Friday, August 31, 2007


Remember the good old days when Hong Kong productions were the top of the class in Asian cinema, especially their frequently stunning action and crime dramas? Since its handover to China, Hong Kong cinema has largely become a pathetic joke, with only occasional glimpses of its past glory. The chief architect currently giving HK any consistent legitimacy is director Johnnie To, and his latest release proves his value once again.

Appropriately, Exiled is set in 1998, around the tail end of Hong Kong’s days as a force in worldwide cinema. While it bears similarities to other gangster films in his oeuvre, it’s probably closest in spirit to his 1999 hit The Mission. In fact, it uses many of the same actors, most notably Anthony Wong and Simon Yam. Like The Mission, it centers on a group of Triad gangsters as they band together for a common goal, in this case the protection of one of their own.

As the film opens, Triad boss Fay (Yam) dispatches two of his goons to Macao take out a rogue associate who had attempted a hit on him. The hit men approach the home of their mark and former colleague, only to be apprehended by two other hit men out to protect the mark. A tense standoff ensues, leading to reconciliation as the five men realize their long-time camaraderie means more to them than even the iron rule of their boss. This sets them on a collision course with the enraged Fay, putting all of their lives in jeopardy.

While on the lam and wandering in the wilderness (don’t ask), they stumble across a chance to steal a fortune in gold, an odd diversion from the primary plot that eventually impacts the touching conclusion. There’s no question that a bloody shootout factors into the finale, but To stacks his cards in such a way that it’s not at all clear how things will work out until the end.

Admittedly, the central plot is nothing special, but the charming scripted fellowship of the gangsters and the relatively high production values, especially its cinematography and dramatic action set pieces, elevates this film far above the norm and makes it a true contender on the international platform. It’s one of those rare films where the simple sight of the stars quietly walking down a street (in a suitably staged formation) invites instant admiration and a strong desire to see where their adventure takes them. Anthony Wong and Simon Yam lead the class with their superb acting performances, with Wong the enigmatic leader of his motley band of brothers and Yam as the glowering, oily force of evil. Frankly, this cast could just sit around playing cards for two hours and still captivate viewers, but luckily they’re given great material to work with here.

Exiled is now playing in limited release, check below for additional information.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Year of the Dog

Multi-hyphenate creator Mike White adds director to his growing list of titles with Year of the Dog. While he’s most famous for penning the mainstream hit School of Rock, as well as smaller films with somewhat broad appeal such as Nacho Libre, The Good Girl, and Orange County, his new film hews closest to the spirit of his odd, disturbing independent title, Chuck & Buck. In the similar vein of Happiness and Me and You and Everyone We Know, these films dig beneath the shiny façade of suburbia to expose its freaky residents struggling to make personal connections in an increasingly impersonal world.

While Year of the Dog is strangely billed as a comedy, it’s far more unnerving than amusing. SNL alum Molly Shannon stars as Peggy, a mousy administrative assistant who has never found a real romantic connection with anyone, instead keeping to herself and relying on the faithful companionship of her dog, Pencil. When Pencil disappears one night and meets a tragic end, Peggy’s life is thrown into disarray, leading her into a new platonic relationship with fellow dog lover Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). His strong influence on her causes her to become a strict vegan and animal rights activist, forcing her out of her comfort zone as she constantly campaigns for her new causes to friends, family, and strangers. It’s clear that she’s replacing her grief with this newfound sense of purpose, but there’s no foreseeing how far over the line of civility and common sense she will eventually travel. Like Chuck & Buck, this film takes its premise to a much darker place than expected, with mixed results.

Peggy’s constant grandstanding for her new ideals starts to feel far too preachy, with White’s own convictions distracting from his narrative flow. It’s not enough for White to just mention animal cruelty in the meat processing industry, he has to threaten a visit to an abusive chicken ranch as well as show an idyllic rescue farm for escapees from the corporate food mill. It’s not enough for Peggy to just adopt one replacement dog at the pound when she can come unglued instead and take on its entire death row population. White seems poised at any time to turn the production into a full-blown vegan/animal rights documentary, marring what is at its core a simple tale of a quiet woman trying to find peace and her place in the world.

To the film’s credit, Molly Shannon contributes a fine performance as the confused, lonely Peggy. The role is a long way from her manic Superstar past and she shows great range and convincing emotion throughout. She’s not exactly a revelation, but she’s really the only reason to watch this film and she makes the most of her shot at dramatic legitimacy. The rest of the cast chips in capable performances in their limited turns, but only John C. Reilly has anything approaching a memorable supporting role.

Year of the Dog is now available on DVD.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Lookout

Joseph Gordon-Levitt became a viable film actor largely as a result of the much-hyped, modern noir Brick, as well as his equally impressive turn in Mysterious Skin, nearly erasing all memory of his past as the 3rd Rock From The Sun kid in the process. With The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt shines again in another noir-tinged, well-crafted production, further cementing his reputation as a talent to watch in the years to come.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a washed-up bank janitor suffering from short-term memory problems as a result of a life-changing car accident. He’s similar to the Guy Pearce character in Memento, constantly having to write notes to himself to organize his day and remind himself of what to do. His severe head injuries limit his chances at future professional or romantic success, so he passes his time hanging out with his blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) and plugging away at his dead-end graveyard shift job at the local small-town bank.

Fate seems to deal Chris a rare good hand with his introduction to the seedy but charismatic Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) and his acquaintance, the comely ex-stripper Luvlee (Isla Fisher). They don’t seem like the most savory of characters, but they extend their friendship (and more, in Luvlee’s case) to the quiet loner, bringing him into their circle of associates. It soon becomes clear that their intentions are far from virtuous, as they target Chris as an easy inside man and patsy for their upcoming bank heist. They eventually convince Chris to assist with their plans, setting up a huge internal conflict for him as his conscience fights to overrule his decision.

Up to this point, the film is a fairly conventional tale of opportunities lost and a shot at redemption, but once the bank robbery begins the film takes a few somewhat surprising and memorable turns. It’s no surprise that the plot device of Chris’s faulty memory comes into play, but the final act should still keep viewers engaged and guessing to the end.

The Lookout is the feature directorial debut by Scott Frank, the screenwriter of other hard-boiled yarns Get Shorty and Out of Sight as well as Minority Report. He proves to be a capable director here, keeping his self-penned plot on track with only minimal diversions to Chris’s flashbacks to his lost glory days. He allows Levitt to play his role in a very subdued manner and without any unnecessary tics, capturing a realistic and winning performance. Jeff Daniels playing blind is somewhat annoying, but Goode and Fisher chip in solid contributions in their limited screen time.

The DVD includes a featurette about Gordon-Levitt’s performance, a brief making-of feature, and audio commentaries by Frank and cinematographer Alar Kivilo. The DVD is now available, check your local retailer for additional information.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Rock The Bells

In 2004, a scrappy concert promoter named Chang Weisberg set out to pull off a seemingly impossible feat: a live performance by all members of the hip-hop super group, the Wu-Tang Clan. The Clan ran 9 deep at the time plus 10th associate Cappadonna, and due to their successful solo careers, various touring schedules, and always outrageous behavior of mercurial member Ol’ Dirty Bastard (aka ODB), the odds of success were extremely low. Further complicating matters, the scheduled Wu-Tang set was part of a large festival bill presented at a non-dedicated concert venue, creating a huge infrastructure set-up nightmare. Somewhere along the line, someone had the crazy idea to capture all of the chaos on film before and during the show, resulting in this completely riveting documentary.

Make no mistake, this is not a Wu-Tang concert video. In fact, there’s not even any Clan concert performance footage in the documentary. Instead, this is the story of how Chang planned the massive Rock The Bells production and cajoled all of the members to attend. The film shows Chang at work in the preproduction stage, discussing the show’s plan with civic leaders, arranging for security, and lining up his formidable talent roster. It also shows him and his crew at work in some street-level promotion, dodging cops to blanket the area’s lightpoles with posters. While the planning footage is interesting, it drags on a bit too long as we anticipate the main event, the actual day of the show.

To pull off his impossible dream, Chang attempted to book all of the Wu-Tang members individually as solo artists. Once he had them all signed, he floated the idea of the group performance to the Wu-Tang don, the RZA. RZA keeps tight control of the Wu-Tang brand and was initially miffed that Chang tried an end-run to deviously set up the group show, but finally came around when he realized what a historic and special event it could be if successful. Unfortunately, the recently paroled ODB continued to live up to his reputation as the biggest wildcard, exhibiting his usual erratic behavior as he kept promoters and his Wu brothers wondering whether he would actually show up. As usual with the Wu, nothing is ever certain until they actually set foot on stage, so no amount of planning could accurately predict the final outcome.

The documentary includes limited concert footage of some of the other main acts on the festival bill, including Redman, Dilated Peoples, and the completely bizarre Sage Francis. It’s all laced into the larger context of the behind the scenes action, as viewers see the escalating insanity at the crowded gates and the complete breakdown of security measures backstage. As night falls and the line grows with increasingly unruly fans upset about the hours-long wait to get in, as well as the densely packed heads inside the venue, the film begins to feel like war footage, showing an escalating mob ready to descend into total anarchy at the slightest provocation. This dizzying chaos captured live from within the fray helps to set the film well above other docs that can only recount events with historical photos, and gives viewers a true taste of the maddening yet euphoric experience of this monumental show.

The double-sided DVD contains a plethora of bonus footage from the show as well as additional background information on the Clan and now-deceased ODB. It’s not clear why it took three years to reach store shelves, but it’s still completely relevant and engaging material. The DVD is now available, check your favorite retailer for additional information.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Muppet Show: Season Two

The second season of The Muppet Show finally arrives on DVD this week, and the only question is: what took so long? Surfacing a full two years after the first season DVD box set, it was starting to look like it would never materialize, but it was certainly worth the wait. Where Season One had some hiccups and a questionable roster of guest stars as it searched for its footing, Season Two finds the show firing on all cylinders with its trademark comedy and some truly stunning guests. Sure, there are some clunkers included, both in the skits and the guest star choices, but fans who grew up with the show and new viewers will find much to enjoy in this set.

The guest stars in Season Two ran from the highs of Bob Hope and Peter Sellers to the lows of Nancy Walker (virtually forgotten now) and Judy Collins (completely stiff and somewhat off-key). Unlike Season One, the genuine star power exceeded the number of lesser-known guests, with memorable turns from Steve Martin, Julie Andrews, and Elton John helping to tip the balance. One of the strongest episodes features a genuinely moving performance by the legendary Milton Berle where he fondly recounts his early vaudeville days before launching into a representative musical number. He also contributes one of the funniest performances during his lengthy roasting by the Muppet judges, those old cads in the balcony.

For many viewers, the guest stars were merely a distraction from the real action, the Muppets themselves. Season Two heaps on new outings of skits such as Pigs In Space, Veterinarian’s Hospital, and the further adventures of the Swedish Chef. There are also frequent sightings of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (Animal!), Sam the Eagle, as well as Beaker and Dr. Honeydew. Tying them all together are the key players: Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Scooter. There are plenty of explosions, ongoing sparks between Kermit and Miss Piggy, and Gonzo’s continuing fascination with chickens as they all work together to present the show within a show each week.

Watching these episodes over 30 years after their first airing provides a completely new perspective on their impact. First, the show is every bit as good as you remember it, if not better. Second, I never noticed how self-deprecating the show was, with the balcony geezers, Sam the Eagle, and sometimes even Kermit disparaging the show from within while Scooter’s uncle kept threatening to shut it down from the outside. The show was becoming hugely successful by this time, but on screen it always remained incredibly humble. Finally, the Muppet Show may have been the last great gasp of the variety show format, as they made it work extremely well for five seasons even though at its core it was just a throwback to TV’s golden age with a fresh coat of Muppet paint.

In addition to the 24 Season Two episodes, the DVD box set includes a rare Valentine Special that predates the series, as well as some amusing interviews of the Muppets and a new music video featuring Weezer and the Muppets. Thanks to the meticulous digital restoration and remastering, the show has never looked or sounded better, and thanks to its evergreen content and appeal, it should be a mandatory purchase.

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