August 14, 2005

Four Brothers

Four Brothers is not the type of film I should have liked. I have problems relating to the urban/"street" culture to begin with, and I hate brainless shoot-em-ups. So the proposition of a brainless urban shoot-em-up didn't exactly fill me with anticipation. Yet slowly but surely the film grabbed my attention. By the time I'd made it through the early scenes of overly forced camaraderie and fell into the beat of the rather hit-or-miss banter, the film had me fully engaged for the duration.
This film isn't shy about its influences. There's a shot in the film's climax that serves as a staggering parallel of Omar Sharif's entrance in Lawrence of Arabia. A dozen other film critics have noted that it's inspired by the 1965 John Wayne western, The Sons of Katie Elder. I haven't seen that film, but a Google search for its plot summary revealed almost exactly the same plot. Its roots as a Western validate the use of such a larger-than-life introduction, and begin to justify a body count that surely wouldn't go un-investigated by the rules of the real world. In many ways, these boys are also on the only marginally civilized frontier.
Placing it within a Western genre framework also makes it far easier for me to get my bearings in such an alien environment. These four brothers are motivated by the same things that have motivated cowboys since Westerns started being put to film. Mark Wahlberg plays Bobby, a character that exists perpetually upon the uncivilized edge. Andre Benjamin (of Outcast fame) plays Jeremiah, the one who went straight and settled-down; the voice of caution and responsibility. Garrett Hedlund as Jack (the youngest) tags along, spewing exposition and generally being the likable target of everyone's jokes. All three serve their roles admirably, but being archetypal characters they are limited in their ability to truly expand into three dimensions.
The last brother is Angel, played by Tyrese. His introduction didn't lead me to expect much: at first glance, he is the very image of the urban black stereotype, right down to the Latino girlfriend that he ignores and oppresses in alternating doses. I expected him to fall into line with Bobby, but no — he has methods and motivations of his own. The way he investigates the troubling events swirling around the four of them, and the care he takes in accounting for and containing the others' colourful reactions to what he discovers is one of the film's small pleasures. It is a roles of some depth on a canvas otherwise painted with broad strokes.
Four Brothers is a schizophrenic experience, but that's a large part of how it surprises. The action set pieces are outrageous to the point of absurd, like an icy car chase through the street of Detroit during which Bobby exclaims every "gritty" urban catch phrase he can possibly invent. The family scenes can become so cloying that the mood shifts from touching to laughable. The villain of the piece enforces humiliation so cruel and inventive that the Joker would be put to shame. And yet at the centre of the film are four characters that I couldn't help but invest myself in, and whose outcome I couldn't stop myself from caring about. That, to me, is the mark of skilful storytelling. ()


Mystery Men on DVD

One of the scenes that now reminds me of the live-action "Tick"
Mystery Men sported some of the biggest up-and-comers of 1999. Of them, only Ben Stiller and Greg Kinnear have gained success — and only Stiller has achieved true stardom. Kel Mitchell, of Good Burger fame has since faded into oblivion. Hank Azaria is still looking for his big break, and the rest are floating some where around the C-list. Still, the energy and possibility of that time right before the bubble burst still carries through in this enterprise, which mixes the younger comedy club with veterans like William H. Macy (who hilariously spoofs his own nice guy persona) and Geoffrey Rush (whose Casanova Frankenstein anticipates Barbossa in 2003's surprise hit Pirates of the Caribbean).
The film tries to replicate Men in Black's success with an indie comic source to varying degrees of success. The low-tech nature of the underdog protagonists is countered by a city with architecture of such sheer excessive and over-the-top grandiosity that the Batman movies are put to shame. Looking back six years later, it's pretty much the live-action Tick series with an actual budget behind it. There are definitely some lazy patches in the middle, but it features a shocking plot twist that is more hilarious than perhaps any I've ever seen. That, matched with it's likable characters, is enough of a reason to seek it out.
The full team assembled and ready to roll.

The cityscapes in this film are astounding
An excellent transfer for its time, Mystery Men never-the-less shows its age a little bit. On the plus side, the anamorphic widescreen picture is generally clear with strong detail, vibrant colours, and very little edge enhancement. Blacks are actually black, and flesh tones are right on target. The downside comes from outmoded compression; shimmering, mosquito noise, and occasional pixelization rear their ugly head from time to time. Grain can also become intrusive on occasion.

An example of how vibrant and colorful this film can be at times.
The Dolby Digital track is surprisingly interesting, with more use of the surrounds than you'd expect from a comedy. Bass is also surprisingly strong. Both dialog and music are crystal clear.

Bonus Features Menu: More than you'd expect from a DVD of this era
This single-disc release puts many two-disc sets to shame. It is one of the most extensive releases I've seen that doesn't claim to be a special edition.
"Spotlight On Location" is your typical EPK-style fluff piece. The people involved are still so funny as to make it a bit more interesting that most of this ilk. One weird quirk is that Paul Reubens never goes out of character for his interviews.
The director's commentary with Kinka Usher is better than average. Usher is very comfortable with the format, never sounding rushed nor awkwardly pausing for long periods of time. At times, he suffers from just describing what's on screen. But from what I listened to, he did a good job of really covering all aspects from the technical to the story, to the actors, mixing in broader ideas with specific anecdotes. Really easy to listen to without being sleep inducing.
The "Deleted Scenes" start without preamble in non-anamorphic widescreen. Tom Waits's character gets an extended introduction; the Shoveller doesn't get any respect from his kids; the Blue Raja hides his identity; Mr. Furious pays the Shoveller a visit at work; Mr. Furious and the Shovellor pay the Blue Raja a visit at work; Mr Furious, the Shoveller, and the Blue Raja discuss recruitment; the search for the Sphinx brings about a cameo by Luis Guzmán; more post-battle interaction at the bar; bird calls before attack; the Blue Raja versus the suit-wearing henchmen; more hesitation at the climax.
"Universal Soundtrack Presentation" features a music video with a cheesy rap song by Kel Mitchell. That's it; pretty much a waste of disc space.
"Music Highlights" is far more useful. Presenting the user with a chapter menu, each option takes you to a clip of the movie in which that song is featured. The only thing that would have been cooler is if they'd made the audio for the clips music-only. In some clips you can barely hear the song over the dialog and sound effects.
"The Origin of the 'Mystery Men' comic book characters" is an in-depth, text-only retelling of how the characters came about first in the comic and then how they evolved to reach the big screen. A bit dry, but very informative.
"Production Notes" operates via the same text-only method as the previous feature, this time containing in-depth information specifically about the movie. Pretty dry stuff, overall, that's mostly covered in the other features.
"Cast & Filmmakers" offers profiles about the principal characters in front of and behind the camera.
"Theatrical Trailer" is just that, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
"Universal Showcase" features the theatrical trailers of Man on the Moon and Snow Falling on Cedars, both in non-anamorphic widescreen.
"Recommendations" features a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for American Pie and fullscreen trailers for Army of Darkness and Darkman.
DVD-Rom features consist of web links to the various Universal departments and Panasonic; a Mystery Men jigsaw puzzle; some HTML text-only content, Mystery Men internet postcards; production sketches; and real media versions of the soundtrack.

Mystery Men has become a key timemarker of that optimistic moment right at the peak of the internet bubble. The possibilities were seemingly limitless. It was in some ways a happier era, and in many ways a shallower one. For better or worse, the film captures both qualities. It doesn't hold up with the best of what's coming out today (neither in terms of comedies nor in terms of DVDs) but it's an above average effort on both counts for the time. A quirky little film in a rather thorough quirky little package.a movie that shouldn't have been good, but is. Recommended for its fans.

August 10, 2005

Children of the Damned

Children of the Damned is a classic Cold War parable, as campy as can be in the handling of the horror elements but something rather deeper in idea. It is the rare horror film that sympathizes with its monsters and understands that only the world in which they exist makes them monsters at all.
The beginning of the film — and the title — appear to make it clear that Paul and his international compatriots are the offspring of Satan; some evil and unnatural creation who are wont to stir evil throughout the world. The two investigators — a psychologist and a geneticist — take a neutral view at first, but the movie seemingly has them marked.
The final shot of the film is of a screwdriver lying amongst the rubble of the final confrontation. Like many lesser films of the era, it's condemnation of Cold War policies and fears becomes slowly overbearing. Still, moments of brilliance seep in.
The first time I began to shift my allegiance towards the six prodigies was when the little Asian prodigy admitted her fears to the aunt. Even as they control the events around them with despicable certainly, the unemotional little child admitting the group's fears to Paul's aunt was more affecting than it had any right to be.
As the psychologist slowly penetrates what's going on inside the hearts and minds of these seemingly soulless creatures, the human governments and the fearful geneticist become more and more radicalized against them. By the end of the film I compared the transgressions of the prodigies and the transgressions of the humans, the humans did not come across favourably.
We've seen this story before, and in better wrapping, but never was it approached so warily. If the filmmakers saw things from the prodigies' point of view, we would sympathize with them from the beginning. If the filmmakers saw things from the humans' point of view, their actions would be unforgivable, their motivations utterly beyond understanding. Either way, falling into the trap of trying to create characters much smarter than either the filmmakers or the audience and winding up with a stilted conceit is unavoidable. Still, the conflict is engagingly drawn. It is rare that such a film takes the time to make me to see things from both sides; only by arguing with itself a bit can a "message" film be anything approaching relevant. ()