I think Whedon’s an excellent choice to realize that dream on the big screen.
I’ve heard that Marvel likes to let little tidbits like this leak out before anything is official to gauge the fan reaction online (no idea how true it is, but I read somewhere that the Captain America job was basically John Krasinski’s until the studio saw the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the news on the web), but given Whedon’s cred with the geek crowd, I suspect that won’t be an issue here. Whedon has one of the most devoted online fanbases; based purely on Google search results, you’d think both Firefly and Serenity were far more popular than the show’s brief life and the film’s relatively anemic box office take would suggest.
My only concern – and it’s a minor one – is that the scale of The Avengers dwarfs anything he’s worked on before (think city-destroying superhero fights and alien invasions), but Whedon’s nothing if not a sharp guy, and I assume he realizes The Avengers needs a little bit of a Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day) vibe. But I had similar concerns going into Serenity – would it just look like a two-hour Firefly episode, or would it actually feel like a movie? – but he put those to rest right quick, showing an ability to handle actions sequences that far more complicated and kinetic than anything he attempted on any of his shows, and the film had a scale to it that was only hinted at in the TV series. I definitely think Whedon’s got it in him to step up his game on a project as big as The Avengers.
Most importantly (to me at least) Whedon is the first filmmaker hired for a Marvel project who is actually a comic book fan. He’s written for Marvel Comics in the past – he has an excellent 24-issue run on Astonishing X-Men that’s a pretty solid entry point for newcomers to the X-Men or superhero comics in general, and another book he spent time writing, Runaways (about a group of teenagers who realize their parents are all supervillans) is also headed for the screen soon. More than Iron Man’s Jon Favreau or Thor’s Kenneth Branagh or Captain America’sJoe Johnston, he understands the dynamics of superhero stories, specifically superhero team stories; anyone who’s seen Buffy, Angel or Firefly knows of his knack for witty team dialogue and relationships.
The Avengers is expected to begin shooting some time in early 2011. You can bet your sweet can I’ll be following the news on this one closely.
First things first: the versions of The Lord of the Rings movies included in this set are the shorter theatrical versions, not the Extended Edition versions (which I assume are coming to Blu-ray some time relatively soon) which I, and many other fans, prefer. But still – it’s The Lord of the Rings in high-definition! And it looks fantastic on Blu-ray. But aside from looking extra-sharp, there’s nothing on these discs that wasn’t included in the previous standard-definition releases.
Now, I’m a pretty serious fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, but in my travels I’ve found that I’m something of a curiosity; I grew up reading fantasy novels of questionable quality and playing Dungeons & Dragons, so I have a real nostalgic connection to all things fantasy-related, but I never got around to reading The Lord of the Rings, the novels that pretty much birthed the fantasy genre as we know it, until right before the movies came out. And I was pretty underwhelmed, to be honest, their indisputable historical importance aside. So my love of Middle Earth is essentially purely a cinematic one, as opposed to many diehard fans of the movies, who are also huge fans of the books. And like any self-respecting movie geek, I always try to seek out director’s cuts and extended versions of things, as I usually (but not always; I’m looking at you, Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut) prefer them. So as much as I’ve watched Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novels over the years (and I’ve watched them many, many times), it’s pretty much always the Extended Edition DVDs. In fact, it’s been so long since I’ve watched the shorter theatrical cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies that watching them again for this review was like seeing them again for the first time. Also a factor: because I am insane and tend to have a lot of free time, I often watch The Lord of the Rings Extended DVDs in a 12-hour marathon, which is actually a fairly serious undertaking I usually reserve for long weekends. So it’s actually been quite some time since I just watched The Fellowship of the Ring as a stand-alone movie. (Hey, turns out t’s awesome.) Given that these movies are almost a decade old now and they’re among the most popular in recent memory, I won’t spend time reviewing the movies themselves (it’s almost guaranteed you’ve seen them and have an opinion of them). But watching these films again, I was reminded of just how much of a sucker for them I am. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but even the hokiest, borderline-goofiest aspects of these movies, from the earnest emotion on display throughout the trilogy to the multiple endings of The Return of the King, I just buy what Peter Jackson and company are selling every time I watch them. There aren’t too many movies I can say that about.
I was initially a little skeptical about revisiting the theatrical versions on Blu-ray, as I’m so used to the Extended versions by now. I’m in love with a lot of the little details in the longer versions (the showdown between Gandalf and the Witch King in the extended version of The Return of the King is one of my favorite moments in the entire trilogy) and I’ve seen them so many times that expected to sort of miss them, but honestly, with a couple of minor exceptions (I found the extra stuff in The Return of the King the most conspicuously absent), I could barely tell. And as much as I prefer the Extended versions, the theatrical cuts of these movies are all brilliant as well, and I appreciated how lean they are in terms of storytelling. I, like many other fans of these films, am still waiting for the Extended Edition versions of the films to hit Blu-ray, but for the meantime this set is pretty fantastic. The Extended Blu-rays will, for me and many others, automatically become one of the prizes in my personal movie library, and until that set is released, this collection will do wonderfully.
GRADE: A THE EXTRAS
The extras are literally just the bonus-feature discs from the original theatrical-cut Lord of the Rings DVDs. They’re standard DVD discs (as opposed to Blu-rays) and the second disc case in the set just houses the digital copies of the movies.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched this stuff – since the release of the Extended Edition DVDs, I’ve basically just watched those every time I get a hankering to revisit Middle Earth – and the even more in-depth features on the Extended discs (still among the best and most comprehensive bonus features I’ve ever seen on any DVD or Blu-ray) made me realize how relatively spare the extras on these discs are. They’re not bad (actually by most DVD standards they’re pretty excellent), but the Fellowship bonus disc, for example, has a couple of TV specials created to hype the movie on its initial release, some features from the movie’s website, and trailers. The Extended extras are still among the most comprehensive (and the best) making-of documentaries I’ve ever seen, and these extras don’t hold a candle to those. But overall these are fantastic films to have on Blu-ray, and until the Extended Editions hit high-def, this is the way to experience The Lord of the Rings.
DVD Review: Joe Rogan - Talking Monkeys In SpaceTHE SHOW
I guess I’m what you’d call a Joe Rogan fan. I quite enjoy his color commentary on the UFC, and I own a couple of his comedy albums. And though I never watched Fear Factor, I really liked his work on Newsradio. A lot of people who only know him either as the Fear Factor or UFC guy may not realize he’s actually a stand-up comedian, and he’s spent the last few years re-establishing himself as a comic, including this TV special, which originally aired on Spike TV last year. But DVD is really the place to experience Talking Monkeys In Space, as Rogan’s comedy gets pretty raunchy at times, and it sort of ruins the flow when every other word out of his mouth is bleeped. I caught the special on Spike when it first aired, and thought it was okay. But watching it uncensored on DVD was a lot funnier. (What can I say? I think swearing is funny.)
The main reason I like Rogan’s comedy so much is that it’s smart. His material isn’t really political (“pot should be legal” is about as traditionally politically-charged as his stuff gets), but he talks a lot about society and human development (the title refers to us, riding on what he calls “a giant rock flying through space”), and I’ve always been fascinated by that sort of big-picture stuff. Add to that the fact that Rogan’s just damn funny, and you’ve got a comedian who’s stuff is right up my alley.
Rogan’s actually one of the sharper comics I’ve seen, certainly much more thoughtful than his goonish, fratboy image lets on. Talking Monkeys In Space covers topics ranging from evolution, religion, drugs (a lot about drugs), telepathy, having a baby and the inevitability of death. And Dr. Phil. All of it’s very funny, but naturally, it’s probably not for everyone (i.e. Dane Cook fans). But if you’re a fan of smart, raunchy comedy, this is pretty great stuff.
Also included on Talking Monkeys In Space is an extended Q&A session that took place after the main show, exclusive to this DVD. It runs almost 30 minutes, and, a few awkward audience-interaction moments aside, it’s almost as funny and interesting as Rogan’s act. (One of my favorite moments is Rogan mocking the first questioner, who tries to impress him with some inside-baseball MMA questions before an audience that largely seems uninterested.) Overall I was impressed with how interesting the Q&A stuff was, especially considering its length, but it’s more than just padding for the DVD.
GRADE: B+ THE EXTRAS
There’s a pair of short featurettes on the DVD, one a behind-the-scenes piece about Rogan’s life as a travelling stand-up comedian, and it sort of touches on the world of comedy and Rogan’s take on it (I have some friends who’ve done comedy, and I find the world of stand-up pretty fascinating). It follows him working out and preparing for the show on the DVD.
‘Talking Monkeys In Columbus’ is more about the preparation for the show itself, including a show he did at a smaller club the night before he recorded his special. Neither is mind-blowing (they’re actually fairly similar, and likely could have been combined into one longer mini-documentary) but as a fan of Rogan’s, I thought it was sort of fun watching him crack wise with his buddies in vans and hotel lobbies. But overall this is a pretty nice DVD package for a quality comedy special.
I’ve made no secret of my giddy anticipation of Tron Legacy this December, winner of this year’s District 9 Awad for Movie I Keep Finding Excuses To Write About, and clearly I’m not the only child of the ‘80s looking forward to Disney’s sequel. I found this the other day, and it filled me with nerd-glee; it’s a shockingly effective modern-style trailer that someone edited together for the original 1982 Tron, and it makes it look as awesome as The Dark Knight.
I didn’t really need any more reason to throw in my 20th Anniversary Edition DVD of Tron this weekend, but now I’ve got it. If you haven’t seen Tron before, or in a long time, I dare you not to check it out after watching this.
Not in the sense where it got me through a life-threatening situation or even a particularly difficult time, or radically changed my existential path. But movies are a major part of my life (more so than most normal people, I’d wager), and action movies are probably my single favorite genre. When I saw The Killer for the first time on home video in my teenage video store-rat days, it quite literally changed the way I looked at action films. Every action movie that I’d been blown away by up to that point seemed like weak pabulum in comparison to John Woo’s masterpiece of violence; my life as an action-movie fan is basically divided into pre- and post-Killer sections. So this is a pretty special day here on the Captivate movie blog, as it’s the first time I’ve gotten an opportunity (excuse?) to review a movie that’s in my own personal hall of fame. Which means I should probably can the preamble and get down to business.
The Killer is Hong Kong director John Woo’s 1989 magnum opus, about a hitman with a heart of gold (Chow Yun-Fat at the absolute pinnacle of his coolness) who accidentally blinds a lounge singer (Sally Yeh) while killing a nightclub full of people. His conscience won’t let him rest, so he re-enters her life as a mysterious paramour, taking one final job (without her knowledge, natch) in order to bankroll the surgery she needs to save her sight. Along the way gets the attention of a driven police detective (Danny Lee) determined to bring him to justice, but the unlikely duo eventually team up after Chow’s employers try to screw him out of his payment, and his life.
The tagline from the VHS box of the version of The Killer that I initially rented (and re-rented many times, until I eventually bought a copy for myself) is one of my favorites of all time: “One vicious hitman. One fierce cop. Ten thousand bullets.” And that’s about as astute a summary of the film as anything I could come up wity. John Woo’s style (lots of slow-motion, everyone firing nearly comical amounts of bullets without reloading) is fairly well-known nowadays, thanks mainly to his breakthrough American film, Face/Off, but it’s The Killer that sees Woo at the height of his powers as an action filmmaker. The gunfights in The Killer are simply awesome, and even more than 20 years later, you can see the movie as the template for hundreds of action movies made all over the world since. Dudes leaping and sliding around in slow motion, firing two guns as the scenery around them explodes with enemy fire, with optional pigeons or doves? That’s John Woo’s legacy, and it doesn’t get much better than The Killer.
The argument could probably be made that Hard Boiled, which re-teamed Woo and Chow in 1992 and is even more over-the-top (and is also available in a sweet two-disc set from Dragon Dynasty), is the purer action-movie experience, but The Killer’s emphasis on plot and emotion and its themes of honor and brotherhood – concepts almost entirely absent from Hard Boiled – overheated though they may be, gives it the edge in my heart. There’s something really endearing about how corny Woo is willing to get in The Killer; it’s the exact sort of thing that, even in 1989, a Hollywood film would replace with groan-inducing one-liners. Whether it’s the romance between Chow and Yeh or the bromance between Chow’s hitman and Lee’s detective, the dramatic beats in The Killer are just as exaggerated as the action sequences, and for me that’s part of the film’s appeal.
As much as I love The Killer (I’ve had a poster of it up in my home somewhere since I was in high school), it’s that very aspect that may not work for some viewers. There’s a completely unironic and totally straight-faced sense of melodrama that pervades the movie, and for some audiences it might veer into out-and-out silly territory. But even if you find the dialogue chuckle-inducing, I guarantee you will be pinned to your seat during the film’s many glorious shootouts. The movie eventually culminates in an utterly insane shootout in a church that’s only topped in action cinema by the 30-plus-minute gunfight in a hospital that caps Hard Boiled (not sure what’s up with Woo’s habit of staging his climactic action sequences in vaguely inappropriate locales, but it somehow adds to the tension and drama).
My feelings about it aside, The Killer is unquestionably one of the best – and most important – action movies made in the last 25 years. This new Dragon Dynasty DVD cleans up the picture beautifully (The Killer, unfortunately, has been available only sporadically in North America since the advent of DVD, and even then it was a fairly poor transfer bereft of features). The sound, however, is another issue; Dragon Dynasty’s recent Hard Boiled two-disc set features a weighty DTS 5.1 audio track (you can practically hear the bullets whizzing past your head), but The Killer only has mono tracks for English and Cantonese, which is unfortunate. What makes it even odder is that I actually already have an overseas DVD of The Killer with a nicely restored picture and a DTS audio track (I have a magic DVD player that plays discs from anywhere in the world), and I’d assumed when I first heard about this new North American release for The Killer that Dragon Dynasty would just repurpose that audio track. But no, as sharp as The Killer looks, the sound doesn’t match that level of quality. It’s a real missed opportunity that does take away from the experience a little, at least for a hardcore John Woo devotee like myself.
Overall, if you’re a fan of action movies, you need to see The Killer. If you only know Chow Yun-Fat from his Hollywood movies, find out why cinema geeks have been worshipping him for decades and watch The Killer. If you only know John Woo from Face/Off or Mission: Impossible II or another of his American films (like Paycheck or the truly atrocious Windtalkers, a movie so bad it’s almost akin to a war crime), then forget those and watch The Killer. More than two decades later, this is still one of the most amazing action films I’ve ever seen. The Killer comes with my highest possible recommendation. GRADE: A+
This new Killer DVD is a pretty sweet package, but there’s one curious omission in particular, and that’s a commentary track from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, which is only conspicuous by its absence because Logan does commentary on almost literally every Dragon Dynasty release, including their Hard Boiled set. It’s a minor omission, to be sure, but I’ve gotten so used to Logan’s commentaries (which are always wonderfully entertaining and insightful) that I sort of missed it. But it’s the sort of thing that only a nerd like me will notice; it’s certainly not a big deal.
That said, there’s a pretty good selection of extra features here. There’s a pair of Q&As with John Woo conducted at the American Cinematheque in 2002, one for The Killer and one for Hard Boiled. Both are lengthy and interesting, though the audio is a bit sketchy (particularly the Killer discussion), and coupled with Woo’s thickly accented English, it can make parts of the Q&As (conducted by American Cinematheque program director Dennis Bartok) almost entirely unintelligible.
There’s a separate interview with Woo that was done more recently (he looks considerably older than in the 2002 clips), and it covers quite a bit of ground. Also, it has optional subtitles, which makes it easier to follow. Woo discusses his influences like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, and talks about shooting The Killer largely without a script (he shot a lot of it from his treatment).
Also included is an odd little featurette called ‘The Killer Locations,’ in which a pretty Asian woman takes viewers on a travelogue of the Hong Kong locations where significant sequences were shot. It’s sort of weird, but for hardcore fans like myself who have seen The Killer dozens and dozens of times, it’s pretty cool seeing these locations today. It also works as a sort of a historical/travel piece about Hong Kong, and there’s some interesting tidbits of information included about the movie.
There’s also a collection of deleted scenes (some of which are included in longer international cuts of the film) that are fairly interesting, mostly character moments that presumably slowed the film down too much.
Overall this is a pretty excellent DVD for one of the best action movies of all time. If you’ve never owned The Killer, this is the version to get. If you have a previous release, it’s time for an upgrade. If you love action movies there’s no excuse for this DVD not being in your collection.