random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Thursday, August 30, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) ****


R for violence.
1 hr. 54 min.
written by: Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan & Bian Zhihong (screenplay) and Cao Yu II (from the play "Thunderstorm")
produced by: Bill Kong & Zhang Weiping
directed by: Zhang Yimou

Qin Junjie , Liu Ye , Gong Li and Jay Chou in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower

My interest in ancient samurai, ninjas and Eastern folklore came from reading comic books as a kid. I was pretty floored when I read about how tied into Japan and the way of the samurai Logan aka Wolverine was in Uncanny X-Men. Then I came across Frank Miller's cover to First Comics' Lone Wolf & Cub #1, a lone samurai protecting his cub, or baby. so anytime anything samurai or something similar popped up in the comics I was reading, I was pretty excited. So, this review comes with a lil bias due to my affinity for especially historical epics, all things Eastern, samurai, feudal times, and any kind of Dynasty....no, not the Carrington/Colby kind.

Now, I can't say I know much about the Tang Dynasty but I can attest to a knowledge of dysfunctional families. And that's pretty much what this film is all about in a very Shakespearean way. In Zhang Yimou's latest historical epic, Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), is pleased to be bringing his family together for the annual Chrysanthemum Festival. The event is meant to symbolize and celebrate family unity, and since this is the first time in three years his middle son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), is back from gaining valuable life lessons on the battlefield, this particular Festival holds a special significance. Unfortunately, this is all for show and daddy's a lil clueless.The bond of this royal family is no more natural than the fields of golden flowers that have been strewn across the courtyard of the Forbidden City. With it's cultural traditions and strict family customs, it's obvious there wasn't a whole lotta family bonding to be had. This was a time when women were submissive and men had the final word. There is a most ostentatious regime present....it takes four servants to serve one cup of medicine--and the Emperor will show off his family, whether they like him or not.
Chow Yun-Fat in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
This dysfunctional family dynamic is especially complicated. The Emperor has been married once before, and the union bore him his first son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). That fate of that first wife is clouded in mystery, something the second wife, Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), remembers well. She has given her Emperor two sons, Jai and Yu (Qin Junjie). While Yu is still young and somewhat inconsequential to the Royal life (much to his consternation), Jai is really the favored child, more suited to the throne than his older brother. The love Jai is shown is also laced with suspicion, however, as the Emperor fears he might make a grab for power too early. When they are reunited, the Emperor makes a show of this, as well, engaging his middle son in a duel to remind the young prince that the old man still has some moves left. A spectacularly choreographed scene that this samurai fan enjoyed very much.
Part of the Emperor's mistrust of his son comes from his strained relationship with the boy's mother. A sickly woman, the Empress is barely on speaking terms with her husband. Even if there is no love in the royal bedchamber, that doesn't mean the palace is absent of passion. For some time now, the Empress has been having an affair with her stepson. Hello! Meanwhile, Crown Prince Wan is also canoodling behind closed doors with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the king's physician (Ni Dashong). While the Empress suspects that Chan is drawing Wan's affections from her, little does she know that Chan is also an agent of death. Emperor Ping has instructed his doctor to slowly poison Empress Phoenix, and the physician has given the task to his daughter, the servant who delivers the queen her medicine (which will slowly drain her of all mental faculties), every other hour on the hour. There is some question whether Phoenix is even sick at all, or if the years of being forced to take this bitter potion has just been Ping's way of sedating her. Either way, the mixture that is supposed to be saving her is now slowly killing her.
With her loving son finally returned to her, Empress Phoenix is now fed up with such treatment and is going to make her move. She is embroidering thousands of crests featuring the golden chrysanthemum to adorn her revolutionary army, and she and Jai will stage a coup when the festival is in full swing. Naturally, along the way, a few more betrayals come into play, and a few mysteries will be revealed, as several sins of the past come back to haunt all the members of Emperor Ping's corrupted bloodline. This is the typical way of the tragedy, whether it be Tan Dynasty, Greek Mythology or Shakespeare.
Jay Chou in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
Upon viewing this film for the first time I was captivated by everything. From the drama of the story to the beautiful costume and art direction, this movie is takes hold of the senses. It demands your attention because you are so intrigued by the characters and what makes them who they are. None of these characters are one-sided, neither are all good nor all bad. Even the Emperor, with his precise, controlling manner and compulsive need to present a strong façade, only does so out of interest for the greater good. He wants to preserve the law and order of his kingdom, and he believes the best ruler leads by example. Irregardless, he is still a man, and the revelation that he is aware of the relationship between his son and wife also exposes the bitter sting he's been living with. None of this excuses his cruelty, but it does make some sense of his actions understandable. It's almost as if he is upset with himself for not showing his emotions to his alienated family sooner.
Likewise, Empress Phoenix is no mere Lady Macbeth with a simplistic will to power. Knowing that rebellion is the only way to survive her husband's murder plot, she begins by seeking to live up to her own name and rise from the ashes of her disastrous marriage. In some ways, she is also crusading for female pride, her revenge on Emperor Ping avenging his first wife by proxy. Even when she is playing pale and sickly, Gong Li is still resplendent. There is no question as to why she is the center of male attention in the royal palace. Even those who aren't let in on her plot fall on their sword out of jealousy at not being included.
Yimou's more popular films, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers", are filled with astounding feats of action and there is plenty here, though it's not nearly the focus it was in those two films. There are several battles involving the Emperor's ninjas trying to put one of his skeletons back into its closet. Also, the coup itself, as Jai leads his small army into the Forbidden City, is both awe-inspiring as grand spectacle and gut wrenching as the blood flows in very personal ways. There is an balletic elegance to the action here as in his other films and the emotion involved in these scenes is something that is remiss in the popular action films out there.
Gong Li in Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
Back to the art direction provided by Oscar-nominated costume designer Yee Chung Man and production designer Huo Tingxiao--is just as much a star as any of the actors. The imperial palace is recreated in exacting detail. Every inch of the frame is packed with ornate decoration and color. As Empress Phoenix walks down the gaudy hallways of her royal prison, it looks like she is surrounded by great tidal waves of paint that flow in and out as she moves forward. Similarly, her gowns tightly confine her, pushing up her bosom while constraining her waist, in service to the double-edge of beauty--the dresses make her look fabulous while also standing as a symbol of female repression. The movements of the clothes are choreographed with as much care as the clashing of swords in the fight scenes. Sleeves ripple, buttons pop, and hairpins go flying as Ping unleashes his fury, and blood stains Phoenix's embroidered emblems as if those waves had finally fallen, drowning the royal court.
This film is the current apex of the most recent cycle of Zhang Yimou's career. He began exploring the art-house martial arts genre back with "Hero", and ever since he's been slowly working his way back to the historical costume dramas that first earned him his reputation. "Golden Flower" is a tragedy of epic grandeur, transferring the personal calamities of his films like "Raise the Red Lantern" to a more mythic context. The result, is nothing short of Shakespearean, but with touches of beauty that are pure Yimou. He is a director whose film's can easily be revisited and often a viewer must be just that in order to take in all that his film's have to offer. Casting Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li, two of China's finest actors, is a powerhouse move on its own, but the tragic script and the gorgeous art direction both give these amazing performers a worthy workspace to show their craft. This is for those like royal intrigue with a healthy dose of action mixed in.
Special Features:
There are two extra features on this DVD, alongside 10 trailers for recent Sony releases (including Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles). The first documentary is "Secrets Within," your basic behind-the-scenes featurette. It covers the genesis of the movie, the director and the main actors, and the construction of the set and costume design. Some of the footage of the production being put together is quite impressive, and Zhang Yimou talks in depth about the themes and the meaning of the film. There is also compilation of footage of Yimou, Yun Fat, and Li on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere last November.
Chow Yun-Fat and director Zhang Yimou on the set of Sony Pictures Classics' Curse of the Golden Flower
The Skinny:
  • The film boasts the largest set ever built for a movie in China, surpassing Chen Kaige's "The Promise".
  • It took over 20 days to shoot the battle scene.
  • The empress's Phoenix Crown weighed 12 pounds.
  • More than 1000 real soldiers were used in the final battle.
  • Curse of the Golden Flow also known literally as When Golden Armor Covers the Entire City.
  • It was chosen as China's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the year 2006; it was not nominated in that category though it did receive a Costume Design nomination.
  • The title of the movie is taken from the last line of a Tang dynasty poem attributed to the rebel leader Huang Chao, "On the Chrysanthemum, after failing the Imperial Examination" or simply "Chrysanthemum":
When autumn comes on Double Ninth Festival,/ my flower [the chrysanthemum] will bloom and all others perish./ When the sky-reaching fragrance [of the chrysanthemum] permeates Chang'an,/ the whole city will be clothed in golden armour.
  • Due to the film's high profile while it was still in production, its title, became a colorful metaphor for the spring 2006 sandstorms in Beijing and the term "golden armor" has since become a metaphor for sandstorms among the locals.
  • The plot is based on Cao Yu's 1934 play Thunderstorm (pinyin: Lei Yu), but is set in the imperial court of the Later Shu, which was during the turbulent Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.
  • The use of nail extensions by the Empress was not popular during the Tang Dynasty, but only after the Ming Dynasty several centuries later.
  • Plate armor,worn by Prince Jai and Emperor Ping in the movie, was unpopular throughout Chinese history, as it restricted movement, and was thus unlikely to have been used. Scale and lamellar were preferred over plate for this reason.
  • The dresses the Empress and her servants wore were given an unrealistic cleavage. In fact, camisoles were part of the wardrobe of upper class women in China in times gone by.
  • Besides starring in the film, Jay Chou has also recorded a song to accompany the film, titled "Chrysanthemum Terrace", released on his 2006 album Still Fantasy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Notes on a Scandal (2006) ****

Notes on a Scandal (2006) poster
written by: Patrick Marber (screenplay) & Zoe Heller (novel "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal)
produced by: Robert Fox & Scott Rudin
directed by: Richard Eyre

Here's a movie that I knew would be great because of the pedigree it carries and sure enough it is impressive -- so impressive, in fact, that it's tempting to imbue this sensational potboiler with more importance than it might deserves. Much of the credit has to go to Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their performances here), who save this from being a Lifetime movie special. The pair's oversized talents provide the weight for this psychological thriller; they tear into their respective roles with quite an intensity. The movie is adapted from the novel by Zoë Heller, detailing the ripped-from-the-headlines story of two British schoolteachers who harbor unhealthy obsessions. Due to the amazing performances of the two central leads, the story spends more time on need and betrayal and less on the actual scandal. I was fine with that because it seems that with every scandal there was at first a secret and finding who were the keepers of that secret is always most intriguing.

Judi Dench in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal
As we're introduced to each of the characters via the journal entries of Barbara Covett (Dench), an elderly spinster and school marm who leads a solitary existence with her cat and the volumes of diaries in which she records contemptuous observations about her colleagues and pupils. As she becomes taken with the school's new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the film almost comes across more like a dark comedy than a thriller due to Barbara's observations and acerbic delivery by Dench with a dry and biting wit that cuts her fellow co-workers to the core. When Barbara comes to Sheba's aid during a classroom scuffle, they become quick friends. In her narration, Barbara sizes up Sheba as this "wispy novice," as she derisively calls the new teacher: beautiful, idealistic and lovably disheveled. Barbara is initially wary -- particularly since the rest of the faculty is so charmed by Sheba -- but the older woman's reservations melt once the two actually meet.

Sheba is warm, open-hearted and knows she's not the greatest teacher, and one day she invites Barbara to her home for dinner. There Sheba introduces Barbara to her much older husband Richard (the wonderful Bill Nighy) and their two children from his previous marriage, one of whom has Down syndrome. Barbara sits there at her guests house and cruelly breaks them down in her mind. It is in this scene where I became well aware of all the different facets Dench was conveying so excellently. Barbara, all dressed-up and polished for her lunch invite complete with flowers for her host exudes a graciousness and etiquette but with her narration we hear her insecurities, bitterness, and audacity. Both actresses are utterly captivating but you truly cannot stop watching Dench. Barbara is a surprisingly unglamorous role (albeit welcome) for Dench, dressed down as a sad and lonely woman looking for love or affection, but going about it all wrong.

Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

Barbara senses Sheba's despair and loneliness, and she is deeply smitten. Still, she cannot admit, least of all to herself, that her desires for Sheba are anything but platonic. The relationship between these two women makes up the crux of the film, but Barbara's interest in Sheba goes far beyond friendship, and it's obvious from early on that her deeper feelings are unrequited. Clearly Barbara isn't the only dishonest one though....at an after-hours Guy Fawkes Night school function, she discovers Sheba's dirty little secret: She is having sex with one of her students, a arrogant 15-year-old boy named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Newcomer Simpson does a fine job as her student, holding his ground against the more experienced actress in their scenes together. Barbara is outraged, but not for the usual reasons, reacting to Sheba's gross indiscretion as if it's a personal betrayal. But then Barbara calms herself. To her, this knowledge means power, she realizes, and suddenly the mean-spirited old woman understands she has the upper hand in this increasingly creepy friendship.

Both actresses are absolutely fantastic when on-screen alone, but when they're together, it's amazing, as they deliver a quick-fire repartee that elevates the film beyond its sometimes predictable plot twists. There's also something deeply amusing about watching respected actresses like Blanchett and Dench getting into a catfight, even though its more about the way they deliver their words than the conflict itself. That's due to the film's brilliant script, (which from what I've read) expands the distinctive tone of Heller's novel into a sharp and witty piece that maintains its inherent humor even when it starts to get dark and eerie in the last act.

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

While the two women and Simpson drive the film, one must take note of Bill Nighy who knocks it out of the park every time he's on screen. At first, Richard seems like the only benevolent character, but when he explodes at Barbara with a string of expletives, you know that he's not going to take her inexcusable behavior lying down. Even after that, he's one of the few characters that a viewer can feel sorry for, as he delivers a powerfully emotional performance after learning the truth. On that note, you can almost feel sorry for the two women despite their behavior and once again that's just a testament to their actresses abilities.

Despite the subject of a thirty-something, former Goth girl having relations with a cheeky teen boy being quite unsettling, there's something else that is equally disturbing. The relationship between Sheba and her 15-year-old student isn't nearly quite fathomable, since Sheba seems far too intelligent and mature to get a schoolgirl crush on a mere boy, let alone allow herself to be seduced. Then again, it's hard to ignore the similarities between their story and that of Marie Kate LeTourneau, a real-life incident that makes us aware that something like this can indeed happen. Despite her unwise indiscretion, one can't help but empathize with Sheba's feelings of feeling trapped and even entitled, which may not have been the case in the hands of a different actress.

Richard Eyre directs with a precise, unflinching eye that matches the coldly devastating yet clever script by Patrick Marber. The film is certainly the antithesis of a warm and fuzzy. It really digs into the human mind, probes the darkest recesses of loneliness and sexual obsession – and guts it. There is much to admire here, including Philip Glass' alluring music score. The movie's only slight quibble is the Hannibal Lector-esque ending, which seemed almost silly but still within character. Ultimately, Dench and Blanchett carry the film, making it a deliciously tasty melodrama. Both are simply terrific as characters who are certainly unsympathetic, but consistently interesting.

Special Features:

Fox crams in the extras, but the best are the first two listed. Director Eyre's commentary doesn't offer much in the way of making-of anecdotes, but he provides insight into the psychology behind the story and characters. Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions covers the film's thematic concerns through interviews with Eyre, Heller, Marber and the cast. More provocative than your run-of-the-mill featurette, this min-doc invites a deeper exploration of the movie's central characters. Then Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes is typical promotional fare that covers much the same territory; in fact, parts of The Story of Two Obsessions are repeated here. The rest is middling. In Character With: Cate Blanchett is a bit of fluff courtesy the Fox Movie Channel Webisodes are promotional clips that highlight various aspects of the film: "Judi and Cate: Behind the Scandal," "The Screenplay," "Judi Dench" and "Cate Blanchett." The segments include a mediocre Conversation with Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett. Viewers can view each Webisode separately or select the "play all" option. The Webisodes have an aggregate running time of 13 minutes, 50 seconds. Rounding out the supplemental material is a theatrical trailer.

Cate Blanchett and director Richard Eyre on the set of Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

The Skinny:


Monday, August 27, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Shooter (2007) ***

Shooter (2007) poster one

R for strong graphic violence and some language.
2 hrs. 6 min.

written by: Jonathan Lemkin (screenplay) & Stephen Hunter (novel 'Point of Impact')
produced by: Lorenzo Di Bonaventura & Ric Kidney
directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Here's a well executed movie that feels like when of those solid, well-paced thrillers from the 80's. That's a compliment. It'd be far too easy to dismiss director Antoine Fuqua's film as mindless multiplex mayhem, but that's not the case here. there's a lil bit more to this movie than what you might be expecting. Underneath all the conspiracy and crazy action, there's actually a good degree of jabbing at the current administration. Imagine that! It's not out of context, it definitely fits the feel and story. You have to wonder just how many viewers caught on to the not-so-thinly-veiled caricatures of the government's elite. Watching this film and noticing all this, I had no idea if any political statements I was catching was in Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter's novel (upon which Fuqua's film is based). Could be that adapter Jonathan Lemkin elevated a few things, making it a bit more timely a film that would otherwise be nothing more than a straight-to-video snooze.

Danny Glover , Elias Koteas , Mark Wahlberg , Rade Serbedzija and Jonathan Walker in Paramount Pictures' Shooter

The....um, shooter is Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), who, if his name didn't give it away, is a die-hard American patriot, proud to serve his country and lay down his life, if need be. Trained as a covert scout sniper, Swagger's got an eye for laying waste to targets that are far beyond the range of most normal gunmen. After a black-ops mission goes sour in Ethiopa where his spotter, Danny (Lane Garrison) is killed in a messed-up government fiasco, he hangs it up and spends his days in the mountains of Wyoming with his dog. Of course if he stayed there, what what the shooter be shooting? Wildlife? Well, the government knows his number still and Swagger gets dragged back into service by shady Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover). Asked to map out a hypothetical assassination attempt on the president's life, it's not long before Swagger finds himself framed for a murder he didn't commit and on the run with two bullets in him, trying to keep away from the long arm of the corrupt, morally twisted law.

Swagger makes it to Kentucky where he manages to take refuge with Donnie's widow Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara). She saves his life by removing the bullets embedded in his body, and soon a healing Swagger hooks up with the only who other person he thinks can help him, novice FBI agent Nick Memphis ( Michael Peña). Turns out Memphis was blamed for allowing Swagger's escape, and in the process of being disciplined for negligence has independently learned that Swagger may have been framed for the assassination by rogue elements within CIA. Swagger hooks up with Memphis just in time as he winds up saving his life from some rogue government spooks, in one of the many very cool sniper scenes.

Mark Wahlberg and Michael Pena in Paramount Pictures' Shooter

The film unfolds like a surprisingly old-school action flick, replete with tough guy walks to camera filmed in slo-mo, a wise old munitions expert (Levon Helm, formerly of The Band) who guides Swagger in his quest and devious machinations overseen by high-ranking government officials, like Senator Charles F. Meachum (Ned Beatty). Plenty of stuff goes boom, in fact stuff goes boom big-time; Mark Wahlberg gets to mutter plenty of giggle-inducing lines under his breath -- "I don't think you understand - these people killed my dog" is one of the more amusing snippets -- and Fuqua gets to show off just what he does best: filming frenetic action sequences that look incredibly alluring and brutally violent, often simultaneously.

There is plenty to like here if you think this kinda movie is your bag. The casting was good, I usually am not a huge fan of Wahlberg but he fit the part well here. I have to say it does have some of the best sniper scenes I've ever seen, so if you're into the technical and precision aspects of taking out a target from miles away, then this one's for you. Another thing that sold me on the film was actor Elias Koteas as a baddie henchmen working for Glover's Colonel. Anything he's in, I'm there. Unfortunately. Rhona Mitra is underused as possibly the only FED who can assist Nick Memphis in helping Swagger. Too Bad, I like her. Appearing to be mindless on the surface but raging against the political machine just beneath it, "Shooter" ultimately comes off as an odd blend of slightly lefty while maintaining some deeply red state beliefs about, among other things, the right to bear arms. It's a little cheesy, a little murky but entertaining in a way that only big-budget studio shoot-'em-ups can be.

Special Features:

Fuqua gives an extremely low-key, informative commentary track that walks the viewer through everything from the visual effects and the film's realism to the politics of the film and his reactions to the material. The second featurette "Survival of the Fittest: The Making of Shooter," presented in anamorphic widescreen, details the creation of the film, while the seven minute, 18 second featurette "Independence Hall," presented in anamorphic widescreen, features the film's military advisor talking about the film's pivotal assassination sequence and seven deleted scenes. Trailers for Zodiac and Black Snake Moan ar e also included.

Danny Glover and director Antoine Fuqua on the set of Paramount Pictures' Shooter

The Skinny:

  • Keanu Reeves was the original choice to play Bob Lee Swagger.
  • The book which Bob Lee Swagger reads in his home is 9/11 Commission Report.
  • Wahlberg had to lose 20 pounds to give Bob Lee Swagger the slim and ripped look of a field sniper to make the film more realistic.
  • Singer Eminem turned down the villain role.
  • The sudden cut to the Montana Senator shows him firing a rifle near the camera in hunting gear very similar to Dick Cheney; he then sits next to a large table embroidered with 'CMF'.
  • The high caliber rifle that Swagger owns and is framed with is a Cheyenne Tactical M200 Intervention. It fires a .408 caliber projectile accurately out to and beyond 2000 meters.
  • The portraits on the walls in the room where the conspirators meet in Langley, Virginia are all of Republican presidents.
  • In the scene after Sarah Fenn first talks to Memphis & Swagger is seen standing outside with an Eagle's hat and jacket on. Wahlberg plays for the Eagles in the movie 2006's "Invincible".
  • Theatrical trailer features a scene not used in the film where a small jet is blown up via remote control.
  • Shipped to some theaters under the name "Stars"
  • This was the final film to play the landmark Mann National Theater in Westwood, CA before it closed on April 20, 2007.
  • Stephen Hunter, the author on whose novel the film is based, is a Pulitizer Prize winning film critic for the Washington Post.
  • Athens, Tennessee, the residence of the firearms expert Swagger and Nick visited, was the location of the "Battle of Athens" where in 1946 armed citizens removed the corrupt local government and restored free elections.
  • The left-wing website zmag.org can be seen on Swagger's laptop, Zmag publishes articles by, amongst other academics, Noam Chomsky.
  • The FBI agent helping the shooter is wearing a Che Guevara T-Shirt in a scene.
  • Filmed mainly in British Columbia, Canada.
  • The film features some of the most realistic sniper tactics displayed in a movie at the time of its release. The filmmakers employed former U.S. Marine scout sniper Patrick Garrity, in order to train Mark Wahlberg in accurate sniper tactics. Wahlberg was already in excellent physical condition, Garrity submitted him to a very rigorous and realistic sniper training.
  • Crucial to the movie was for Wahlberg to learn shooting both left and right handed (the actor is left handed), as he had to switch shooting posture throughout the movie, due to Swagger's sustained injuries. He was also trained to adjust a weapon's scope, judge effects of wind to a shot, master rapid bolt manipulation and develop special breathing skills.
  • His training concluded with extreme distance shooting (up to 1100 yards) and the use of ghillie suits. Following the success of Wahlberg's training, Fuqua was impressed enough to appoint Garrity as the film's military technical advisor.
  • Throughout the film Swagger uses an array of sniper weapons, among which are the USMC M40A1 and Barrett M82 sniper rifles in the African opening sequences, CheyTac Intervention in .408 Cheytac used to shoot the Dinty Moore stew can and Remington 700P in .308 Winchester.
  • Also when Col. Johnson first approaches Swagger's house, his concealed knife is a SOG Twitch XL. He also uses a SOG Daggert 2 as part of his field equipment.
  • In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman talks about being approached to write this movie; he ultimately never became involved.
  • The first two victims of Swagger are machine gunner and driver of an Unimog light truck rigged as a technical.
  • Ads for the movie could be found in some levels of the game Rainbow Six: Vegas.
  • The book Swagger is reading in his home is the 9/11 Commission Report. Mark Wahlberg was scheduled to fly on one of the hijacked planes but changed his plans at the last minute.

Image:Shooter poster.jpg

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

REEL REVIEW: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters ****

Rated PG-13 (for a brief sexual reference)
84 min.

produced by: Ed Cunningham
directed by: Seth Gordon

In 1982, I was ten years-old and going nuts over movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "E.T." and "Tron". I was also wasted plenty of time playing Mattel's Intellivision home video game console! Yeah, that was their answer to Atari and I remember how nuts I was when my father came home with one (much to my mother's dismay). Although it was entertaining enough for me at that age, home consoles were certainly primitive back then. The real video game experience was outside the home in the arcade. Yeah, back then the arcades were still the place to be for video game junkies but also it was the place to hang out. Well into high school, I vividly recall that wherever I lived I knew where the best arcade was. It wasn't until Nintendo came out in the late 80's that my time in the arcades died down. But, oh the memories.

That's exactly what this new film is hoping to appeal to....your memories and nostalgia for video games in the 80's. Ah, it was such a simpler time. Scrounging around for quarters and peddling my bike over to the Arcade where everyone else was. No questions asked, you were understand amongst so many junkies! I was never a big
Pac-Man or Centipede fan, I got into games like Galaxa, Jungle Hunt (or King), Contra, Defender, any movie-related game (like the Tron, Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom games) were awesome. But the game I loved the most was (in my mind) the King of them all....Donkey Kong!

I knew I wasn't alone but this new documentary by Seth Gordon confirmed that
Donkey Kong and other classic arcade games are still life-defining for some people. In fact, watching this movie you will see a world of which you probably never knew still existed. It just so happens that some of those pimple-faced, video game junkies you knew of in the 80's are still going at it. Some are wearing weight-lifting gloves to master their mad skills and some are working at Twin Galaxies while others can be found wasting away time in New Hampshire's Funspot. And one of those top score junkies is now a hot sauce mogul named Billy Mitchell living in Hollywood, Florida. But back in the day (1982) he and several other gamers made the cover of Life magazine next to their arcade obsession of choice.

Billy Mitchell in Picturehouse's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Steve Wiebe (pronounced Weebee) of Redmond, Washington is married with two children. Currently, he works as a middle school science teacher but before that, back in 2003, he was layed off from a job at Boeing and was looking for work. He occupied his nights playing a Donkey Kong arcade game in his garage, One day Steve was online and decided to look up video game high scores and came across Billy Mitchell's 1982 high score of 957,300 for Donkey Kong. He decided to beat that score and eventually challenge Mitchell, who had not only in his own mind but also a messiah to other vidiots.

That's what this movie is essentially about....Billy vs. Steve. Most of the scenes in this movie made me shake my head and drop my jaw in disbelief. I mean, I was serious in my game playin' days but never anything like what I saw in this film. After all, there was the dilemma of running outta quarters. Other scenes made me burst in laughter, mainly cuz I knew people like this and they've probably wound up like these guys. Still, the geekiness of all these quirky characters still addicted to those classic 80' arcade games is almost endearing in a bizarre way. Let's face it, we all "geek out" about something, it could be food, shoes, comic books or um, video games. Everyone has something that they're crazy about, I suppose.

Steve Wiebe and his son in Picturehouse's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Regardless of his hot sauce success, the mullet-sporting, bearded Mitchell is not really a guy I'd like to call friend (at least based on his devious ways shown here). He's pretty egotistical, prideful and quite insecure. I did feel for Wiebe though, he just seemed like one of those guys, who despite his musical and athletic talents hasn't really found success in life. I can relate to Wiebe in a way, it's been hard to find something to do with my life. I've found though that what really maters is not what I do but who I am. This movie does touch on that as Wiebe realizes what's most important through the process of his quest to become a high score record-breaker.

Even if you were never hooked on video games or never had an interest in them, go see this movie. You'll have a good time and ultimately feel better about yourself! Well, either that or you will be inspired to purchase an arcade game, close yourself off from the real world in your garage while trying to beat someone's high score. In watching documentaries, it's hard not to get a certain opinion or agenda. Sometimes it's great if you just get an education, but this time all I got was a good time.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Thursday, August 16, 2007

REEL REVIEW: The Kingdom (2007) ***

The Kingdom (2007) poster

R for intense sequences of graphic brutal violence, and for language.
1 hr. 40 min.

written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan
produced by: Peter Berg, Michael Mann& Scott Stuber
directed by: Peter Berg

Recently, I caught a screening of director Peter Berg's ( "The Rundown" & "Friday Night Lights") latest film with my friend Otto. I had seen a trailer for this movie at the beginning of the year and heard that its release date had been changed. The subject matter certainly captured my interest yet anytime a release date is moved you gotta wonder if it's gonna be a dud. It's not always the case, just usually. But, with two Oscar winner and two Golden Globe winners and being a fan of Berg's approach, I was hopeful that this movie would deliver. It certainly did. As I think back, I see it as more of a look at two different cultures than a terrorism action-thriller although it still does indeed fall into that genre.

Jamie Foxx in Universal Pictures' The Kingdom

The story is based on the Riyadh compound bombings which took place on May 12, 2003, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.The compound was an American housing facility that was attacked by Saudi terrorists in broad daylight while families were playing softball and enjoying a cookout. When it's discovered that a FBI Special Agent (Kyle Chandler) was killed in the bombing, the FBI want to be the first to send a team to investigate the bomb site. Of course any sign of Americans flying over to do just that would only escalate the uneasy situation.

While diplomats slowly debate equations of territorialism, under the radar and unbeknownst to his boss (Richard Jenkins), FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) leads an elite team of four agents to the scene of the bomb site after pulling a few strings. They are greeted by an uneasy American liaison (Jeremy Piven) and are given five days to go in there and find out who pulled off the attack. With forensic specialist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), and bomb expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) at his side, he is confident that they will be able to infiltrate and bring down the terrorist cell within such a short time frame.

Once there, however, the group discover Saudi authorities suspicious and unwelcoming of American interlopers into what they consider a local matter. They also have to deal with a disorienting culture, the scorching heat, and of course, politics. It isn’t long before the foursome begins to doubt the reliability of their supposed informants and allies, which eventually leads them to question their own abilities. It quickly becomes clear to Fleury that their expertise is worthless without the trust of any Saudi counterparts, who want to locate the terrorist in their homeland on their own terms. Therefore local law enforcement becomes more of a hindrance than help.

Jennifer Garner , Ali Suliman , Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper in Universal Pictures' The Kingdom

Fleury’s crew finds a like-minded partner in Saudi Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum), who helps them navigate royal politics and unlock the secrets of the crime scene as well as the workings of an extremist cell bent on further destruction. Soon, the FBI unit picks up the track, leading them to the inevitable showdown with the opposing force. As they share an ambitious commitment to crack the case, the team is led to the killer's front door in a blistering do-or-die confrontation. Everyone winds up fighting for their lives in a race-against-time kinetic chase as one of their own is kidnapped by the terrorists. It becomes four agents and one colonel trying to bring some semblance of justice in a "kingdom" where none of them are welcome.
Right from the start this movie is intense. It has to be. I appreciated the fact that it wasn't just all action. There was an investigation that had to take place first and foremost but once the terrorist cell sees that Fleury's team are getting closer, they become quite aggressive and thus the story is unrelentingly propelled into action. The actors are believable and well-suited here in their characters. Foxx is no-nonsense but also charismatic and tender when he needs to be. Garner's physicality as an actor is well-known and toward the end she has a pretty serious showdown with a hulk of a guy. It's handled well as it doesn't make her out to be a super spy chick ala Sydney Bristow. Cooper is excellent as always and is slowly becoming the leading man's supporting character actor. Bateman's role is well-needed and he handles a pivotally critical scene at the end very well.

Actor/Director Peter Berg (who also has a small role in the FBI briefing) doesn't make an overtly political film here but rather focuses on characterization, the immediacy of the investigation and the difference & similarities in the clashing cultures. He touches on that clash right away in the graphic display he includes in the opening credit sequence as he shows a timeline of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia and oil. So there's politics but I felt Berg shows it as it has been and is without stereotyping any culture as good or bad guys. There were a few sequences where Danny Elfman's score was given time to bounce back and forth between both the colonel's relationship with his family and the FBI team's acclimation to their environment. This felt similar to Berg's approach to "Friday Night Lights" where contemplative instrumental music was used to tell a story over scenes with no dialogue. It worked well but I guess I find myself surprised that Elfman didn't go with music that would've been a little more suited to the environment in order to drive home the theme of culture differences.

Carnahan did a great job with the script. It coulda been for one culture or the other and it also coulda had some cheesy dialogue here and there but it had none of that. Occasional humor is incorporated appropriately enough and the script gives some necessary development to Barhoum's role (who does excellent as well). Sure, some of the plot was a lil predictable but I found myself ignoring that as I was too busy sliding to the edge of my seat due to the emotionally intense action scenes. I kinda liked how this movie came in at under two hours cuz it really only deals with the investigation of the bombing. Still, Berg gives you enough during that time to become invested in both the story and these characters. This film could have ended on a political statement but instead, I feel it ends on a cultural statement about human nature. I look forward to hearing more about the film upon it's release.

The Skinny:

  • The film was originally slated to be released on April 20, 2007, but was rescheduled after its positive reception by Universal executives as well as test audiences, for a better chance at award consideration.
  • The film's new release date is September 28, 2007.
  • It is also produced by Academy-Award nominated director Michael Mann.
  • Berg read a book by Louis Freeh (with Howard Means) for research. Published in 2005, about Freeh's career in the F.B.I., entitled My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror. It's highly critical of both President Clinton and former counter-terrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke. Freeh made an appearance on The Daily Show to promote the book.
  • It was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, brother of director Joe Carnahan ("Narc" and "Smokin' Aces")
  • Filming commenced July 10, 2006, on the west side of the old Maricopa County Courthouse in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Additional scenes were being filmed concurrently in Mesa, Arizona. In some of the trailer frames, saguaro cacti are visible in the background.
  • Following filming on August 12, 2006, a crew member died when the utility vehicle (Gator 4x2) he was driving was hit by a sport utility vehicle carrying the director on Arizona State Route 202, in Mesa.
  • On-location filming took place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates for one week in mid-September.
  • Filming also took place at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.


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