For a Good Time Call… (Jamie Travis, 2012) – Only months after Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike depicted the current economic downturn through the eyes of males in the sex entertainment industry – dealing with the topic in a timely and decidedly lighthearted fashion – home viewing audiences can now see the far less serious, somewhat more problematic, but almost equally fun female equivalent. Although far raunchier with its pottymouth leanings, For a Good Time, Call… ends off the proper summer movie season quite nicely with a poppy confection of witty banter and sly observations on the phone sex game and a sweet story of best friends trying to make it in the big and not so sexy city.
After being enemies for ten years following a gross mishap after a frat party, recently heartbroken, and hopelessly boring aspiring book editor named Lauren (Lauren Anne Miller, who also co-wrote) is forced into a marriage of convenience of sorts to the loud and flamboyant Katie (Ari Graynor). In order to keep the posh NYC apartment once owned by her deceased grandmother, Katie needs a roommate and will take anything she can get on top of her multitude of jobs. One of her jobs has her moonlighting as a freelance phone sex operator, and while Lauren doesn’t approve at first, she eventually decides that there’s definite money that can be made from privatizing their efforts, and together they form a strong partnership and friendship that will be put to the test in probably every way one could possibly think of.
It’s all pretty predictable stuff, but that’s part of what makes Torontonian short filmmaker and music video director Jamie Travis’ debut feature so believable. The smaller moments of parents getting in the way, botched job interviews, and failed romances can all be easily resolved, and they’re never handled like they are the end of the world. Despite some complaints, these are people who can very easily dust themselves off and go on with their lives. Amid all the dirty talk and double entendres, a really sweet relationship develops between Lauren and Katie that the audience wants to see succeed even though it’s made clear from the start that their relationship will always be tenuous.
Travis has some definite fun with the material even if he seems a bit unsure at times working with a larger canvas. As has been the case with his previous works, the production design is a cut above other similar themed films and it’s always pleasant to look at, but like many comedies of this ilk, it isn’t all that well shot and sometimes the editing around obviously improvised riffs comes off as spotty. Still, it’s a very assured big league debut for someone who has been waiting for a chance to truly shine on the world stage.
Miller might have written the screenplay, but this movie belongs to Graynor, who bounces off the walls with near manic energy and a killer sense of comedic timing. With a character that could have been a very standard blonde Jewish princess, she makes Katie into one of the more sympathetic boors in recent memory, especially with the introduction of an intriguing character trait at the halfway point that probably doesn’t get exploited as much as it should. (Then again, that might speak to the film’s occasional choppiness.) Miller, on the other hand, almost blends into the background and she seems content to play the straight woman to Graynor, Justin Long (as the struggling and flamboyant comedian friend that brings them together), and several big name cameos that pop up to steal sequences from the stars. On their own, they’re both great, but their chemistry together looks effortless both when warring with each other and while on the same side.
It might be nothing more than a pleasant diversion, but For a Good Time, Call… sends the summer out on a high note with a great hit-to-miss ratio for its gags, some truly winning performances, and a sense of economic believability between the story’s more clichéd elements. And don’t worry, guys. This isn’t the all girls club you might fear it would be. In another parallel to Magic Mike, there’s enough universal appeal here to please anyone looking to have a good time.
Only available on DVD in Canada (there’s a US Blu-Ray from Universal that has an extended, unrated cut of the film that adds a whopping two minutes), the package comes with an affable, if not very informative commentary from Travis, Miller, Graynor, and producer Katie Anne Naylon, and a really brief EPK styled behind the scenes look. (Andrew Parker)
The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012) – The Imposter isn’t so much a documentary as it is a deliciously twisted thriller. Sure, everything in the film “happened” and the real participants are giving the details of their stories to offset the Errol Morris styled recreations of events, but the question of truth and the true nature of identity are called into question during every frame of director Bart Layton’s mesmerizing look at a con man who might be getting conned himself.
13 year old Texan boy Nicholas Barclay went missing in 1995, but this ultimately isn’t his story. Three years following his disappearance, Frédéric Bourdin, a man in his early 20s living on the streets of Paris gets picked up for vagrancy. Fearing going into a group home or prison, Bourdin thinks quickly and crafts the con of his life in a matter of 24 hours. Looking at the missing children’s report for Barclay, he insists he’s the missing boy despite having different hair, eye colour, and, you know, being older than the person he’s pretending to be.
Bourdin isn’t a particularly likable fellow and he seems thoroughly unrepentant about the situation even now. He very clearly preyed on the sympathies of those around him to get out a tight situation, but things get a lot more complicated when the audience realizes something far darker is going on beneath the surface. When he’s returned to the family who thinks they have found their long lost boy, it’s shockingly business as usual.
Over time Bourdin begins to realize that not only did he trick the FBI, but that something isn’t quite right about his surrogate family. He knows they can’t fully buy that this Algerian born older man could possibly be their kid. When questions of what really happened to Nicolas start to arise and a private investigator joins the fray, that’s when Layton’s film takes off.
Layton goes to painstaking lengths to make sure every side of this story gets told, and while there’s clearly spin being put on the material from Bourdin, the Barclay family, and members of the FBI who have to eat crow and admit they simply wanted to clear the case from their books, it effectively conveys just how elaborate of a shell game was being played by all involved. Layton’s recreations of events aren’t exploitative in any way, and his quick editing style effectively keeps the audience on their toes.
Layton wants to make the viewer question not only the validity of the story, but also the validity of the image. Even in interviews with the people involved, Layton shoots in such a way to make everything seem decidedly unreal and skewed. In a story where no one can be excused for their actions, Layton has to work harder to make the story have some shred of humanity. Much like how Bourdin plays on the sympathies of others, Layton stops short of making the man into someone who was wronged. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and by the film’s ambiguous, but stunning conclusion, we aren’t any closer to knowing the truth than when we started.
The actual case has been covered by news magazines and the media in the past, but Layton has really been the only person who attempted to pull all of the conflicting and contradictory elements together into a non-biased thread. On top of that balance, he also creates one of the best thrillers of the year. It’s one of this year’s definite “can’t miss” documentaries.
Unjustly robbed of a Best Documentary nomination at this year’s Oscars, the film arrives on DVD with a stellar 45 making-of documentary that could almost be edited back into the film, but isn’t made up of deleted scenes. (Andrew Parker)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011) – While there probably hasn’t been much clamouring for another modern Shakespearian adaptation – meaning the dialog stays nearly word for word the same, but the setting is present day – the fact that actor and first time director Ralph Fiennes has made one of the Bard’s lesser noticed plays, Coriolanus, into such a film, seems oddly okay. With a genuine passion for theatrics and bloodlust that the world’s most noted playwright would approve of, Fiennes delivers an engrossing tale of betrayal, hatred, and revenge that manages to overcome any shortcomings he has as a novice film director.
Originally set in 5th century B.C., the film tells the tragedy of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), an obstinate Roman war hero drawn into the political arena by way of his popularity, but drawn under in the court of public opinion by his barbaric and unforgiving nature. Eventually banished from the country he once swore his allegiance to for inflammatory remarks but no real incendiary actions, Caius teams with his sworn, hated enemy Tullus (Gerard Butler) to bring hell down upon an ungrateful Rome.
Naturally the setting here isn’t in the 5th century with the abundance of automatic weapons, heavy artillery, and the proliferation of 24 hour new channels. It doesn’t even seem like Rome, but more of an Eastern European approximation of it. Everyone in the “Roman” military dons the outfit befitting a UN Peacekeeper, and on the opposite end Tullus’ followers all dress like Che Guevara style guerrilla mercenaries. To say that Fiennes is aiming his film squarely at the role of the media complex in wartime is to put things mildly.
Fiennes suffers from the trappings of any first time director. He thinks he has to go really big and broad for the audience to understand his point. It helps that the play he happens to be adapting is one of the Bard’s least subtle attempts, but one can’t shake the feeling that the shaky cam shootouts or the expository use of talking head roundtable shows are a bit of overcompensation. It adds some nice style, but not really much substance to the material that wasn’t already there.
But Fiennes hasn’t had this great of a role on screen in years, and if there’s one thing he does know, it’s how to elicit killer performances from some great actors. Butler stands out with easily one of his best performances as an often soft spoken, but ruthless man of principals. Vanessa Redgrave shows up as Caius’ mother and Jessica Chastain as his wife and both seem highly believable as people forced to relating with a man the rest of the country sees as a monster. Brian Cox also has a small, but plum role as the man serving as Caius’ chief political advisor and closest confidant.
Coriolanus finds its place as a welcome addition to the canon of on screen Shakespeare adaptations, and its one of the most assuredly made modern retrofittings ever put on the material. The thematic material at the heart of the play rhymes almost eerily well with British politics in the last quarter of a century, not to mention the policies of Regan and Busy era America. It’s not exactly a modern classic, but its still bloody good and good and bloody.
The picture quality of the Blu-Ray matches Fiennes gritty aesthetic well for a picture that wasn’t meant to look too slick and smooth to begin with. The sound quality bristles nicely with the sounds of dramatic yelling and gunfire in the best possible ways. Extras include a short EPK style making-of and a great commentary track from Fiennes who talks as one might expect at great and delicious length about Shakespearian acting. (Andrew Parker)
End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012) – If you want to know the David Ayer (Training Day, Harsh Times, other manly endeavors for bros) formula, then park your butt in front of End of Watch. You take a basic crime movie premise, twist it slightly in an intriguing way, populate it with talented actors, tease out some surprising dark drama, splash around the karo syrup in a few brutal set pieces, and then slowly let all that promise slip away as the film becomes increasingly conventional in a race to the most obvious ending. Perhaps Ayer just gets bored while writing and submits to conventions to finish his scripts quickly or maybe studio politics come into play. Regardless, his movies inevitably peter out towards the end and leave viewers stewing a puddle of excitement and disappointment. There’s always a chance that one day he’ll lock onto an idea and follow it all the way through, but this big screen episode of COPS ain’t that movie.
On the plus side, Ayer found a fantastic leading man combo in Gyllenhaal and Pena. The pair share good comedy chemistry and following extensive pre-production police training, move and sound like their roles. Gyllenhaal decently dials down his movie star image decently for tough guy theatrics, but the MVP is Pena who showed a knack for spitting out naturalistic dialogue and backdoor character comedy in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report and Eastbound and Down, and delivers fully on that promise here. Ayer also whips up a few solid set pieces for action/thriller fans, particularly a few hard-R house raids that veer into found footage horror territory. Whenever the movie abandons the narrative to simply follow Gyllenhaal and Pena doing their job and causing trouble, the movie offers gritty entertainment with a darkly comedic edge as promised. Trouble is there are too many things going wrong for the film to even live up to it’s modest goals.
The most obvious failure is the found footage conceit that Ayer gets bored with immediately and starts cutting to so many impossible camera angles. The whole thing should have been dropped since general audiences can handle handlheld realism without a character holding the camera now, so there’s no need for all this muckin’ about. Now, that’s just an irritating directing choice. The film’s real deadly problems are in the script. Gyllenhaal and Pena have love interests so generic that might as well not have names (wasting Anna Kendrick like this is an unforgivable sin). Even worse are the few stereotypical Latino gangstas who get screentime and apparently videotape all of their illegal adventures. They are so underdeveloped that a wiser choice would have been to go for the unknowable, almost supernatural thug route from John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. And then the icing on the crap cake is Ayer’s disappointing copout ending. The filmmaker takes the story to a compelling natural end point that would have been a real shocker for a mainstream movie and then just when it appears that Ayer actually took a risk, a coda is tacked on that spoils everything. It’s not a terrible movie despite all these problems, but much like all of Ayer’s previous work, you can’t help but feel like the filmmaker got off to a good start and then threw it all away.
End of Watch was a high profile enough production that it slides on to Blu-ray in a nice, glossy package. The transfer is strong, so despite all the camera shakery, details and colors pop just enough to justify the silly sum you dropped on an HDTV. Special features come in the form of a motor-mouth detailed audio commentary from Ayer that explains his intent for the film well, a handful of the usual promo making-of featurettes, and almost a full hour of deleted scenes. While the movie definitely should not have been over two hours long, many of these scenes flesh out characters in a way that would have made the film far more satisfying and there is an alternate ending that would have certainly improved the movie if Ayer had stuck to his convictions. It’s a pretty intriguing collection of snippets that prove the filmmaker once addressed all of the problems with his movie, but whittled down those small, yet important beats through editorial compromise. That’s the thing with the writer/director, he’s ultimately a mainstream filmmaker and the fact that he sneaks any darkly compelling material into a studio product at all ranks him above the usual pack of Hollywood hacks. It’s just a bummer that he’s never been able to abandon his populist instincts for an entire film. Clearly that almost happened with End of Watch and hopefully he’ll fully follow through on one of his crime movies somewhere down the road. You can’t really outright hate David Ayer, he’s merely an underachiever. (Phil Brown)
Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) – It’s not going to raise the bar for animated story telling all that much, and it probably won’t do too much to repair Adam Sandler’s tarnished reputation with adult audiences, but the fleet footed and funny Hotel Transylvania manages to be the best thing to have the comic actor’s name attached to it in quite some time. A classical sort of children’s story told with snappy one liners and sight gags in place of subversive wit aimed squarely at adults, Powerpuff Girls creator Genndy Tartakovsky delivers a solid effort that should please audiences of all ages for just a little bit over 90 minutes.
After building a remote castle to protect his daughter and provide refuge for monsters wanting to hide from humans, Count Dracula (Sandler) wrestles with his now teenaged (at 118 years old) charge’s desire to see the outside world. During her birthday party, however, an unwanted, dimwitted, Dave Matthews loving American human backpacker (Andy Samberg) turns up and nearly ruins everything for the vacationing monsters and Dracula while striking up a relationship with the birthday girl (Selena Gomez). After his restless daughter takes a shine to the new stranger, Drac has to hide his unwanted houseguest from the other monster patrons who just might not understand.
The story itself never really challenges the viewer to think very much. A father’s pride and joy wants to leave the nest and strike out in the world on her own, but a tragedy in daddy’s past makes it hard for him to let go. It sounds like it has all the earmarks of a potential vehicle for Sandler today, but it’s nice to see the perpetually funny voiced comedian playing the straight man to Samberg’s off the wall buffoon.
The film also harkens back somewhat to a time when Sandler’s cohorts actually got a chance to show off their comedic talents rather than being wasted in random cameos. Kevin James gets a few choice moments as a Frankenstein that’s been tricked into thinking the human is really his cousin, and Steve Buscemi – again in classic Sandler form – runs off with the whole movie as an overworked werewolf that’s a father to a litter of bratty tykes. The script (co-written again by frequent collaborator Robert Smigel) plays to Sandler’s strengths and never once throws any huge curveballs outside of the family entertainment playbook. What it does have are some genuinely funny exchanges that very rarely sink to merely reciting glib pop culture references or cutsey genre conventions.
Assisting, but not really given much of a chance to shine over the voice cast, is the gorgeous animation that ranks as the most detailed of cult favourite Tartakovsky’s career. 360 degree shots of the hotel and sweeping looks at the landscape of the woods surrounding it are dazzling, and while the movie still remains thematically solid, it’s hard not to wish that more time was spent admiring the craft that went into the visuals. It gives everything a sense of scope and splendour that elevates the material for those willing to pay attention to it.
The outcome of Hotel Transylvania isn’t in doubt for a single second and the plotting is strictly aimed at the grade schoolers that will undoubtedly eat the film up, but there’s something almost refreshing about a film that’s simply trying to entertain the kids without winking and nodding to the adults the entire time. It’s like a grandfather telling a story at Halloween trying to make the kids laugh by putting on a vinyl copy of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.” It’s a confection whose memory will last about as long as a fun sized Snickers in front of an 8 year old, but it still does the trick.
The picture and sound quality are top notch on the Blu-ray as with most Sony releases and adults and animation nerds will positively get a kick out of Tartakovsky’s extremely nerdy and insightful commentary track that talks about the balance between creating a great story and family movie conventions. There’s also an all new animated short, cast interviews, , a music video, and two all to brief behind the scenes looks at the design of the film. (Andrew Parker)
Game Change (Jay Roach, 2012) – Based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change offers up a searing behind the scenes look at John McCain’s (Ed Harris) 2008 presidential campaign. From the bold decision to select Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as his running mate all the way to the ticket’s ultimate defeat only 60 days later, the curtain gets pulled back as the drama of a national election comes to the forefront.
It’s hard to take out any political feelings when dealing about movie that is all about the inner workings of a political campaign, but the real results of Game Change are a genuine pot-boiler style drama that molds recent current events into an intense melodrama. Director Jay Roach (who is best known from the Austin Powers series of films) has carved out a niche for himself with this, 2008’s Recount, and last year’s Will Ferrell comedy The Campaign for crafting some deeply fascinating political dramas and comedies. Through the use of actual news footage from the time, Roach puts us right into whirlwind of the 24 hour news cycle where nothing else matters and the drama is at a fear pitch on a variety of different topics every single day, almost every single hour. Everything that happens in the film feels sharp and immediate thanks to some excellent stage craft from all involved, and the threat of the cameras always being on these candidates comes through in this film. It was simply electrifying to watch. There isn’t a frame in the film that feels like it’s approaching a spoof or a satire. The story crackles with a rare glow thanks in part to some incredibly nuanced and Golden Globe winning performances.
Never for a single second did Julianne Moore let her performance as Governor Palin descend into anything remotely cartoonish. She makes this woman bold, ambitious and completely unprepared for the meat grinder that is running for political office. The modern landscape and the factors of celebrity are all at the forefront in this particular election and image was more important than ever, and Moore is great at conveying that. As John McCain, Ed Harris is solid as the well meaning candidate who knows that he wouldn’t get a chance at the most powerful office in the land unless he takes a risk. Woody Harrelson as political advisor Steve Schmidt truly brings the emotional agony of a political campaign to light as he wears the highs of every victory and the crushing defeats on his face like a badge of honour. The likes of Sarah Paulson, Peter MacNicol, Jamey Sheridan and Ron Livingston round out a very solid supporting cast, but Moore shines so bright in this film that it’s no surprise she took home the Golden Globe.
The picture and sound quality are as wonderful as expected on the Blu-Ray and the Special Features include two mildly disappointing behind the scenes featurettes as political experts discuss what makes up a modern day political candidate and the filmmakers and authors of the book look at the amazing human drama that goes into any political campaign.
If Game Change is fact or fiction, isn’t a question for me to answer or even debate, but with some amazing award winning performances and a feeling akin to the 24 hour news cycle in a political campaign, it is high drama that you just can’t look away from. (Dave Voigt)
The Awakening (Nick Murphy, 2011) – Dusty manors, chilling specters, subtle scares, and British accents. These are the ingredients of a great haunting movie and last year we were promised a proper return to this type of fare with the Hammer Horror produced, Daniel Radcliffe starring The Woman in Black. If you saw it, you’ll know it was a minor disappointment and, sadly, the low box office tallies also killed off any potential release for Nick Murphy’s stellar haunted house debut The Awakening. Which is a shame since the film was populated by realism-focused British thespians. The BBC veteran Murphy also proved to be a master of dread and atmosphere, pulling together a truly terrifying genre flick with nary a whiff of blood. For all those who bemoan the current state of horror movies that favors bloodbaths or more psychological thrills, The Awakening is a true hidden pleasure. You should have been able to catch this at the theater last year, but sadly that was not to be. Thankfully Blu-ray exists, so this sucker is ripe for discovery and it’s time for the cult to begin.
The always excellent and radiant Rebecca Hall stars as a supernatural skeptic in the 1920s who specializes in debunking psychics and faux hauntings. She’s respected and successful in her field, so much so that she’s the first name on the list when a country boarding school starts seeing the ghost of a small boy wondering the halls. Dominic West is dispatched to hire Hall, who arrives at the school convinced that all the creepy photos and stories she’s been told can be dismissed as mere children’s fantasy. She starts setting up traps and tests to debunk the haunting, but despite her best efforts her old tricks just won’t work. There seems to be a genuine haunting occurring at this creepy school and even more worrisome, it appears to be personally targeted at the lovely proto-ghostbuster.
Murphy masterfully conceals his secrets and expertly builds tension until the final frames of his assured directorial debut. There are plenty of jump scares to go around, but what truly stings is the chilling atmosphere and disturbing layers of the screenplay. That script came from horror veteran Stephen Volk, who previously wrote the brilliant BBC Halloween prank Ghostwatch, Ken Russell’s Gothic, and William Friedkin’s The Guardian. Volk originally intended the film to be an unofficial sequel to Jack Clayton’s brilliant 1961 ghost story The Innocents and while it would delve to deep into spoiler territory to discuss how the script changed, the style, tone, and scares of that original film give a good indication of what to expect here. It says a lot of the talent involved that the movie can live up to those lofty comparisons as well.
Aside from the major talents behind the camera, the key to the film’s success came in the casting. By working with established and talented British actors, Murphy ensured the potentially silly supernatural shinanegins would play deadly seriously to the audience. Hall is of course at the center and a wise choice since the talented actress could ground anything (she actually picked up a well-deserved Best Actress nomination at the British Independent Film Awards for her troubles). Then around the edges Murphy snuck in brilliant character actors like The Wire’s Dominic West and Mike Leigh favorite Imelda Staunton. It sounds all too simple to ensure strong horror movie results by finding a strong script and casting wonderful actors, but sadly that happens rarely these days, making The Awakening the special grown up genre treat that it is.
The film arrives on Blu-ray in a package that doesn’t give away its troubled theatrical release. The transfer is absolutely gorgeous. This wasn’t some slap dash genre outing, but a handsomely mounted British production and that shows in the detailed period design and elegant cinematography that was made for the HD treatment. Aside from that you’ll get a hefty stack of special features to wade through. First up is an amusing thirty minute documentary on the historical and genre influences behind the picture, followed by a 40-minute documentary about the production, a exhaustive (in a good way) 20-minute interview with Murphy, an amusing 17 minute examination of the cast and crew’s belief in ghosts (or not), a fifteen minute examination of a key scare scene, and a healthy assortment of deleted scenes. Whew! That’s more features than most Hollywood releases get these days and we have the British production team and British public (who made it a local hit) to thank for that. The Awakening is a film richly deserving of this elite homevideo treatment as well and should be thrust to the top of the “must see” list of any genuine horror fan. Some say they don’t make em’ like this anymore, but they do. It’s just a shame no one in North America got much of a chance to see one play on the big screen again. (Phil Brown)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 (Jay Oliva, 2013) – Picking up not too long after last year’s shockingly excellent direct to DVD porting of Frank Miller’s famed 1986 run with the character, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 starts off a little slow, before kicking into high gear and delivering a pretty darned exciting and worthy follow up.
After a successful return from the sidelines, the aged Batman (voiced by Peter Weller) finds himself face to face with a largely rejuvenated, equally older, and recently released Joker (an excellent Michael Emerson, in what might be one of the best performances in a role already known for lending itself to great work) who looks to pull off his most ambitious scheme to control the minds of Gotham City residents. Adding to his troubles are a new police commissioner (Maria Canals Barrera) who wants to bring the Bat in and a disapproving president on the verge of unleashing a nuclear holocaust (Jim Meskimen) who brings in Superman (Mark Valley) to stop the bat-menace.
Much in the same way that great stories about aging heroes shouldn’t feel like victory laps, Oliva and producer Bruce Timm continue to ditch the more hard boiled and dated facets of Miller’s original story in favour of a quieter form of character study, and the film is all the better for it. While Batman has to go through the usual motions that he normally faces, the stakes feel considerably raised here, with Bruce Wayne feeling sympathetic in many ways rather than a gruff nihilist in search of justice like in Miller’s world. Weller’s moments training his new female Robin (Ariel Winter) hold a lot of emotional resonance, and there’s a lot more going on than one might expect from such fare. It also still manages a lot of Regan era nuclear terror that surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place in this more streamlined adaptation. Miller’s general story remains intact for purists, and there’s plenty of excellent action to keep viewers thrilled as it goes on.
The picture quality on the Blu-Ray brings out the colours of the film nicely, but it’s still obvious this was a direct to video production. The sound mix feels oddly wonkier than the last outing, with multi-channel 5.1 effects not really seeming to come out of the right places. It doesn’t dampen the enjoyment, though. The special features are as packed as one would expect from these kinds of Warner releases. There’s a production diary that delves into the facets of the production, a couple of featurettes about the Batman/Superman beef and The Joker. There’s a trio of episode from older Batman animated series including the stellar “The Last Laugh” from Batman: The Animated Series. There’s also a ten minute look at the upcoming Superman: Unbound that should get fans salivating and a really redundant sizzle reel for the first part of this two parter. (Andrew Parker)
Life’s Too Short (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 2012) – Every time he lets another piercing laugh rip on television, you’ve got to wonder how much time Ricky Gervais has left in the spotlight. Don’t get me wrong, the man is hilarious and his version of The Office is one of the great British comedy masterpieces. However, mainstream success doesn’t exactly suit Gervais well. He’s always been an off center personality with a vicious wit and empathy for tragedy that’s about as far from bubble gum pop comedy as it gets. Case in point would be Life’s Too Short, which premiered on HBO last year to a swell of controversy that was completely ridiculous. Yes, the main character of the show is a dwarf, no it’s not a show dedicated exclusively two wealthy and successful comics laughing at someone with a disability. They don’t ignore star/co-creator Warwick Davis’ condition or dwindling career, but that’s not the sole purpose of the show. Life’s Too Short is another one of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s ongoing string of loser comedies that like their primary influence Billy Wilder’s The Apartment finds equal amounts of pathos and humor in the life of a sad little man who invites as much misfortune as he stumbles into.
The easiest way to describe Life’s Too Short is to imagine a series in which David Brent is a dwarf and more specifically Warwick Davis (he of Willow and Ewok fame). The mockumentary takes the form of one of those sad, exploitative celebrity reality shows that dominate television. You know, shows like The Surreal Life in which former stars trade in their dignity for a fistful of cash, a camera crew, and a brief return to television prominence. Davis plays himself being followed by a camera crew during a particularly humiliating period in his life. He’s broke, going through a divorce, underemployed, lonely, and lost. He’s also an irrational optimist constantly convinced that he’s just around the corner from a comeback even though he’s actually only a few misplaced words a way from making his situation worse at any moment (like I said, David Brent springs to mind throughout). He’s also friends with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant following his appearance on Extras, so he constantly shows up at their office begging for work only to inevitably be tossed into a Extras-style horrible situation with a grotesque version of a celebrity including the likes of Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Sting, and Helena Bonham Carter. So, it’s a mish-mash of Gervais/Merchant’s previous iconic TV comedy hits than leans more towards the broader showbiz comedy of Extras than the harsh realism of The Office.
The most important thing to mention about the show is that it’s really, really fucking funny. Gervais/Merchant might be replaying their old tricks, but no one does it quite like them and in Warwick Davis they’ve found one hell of a new collaborator. He’s got an easy naturalism and fearless lack of ego in his performance that’s crucial to playing in Gervais’ playground. Whether talking himself into embarrassment or trotting out some pretty excellent slapstick, Davis commands the show and hopefully he’ll get more chances to work his comedy chops in the future. The celebrity cameos play out exactly like Extras, but let’s face it, no one writes better horrible versions of celebrities than these guys. Liam Neeson’s stabs at AIDs-based improv became a viral video for a reason and Johnny Depp and String’s appearances are just as good. As per usual, the co-writers/directors also discovered a few new hilarious actors to round out the central cast like Rosamund Hanson who is cripplingly funny as Davis’ braindead assistant and Steve Brody who provides the worst accountant in the history of television. Throw it all together and you’ve got another hysterical series from the Gervais/Merchant comedy factory with hints of genuine pathos that treat the characters like actual people rather than sketch figures (well, except for the celebrities of course). Life’s Too Short is not as emotionally resonant as The Office, but pulls off the stabs at emotion far better than Extras. It’s ultimately entertainment, just entertainment unafraid to move and engage with the audience in between all of the zany shenanigans.
Life’s Too Short debuts on DVD in a satisfying package. It won’t be getting a Blu-ray release in North America, but that’s not really necessary for the deliberately low-fi show. Getting to see every pore in Warwick’s face as he stares into the camera after his latest social tragedy won’t exactly make it funnier. In terms of special features, you get a fantastic making-of doc hosted by Gervais, Merchant, and Davis that talks to all the key players, as well as some additional online behind the scenes featurettes that expand on a few aspects of the doc (the usual Gervais ribbing and giggling applies). Best of all are the hilarious deleted scenes (especially Liam Neeson’s stand up routine) that could have easily been left in and the outtakes which thanks to Gervais’ infectiously explosive laughter is about as funny as those reels get (once again, Neeson steals the show here). Overall, it’s a strong DVD package for a successful show that if anything deserves more attention than it got. Life’s Too Short was more of a cult success than either of Gervais/Merchant’s previous TV efforts, but that’s probably how most of their work is likely to be received in the future. The Office was simply too good for anyone to deny, but these masters of humiliation are cult comedy figures who should be able to ride out the success of their landmark debut and make weirdo work for their fans for as long as someone undergoing painful embarrassment on camera continues to be funny. So, if the sad yet hilarious state of my life is any indication, these guys should be set for life. (Phil Brown)
Legend of a Warrior (Corey Lee, 2012) – Documentarian Corey Lee claims he really knew much about his father, world renowned White Crane Kung Fu master and trainer Frank Lee, but this decent Canadian documentary almost proves that he knew more than he originally thought.
While Frank left his family for great periods of time when Corey was a child, Corey spends over five months away from his own family to train at his father’s intensely difficult gym with hopes of trying to become closer to his old man.
Most of the questions Corey asks his father about his past he already knows the answers to, which takes away from a lot of the drama, but Frank is certainly an interesting figure and watching them establish a stronger emotional bond wisely becomes the bulk of the film’s second half. It could be framed a little better, but it’s still a nice father and son story featuring some pretty great cinematography and stylish black and white animated interstitials.
It’s a pretty standard story arriving on a bare bones DVD from the NFB, but there’s not much about this father-son bonding experience that needs to be overly explained or analyzed. It should appeal very nicely to sports nuts and documentary buffs in equal measure. (Andrew Parker)
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