(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Louis Leterrier,w/ Jet Li, Bob Hoskins. Rating: NNN
This outstanding action movie turns into a merely acceptable DVD package, thanks to superficial and thoroughly uninformative extras and a gimmick that adds little. The gimmick offers two versions of the film, the "extreme" and the "extended." They don't add much both come in at little more than two minutes longer than the theatrical running time. The extended version sabotages itself further by marking off the additional footage with a pause and a symbol that ruin the flow and, without a commentary, aren't much good for study purposes.
It's a pity, because this is a well-made flick with action that's tied to its theme in which much of its power comes from its flow. The choppy rhythms of the fights match the dialogue scenes with Bob Hoskins as a loan shark and Jet Li as Danny, the slave he's trained from boyhood as his enforcer. Those rhythms soften in the second half, even in the fights, when Danny meets a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and learns that there are better ways to live.
The fights themselves are astonishing. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), Li and superstar fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Kill Bill) emphasize hard work and pain over the usual easy thrills. Li moves with a single-minded savagery far removed from the easy grace he usually shows.
Sadly, the skimpy extras don't tell us much about how they did it. Instead, the stars tell us how wonderful everyone is and describe the story we've just watched. Action fans don't generally get much respect, but we deserve better than this.
Extras Director interview, two making-of docs, two music videos. Extended and theatrical versions. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Maple, 2003) D: Alexandre Aja, w/ Cécile De France, Maewenn. Rating: NNN
Two girls, isolated farmhouse, maniac, massacre, abduction, pursuit. No minor characters, no subplots, no empty irony, no lame witticisms. Massive gore, violence, tension and much dark humour. And a twist in the tail that kicks it up to a whole other level of weirdness. Not the kind of movie you'd expect from the French, but director Alexandre Aja is specific about his influences Kubrick's The Shining, early films by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes). He's absorbed them well nothing here looks like imitation and added in his own sense of realism and deft characterization. His giant psychopath is unique and chilling just a workman doing his job.
Big fun, in a screaming, blood-spattered way.
Extras French director's cut. Director/ writer introduction and commentary, director/actors commentary, two making-of docs. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
Kingdom Of Heaven
(Fox, 2005) D: Ridley Scott, w/ Orlando Bloom, Eva Green. Rating: NN
Ridley Scott kicked off the current boom in ancient-world epics with Gladiator in 2000. Now, if you believe him in the making-of doc, he thinks of himself as "a maker of worlds." Perhaps he's forgotten what made Gladiator such a worldwide hit. It was the story and the man at the centre of the spectacle. Russell Crowe turned in a stellar performance as the general-turned-gladiator who just wants to join his dead wife and child.
No such performance or drama lives at the heart of Kingdom Of Heaven. Orlando Bloom delivers stereotypical young-actor brooding as the blacksmith-turned-knight who goes crusading to Jerusalem in search of personal redemption. When god fails to talk to him, the story has to start all over again, and we're already 40 minutes in.
This leaves us with fine character actors doing their thing. Ghassan Massoud brings immense quiet power to Saladin, the Saracen commander. It's a noticeably better movie whenever he's onscreen. Jeremy Irons does well as Tiberias, who must keep the peace in a Jerusalem filled with knights hellbent on a holy war they cannot win.
But Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson as arrogant French barons teeter on the edge of parody, and Liam Neeson as Bloom's father seems asleep on his feet.
Scott does deliver lots and lots of spectacle and some decent battle scenes, but he did it better in Gladiator, as did Oliver Stone in Alexander. Here the desperate chaos of the battles looks muddled and short on detail.
The extensive making-of doc comes with an interactive grid that lets you follow director, cast or crew through pre-production, production and post. Or you can play the whole feature-length thing. It's good enough as these things go, but the making-of on Alexander gives more detail and conveys a far greater sense of the scope and rigours of production.
Extras Disc one: text commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: interactive making-of doc, A&E Movie Real episode, History Channel History Vs. Hollywood episode, three promotional featurettes.
The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants
(WB, 2005) D: Ken Kwapis, w/ Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel. Rating: NN
A good idea, some good scenes and a quartet of good young actors aren't enough to overcome the bland production, too-pat situations and mawkish dialogue that make this feel like an after-school special. The good idea is the pants, a cheap pair of used jeans that impossibly fit all four girls. They credit magic and decide they'll share them on a weekly rotation. They need the support. The 16-year-old lifelong friends are going their separate ways for the first time, Lena (Alexis Bledel) to Greece, where she'll come out of her shell, Bridget (Blake Lively) to soccer camp, where she'll get laid, Carmen (America Ferrera), half Puerto Rican, to her long-departed dad. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is stuck in town with a 12-year-old tagalong.
Played for straight naturalistic drama, it spares us the teen clichés and lets the actors get on with creating characters we care about and enjoy spending time with. Then the plot developments kick in: Carmen's dad has a new, hopelessly white-bread family, Tibby's new friend has leukemia, Bridget develops an obsessive lust for a soccer coach, possibly precipitated by her mother's suicide.
With plot development comes dialogue soggy with pearls of wisdom and heartfelt sentiment. Yes, teenage girls are like that, and the actors make it convincing. But there's far too much of it and it's far too clumsily written. The gushing emotion also calls attention to the film's timidity about sex and suicide. Neither word is mentioned, and the events themselves are handled so discreetly you may not be sure they've happened.
"Timid" is a good word for Kwapis's direction. He keeps his camera at eye level, framing postcard shots whenever he can and moving at a TV pace. The film's already too long at nearly two hours. He makes it feel like three.
Extras Actors selected scenes commentary, on-set reel, interview with novel author Ann Brashares, deleted scenes with director commentary. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, October 18
(WB, 2005) Wide-screen, full-frame and deluxe editions of the caped crusader's origin story.
Land Of The Dead
(Universal, 2005) Rated and director's cut versions of George Romero's latest zombie epic.
(Fox, 1944) Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock takes the one-set movie to the limit.
Tell Them Who You Are
(ThinkFilm, 2004) Mark Wexler's look at his father, famed cinematographer/filmmaker Haskell Wexler.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb