DVDs: This weekend, we had ourselves a little Stathamathon, six Jason Statham action flicks in a row, none of which I'd seen before. Of course, because of the DVD extras involved, I've only completely gone through two, so you'll have to wait for the reviews of the rest. Our journey starts with The Transporter, the movie that made Statham a viable action star, and for me at least, definitely justified the rest of the franchise. Frank Martin isn't a generic action hero, he's a precision driver that brings that precision to everything he does. He's controlled to the point of being anal, only gets into trouble when he breaks his own rules, and finds smart solutions to get out of it. François Berléand is sympathetic and funny (it's possible only I laughed out loud at the Proust joke though) as the French police inspector who gently hounds Frank, and I'm glad he returned in the sequels, even when he didn't have very much to do. Shu Qi isn't the typical damsel in distress, she's smart, manipulative and endearing. If there's a weakness in the cast, it's the villains, especially Matt Schulze. Dude, when you're playing a guy who deals in human trafficking, you really don't need to over-play how evil you are. The story is fairly simple, but doesn't feel predictable, and the action, both martial and vehicular is top grade, in good part thanks to Hong Kong director Corey Yuen, though the vehicle and acting stuff was mostly handled by A.D. Louis Leterrier who went on to direct the second one. It certainly helps that Statham is doing 90% of his own stunts, and the Riviera locations are great. The DVD, included in The Transporter Collection (only 1 and 2), includes an okay commentary track with Statham and a producer, a fun making of heavy on behind the scenes footage, a briefer and more Hollywoodish featurette, a storyboard-to-film comparison (blah), and uncut fighting scenes with optional commentary.
In Transporter 2, Frank moves to Miami where he's acting as chauffeur/bodyguard to the son of an important man, a kid who gets kidnapped as part of a ploy to assassinate a roomful of world leaders. It's definitely a lesser film, using as it does, American action movie clichés like sciency virus Kool-Aid in high-tech containers and an over-complicated plan. T2 is also a lot less grounded in reality than T1 was, with Frank's precision skills approaching superhero levels (the famous unhook the bomb from under the car by doing a 360 degree jump under a crane sequence shown in the trailers being a particularly good example), but I don't really mind it. I'm used to extreme action from all the Chinese films I watch, and the franchise does have Hong King cinema in its DNA. The movie does throw some pleasant twists on the first one (starting in a parking garage, for example, and confounding expectations on his current job), and while I wish the Inspector had a more interesting role, he does provide some comic relief and I like the friendship between then. We've still got over-the-top villains, but even the psycho killer in her lingerie isn't as egregious a character as Schulze's "Wall Street". A pleasant follow-up even if it doesn't outdo the original. No bonuses on the disc.
21 was a film I won in our annual Oscar Pool competition, and it does manage to make blackjack and card counting dynamic and exciting, though with apologies to the filmmakers, the narration, even if justified in story terms, gets boring very quickly. Based on true events - there really was a team of MIT students who hit Vegas with a mathematical system and won big - the film creates its own characters and relationships. They're definitely watchable, and there are a couple of interesting twists, though it all goes on a bit too long. The protagonist's reconciliation with his nerdy buddies gets a bit schmaltzy, though it ultimately pays off, and though the gambling is glamorous, there's a lot of it and it doesn't actually make math sound sexy in the MIT scenes. The DVD includes a fair if fawning commentary track, a quick tutorial on Basic Strategy (clearer than the film on the subject), a good-sized making of, and a further featurette on art design and costumes.
When the previews for cheap B-movies began playing, I started dreading what Three Days (of Hamlet) would be like, but my obsession with Hamlet carried me through. An interesting experiment in many ways, this documentary (although it might be more honest to call it a piece of reality TV) is the brainchild of (relatively) failed actor Alex Hyde-White (whose most prominent credit for readers of this blog is Reed Richards in the never-released Corman Fantastic Four movie). On one level, it's a conversation with his dead father, renowned actor Wilfrid Hyde-White (who was in tons of things from The Third Man to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), an attempt to resolve his own disappointment at not achieving the great things his father did. On another, he's giving himself a treat by putting on a production of Hamlet in which he'll play the starring role. With little means, he assembles a bunch of B-movie actors and a couple of recognizable names (Stephanie Powers and Richard Chamberlain) to work for three days on it. They rehearse in the afternoon, and play before a small audience at night (many with scripts in hand), one third of the play each night. It's chaos, of course, and Hyde-White claims to have done this to generate the paranoid tension of the play. The film cuts freely from Hyde-White's recollections, backstage conversations and strife, rehearsals and the performances themselves, and no doubt because he'd been thinking about this for a long time, the director/star brings something interesting to the role of Hamlet. He's got some unusual line readings and isn't a bad actor despite his tepid IMDB listing. The rest of the acting is variable, though it's interesting that the actors had to make choices on the run, with no time to over-think their parts. It's pretty certain the play wouldn't work as a cohesive whole, but we do see the whole narrative, and what was kept in editing is often quite good. I'm sure I'll write more on my Hamlet blog eventually, because it's certainly worthy of it. If something lets it down, it's the sound. Interviews sound like they were conducted inside a steel drum with the microphone across the street, and there are no subtitles to help you pick up on all the backstage banter. You don't lose any dialog, but the cheapness is evident. There are times when your tolerance for the director's self-indulgence and pretension might be tested as well, but I think it's a pretty honest piece, all things considered.
If you've been reading this week's reviews, you know what I think of Doctor Who's The Caves of Androzani (bloody brilliant), but what about the Special Edition DVD's features? Well those are a disappointment, frankly. For such an important story (high-profile writer and director, the death of a Doctor), they really didn't improve much on the original release. For example, despite the participants obviously available from the new making of, there isn't a new commentary track. The original, with Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and director Graeme Harper is okay, but might have needed a moderator to keep things going. The new making of IS good, and provides anecdotes and recollections we haven't really heard before, and there's an interesting featurette on Harper discussing the differences between directing Classic and New Who, since he's the only one who's done both. The new release also includes a vintage appearance by both Davison and Colin Baker on a talk show; they're playing up the Doctor jealousy, which is fun, but the fans in the audience are embarrassing. That's barely an hour's worth on a second disc. The rest of the features were on the original, including extended scenes with optional commentary, behind the scenes footage of the regeneration (also with commentary), commentary on Sharaz Jek by the actor who played him, and terrible news clips of the time where they call Davison "Davidson" and his being attacked for being too young in an interview. Also, a photo gallery, isolated music score and production notes subtitle option. So it all feels shy of one or two extras to make it worth trading up to the Special Edition if you already have the original DVD.
Books: To cleanse my palate of the big bricks that took my whole summer to read, I moved on to Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People, a faux children's book by Douglas Coupland, with art by Graham Roumieu. A quick read, but a rather disappointing one. The seven stories are dark and often violent, but Coupland is basically inserting pop culture references and new technologies into them like it's interesting. It's a trick that gives him novels some immediacy, but none of the stories are long enough to MEAN something beyond the way they spoof children's literature. The drawings are the stronger draw, and often the punchline will be visual instead of textual, but it really depends on how much you want to see a juicebox defecate in public, or children vomiting blood. Probably not very much. In any case, I've seen this idea done better before. I was a big fan of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children published under DC Comics' Piranha Press label. Are there collections of those stories available? It's something I'd recommend over this lackluster attempt at the idea.