Arlington Road


This is one of these movies that are frustrating. Not because they aren’t good: this is a superior, generally well crafted picture. It’s just that it had the potential to be more, but the filmmakers unfortunately didn’t take it quite there. “Arlington Road” touches the controversial and undeniably actual issue of terrorism. We’ve seen a lot of movies involving terrorists, but they are usually more action-oriented and almost always feature foreign terrorists, whether Arab, European or whatever. The scary reality brought up by this film is that nowadays in America, most of the extreme acts are committed by Everyman, a friend, a relative, a neighbor. Oklahoma City. The Unabomber. Colombine High School. When tragedies like this happen, people don’t feel safe anymore, until someone is found to be blamed. Then it’s okay. Oh, it’s these two kids alone who shot their classmates, end of story. It’s not a growing social problem alienating young people, uh uhn. A bomb blows up dozens of innocents? You don’t need to worry, they said on TV that it was the action of that one man alone, that one different guy with his very exceptional, particular situation. So we feel safe.

But what if, the movie advances, what if this was part of a bigger picture? What if underneath the pleasant facade of suburbia crawled conspirators carefully planning terrorist acts? Michael (Jeff Bridges) believes that. Paranoia? Maybe. He spends most of his time researching domestic terrorism, for he teaches a college class on the subject. And then he tries to enjoy life at home, which is not easy. His wife was murdered during a botched FBI raid, leaving him alone to raise his young son. Michael is now seeing a former student, but he’s still haunted. His life is stirred some more when he comes across a wounded kid in the middle of the street and does everything he can to save his life. That leads him to meet the kid’s parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack). He realizes that they’re his next door neighbors, and wonders why he never noticed him. And as he gradually befriends them, little things start bothering him, and he begins to suspect they might actually be terrorists…

Okay, I gotta stop right here. This is the kind of film which is better the less you know about it. Of course, dumbass marketing executives have spoiled many twists in tell-all trailers, but that doesn’t mean I gotta take part in this nonsense. So see the movie and enjoy its surprises for yourself. What I can do is comment the way this story is brought to the screen. “Arlington Road” was directed by Mark Pellington, whose debut “Going All the Way” is supposed to be pretty good though I haven’t seen it yet. What’s for sure is that he shows great potential in this movie. It isn’t flawless, but it effectively builds tension, and it has an interesting visual style. I enjoyed how Pellington takes his time depicting the progression of his protagonist’s paranoia, as layers after layers are peeled off until the absolutely unpredictable, thought-provoking finale. I’m telling you, this film has one of the most shocking, uncompromising endings in a long while. Unfortunately, the film takes some wrong turns getting there. You know, the kind of manipulative, unbelievable tricks that make conventional thrillers. Like scenes in which people seem to sneak out of nowhere, or when things happen almost only because it serves the plot.

Still, “Arlington Road” is unusually smart and relevant, and it benefits from expert cinematography, a creepy score from Angelo Badalamenti (who composed the music for most of the films of David Lynch) and intense performances from the leads. Jeff Bridges has always been a skilled dramatic actor, but it’s only recently that he really struck me as an original talent with his colorful comic turn as the Dude in the Coen’s “The Big Lebowski”. Here he returns to serious matters with good results. I felt compelled to follow his character’s struggle throughout. Tim Robbins is also a great actor (and a Coen alumni too, as he starred in “The Hudsucker Proxy”), and it’s interesting how he and Joan Cusack (better known for her Oscar-nominated comedy roles in “Working Girl” and “In & Out”) toy with Bridges – and the audience. Bridges has reasons to believe they’re hiding something, but they look so… normal. That’s the scary thing, you see. Who knows if the next infuriated citizen to bomb a building isn’t the nice man down the street?

Changing Lanes


I can’t explain the sudden critical embrace this movie has received. Sure, it’s not quite the retarded revenge thriller the marketing campaign wanted you to believe it was, and it aims higher than, say, your everyday Jerry Bruckheimer production, but it’s still a not-so-smart, Swiss cheese slice of a morality tale about utterly unlikable people doing dumb and/or despicable things. Who’d want to watch that? A anti-hero is one thing, but these guys are anti-human!

So you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson downplaying the cool (à la “Die Hard with a Vengeance”) as a lower middle class insurance salesman with a drinking problem who wants only one thing: to get his family back. He thinks he has a shot, too, if only he can convince his ex-wife and a judge that he deserves visiting rights. Meanwhile, we’ve got Wall Street lawyer Ben Affleck, a Yuppie who’s really made it, working for one of the biggest New York firms, which just happens to be owned by the father (filmmaker Sidney Pollack) of his gorgeous wife (Amanda Peet). On this fateful morning (Good Friday, no less!), he’s got to present a file to the court which will give the firm power of appointment over a dead client’s 100 million foundation. Unfortunately, these two hurried men on a mission will clash on the FDR highway, as their cars get into a fender-bender. Jackson wishes to exchange insurance information, obviously, but Affleck just wants to get the hell away and just scribbles him a blank check.

Mmm. To me, this could end here. I mean, a blank check ain’t bad, why get insurance companies involved? Then again, Affleck does act like a dick and because of the incident, Jackson is late to his court hearing, arriving only to find that his ex has been awarded full custody. I guess you can understand him for being upset… To even the deck a little, Jackson already has something to get back at Affleck: the oh-so-important file, which was unwittingly dropped on the scene of the accident and picked up by Jackson. And thus begins a primitive and cruel game of cat-and-mouse between the two. I won’t tell you about all the twists and turns, even though the trailer did a good job of spoiling them, but personally I couldn’t buy most of it. First of all, why can’t Affleck just ask for the stupid file? Does he really think that screwing with Jackson’s credit and having him arrested in from of his sons will make the man want to co-operate? To me, all this would do is make me wanna burn the damn file right there!

Jackson is not much better. Initially, he appears to be the innocent victim, but soon we can see that he’s an asshole himself, the kind of impulsive jerk who beats up strangers on the street or throws a bank employee’s computer into a wall in a fit of rage! I don’t know about you, but actions like this make me lose all empathy for the character. And then comes the kicker, which you’ll remember as the money shot from the TV ads, where Jackson drives next to Affleck and waves some bolts and a tire iron at precisely the same time as a wheel on Affleck’s car comes loose. What a psychotic, criminal thing to do! This is not getting even, this is attempted murder! Furthermore, as this takes place on a busy highway, it’s not only Affleck’s life which is at risk. His out of control car could have crashed in a bunch of other vehicles, and lots of innocent family men could have been injured and make their kids orphans. Really smart move there!

Still, through all this madness, there is some attempt by director Roger Michell and screenwriters Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin to discuss matters of ethics and morality, which is certainly more than most Hollywood flicks are concerned with. “Changing Lanes” is also notable for rather solid performances from the leads and the supporting cast but as mentioned above, one central weakness remains: we don’t feel sympathy for either of the protagonists, therefore we’re not much involved or interested in what happens to them. When Jackson’s ex wife threatens to make sure his kids never see him again, I thought ‘Good, keep them far from this violent lunatic!’ And while Affleck’s character sort of redeems himself in time for the half-assed happy end, he commits too many devious, evil acts through the movie to be forgiven that easily. “Changing Lanes” had the potential to be a challenging, thought-provoking film, but it ends up an uneven, contrived picture. Better luck next time…

The Sweetest Thing


Damn! I get caught every time! Be it “Coyote Ugly” or “Crossroads”, I always succumb to the temptation of patronising lame girlie movies marketed with the promise of sexy jiggling. This flick is obviously tailored around the concept that Cameron Diaz is a perky hottie. It’s as if the filmmakers had watched her oeuvre and decided to do the ultimate Diaz movie, with the premise of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (but with Cameron in the Julia Roberts part), the gross-out gags of “There’s Something Mary” and even more booty shaking than in “Charlie’s Angels”! Couldn’t miss, right? Especially with Roger Kumble directing, in a follow-up to “Cruel Intentions”, one of my favourite guilty pleasures. Well, there’s little pleasure to be had here, guilty or otherwise.

Diaz stars as Christina Walters and, what do you know, there’s something about her. Guys go crazy for her all the time, unfortunately she’s afraid of commitment. But sshh! Her insecurities are hidden behind a “grrl power” facade, which she parades with all she’s got, getting her groove on every night in bars with her roommates Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair). In spite of it all, one evening she stumbles unto this Peter (Thomas Jane) “dick” and something clicks in her, yet she’s too indecisive to do anything about it and he gets away. This could end there, but in a spur of spontaneity, Court and her decide to track him out, as they know he’s gonna be at a wedding this Saturday…

Yeeesh. Am I the only one who’s fed up with these movies which try to make us feel bad for gorgeous women who just can’t seem to find Mr. Right? I actually have nothing against romantic comedies, but only when they’re done with wit and heart, like those of Cameron Crowe or Nora Ephron. “The Sweetest Thing”, on the other hand, doesn’t even own up to its “chick flickitude”. Hey, we gotta get those oh-so-valuable 13-to-35 male asses in theatres, too, so easy with the feelings! Girls can be retarded horn dogs too, right? In with the random profanity, bodily fluids ahoy! Let’s have Courtney pee in an urinal, and Jane bring in a cum stained dress to the dry cleaner, and Christina dive between Court’s thighs to retrieve a lipstick tube, but make it look like she’s going down on her, tee hee! Even worse, the film rips some gags right out of other movies, like having Diaz nostalgically push her breasts up like Madonna in “The Next Best Thing”, or an elaborate but tedious sequence revolving around a penis getting stuck that’s a mirror image from the infamous “There’s Something About Mary” zipper scene. And even if you point out your lack of originality yourself (“Wait a minute, do we have time for a movie montage?”), it doesn’t make it any less of a pile of lazy, unimaginative filler.

“The Sweetest Thing” is too dumb to be romantic, yet too sappy to work as a no holds barred comedy. It feels interminable at 84 minutes, plagued as it is with a predictable by-the-numbers plot balanced on an incredibly contrived pseudo-serendipitous twist, beyond generic direction and an obnoxious near-Muzak soundtrack. I never thought I could get tired of watching Cameron Diaz waving her butt around, but this utterly vapid movie did just that.

Y tu mamá también


“It Only Hurts When I Think”, reads the boy’s shirt. Two boys they are, and they don’t think too much, they’re too busy cracking each other up and having fun. Tenoch (Diego Luna) is the smallish, smart-ass teenage son of a rich Mexican business man, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) is poorer but taller and better looking, which doesn’t really matter anyway, as they hardly bother to think about such things. They stick to the essentials: getting drunk, getting stoned, playing football (not the brutish American type), racing each other in the pool and, of course, having sex, or in the absence of willing girls, talking about it and jerking off! As the film begins, each of the young men is having goodbye sex with his girlfriend, whom are both leaving to spend the summer in Italy. They won’t have time to miss them, as they soon befriend Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a gorgeous older Spanish woman who happens to be the wife of Tenoch’s cousin. She finds them kind of silly, but after her husband cheats on her, she thinks “what the hell” and decides to accompany the boys on a ride in Julio’s beat-down car to Boca del Cielo, a heavenly beach…

Here’s a movie which takes on a few of the most familiar motifs of contemporary Hollywood cinema, such as the love triangle, the road movie, the teen sex comedy and the coming of age story, and manages to always feel sincere and refreshing anyway. I never got the impression filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón was going for showy effect or straining to set up a gag or trying to shove a message down the audience’s throat. Ultimately, this is sort of a message picture, one of those Oprah-ready movies about making the most of life, appreciating beauty, carpe diem and all that feel-better pap. Yet this overall theme only comes through clearly in the last five minutes, and even then it’s mentioned in a matter-of-fact way, not as a contrived life affirming message. There’s no big Oscar-friendly, overwhelmingly teary actor moment, no swooning music cue. All you get is the two guys sitting over coffee and chatting, and then Frank Zappa plays over the end credits and you just sit there, unexpectedly moved.

In the meantime, we just casually tag along with the trio through the Mexican countryside, with little or no plot getting in the way. It’s almost like a documentary (down to the sometimes distracting hand-held camerawork), where life happens without following screenplay conventions. It’s sometimes really funny, sometimes more serious… Whichever it is, it’s all very enjoyable, in most part because it all springs out of the characters and their interaction. Maribel Verdu is convincing as the woman caught between two horny young dudes, we can believe how she decides to play a little with them. But the movie truly revolves around the friendship between Julio and Tenoch, who are portrayed wonderfully by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

We really get the impression that these two have spent their lives together and that they have this incredible complicity. They’re close, very close, with apparently nothing off-limits between the two. One will leave the bathroom door open and keep talking to the other while peeing, they tell each other everything (or so they think), they even masturbate next to each other! They’ll get even closer on their vacation, as they lust for the same woman and eventually get to share her… Maybe too close, so much that all they can do is bounce apart. Yet while it lasts, we get to share this friendship through the camera’s voyeuristic, unblinking eye. While we’re spared genital close-ups (this isn’t porno!), the movie does feature a lot of full frontal nudity and sex. I liked how natural these scenes felt. For once, sexuality isn’t used for gross-out humour or highly stylised like most Hollywood love scenes, and it’s not exploitative and disgusting as in the movies of rambling feminist Catherine Breillat (“À Ma Soeur”) or dirty old man Larry Clark (“Bully”) either. This is not love, not rape, just real, lively (if quick!) sex.

“Y tu mamá también” (“And Your Mother Too”) is a real gem, full with the beauty of Mexico and its people, one of these movies where I want to jump in and live in these places with these characters. There’s only one cinematic “gimmick” when once in a while, the sounds fades out and an omniscient narrator gives some insights into the past and the future of places and characters. It’s odd at first, but it grows on you and adds to the overall feel of the movie, giving you a larger understanding of Mexican society and its less glowing aspects. I don’t think the sobering running commentary takes away from how sexy and fun a film this is, in fact it complements it. It makes it so you not only leave the theatre satisfied from having a few laughs, but also thoughtful about the evasive nature of life. “It Only Hurts When You Think”

The Godfather part III


I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the Godfather movies, but I do think that the original is a masterpiece, and there’s plenty to enjoy in the first sequel, despite the somewhat distracting double narrative. But with this third film, a much-afterthought made some twenty years after the others by Coppola when his career was down the sewer and he badly needed a hit, it’s harder to praise the trilogy as a whole. “Part III” is not a bad movie, just an unfocused, uneven one. It has its moments, and the powerful final 20 minutes alone make it worth seeing, but I wish Coppola had been able to use his preferred title of “The Death of Michael Corleone”, which would have identified it as an epilogue separate from its classic predecessors.

So we’re now in 1979, with Michael (Al Pacino) still the Don of the Corleone family but looking to finally severe all his mob allegiances. He’s spent some of the two decades since he ordered his own brother’s murder trying to redeem himself and his family, working to make the Corleone name legitimate. As the film opens, a 100 million dollars donation to the Vatican has bought him one of the highest honours from the Catholic Church, and he’s now looking to move all his business into Immobiliare, a European conglomerate currently overseen by the Vatican. Yet things won’t go that smoothly, of course, as the past keeps coming back to haunt him. Whether it’s crooks like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who are unwilling to let him take his chips off the table or dirty Church officials trying to play him for a fool, everything is tempting him to resort to his old violent ways… “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

One of the biggest problems of “part III” is that Coppola and Puzo seem unsure of what story they’re trying to tell, or why these later adventures of the Corleone needed to be recounted at all. The whole Church shenanigans are bit hard to swallow. I do not doubt in the least that the Vatican has seen its share of corruption and fraud, and that it rubbed elbows with the Mafia, but in the context of this series of films, I don’t think it works. It’s a bit late in the game (after some seven hours of narrative!) to introduce a whole new bunch of allies and foes, and the fact that they’re supposed to be servants of God makes the whole thing feel awkward. I’m sure the picture would hold on better if it stuck to the general idea of Michael trying to go legit, with hard-asses like Zasa rocking his boat, even though this is almost all just more of the same we’ve seen before.

Even more than the mob hits, what’s most interesting about the “Godfather” movies is the way it portrays family. While most people don’t have to deal with violence on a daily basis, everyone can relate to the wide array of emotions one goes through with his relatives, as these are people who are around you through your whole life, through good and bad times. “part III” might suffer from occasional bad dialogue, hammy acting and ungraceful direction, but it remains interesting nonetheless because of our investment in these people. They’re almost like relatives of our own, as we’ve followed them for years. When we’re introduced to Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny, there’s a special thrill in seeing how Andy Garcia has the same bad temper and cocksure attitude that James Caan had in the first movie. We’re able to understand Michael’s ambiguous feelings about recognising his late brother in his nephew, as we “know” him from the first movie ourselves.

Less effective is the depiction of Michael’s relationship with his children and their mother Kay (Diane Keaton). There’s some attempt to have Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosia) mirror the young Michael in his unwillingness to enter the family business, but he’s barely developed as a character. He’s just the singing kid, the excuse to bring the whole gang to Sicily to attend his first opera performance. As for Mary (played by Coppola’s daughter Sofia), she doesn’t do much either except engage in a not very convincing romance with Vincent: “I really love him!” “He’s your first cousin!” “Then I love him first!” Whatever. I didn’t buy Michael’s getting chummy with his ex wife either, how she’s all like, “I’ve always loved you Mike.” No you haven’t! You aborted his unborn son because you couldn’t stand what he had become, remember!?

Still, even though it somehow dilutes the impact of the first instalments, “The Godfather part III” retains enough of their qualities to deserve a viewing anyway, notably to watch another strong performance by Al Pacino, the true soul of the trilogy. He’s working with lesser material here than in the previous movies (the Godfather’s got diabetes now, for chrissakes!) but he remains engaging, and his climactic breakdown on the stairs of the opera house is wrenching.

Panic Room


Blah. It’s not that I expected David Fincher to top his “Se7en” or “Fight Club”. I didn’t expect his latest film to be anything else than what it aspires for, namely suspense. But Christ, who knew Fincher had such a pedestrian movie in him! It’s not a bad movie per se; it’s certainly well crafted and it delivers a few thrills here and there, but it’s sadly unmemorable nonetheless. That’s what shocking to me. Even Fincher’s “lesser” movies had things which stuck with you, be it the final twist of “The Game” or Ripley’s unexpected suicide at the end of “Alien³”. “Panic Room”, though, is bound to be remembered only (if at all) for some fancy camerawork.

Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman, a recently divorced woman who moves to a gigantic Manhattan house with her daughter Sarah (11 year old tomboy Kristen Stewart). A rich, paranoid old man used to live there, and he had a “panic room” installed, i.e. an impossible to open room equipped with security monitors giving a view of every corner of the building where one can hide in case of, say, an intrusion. And what do you know, on the very first night that Meg and Sarah move in, the house is attacked by three robbers! Thus begins a long, tense night the two locked in the panic room, while the thugs put to the test its alleged infallibility…

That’s it, that’s the story. We don’t even get to know the characters, though we do get a extended scene in which the girls take a tour of the house. I guess this is necessary to establish the geography of the premises of the remainder of the film but it also illustrates the film’s main problem: it’s more interested in its set than in its characters. I know this is just a cat-and-mouse thriller, not a psychological study, but by giving us almost no insight into who the characters are, it’s harder to invest ourselves in their ordeal. I didn’t find myself caring much about their well being. And anyway, they’re in an impossible to open room, what’s to fear?

Ok, writer David Koepp does have a few nifty twists in his bag to make things worse, but there are even more really dumb moves on the part of his characters and some rather contrived complications. This is the kind of movie where everything could wrap up in twenty minutes, but sheer bad luck or stupidity always comes in the way! Clueless neighbours, phones which don’t work, gullible cops… If that’s not enough, let’s make the daughter diabetic, that’ll screw things up! It might become ridiculous if it wasn’t for the actors, who generally manage to sell even the most preposterous twists. Foster is wonderful, of course, making the most out of a barely developed character. She looks great too; she was a few months pregnant when the film was shot, and she fills that tank top deliciously! I liked the bad guys too, even though they’re non-specific types. Jared Leto is good as the amusingly manic leader, Dwight Yoakam is appropriately menacing, with or without his ski mask, and Forest Whitaker is compelling as a thief who can’t quite forget his kind nature, which makes him sort of a tragic figure.

The solid cast puts “Panic Room” above the usual straight-to-video thriller fare, as does Fincher’s distinctive visual style, with sombre, gorgeous photography and inventive shot composition. There are a few jaw-dropping seemingly unbroken sequences where the camera travels around the house, passing smoothly through walls and ceilings, zooming into minuscule details and setting up perfectly who is doing what and where. The sound editing is sharp, and the Hermannesque score by Howard Shore is effective. Yet, no matter how technically superb the film can be, it’s oddly devoid of tension. It rarely ignites, and what sparks we get are few and far between. For an average filmmaker, this might be a nice addition to a résumé but for Fincher, this is a disappointment.

Death to Smoochy


There’s a throwaway bit late into Kevin Smith’s “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” in which a wigged out Will Ferrell barges in a taping of a kiddie TV show revolving around a dude in a bright coloured cow suit who does sing-alongs, and he accidentally shoots poor Mooby dead. That little Barney gag wasn’t particularly funny, but at least it was only 30 seconds out of a mostly hilarious picture. Now, imagine blowing up that one not so good joke to feature length and you’ll get an idea of what a bore “Death to Smoochy” is. Here’s a movie of which the extent of the comic output begins and end with its amusing title. See, Smoochy is a pink plush rhino suit who delights children with his silly songs, but it turns out that the kid TV business is a corrupted and ruthless one, and everyone wants him dead. That premise is actually pretty good, but it should be only a starting point, not one general idea which is stretched for 90 minutes with no punch-line.

So you’ve got Ed Norton as Sheldon Mopes, a naïve but overwhelmingly nice guy who sings ditties as Smoochy in methadone clinics until a bitchy TV executive (Catherine Keener) hires him to star in an after-school kid show in replacement of previous host Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), who was revealed as a crook who took bribes by parents who want their children to go on his program. This doesn’t please Randolph at all, and he vows revenge on the damn dirty rhino who stole his time slot. Meanwhile, Sheldon must also fend off greedy agents, executives and merchants who want to use Smoochy to sell all kinds of junk. But his refusal to sell out pisses off a lot of folks, and he’ll have to be careful if he doesn’t want to get killed! Tee-hee.

From what I can tell, writer Adam Resnick and director Danny De Vito set out to make a black comedy but then they backed out and contented themselves with a lot of tired, harmless humour. Oh, there’s a lot of naughty words sprinkled into every line of dialogue, but all the crude language in the world doesn’t make it the wild, demented comedy it wants to be. And it’s certainly not gonna get laughs from its one-dimensional characters. Some people say that it’s nice to see Robin Williams letting loose again after starring in a string of touchy-feely pictures these last few years. Personally, I’ll take him in “Good Will Hunting” or even “Patch Adams” over this manic crap any day. Williams is extremely grating as the lunatic Randolph, always desperately hamming it up, doing stupid voices and coming up with lame ad-libs, anything for laughs that never come.

Ed Norton can’t make the lousy material funny either, but at least he’s likable enough as the idealist, innocent Smoochy, even though he’s only there as a target of mockery. Oh, he eats healthy food! He doesn’t swear! He’s not interested in money! What a dork, right? The movie seems to think so at first when it wants to be satire, but later it decides out of the blue to be a sappy feel-good flick instead and suddenly Smoochy is a role model, he warms the heart of Keener’s bitchy executive (and gets her into bed) and, worse, he helps Randolph have a change of heart. What a cop-out, black comedy my ass!

De Vito, who also plays a totally unnecessary role in the movie (as does Jon Stewart), does an atrocious job behind the camera. Even on the rare occasion that he stumbles into something remotely amusing, the comic timing is all off. Scenes go on and on long after any potential humour has burnt out. There are countless stupid songs, which culminates with an endless ice show where even the hit-man sent to kill Smoochy falls asleep! And then there’s the Irish retard and his family of thugs. What can I even say that can translate how utterly pointless and dull this stuff is… “Death to Smoochy” is a complete failure. It’s spectacularly unfunny.

Ultimate Fights


At times, we all get a bit of attention deficit disorder. Like you’re not always up to immerse yourself for an hour in a concept album and prefer to just mix a bunch of rockin’ tunes, sometimes you don’t feel like watching a whole movie, you just wanna get the highlights. You’ll have some friends over, and you’ll want to play D.J., but with movies! I like to do that myself, showing off funny scenes, impressive Steady-Cam shots, cool music cues and, of course, kick ass fights! And now, from the people who brought you the “Boogeymen” collection of horror scenes, comes “Ultimate Fights”, which features just that!

Here’s a DVD which promises “nothing but the good stuff” and delivers. It’s basically a succession of 16 fight sequences, mostly from recent Hong Kong or Hollywood movies, inter-cut with video game-style title cards identifying the opponents. You can enhance that “Street Fighter 2” feel by selecting an alternate “Ultimate Rumble Party Mix” audio track which scores the fights with techno beats and guitar fills, and there’s even an option called “My Top 5” to program your favourite sequence of fights. Mine would run as such:

#5 Wesley Snipes’s samurai duel with Stephen Dorff in “Blade”, if only for how refreshing it is to watch Stephen Norrington’s visually sharp and dynamic but almost old fashioned movie, in contrast to Guillermo Del Toro’s frenetic abortion of a sequel.

#4 Michelle Yeoh chasing a masked Zhang Ziyi in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, even though it’s more acrobatics than a fight. But what graceful acrobatics!

#3 The warehouse gang fight in “Rumble in the Bronx”, one of the greatest Jackie Chan action scenes. Watching him fighting all these guys using everything around him (including refrigerators, TV sets, a shopping cart and skis!) is breath-taking.

#2 A fight from my favorite Jackie Chan movie, “Drunken Master 2”, in which he seems to constantly get hurt real bad, as when he falls into burning coals! Sadly, little actual drunken boxing is featured here, but it’s still
amazing kung fu!

#1 The church shoot-out at the end of John Woo’s “The Killer, with Chow Yun-Fat at his best, slow-motion pigeons and the most graceful ultra-violence you’ll ever see!

I also enjoyed the inclusion of one of the bare knuckle fights in “Snatch”, with a bad-ass looking Brad Pitt and wonderfully stylised visuals; Russell Crowe battling tigers in “Gladiator”; Rambo fighting redneck deputies in “First Blood” (complete with Vietnam flashbacks!); Jet Li doing his thing in “Fist of Legend” and “Black Mask” (both choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, of “The Matrix” fame); and the “Say Hello to my little friend” shoot-out which closes Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”. I’m not a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, but his half naked “Time Cop” knife fight is kind of cool, as are the wrestling-flavoured street tussle with Rowdy Roddy Piper from John Carpenters’s “They Live”, Liam Neeson in Fight Club mode in “Crossing the Line” and a short but nasty cat fight from “The Players Club”. As for the “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” scene, it’s pretty good, but why oh why not give us the real Bruce Lee instead? Last but not least, there’s an Easter egg which can be found on the third page of the scene selection menu, which has two oiled, topless ebony Amazons in thongs beating the crap out of a big fella in a scene from “Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheik”!

Overall, this a very entertaining DVD, and it offers plenty of special features, from information about the fighting styles and the performers (notably through optional pop-up on-screen trivia) to theatrical trailers to most of the movies, a ‘Name that Frame’ game, two audio commentaries (by Hong Kong producer/director Tsui Hark and “fight master” James Lew) and an interesting featurette on how to stage your own movie fights, with tips from Lew and Van Damme (who happen to fight each other in the “Time Cop” clip). Of course, everyone will have his little disagreements with the roster. Personally, I’m suspicious of any fight collection which fails to include THE ultimate fight, namely Schwarzenegger’s showdown with Vernon Wells at the end of “Commando”. As for the fights that are included, it’s sometimes frustrating how they cut off before they’re over, but I guess you just have to get yourself the actual movies to get the whole deal. Also, I could have done without the cheesy Limp Bizkit intro, complete with the ever-obnoxious “Let’s get ready to ruuuuumbbbleeeeeeeeee!” kick-off. Still, “Ultimate Fights” remains a satisfying one-stop supply of macho thrills that action fans will watch over and over.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


If we had to pick the filmmaker who had the biggest influence on world-wide audiences in the last 25 years, no doubt Steven Spielberg would be the one. Is there another director who made as much box-office smashes and critical successes, often both at the same time? “Jaws” (1975) might have been the first summer blockbuster, “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” is one of the most revered sci-fi flicks ever made, the “Indiana Jones” trilogy thrilled countless kids of all ages, and “Jurassic Park” and its sequel grossed nearly a billion dollars. And then there’s the 93 Oscar nominations his films received, from “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun” to “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Which leads us to “E.T.”, no less than the fourth highest-grossing film of all time, and arguably the most beloved family film since “The Wizard of Oz”.

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone who doesn’t know this film by heart already, but I’ll still summarise the plot for the possible weirdo who spent the last 20 years in a bomb shelter. Elliott is just a kid, but he still has to deal with bad stretches. School ain’t always easy, and life at home has became kinda depressing since his parents divorced and Daddy bailed to Mexico with his bimbo. So Mom’s down, little sister Gertie can be bugging and big brother Michael has a short fuse. Yet Elliott’s life is about to change forever with the arrival of E.T, a very odd little dude from outer-space who was left behind by mistake by his peers on a field-trip to Earth. Elliott is the one who will discover the alien and take him into his house, and they will become the best of friends. The film is about that very special bond, about how Elliott and his siblings teach E.T. about suburban America everyday life and about how E.T. shares his super-powers with them in return…

Where can I start in telling you what makes this film so wonderful? In short, this is one of these movies that just make you feel so good… Even though I spent half of it in tears! It’s filled with good humour, innocence and hope, and it’s highly original and inventive. Of course, this is Spielberg so this ain’t the most daring of films, but as far as mainstream Hollywood movies go, it doesn’t get much better than this. There are plenty of unforgettable moments, from little touches like E.T.’s taste for Reese’s pieces, to amazing sights like Elliot riding his bike across a full moon, a scene which gives me goose bumps to this day. Spielberg’s direction is technically flawless, John Williams’ iconic score is very effective and the special FX are astonishing. The E.T. creature is so expressive that you forget that it’s just a piece of rubber. I also love the way the film is told through the kids’ point of view. A lot is left unsaid, and adults like the scientists are often just menacing, anonymous beings. And the young actors are so good! Henry Thomas makes Elliott a full-blown, three-dimensional and very human character with his impressive yet natural performance, and Drew Barrymore is even better as his little sister. She’s so darn cute, and she’s funny and touching, too!

Now, about this new version… Personally, I think it’s stupid to tinker with your old movies, especially when they’re fine to begin with. Do we really need to see these few extra minutes of footage? And are we so jaded by modern digital wizardry that we can’t appreciate more old fashioned movie magic? As mentioned above, I like the old rubber E.T. just fine, no fixing up was necessary. Spielberg has also erased the guns from the cops’ hands, and he’s changed an off-hand reference to “terrorists” to a less touchy “hippie” put-down. Again, why 1984 the past? Can’t these directors just let go of their old movies and accept that there’s always gonna be little things they could have done differently? That said, it’s a joy to see “E.T.” on the big screen, with premium sound and image. It remains a timeless classic: it blew my mind when I saw it as a kid, and watching it again 20 years later, I still adored it.

Blade II


After seeing the first “Blade” movie, I called it the best comic book adaptation ever (since then, incidentally, Bryan Singer one-upped it with his “X-Men”). Of course, it’s ironic that the comic being adapted here is near forgotten. Safe for the recent MAX relaunch, I’ve never even seen a “Blade” book. Nonetheless, that first movie was real cool, and I was looking forward to the sequel, which has Mexican horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro succeeding to Stephen Norrington in the director’s chair.

This second installment (in what is to be a trilogy) tries to crank things up even more than in the action packed original, which makes for an obnoxiously hyper-active movie. “Blade II” is all over the place, opting for flash and noise instead of invention and rhythm every time. I think the reason the first “Blade” worked and this one doesn’t is that Norrington made his movie in 1998, a full year before “The Matrix” came along and every action director figured they could ape its style. Hence such masturbatory messes of CGI, wire-fu and bullet time as “Tomb Raider”, “The One”, and now “Blade II”. What the makers of these movies fail to understand is that, while the Wachovsky’s visual gimmicks were nifty flourishes, what really made their sci-fi flick such a thrill was its compelling characters, intriguing storyline and graceful direction, all things its knock-offs forgo. So we end up with nearly unwatchable movies which are deadly boring even though they desperately throw everything at us at frantic speed.

Del Toro seems to think that the most loud, frenetic and violent he makes everything, the coolest his movie is gonna be. Dead wrong. His action sequences are so choppily edited that we can barely see what’s going on. We can glimpse some potentially cool fight choreography between the non-stop jump-cutting, but it’s hard to actually enjoy it. Oh, how I miss the good old days of movies like “Enter the Dragon”, where you could sit back and admire the physical prowess of a brilliant athlete like Bruce Lee instead of being jerked around by show-off camera tricks and digital effects that will look dated in eighteen months anyway.

You might notice that I haven’t even given you a plot summary yet, but that’s because even the filmmakers didn’t seem to care about plot. Basically, it’s about how Blade (Wesley Snipes), the day-walking half-human half-vampire, unites with his undead enemies to take on a new breed of creatures of the night, the Reapers, a bunch of really tough blood suckers who prey on humans and vampires alike. So Blade, his old partner Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, back even though he died in the first movie) and their annoying stoner sidekick Scud (Norman Reedus) team up with the BloodPack, a bunch of highly trained and oh so colorful vampires, each with a distinctive quirk which make them perfectly fitted to be turned into a line of action figures. I’ll admit that the Reapers are pretty cool, with their shooting tongue-fangs-jaws thingie, “Aliens”-style, and their leader Nomak (Luke Goss) is the only interesting presence in the movie, even though he’s thrown in a subplot involving family melodrama which feels like “Gladiator” leftovers.

As for Snipes… I can’t say anything good or bad about him. He’s a blank. He still looks badass, at least from what I could tell when the camera was on him more than half a second. Then again, he hardly ever takes off his sunglasses, and he’s given absolutely no character development, he’s just a dude who takes out vampires in countless confused/confusing fights. “Blade II” is not as much a movie as a video game demo, and a lousy one at that. Watch the first movie again and pretend they never even made this sorry excuse of a sequel.