Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Young Genghis Khan, Steroids, And A Cagey New DVD Release

MONGOL (Dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007)


Appropriate alternate titles for this film could be THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG GENGHIS KHAN, THE REAL WRATH OF KHAN, or perhaps most aptly GENGHIS KHAN BEGINS.


At first I was just happy that this wasn’t like 300 - a videogame aestetic with not one foot in reality but despite some CGI (mostly in the spraying of blood) this epic thankfully has an old school naturalism to it. Unfortunately it is a trial to sit through with long sequences that go nowhere and characters that fail to stir any emotional connection. 


We first meet Khan, born as Temudgin, as a young boy played by Odnyam Odsuren. When his father is murdered he becomes hunted because he may grow up to avenge the death GODFATHER: PART II-style. He survives capture and torture and skirts across the endless mountain terrain inspired by thoughts of his young bride Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat). 


The pace picks up a bit when he emerges as an adult in the form of Tadanobu Asano whose grace and stern focus provide the film with much needed power. He returns to the arms of Börte now portrayed by Khulan Chuluun but their reunion is short-lived as she is kidnapped by a rival clan and Temudgin goes against the advice of his best friend Jamukha (Honglei Sun) who stresses “What Mongol ever went to war for a woman?”



Several battle scenes full of slow motion slicing and the before mentioned digital blood are the most entertaining parts of MONGOL but they do not save the movie from the long uninvolving stretches that toyed with my patience. 


The photography of the infinite landscapes of Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan is breath-taking much of the time but the lack of narrative drive and the detached handling of the myths of these historical figures as well as the lackluster love story left me cold. 


At just a little over 2 hours (but feels much longer) MONGOL moves like a bloated beast trying to find a place to sleep but still lashing half heartedly out at swirling flies. 


The word is that this is the first part of a trilogy - a Mongolian LORD OF THE RINGS if you will, with director Bodrov promising the rest of the tale of the legendary conquerer for your Oscar consideration (MONGOL was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award). 


Well if the future installments lumber like this one in such uninspired stupor over the tortuous and tedious terrain, count me out.


BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (Dir. Chris Bell, 2008)

Fancy this - a documentary about an obvious hot-button topic i.e. anabolic steroids and their impact on our national society which contains actual insights personal, political, and pop culture-wise. 


Take that, SUPER SIZE ME! Director Bell and his 2 body building brothers (Mike “Mad Dog” and Mark “Smelly”) have all used steroids and relate tales of near stardom in the shadows of their heroes - Arnold Swartzeneger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan et al. 


Taking its name from an oft repeated line from The Six Million Dollar Man, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER is chock full of clips of their role models in their pumped up prime - RAMBO, ROCKY, THE TERMINATOR, as well as satirical swipes at the world of performance enhancing drugs from the likes of The Simpsons and SNL


Filling out the solidly structured footage is interviews with experts pro and con on the steroid issue but the real crux is the Bell brothers’ back stories. Chris Bell cops to doing steroids (in an especially emotional dinner table scene with his parents) when he was younger and stopping because of feelings of guilt but his brothers are still users. 


Their confessions under the scrutiny of their brother once one of them but now a questioning documentarian are compelling and surprisingly sincere sounding: “I love steroids and will probably be on and off them forever” Mark admits matter of factly.


Bell keeps coming back to Swartzeneger who he calls “the poster boy for steroids” and reasons that the Govenator, as he's often called, wouldn't be where he is now if not for the controversial compound. 


The director even tries to get an interview with Ah-nold a la Michael Moore’s attempted Roger Smith ambush but he doesn't bog the film down with the pursuit - it's just an amusing sideline. Examining not only the public personas wrapped up in the use or abuse debate but statistical data and health risk misinformation (depending on who you listen to) Chris Bell has made a superlative documentary that deftly balances its viewpoints and never loses its thesis thread. 

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER earns its tagline: “The Side Effects Of Being American” and should be seen by everybody with even just a passing interest in its subject. It’s one of the most honest and absorbing portraits I’ve ever seen of a complicated problem with equal parts humor and pathos. With hope it won’t be forgotten when the awards season comes around again.


Newly released on DVD:

NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (Dir. Jon Turteltaub, 2007)

The first NATIONAL TREASURE was a direct lift of “The Da Vinci Code” (the book mind you - it beat the film adaptation by 9 months) imposing an American action formula on the bestsellers puzzles and distortion of history. 


It was as stupid as it sounds with Nicholas Cage’s wise-cracking protagonist leading his small crew (including the supposed to be funny but isn’t Justin Bartha as his partner and Diane Kruger as the love interest) through contrived unexciting movie mechanisms but it made a ginormous amount of money; enough money to warrant a sequel apparently so here we are again with more of the lame same. 


I was planning on skipping this until I saw a trailer that promised the premise of a book known only to the President of The United States that contains the secrets to the nation’s greatest mysteries - the J.F.K. assassination, Area 51, and the alleged faking of the Apollo Moon landing. 


I’m a lover of conspiracy theory cinema and am writing a book on the subject so I felt obligated. I still shouldn’t have bothered - these famous theories or urban legends, as some would call them, are just mentioned and never used in any interesting or even amusing way. As I should’ve known the book of secrets is just a McGuffin * in another round of running from one wickedly easy to open crypt to another cipher or another implausibly placed code.


* For you non-film geeks - a McGuffin is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise (Wikipedia).


Anyone who doubts the quality of the latest INDIANA JONES movie should see NATIONAL TREASURE 2 because its lack of genuine wit and graceless tone makes that ole Spielberg/Lucas/Ford re-union special look like TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE! The addition of Helen Mirren as Cage’s mother and Voight’s bickering ex-wife brings nothing new to this lame wannabe franchise though it is kind of cool to see her in plain duds with scraggly hair and no grand make-up for once. 


Then again with Mirren and other such solid respected actors as Harvey Keitel (reprising his role from the first NT as a sympathetic cop in pursuit) and Ed Harris (as the villain - uh, I guess) running around it feels like this overly slick enterprise exists to glorify cinematic slumming it.


Nicholas Cage has drifted so far from doing compelling vital work with such dreck as this and GHOST RIDER, NEXT, THE WICKER MAN et al that it is getting harder to remember how interesting and talented the guy once seemed.


 Since these movies make money his return to worthwhile cinema looks like it may be delayed indefinitely. I loved his performances in ADAPTATION, RAISING ARIZONA, WILD AT HEART, and various other non-action roles in his canon so this long detour into sell-out formula crapola is pretty puzzling. 


Though to make sense of this movie mystery wouldn’t take a cryptic McGuffin with a code to decipher unless it leads us directly to Cage’s bank vault or just gives us his bank balance statement.

More later...

2 comments:

Michael J. Mendez said...

I actually sat thru National Treasure 2 just because it was playing in front of I Am Legend at the drive in. Truthishly, I would rather have been eaten alive by those zombies than have to watch National Treasure 3.

Graham said...

I wouldn't be too worried about those zombies - I don't think 100% CGI constructs that look like they should be in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are too much of a threat.

That being said: National Treasure 2 was pretty bad.