People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
  Okay. Enough already with the video game movies.

So news came down the pipe this week that the latest big video game franchise to get the Hollywood adaptation treatment is Mass Effect, a plot-heavy sci-fi action/RPG where the player controls the captain of a starship with the token motley crew of eccentrics and aliens. Coupled with the insane amount of hype that Prince of Persia has been getting (the ads have been inescapable for weeks now), something in my brain just snapped, and I’ve had enough. Enough with the video game movies, Hollywood. They’ve never worked (either financially or artistically), and I really don’t think they ever will, whether it’s Prince of Persia or Mass Effect or Gears of War or any other big-name game franchise that’s been optioned for a movie. And I’m saying that as a both a movie buff and a gamer.

I love Mass Effect, a lot. So much so that my Xbox 360 recently died on me and I’m already resigned to dropping about $300 just so I can re-play the Mass Effect games as well as the upcoming Mass Effect 3. I’m a fan. Not a posting-fanfiction-on-message-boards fan, I grant you, but I probably have more invested in Mass Effect than the vast majority of “average” moviegoers. And I think the idea for a Mass Effect movie is awful.

Here’s the crazy part of why I’m so sick of movie games: I like video games. A lot. Probably more than you. No, screw it, I can almost guarantee I like games more than you. But the movies suck. They always suck. They almost certainly never won’t suck. I want them to be good. But they never are. You know what one of the best video game movies made yet is? Mortal Kombat. And that movie is not good at all (and I know from martial arts movies). Trust me. Mortal Kombat is not a good movie. But compared to literally every other video game movie – Hitman, Max Payne, Super Mario Brothers, Resident Evil, whatever – it’s pretty awesome. It’s entertaining and it’s faithful to the story of the games (a term I use quite loosely indeed), and those are two things that are almost never said about movies based on games.

Why is that? I have some theories. And they’re not the sort that are popular in hardcore gaming circles. I think the reason movies based on games are always crap is that the stories the movies are adapting are always crap. Games pretty much all tell stories nowadays (obviously I don’t mean Wii Sports here), and they always reference movies, because cinematic storytelling is what games have aspired to for as long as cutscenes have existed. Mass Effect, to continue with this example, has as detailed a sci-fi universe behind it as any game I’ve ever played, but it’s filled with ideas and concepts that are borrowed from existing sci-fi movies, TV shows and books. There’s nothing terribly original in there beyond a few clever superficial things, and so a Mass Effect film will automatically feel very derivative to an “average” (i.e. non-gamer) audience. They’d only see the Star Trek-inspired ships and the Star Wars-inspired aliens and concepts. What makes the Mass Effect games so special isn’t the plot itself, it’s how the player interacts with it. Mass Effect is a brilliant game because it fuses all these things – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner – and lets you control the story. And that detail, that control, is the thing that, by definition, all game movies will lack. It’s also the thing that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to understand: watching a character do something amazing onscreen will never replicate the excitement of feeling like you’re doing something amazing. It’s the sort of detail that most studio executives and producers (I’m gonna go ahead and assume that most Hollywood shot-callers aren’t avid gamers) miss because they lack sufficient hands-on experience with games.

Len Wiseman, who was at one time attached to direct the planned Gears of War movie (another really fun game that would most likely make a derivative, mediocre-at-best movie), became familiar with the game when he picked footage out of a lineup of big games for a monitor to be glimpsed in the background of a scene in Live Free or Die Hard. Before that, he’d never heard of the game, which was basically an instant phenomenon in the gaming world when the first title was released in 2006. Now, I’m not slamming Wiseman for his lack of gamer cred (if I made big-budget blockbusters and was married to Kate Beckisndale I doubt I’d have as much time for Red Dead Redemption as I do currently), I’m just saying that that story sort of explains how unfamiliar Hollywood still seems to be when it comes to games. So of course they don’t know how to adapt one properly. Studio execs really only respect one thing, and that’s numbers. Naturally they get all hot and bothered when someone shows them how much money a huge game release like Halo or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can rake in in a day or a week (a major game release like Halo regularly rake in billions of dollars, something Hollywood movies only do once in a blue moon; Grand Theft Auto IV made more money in its first week in stores than The Dark Knight did in its entire North American theatrical run); they just think about how much money they’ll make a movie based on that property would bring in for them hits it big – if just a fraction of the tens of millions of people who play Halo or World of Warcraft online shell out $10 or $12 for a movie ticket, they’re rolling in it – except that never happens. But still, we have movies based on hit games like World of Warcraft, Bioshock, Gears of War and Halo currently in various stages of development hell, and if any of them are made (which still looks like a big “if” at this point, though nothing that a fat opening weekend for Prince of Persia can’t fix), they will almost certainly be bad movies.

But the main difference between adapting games to movies and adapting other media is that other adaptations, be they of books, comics or TV shows, aren’t adapting interactive media. There’s a narrative structure already in place from which to draw, and the problem with the narrative structures of most games is that they exist first and foremost to help create a compelling game, which is vastly different from a compelling movie, and the gulf between those two is far more vast than the gulf between a compelling book and a compelling movie (though that gap can also be very significant). It’s also why the stories in most games, objectively speaking, are bad, at least compared to movies. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best-selling and best-reviewed games ever released, and I’ve played through it twice and I still couldn’t tell you what exactly the story is, but it seemed liked the stuff of a second-rate 24 ripoff. But that doesn’t mean the game isn’t awesome, it’s just different from a movie. A Call of Duty movie would just be a bunch of soldiers running around shooting terrorists. It would be terrible. But the game’s a blast to play. Because you’re playing it, not just watching what happens and listening to the dialogue.

Some game people get it. Rockstar Games has been notoriously reluctant to sign over the movie rights to their blockbuster Grand Theft Auto franchise, because Rockstar is staffed by very smart, savvy folks who seem to understand how a GTA movie would, by definition, suck, primarily because you’re not playing it. Removing interactivity from these characters and stories and expecting them to still connect with audiences is like adapting Avatar into a radio broadcast and then scratching your head when the same audiences don’t turn out to listen to the adventures of Jake Sully and the Na’vi on Pandora. Not only is it not the same experience, it effectively removes the most compelling part of the source material (in Avatar’s case, the visuals; in a game’s case, the part where you play it and it’s fun) and presents the hollowed-out husk to audiences. No wonder nobody’s interested.

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Friday, May 21, 2010
  Fire and Ice, Looney Tunes making comebacks

Ain’t It Cool News is reporting that Robert Rodriguez has acquired the rights to remake the 1983 animated cult babes-and-barbarians film Fire and Ice, a product of the minds of maverick animator Ralph Bakshi, legendary (and recently deceased) fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, and comic writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. Apparently Rodriguez is planning to make the film live-action, though presumably with heavy use of green screen like he did with Sin City. It sounds like the deal is pretty recent, so there’s no information on casting or release dates, but as a guy who grew up a fantasy nerd (and Fire and Ice fan), I’m pretty excited about this news.

I was actually considering doing a column about Frank Frazetta’s passing a few weeks ago after his death at the age of 82, tying it into movie via Fire and Ice. I picked up Blue Underground’s remastered DVD a few years ago purely for nostalgia reasons (while cheesy as hell, I must admit that the film held up far better than I expected it to), partly because of an awesome documentary on it about Frazetta called Painting with Fire. It’s a really great doc, one of the better DVD extras I’ve seen. Frazetta, in case you don’t know, gained fame in the 60s for his paintings of classic pulp characters like Conan the Barbarian and Tarzan (as well as lesser-known cult characters like John Carter of Mars – soon to be a live-action film itself), and his artwork on the covers is actually credited with the success of the Conan books (if I recall correctly, Conan made his debut in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the Frazetta-cover paperbacks started coming out decades later that the character really caught on in a major way with readers, and to this day Frazetta’s visual interpretation is the most universally-recognized version of the character). Even if you don’t know him by name, you probably recognize Frazetta’s distinctive style, which has been seen in everything from book and magazine covers to posters to album covers. He was an incredibly talented guy who’s impact on genre fiction in any medium really can’t be overstated. It’s a shame he won’t be able to see Rodriguez’s take on Fire and Ice, but in the AICN story he says he was in discussions with Frazetta about the project right up until his death on May 10.

Anyway, suffice it to say that the more I hear about Fire and Ice, the more you will.

* * *

Warner Brothers is reintroducing its Looney Tunes characters with a new 26-episode animated series set to air on the Cartoon NetwoLearning lessons in futility....IN 3D!rk in the fall, but unfortunately it has a silly sitcom-y premise (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as odd-couple roommates with the other characters their neighbors? Ugh.) The far more interesting piece of information, to me at least, is that WB is also making a series of 3D shorts Road Runner to air in theaters before movies. I grew up a huge Looney Tunes fan (the Road Runner ones were always among my favorites), so this is far more interesting to me. The first short, in which Wile E. Coyote will fall off cliffs and get brained by anvils (in 3D!) will hit cinemas on July 30, ahead of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Naturally, I’d be more excited if these shorts were airing ahead of movies I actually want to see, but sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger, and sometimes you’re the ball.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010
  Classic summer movies

It’s Burger Week here on the Captivate blogosphere (hey, that’s a word officially recognized by Microsoft Word’s spellchecker now. Huh.), and because of the rather unsurprising dearth of movies about burgers that aren’t designed to gross out audiences (i.e. Fast Food Nation or the documentary Food, Inc.), I’ve been given license to expand the Burger Week theme a little bit to include summer in general, so I thought I’d look at a few of what I consider to be pretty quintessential summer movies.

It doesn’t happen every summer, but every few years a summer blockbuster transcends “hit movie” status and vaults into “pop culture phenomenon” territory, like The Dark Knight last summer, but this 1994 actioner lodged itself into the public consciousness with a high concept that arguably has yet to be topped – a terrorist rigs a city bus full of innocent people so that if its speed drops below 50 mph the whole thing explodes – as well as Keanu Reeves in a career-cementing action-hero
performance and Sandra Bullock breaking out as a full-on movie star (though I always thought she was great in Demolition Man). In the summer of ’94, Speed was the movie to see, and its smash success shows that it appealed to more than just testosterone junkies. (It’s also sort of amazing that a violent, R-rated action flick could rake in more than $100 million, a huge amount of money back then, and something that completely flies in the face of what passes for conventional wisdom in Hollywood these days). Even today I still occasionally hear people say “Pop quiz, hotshot.”

Jan De Bont made his directorial debut with this crackerjack action flick after working as the cinematographer on iconic action movies like Die Hard (which Speed borrows more than a bit from) and The Hunt for Red October, and never came close to these heights again in terms of either quality or box office success. But most importantly, Speed is just a good, old-fashioned pre-CGI action movie, packed with thrills and crazy stunts. Revisiting the movie for this column really made me appreciate how, even as high-concept as it is, it feels decidedly old school by today’s standards. I’d forgotten there was a time when tightly-directed practical action was what you built a big-budget blockbuster around, not maelstroms of computer-generated images and gimmicky special effects. (Seriously, how many summer blockbusters these days have more than, say, 35% “real,” un-CGI’d footage in their climactic sequences? My guess is zero.) There’s a reason why when I hear “summer blockbuster,” I usually picture Keanu Reeves standing over Sandra Bullock while she frantically tries to drive a bus. Speed is a summer classic.

For this column I specifically wanted to look for summer movies in the classic sense, movies that are all about fun and spectacle, but not the sort of movies that get nominated for non-technical Oscars, if you catch my drift. Summer blockbusters are typically at least somewhat flawed, as the goal is usually to entertain rather than intellectually stimulate. But watching part of the abysmal sequel Revenge of the Fallen on cable the other day really hammered home how good Michael Bay’s first go-round with the transforming robots actually was. The 2007 smash is still way better than it has any business being (a bigger childhood fan of the Transformers property you could not find, and even I thought it was a stupid idea to turn it into a movie), and for me, it’s because Bay and company managed to create human characters that I actually cared about. Transformers was where I realized I actually quite like Shia LaBeouf (though I still can’t shake the feeling that I
shouldn’t), and that Michael Bay can somehow simultaneously embody everything that’s wrong with modern Hollywood, but also make really fun movies. Transformers is the ultimate diversion, a movie with a beyond-silly premise (it is adapted from a toy line, after all) that still manages to be a huge amount of goofy fun, a near-perfect popcorn diversion.

Iron Man 2
I figured I’d throw in a movie currently in theaters just in case you feel like checking something out on your impending holiday weekend, and Iron Man 2 is a pretty solid piece of summer entertainment. A lot of critics seem to think the sequel, while upping the ante considerably in the action department, is actually a step-down in terms of story and characters. I’ve seen the original Iron Man a great many times, and I found the same loose, fun vibe that the first movie had in the sequel. Sure there’s a few plot issues (the blood-poisoning angle that drives much of the first two acts of the movie is wrapped up in an absurdly convenient fashion), but overall Iron Man 2 is just a great time at the movies. As much as there’s still a ton of great-looking movies due in the next few months, I’m not sure any of them will be as much pure fun as Iron Man 2.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010
  DVD Review: Deadliest Warrior: Season 1

There are times where I like to consider myself a smart and sophisticated consumer of culture, and there are other times that I like to just turn my brain off and watch things explode and dudes get chopped in half. Spike’s Deadliest Warrior finds a way to bridge those two halves of my brain – one that enjoys shows about ancient history and one that enjoys Conan the Barbarian – by fusing genuinely interesting science-y type stuff and the silly “who would win?” conversations I had with my friends when I was 10. Deadliest Warrior uses science to answer questions like “Who wins: a ninja or a Spartan?” And if you think that sounds intriguing, then this show’s probably for you. If you think that sounds stupid, well, I don’t know what to tell you; it sort of is. And that’s what makes it such a fun show.

I was initially in the “this show is stupid” camp, based exclusively on the promo ads that aired on Spike during the show’s first season. But I caught most of an episode during one of the network’s many, many marathons, and found myself getting really into the show. See, as much as the central idea is sort of goofy, and each episode ends with a cheesy fight sequence between two (sometimes more) actors dressed up in high-end Halloween costumes, the stuff before that is actually pretty interesting. The Deadliest Warrior team – ER doctor Armand Dorian, biomedical engineer Geoff Desmoulin and computer programmer Max Geiger – spend the bulk of the show, along with two-man teams representing each side of the fight, testing each combatant’s various weapons using cutting-edge technology. And as a guy who grew up fascinated by medieval history and reading bad fantasy novels, watching a quasi-scientific test aimed at finding out what, say, a Viking’s great axe would actually do to a human body (or in the show’s case, a gel-covered torso with a fake skeleton and fake organs) is pretty compelling television.

How the show works is, the three main hosts spend most of the hour testing weapons and techniques with the help of the experts, and at the end all the data from the tests is fed into a computer, which runs 1,000 simulated fights between the two combatants (for fairness’ sake, to avoid a lucky shot winning the day for either side), and the winner is declared the deadliest. So for the first episode in the set, ‘Apache vs. Gladiator,’ two actual Apaches (one of whom is a combat instructor for the U.S. military) pit their weapons and techniques against two experts trained in the use of gladiator weapons (short swords, tridents, nets, etc.), while the three series regulars evaluate the results, with Desmoulin (a former paramedic) and Dr. Dorian providing their assessments of how deadly each weapon and/or warrior is, and Geiger, the token geek, offers his two cents as well. The experts themselves can also be quite entertaining, especially when they start posturing to each other after the weapons tests. Usually this is all in good fun, but there are a few awkward moments when temperatures start to rise. And the losing side almost always makes a bitter crack about how they don’t need science geeks and computers to tell them their warrior is really the deadliest.

Deadliest Warrior isn’t without its faults. As much as the show caters to both idiot fratboys who think 300 is the pinnacle of historical fiction and history buffs who argue over the relative merits of samurai and medieval knights, the show is definitely built to appeal more to the former, and sometimes the hosts, while evaluating the weapons, are a bit too wowed by superficial stuff like how messed up a crash test dummy looks after being hit by something. And some of the matchups are just silly, like mafia vs. yakuza or an episode positing a battle between historical figures William Wallace and Shaka Zulu. But once the show hits its stride a few episodes in, it can be pretty fascinating stuff for military and/or history buffs. ‘Green Beret vs. Spetsnaz’ is probably the most interesting episode of the entire first season (Spetsnaz being the harder-than-hardcore Russian special forces), and it’s based entirely on watching four highly-trained soldiers do their thing (the Spetsnaz guys in particular are absolutely terrifying; you can tell immediately that these guys are actual killers).

Deadliest Warrior does a pretty awesome job of stimulating both the meat-eating, violence-loving side of my brain as well as the more sophisticated side that appreciates history, though the balance is definitely tipped in the Neanderthal direction. The extras on the DVDs are some of the most fun stuff in the whole set, collecting the ‘Aftermath’ web series, which runs after each episode and features the hosts and experts taking questions submitted online, and while they’re quite short, they’re also often as interesting as the show itself, and offers some insight into how the show is made. Overall Deadliest Warrior offers just enough real information to make you feel like you learned something, but it’s also just a fun show for guys.

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Monday, May 10, 2010
  Summer flicks. For MEN.

Everyone knows summer means blockbusters, and this year’s crop is as big and bombastic as any year previous. From superheroes to TV remakes to mystery-shrouded thrillers, I’m looking at the most promising summer movies for guys. If you’re like me and summer means copious amounts of time in air-conditioned theaters watching things explode, you’ve come to the right place.

For a rundown of some more girl-friendly summer flicks,
check out ‘Byte-Sized’ blogger Amber Plante's list here.

Iron Man 2

Summer kicked off this past weekend with the hugely-anticipated sequel to the breakout 2007 hit, and while some are grumbling that the story doesn’t measure up to the first film (a complaint I don’t really understand after seeing the movie; it’s a lot of fun!), the action is miles ahead of anything in the original Iron Man, and for a comic geek like me, that counts for a lot. And while I may not think much of Scarlett Johansson’s acting chops, I can’t really argue with her in that Black Widow catsuit.

Robin Hood
Director Ridley Scott re-teams with Gladiator star Russell Crowe to put a new spin on the classic folk hero. While I love most of Scott’s movies, I’m not a huge Gladiator fan – I’ll take his underappreciated Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, over that film any day of the week – but I have a big soft spot for medieval movies, and I can’t think of a better team to put a fresh coat of paint on the legendary archer than Scott and Crowe. If the action measures up, this could be one of this summer’s stronger movies.

I never did understand why this, of all the current Saturday Night Live characters, was getting his own movie – after all, the MacGruber skits are barely a minute long, and epitomize the one-repeated-joke SNL comedy structure – but after seeing the trailer, I’m on board for this R-rated spoof of action movies. Will Forte and Kristen Wiig are two of the funniest people on SNL right now, and as a child of the ‘80s who grew up watching action flicks, this looks like it’s right up my alley. Also: Val Kilmer as the bad guy! It could be this summer’s Hangover…or this summer’s Land of the Lost.

The A-Team
The first teaser for this adaptation of the ‘80s TV show left a lot of people (myself included) pretty cold, but the longer trailer that came out a few months later was much more promising, showcasing the ridiculously over-the-top action sequences and what appears to be a cast that isn’t taking itself very seriously. We’ll see how UFC fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson does filling the mohawk of ‘80s icon Mr. T, but between Liam Neeson hamming it up as Hannibal and District 9’s Sharlto Copley as “Mad” Murdock, I can’t pretend I’m not looking forward to this. If The A-Team is big, dumb action done right, it could be a riot.

Jonah Hex
The buzz for this comic adaptation, about an Old West outlaw with some supernatural connections, isn’t really great, and the recent trailer reminded me a bit too much of Wild Wild West for me to get too excited. But Josh Brolin is always quality, John Malkovich is usually reliable as a fun villain. And I guess there are worse things that Megan Fox dressed up as an old-timey prostitute. Jonah Hex could be one of this summer’s surprises.

Now this is what summer movies are all about. Producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal (Armored) rescue the Predator from the wastes of the Aliens vs. Predator movies with a flick that looks to return the iconic movie monster to his roots. A clever inversion of the classic 1987 Predator, this time out a group of deadly humans (mercenaries, criminals, etc.) is transported to another planet where they’re stalked by a group of the alien hunters. I love the original Schwarzenegger Predator quite a bit, and everything I’ve seen from Predators suggests the people who made it do as well. It may lack the buzz of Iron Man 2 or Inception, but this may be the movie I’m the most excited about this summer.

Christopher Nolan follows up The Dark Knight with what appears to be a heady sci-fi thriller that seems to involve dreams and corporate espionage. Nolan’s keeping plot details pretty close to the vest (something that’s fast becoming his trademark), and as a fan of science fiction, I’m very much looking forward to seeing exactly what Leonardo Di Caprio and Ellen Page are doing in those mysterious trailers. If the rumors I’ve heard about the plot prove true, I have a feeling Inception might be a bit too thinky and weird to do Dark Knight-like business, but that has nothing to do with whether or not it’s good, and it certainly looks intriguing. I’m one of the few people who enjoyed Nolan’s The Prestige, so I expect at the very least a cool, twisty thriller that’ll make me think. For a summer movie, that could really be a mind-blower.

The Expendables
Quite possibly the manliest movie of the summer, director/star Sylvester Stallone assembles a murderer’s row (pun intended, and immediately regretted) of action stars, past and present, including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, UFC fighter Randy Couture, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Eric Roberts and the amazing Terry Crews (he of those insane and wonderful new Old Spice ads), for this old-school action flick about a group of mercenaries on a suicide mission to free a South American country from the clutches of a dictator (at least that’s what I think is happening; it’s hard to tell from the trailers from all the explosions and muscles). I love Stallone’s recent Rambo, and while this PG-13 actioner won’t have nearly that movie’s levels of violence, I’m still expecting a fun time at the movies. There aren’t enough Men On A Mission movies anymore, and I’m stoked that Sly’s looking to rectify that.

Dinner for Schmucks
The magnificent Paul Rudd stars in this comedy about an ambitious exec who finds out that in order to get the big promotion, he must impress his bosses at a special dinner party they hold where everyone brings some an idiot along for the rest of them to laugh at, and when he meets a good-natured dork (Steve Carell), he realizes it’s his shot at impressing his boss. But as much as I love Rudd, it’s The Hangover’s Zach Galifinakis who looks like the movie’s secret weapon, playing a wacky eccentric who thinks he has mind powers. I’m sold.

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Friday, May 7, 2010
  DVD Review: District 13: Ultimatum


I’m quite a fan of the original District 13, the parkour-influenced 2004 sci-fi/martial arts movie co-written and produced by Luc Besson. It’s a fun martial arts flick that doesn’t take itself to
o seriously, and really exists as a showcase for martial artist Cyril Raffaelli and parkour co-creator David Belle. It’s set in a near-future France where civil and economic unrest has deteriorated to the point where the slums have been walled off into numbered districts where all sorts of illegal activities go down and even the police fear to enter. The story follows straight-laced cop Damien (Rafaelli), who must team up with streetwise outlaw Leito (Belle) to save Leito’s sister from evil drug dealers, and also save Leito’s building (which he rules as a benevolent protector, outlawing drugs and other shady activity), and the rest of District 13 from a bomb the corrupt government wants to use to level the entire district for some impromptu gentrification.

District 13: Ultimatum is the sequel, reteaming Belle and Rafaelli as Leito and Damien, and it ups the ante in just about every sense. A text crawl at the beginning explains that in the three years since the first movie, literally nothing in District 13 has changed – the promise Leito got that the government would clean up the slums has gone, unsurprisingly, unfulfilled (“The government reneged on a promise?,” another character deadpans in response to Leito’s gripes. “That’s a total outrage!”) – and quickly establishes that Leito is up to his old tricks fighting back against The Man. The plot this time around really expands on the social commentary in the first movie – the original District 13, as much as it’s an action flick, also had a lot to say about the state of modern France, which, at the time of its release, was dealing with a lot of street violence and anti-immigrant sentiment – concerning an incendiary video of cops apparently being gunned down in cold blood by District 13 residents, which almost sparks a civil war. Naturally, some shady government types (seemingly a cross between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the CIA) are behind it all, and its up to Damien and Leito to expose the conspiracy.

Regular readers know of my love of martial arts movies, and the first time I saw parkour in action – it was actually a YouTube clip of what turned out to be the best sequence in District 13, showing Leito eluding a gang of cops – I thought it was one of the coolest and craziest things I’d ever seen. I love the speed and kinetics of a well-choreographed fight scene, and what Belle was doing was sort of similar, but with less emphasis on fighting and more on speed and graceful movements. It was just a blast to watch him do what he does. So when I found out that this crazy sequence was from a movie, I was incredibly excited – even more so when I learned that Belle’s co-star was Rafaelli, who I recognized from a great fight scene with Jet Li in the otherwise forgettable (but similarly Besson-produced) 2001 actioner Kiss of the Dragon. The idea of a movie that mixes parkour and martial arts is a brilliant one, and the original District 13 is a wonderfully fun movie with boundless energy.

My main problem with the original District 13 – which my comic-addled mind considers the greatest Batman/Superman movie never made – is that it makes the cardinal action-movie sin of peaking early, putting the most impressive sequences near the beginning, which ends up making the rest of the movie feel like a letdown after those incredible early action scenes (not that the ending isn’t cool – the filmmakers seemed to realize that they couldn’t really provide Damien or Leito with an adequate adversary for the climax, so instead they have to fight each other), but thankfully Ultimatum doesn’t fall into that trap. Director Patrick Alessandrin wisely ramps up the action scenes, and he doesn’t frontload the movie with the coolest stuff. Instead, the action gets crazier and crazier as the film goes along (our heroes drive a car through a government building midway through the film, and that’s before the parkour army shows up), making Ultimatum feel like an old-fashioned sequel; everyone involved is trying to give fans more of what they loved about the first movie, and in this case, it definitely works.

There’s a nice vibe between Belle and Rafaelli in these movies that’s oddly infectious. Sure, neither of them is going to win any acting awards for their work here, but they have a natural chemistry together and, as a fan of the first movie, I was surprised how much of a kick I got out of the scene where the two characters finally hook up again. There’s a great (if traditional) dynamic between the almost comically by-the-book cop and the more cynical, streetwise tough, and both Rafaelli and Belle bring a great dry humor to their roles, and their odd-couple banter is never overdone.

The strangest part of District 13: Ultimatum was the ham-fisted political commentary, which is thankfully confined to just the last couple of minutes. There was a bit of the same in the first movie, but screenwriter Luc Besson lays it on far thicker in the sequel, from the name of the evil corporation at the center of the conspiracy (Harriburton!) to the left-wing fanfiction ending, District 13: Ultimatum wears its political standpoint on its sleeve, and it’s oddly charming (if for no reason other than I really don’t think an American-made action film would have the stones to take things as far as this movie is willing to). It’s very much a reaction to the immigration debate currently raging in France, but to Besson’s and director Patrick Alessandrin’s credit, the film manages to say what it has to say without really bogging the proceedings down or making it anything less than fun. Overall, District 13: Ultimatum is an incredibly fun action movie with tons of eye-popping stunts and great fights. If you’re into this kind of movie, I recommend it highly.



District 13: Ultimatum has the best collection of deleted and extended scenes I’ve seen in a while, as they’re all extended versions of the movies fight sequences. It’s sort of a surprising decision to cut down the fight scenes in a martial arts movie (it’s sort of like cutting out scenes of the two good-looking leads together in a romantic comedy), but I’m assuming they were trimmed to help the movie’s pacing, and nothing crucial was excised. But the longer scenes are on the DVD, and they’re pretty much all awesome. There’s also a French rap video, and a pretty decent making-of featurette in French (with English subtitles) that goes over most aspects of production (stunts, casting, etc.). It’s fairly interesting stuff, if nothing groundbreaking.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010
  Kick-Ass director for X-Men prequel

So apparently Matthew Vaughn, who directed the excellent and fun superhero movie Kick-Ass (check out my review here) has signed on to direct the prequel X-Men: First Class for Fox. This is sort of odd news for a couple of reasons, one being that Vaughn was attached to direct X-Men: The Last Stand for the studio for months before bailing, apparently because he wasn’t comfortable with Fox’s budgetary and time restrictions. (Fox has a reputation for less-than-respectful treatment of genre properties like comic book movies, often rushing them into production on unrealistic schedules, and the result is crap like The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) And here, again, Fox is rushing First Class into theaters for next summer, despite not having a cast lined up. So it looks like Vaughn has just agreed to the exact scenario he bolted from just a few years ago.

Now, I loved Kick-Ass (see the aforementioned semi-fawning review), and as a lifelong comic book nerd, no property is closer to my heart than the X-Men franchise, so this should be good news. But given that Fox’s filmed mutants peaked with the brilliant 2003’s X2: X-Men United, the two films released since then with the X brand were each worse than the last. I’m confident (hopeful?) that Vaughn has a plan and will bring his considerable game to Marvel’s beloved mutants, but there’s no trend in genre movies right now that annoys me more than prequels, and that’s the other major strike against X-Men: First Class. I, an avid X-Men fan, have absolutely zero interest in a movie about the X-Men in their teen years (especially if, as rumored, Wolverine is involved, which messes up the continuity of the movies; that’s just a cynical money-grab if I’ve ever heard of one), and as dramatically rich as the Professor X/Magento relationship is, I’m nowhere near as fascinated with it as original X-Men and X2 director and First Class producer Bryan Singer seems to be. (Has someone told him that people want to see X-Men movies about the X-Men, as opposed to X-Men movies about two old guys who used to be friends but aren’t anymore?) I don’t need to see an entire movie about how Charles Xavier and Magneto’s friendship fell apart while a bunch of little plastic people from the CW run around in the background pretending to be the X-Men.

I try not to prejudge movies, but really, I should be excited about another X-Men movie, especially one directed by the guy who made an awesome superhero movie that I believe will go down as a major cult classic. But I’m not. Instead I’m getting a rushed prequel (I’m seriously so filled with vitriol about Hollywood’s obsession with prequels that I’ll have to revisit in for a future column) featuring a story that no X-Men fan that I know feels needs to be told in a movie.
More on X-Men: First Class as it develops. If for nothing other than spite.

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One last thing for the day, just so I don’t end it on an angry rant. Here’s the trailer for The American, which stars George Clooney as a withdrawn hitman who crafts his own weapons and takes the infamous One Last Job in a small Italian town. But it’s neither Clooney nor the hitman premise that has me so interested to see this movie, but rather director Anton Corbijn, a brilliant photographer and music video director who made his feature-film debut with 2007’s Control, an excellent biopic about late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (check out my review here). That movie was incredible, and showcased Corbijn’s considerable filmmaking talents, so him tackling an intriguing movie like The American, especially with an actor as great as Clooney in the lead, adds up to one movie I am very much looking forward to seeing.

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