Sunday, January 20, 2008

Some Shiny Disc Mini-Reviews

It's been a bad start to the new job, with the dreaded stomach flu laying waste to most of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and meaning next week is going to be 'catch up on work' week instead of 'sort out dentist and blood pressure issues' week instead. In the meantime, here's some thoughts on a whole bunch of new shiny discs, which I've been watching over the last few days. Some of these viewings were interrupted by projectile vomiting or attacks of 'the squirts' (I know - too much information!) so that should probably be taken into account. And if you're wondering why so much coverage of releases on the reviled region-locked Blu-Ray format - HD-DVD is now officially all-but-dead, following Warner Brothers' Judas-like betrayal at CES in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

I hadn't realised how much I miss The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's political masterwerk set in The White House, until this weekend. Officially released in a DVD boxed set tomorrow, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was writer Sorkin's first new TV series to hit the airwaves when The West Wing was axed, and itself got the chop at the end of its first season a few months ago, presumably because the average American viewer just isn't interested in intelligent, beautifully written drama. Not that we Brits are any better - at least if the endless fan 'blog post' ravings, license fee payer -funded ads and repeat commissions for infantile rubbish like Torchwood or Robin Hood are any indication!

There are several familiar faces from The West Wing appearing in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it's the writing rather than the acting that stands out and makes one feel one is watching a favourite old series again. In the UK we're very lucky to have Jimmy McGovern, whose excellent first season series of The Street is available on DVD at ridiculously low 'sale' prices of not much more than a fiver, with the second season due out in a few weeks. In some ways I guess you could regard Sorkin as the closest thing the Americans have got to their version of McGovern.

This time round Sorkin uses the ins and outs of a popular, weekly, Friday night comedy TV programme at one of the big broadcast corporations as the premise for his witty, politicial, humorous and amusing look at big business politics. I'm only four episodes in, but already totally hooked by strong characers, challenging storylines that intelligently debate the role of religion, sex and politics in broadcasting, and a cast able to deliver on the strengths of the premise. The only cloud on the horizon is that with four episodes down I have only eighteen more to go before it'll all be over.

Shoot 'Em Up

At the other end of the extreme I watched Shoot 'Em Up, which received a bit of a panning from British critics, despite it having a not-too-shameful score on imdb of 7.2 at the time of writing. On Blu-Ray disc, the release features some fairly generous extra's, including the picture-in-picture documentary feature that has been the exclusive domain of HD-DVD until Sony got their act together and released 'Profile 1.1' hardware (making all existing players, other than the PS/3 which updated itself via an Internet firmware upgrade, obsolete) earlier this month. On those extra's the writer/director of the film is at pains to point out that he was determined not to make a cartoon - which seems somewhat ridiculous since that's EXACTLY what he's produced, albeit one with real-life actors, notably Clive Owen, appearing in real-life sets. Having the central character continually chomping on a carrot makes things pretty clear from the get-go, as if the cartoon violence that explodes every few seconds on screen wasn't a subtle enough clue in the first place.

Shoote 'Em Up's script is laughably bad. The premise is that an angry hot shot 'shootist' witnesses some thugs attacking a young woman with a baby and gets stuck with the baby while the thugs chase him, determined to kill it. It's endless cartoon violence of the Wile E. Coyote variety with what little plot there is being completely ludicrous and as unbelievable as the 'oh! he's survived and got up again!' violence. At one point we are expected to believe that despite our following him from his first accidental encounter the 'hero' has somehow managed to manufacture off-screen an expensive animatronic version of the baby complete with tape recorder that's fooled us and the bad guys! Yup, you need to deposit your brain at the door before starting on this one. All that being said, it's a real romp of an action/cartoon-in-real-life movie and, thanks to its non-stop action and gimmicky cinematography, I enjoyed it a lot - not as much as Crank, which covered pretty much the same territory, but with more panache and wit - but a lot more than British critics had lead me to expect. Over on rotten tomatoes the US critics have given it a 66% 'fresh' rating, which seems about right to me. Definitely worth a rental if you like your films full of action and excitement, and possibly a purchase if you like lots of impressive, slo-mo explosions and flying stunts.


I was much less impressed with Kenny, which received rave reviews when commercially released a few months back. A spoof-documentary about an Australian 'toilet plumber' this has the usual quips about 'shit' that one might expect from someone dealing with effluent, but little to differentiate it from a real documentary that one can see any night of the week on TV. 'The best comedy of 2007' the cover proudly proclaims - I'd like some of whatever 'thelondonpaper' were on when they made that comment, please!

Admittedly the film is quite sweet-natured, following a 'salt of the earth' good-natured plumber guide around as he performs his job and shares his philosophy on life. But I just don't get the point of it all! I smiled a few times, as one does at 'real life' incidents, but if I want real life I can go out and experience it or watch a real documentary, not a 'spoof' one. Truth is I'd expected some jokes, and even the back-stories they try and work in (the central character has a son from a previous marriage, and is totally oblivious to the way an air stewardess keeps trying to throw herself at him) but there are no belly laughs here. One is left feeling one has just watched a 'written' reality show like 200 other reality shows one's already seen. Why would you want to pay £13 to see that when it's on TV every night?


I've mentioned Judd Apatow before - he seems to be 'flavour of the month', following the release of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, seemingly because journalism is so bad these days that journalists are happy to peddle Hollywood marketing hype as if it were fact. Both those films were good, if nowhere near as 'intelligent' or fantastic as most critics made them out to be. This week the latest in the formulaic line, Superbad, is released on both Blu-Ray and standard DVD. Apatow's shctick is 'in your face' gross-out vulgarity of the kind pioneered by American Pie, albeit with underlying truths about the human condition which apparently makes it alright to laugh at racist, misogynistic and homophobic dick, fanny and arse jokes. This time round Apatow is only executive producer, with the script written this time round by Seth Rogan, who has starred in Apatow's previous work. There's a lot that's familiar here, and I have to admit I laughed a lot more at this than I did at what 'thelondonpaper' called 'The best comedy of 2007', but still think the hype over the movie is over-rated. In many ways it's like a comedy version of Shoot 'Em Up - cartoon-like stupidity that's a bit like fast food: enjoyable at the time, but one can't help wondering afterwards what the long term effects of mass consumption of this sort of fare will be.


And finally, a plug for Flyboys out on Blu-Ray disc this month. Mercilessly slated by the critics, this tale of World War I pilots can be accused of plagiarism and playing it far too safe - indeed it's a film we've seen several times before - but it's beautifully made, and the aeriel sequences are stunning. I found it infinitely preferable to the execrable Memphis Belle, which it riffs heavily on. The cast, especially James Franco, best known as 'Harry Osborne' from the Spider-Man movies, give good performances from an average script, and the cinematography is stunning. If you want an old-fashioned 'epic' it's hard to think of anything that's been released recently that fits the bill as well as this. I enjoyed it far more than the reviews had indicated I would.

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