Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Rob Cohen | 2008 | 112 mins | USA

Ok, first of all, a reanimated terracotta soldier is not, technically speaking, any kind of "mummy", unless the word "mummy" means "any dead thing brought back to life by reckless adventurers".

But, whatever. The third installment in the Mummy franchise begins with a familiar (and real) tale from history: that of the First Emperor of Qin, the tyrranical ancient ruler of China who began construction on the Great Wall and was buried with 8,000 terracotta soldiers, 130 chariots and about 650 horses. Undoubtedly, the Terracotta Army was one of the 20th century's greatest archeological finds. As the film says: biggest thing since King Tut.

However, what you might not know about this story is that those 8,000 soldiers were all REAL, but turned to clay as the result of a curse placed on them and their terrifying leader by a beautiful witch. On no, wait! That part isn't real, but who cares! Brendan Fraser is about to enter the picture!

Cue Frazer, his wife (Maria Bello, who is no Rachel Weisz in the "English accent" department), her brother, their son, a sexy ninja lady, a yak and some guy named "mad dog", and you've got just the right motley crew of misfits for a Himalayan adventure on the trail to Shangri-La, where they have to try to stop the recently awakened Emperor (Jet Li) from rousing his army and taking over the world.

Here's the thing. It's hard to call The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor a good film. But it's also hard to say that it doesn't fully deliver on being The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, if you know what I mean.

It's got yaks, yetis, sword fights between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, avalanches and flying monsters, an exploding fireworks truck and a battle between reanimated skeletons and reanimated clay men. What more could you want from the Mummy franchise that isn't laid out before you on a silver goddamn platter by this juggernaut of adventure? You want a jumbo Elixir of Eternal Life with your popcorn, for fuck's sake?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

City of Violence

Ryoo Seung-wan | 2006 | 92 min | South Korea

Chances are if you are any kind of action movie fan you have subjected yourself to at least a couple of the recent tepid offerings from Jackie Chan and Jet Li et al. Stop doing that to yourself. By the time Hollywood gets wind of Asia's best action stars they are already too old to do the kind of material they are known for and seem to be kept on an inexplicably short creative leash besides. Meanwhile, Asia is still turning out incredible fare with a new generation of talent. To cleanse your pallet of dross like War, look no further than City of Violence.

City sees a group of high school friends reunite following the murder of one of their circle. Over the years the friends have grown apart and on to different sides of the law. Tae-su has become a big city detective who decides to add his efforts to the stalled murder investigation in his hometown along with old pal Seok-hwan. The two soon run afoul of their schoolmate Pil-ho and shady business development. In deciding to pursue their private investigation the two find themselves risking not only their relationships but the lives of even more friends and family.

Ryoo Seung-wan writes, directs, and co-stars as Seok-hwan. City leaves no doubt that he is a major new talent. It is directed with incredible energy and humour. The plot is fairly predictable and none of the turns are surprising, but this film never pretends to be a twist loaded epic. There are no pretensions or attempts to illicit gasps from the audience. They aren't needed. This movie delivers solid acting, good laughs, and impresses with inventive, darting tae kwon do. Great action set pieces and fun stylistic flourishes set City of Violence apart.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lady in the Water

M. Night Shyamalan | 2006 | 110mins | USA

For a while, I sort of believed that M. Night Shyamalan had never even come close to making a good film. I sort of enjoyed Unbreakable, but mostly because it was my "homework" to watch it for a fourth year university course, back when it came out in '00. My degree is awesome, I know.

That film was redeemed mostly because it starred my fantasy lover, Bruce Willis - but then, not even he could save The Sixth Sense. That's neither here nor there, mind you. What I really want to talk about is Lady in the Water.

Nobody told me when this film came out that the mermaid-in-a-pool premise was not actually the starting point for a lame mystery with a gimmicky shock ending and a bunch of lackluster twists and turns along the way.

If anyone at all had mentioned, even in passing, that the film was actually an endearing fantasy in which Paul Giamatti and a ragtag group of misfits find themselves in the middle of a fairytale, I probably would have seen it sooner. The heartwarming gang of apartment complex neighbours that superintendent Giamatti assembles (I think his name's actually Cleveland in the film, but whatever) try their hardest to get a water nymph back to her home before some sort of grass/wolf monster eats her. Wacky hijinx ensue! A movie critic provides laffs along the way! Much suspension of disbelief and all that required, but at the end of the day, Lady in the Water is really charming. There! I said it!

The Walker

Paul Schrader | 2007 | 108mins | USA

I'm kind of a Paul Schrader fan. Dude wrote Rolling Thunder, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ. He even directed The Comfort of Strangers, one of my favourite, weird Christopher Walken films, featuring a young Rupert Everett, before he was openly gay. His career spans a weird assortment of seemingly incongruous but usually interesting work, and I absolutely never remember that he exists unless I find a film of his at eye level on a video store shelf.

So, when I spied a rental property that advertised itself as a Paul Schrader mystery/thriller starring a Woody Harrelson as a gay, Southern dandy, I figured it had to be a winner.

Normally, this is how I'd start a review of something that ends up "theoretically good" but "actually vomit-inducing". Not so with The Walker. It's reasonably clever. It stars Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Kristin Scott Thomas as a gossipy bridge club of Washington political wives. And then there's a murder and everyone gets embroiled, and poor gay Woody gets the short end of the stick.

Predictable, yes. But redeemed by good performances and a totally competent ending, if a little saccharine. Plus, Schrader's treatment of what it's like to be in the perilous position of being politically connected but essentially powerless is incisive and darkly funny. The rich, gay, behind-the-scenes mover and shaker who can't go to his boyfriend's art opening because it would be unseemly is kind of a cliché, but it works here. Maybe just 'cause it's Woody?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reign of Fire

Rob Bowman | 101 min | 2002 | US

HIGH CONCEPT CINEMA. A sweaty, filthy Christian Bale and a raspy-voiced, bald Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in a post-apocalyptic future. Imagine Road Warrior with dragons replacing a lack of gasoline as the great threat to mankind. Is there anything I could possibly say following that to turn you off of this movie? I should fucking hope not.

X-Files alum Rob Bowman directs an entirely grey and blue future of communes and razor scarcity. Bale is Quinn, the leader of a populace barely eking out an existance in a reclaimed English castle surrounded by scorched countryside. When American militia leader Van Zan (McConaughey) shows up with his high tech gear and headstrong crew the two men immediately butt heads. Van Zan wants to take the fight to the dragons, but Quinn is most concerned with keeping his extended family alive. Will the English pop and the headstrong Yankee find common ground? Will the two somehow find a way to defeat the flaming threat to humanity? Well, I do not want to spoil anything, but you will have a solid hour and forty minutes of adventure and dragon-related homicides to find out.

You are either with this movie or with the dragons.

Monday, July 07, 2008

La Grande Bouffe

Marco Ferreri | 1973 | 130 min | France/Italy

In this rarely screened, hard to find '70s classic, a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a TV producer (Michel Piccoli), a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni) and a judge (Philippe Noiret) get together for a weekend of gastronomic indulgence. Sounds like the setup to a joke, but La Grande Bouffe’s punchline turns out to be hilariously sinister. What seems at first to be a weekend getaway of indulgence and vice turns out to be a morbid pact between the friends, who threaten quite literally eat themselves to death if they don’t take a break from their grotesque and exuberant bacchanalian feast.

A bit like Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salò in terms of premise but quite different in execution, La Grande Bouffe pushes the basest human desires to some extreme limits. It’s certainly funny to watch some of Europe’s best respected actors engage in gross, creepy, over-the-top behaviour (fart jokes featuring Michel Piccoli seem jarringly, darkly hilarious), but the humour in La Grande Bouffe is actually quite cynical – presenting the pillars of a morally bankrupt society at their most depraved and nihilistic, as mountains of puddings, roasts, cakes and pies make their ways into their gluttonous stomachs.

I’m not sure if La Grande Bouffe is the most appetizing of food movies (certainly, the levels of excess that the characters engage in should be enough to put one off eating) but I have to be honest, just seeing chef Ugo’s “pâté cathedral” (pictured above) was enough to make me consider barricading myself in a country house with a big-rig's worth of meat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Death of Indie Rock

Rob Fitl | 2008 | 75 min | Canada

I will grant that putting together a movie about a struggling indie band from Belleville, Ontario trying to make a go of things in Montreal does not seem like an easy feat. I imagine it would be very difficult to avoid cliche while maintaining some sense of realism in portraying the difficulties of trying to make a living off music. Well, obviously it's very difficult, because The Death of Indie Rock is absolutely terrible. The trouble of carrying out this concept seems to have been compounded by the director and actors seeming to know next to nothing about A) indie music, B) live bands, or C) Montreal. In an attempt to solve this, Fitl loads down his movie with every hackneyed rock music, drug use, and friends-growing-apart scene imaginable.

The actors come from the Sheri Moon Zombie school of acting whereby any space in dialogue is the perfect opportunity to say 'fuck.' The footage on the streets of Montreal hits all the tourist hot spots, including the Mount, Foufounes Electriques, and that Gold Elvis street performer. Exciting material. And if you missed a shot of a horse drawn carriage, don't worry: that shot will appear again in ten more montages. The drug-vision sequences are cringe-worthy, as is the entire storyline involving the drummer's crazy big city downward spiral. Remember that ABC Afterschool Special 'Stoned'? The one with Scott Baio? It looks like Naked Lunch compared to this. Perhaps worst of all, for a movie ostensibly about indie rock there is not a single note of listenable music in this feature.

Not merely a poor movie; this is a laugh out loud failure. You can watch a short clip here and a short trailer here for a general idea of how the whole mess plays out. So, uh, thumbs down.

Bonus Feature: FRENCH ACCENTS!

Planet B-Boy

Benson Lee | 2008 | 101 min | US

There still exists substantial but largely unknown breakdancing scenes in cities and towns around the world. Planet B-Boy attempts to introduce some of these remarkable crews to a wider audience by following them to 2005's Battle of the Year, a global dance competition.

But this is not the breakdancing you remember from its last popular incarnation in the eighties. The dancers have long been refining their skills in relative obscurity and as audiences have slowly grown back they have also grown more demanding. The moves demonstrated in Planet B-Boy display a stunning level of athleticism and will literally have your mouth hanging open in awe at several points. The film is shot beautifully in locations around the world, including Las Vegas, suburban France, and the capital of South Korea. Benson Lee is clearly as much fan of the scene as he is a documentarian. He approaches the subject matter with a contagious level of glee that elevates the film beyond typical concert or subculture documentary fare and makes it a joy to watch.

The only fault in the film is in trying to insert touching storylines when following some of the characters. One South Korean dancer in particular is treated to a voice over or a clip regarding his relationship with his father nearly every time he is on screen. It is cloying and distracting and the movie isn't in need of the padding. That is a minor complaint in an otherwise terrific movie, however. Whether you are a long-time b-boy, a more traditional dance lover, or are merely curious about breakdancing, this is not a documentary to be missed.

Have a look at the trailer here.