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Friday, Oct 24, 2008

By now, we understand the corruption festering under the thin blue line. Call it The Departed Syndrome, or the Badge-Carrying Whistleblower’s Waltz but movies portraying policeman as psychopathic frauds involved in syndicate level racketeering while the only ‘pure’ member of the squad tries to undermine their “mob” mentality have become the new serve and protect cliché. It’s what drove part of last year’s underdone We Own the Night, fueled the flawed but frenetic Street Kings, and made previous projects like LA Confidential and the classic Serpico sizzle with undeniable urban dread. Pride and Glory continues the “been there/done that” dynamic. While a thread of authenticity flows through Gavin O’Connor’s almost too hip to be square suspense thriller, the formula consistently fouls things up.


After an incident in which he covered up a case of police corruption, Ray Tierney is reluctant to get back into the day-to-day business of being a cop. But when several of his brother Francis’s men are killed in a drug deal gone bad, he joins the just formed task force investigating the deaths. This makes his bureaucrat father happy and his brother-in-law Jimmy uneasy. Seems the volatile lawman who married into the Tierney family has been running scams between criminals, offering up “professional” protection and murder for hire scams for the right price. As Ray starts to put the pieces together over why street scum like Angel Tazo escaped the melee, and what his fellow policemen have to do with the dope fiend, Jimmy comes unglued. He won’t let anything, not even connection to the clan, get in the way of his crooked cash cow. And Ray is the prime target to be taken out.


Overlong, overwrought, and overbearing at times, Pride and Glory is all ‘boys in blue’ bluster masquerading as an amped up A-list thriller. It wastes some typical Edward Norton excellence, recasts Colin Farrell as Jason Voorhees with a slightly less frightening façade, and filters everything through that Copland/Prince of the City code of close-knit clan justice clichés. We aren’t supposed to blink when we see policemen “stealing” from minority convenience store owners, or wonder why blatant acts of law enforcement illegality go unchecked. This is the Cosa Nostra as uniformed hoodlums, an often sloppy narrative that equates this kind of “made” man status with “mindlessly evil”. When Farrell threatens a snitch, a steaming hot iron positioned precariously above a baby’s head, we are supposed to gasp with horror AND hiss the villainy.


Except, Pride and Glory misses anything remotely heroic or insightful. It’s one of the most ambiguous movies ever made. When Norton’s Ray Tierney is introduced, we are given a close-up of a particularly nasty facial scar. Turns out, he took a bullet in the cheek during an infamous case. What were the specifics of that now haunting showdown? We never find out. Similarly, Ray is still in love with his soon to be ex-wife, a woman who seems to share his dimly lit torch. They even share a tender pre-Christmas heart to heart. Yet we never really understand why the two are apart, or her actual purpose in the narrative. Pride and Glory does this a lot. Francis (Noah Emmerich, giving his character’s vagueness all he can) has a spouse who is dying of cancer. Yet her only purpose in the overstuffed storyline is to play saintly and remind her hubby of what a good moral man he is.


And it continues. Jon Voight (as the taxed Tierney overlord) apparently has a drinking problem. It’s never discussed in depth. Jimmy’s wife is Ray and Francis’s sister, yet we don’t get that clear familial lineage until much later in the movie. It’s as if O’Connor (noted for his work on Miracle and Tumbleweeds) thought that a kitchen sink subplot approach was the right way to take this material. And since Narc/Smokin’ Aces’ Joe Carnahan is along to add his typical street sass law lingo bravado, we wind up with something that fails to stay focused. One minute Norton is crying with his woman on her doorstep, the next a pair of prickly policemen are pointing guns at innocent people’s heads. It’s not that this material couldn’t work, but O’Connor is definitely not the director to drive it.


Indeed, instead of setting a tone and atmosphere for his narrative, the filmmaker bounces around Manhattan like it’s just another big city backdrop. He utilizes gimmicky techniques such as shaky-cam “you are there” tracking shots to ‘electrify’ the action. All it does is make us queasy and confused. On the positive side, he does work well with actors, getting excellent work out of Norton, Emmerich and John Ortiz (as the troubled bad cop “Sandy” Santiago). Unfortunately, he doesn’t reel in Farrell, who flails here like he’s never thrashed before. His Jimmy is a jest covered in Irish beat bluster. Putting on the awkward American version of his Dublin roots, he’s internally blank while being outwardly unhinged. We keep waiting for the moment his character cracks out the hockey mask and begins splattering teens. Instead, Farrell simply glowers.


Still, for all its misguided motives, biographical blanks, and last act idiocy (a barroom brawl? A Do the Right Thing inspired riot?) there is a natural curiosity that keeps Pride and Glory from completely dissolving into pointlessness. Norton gets us to care about Ray’s quest, and we tend to follow his investigation with a sense of mystery. Of course, we know all the angles and anticipate all the roadblocks, but O’Connor and his crew aren’t overly worried about predictability. In their mind, this material - no matter how familiar it ends up being - has its own inherent ability to grip the viewer. Unfortunately, a surplus of story and an innate inevitability makes this movie so stereotypical it sputters. Acting alone can’t save something we understand by rote. Pride and Glory ends up being too similar to the sources it mimics to save itself.


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Thursday, Oct 23, 2008

They stand as titans, not just in their area of expertise, but in the hearts of their fellow faithful countrymen. Foreigners scoff at such devotion, chalking it up to a lack of cultural sophistication and an allegiance to outdated tradition. But when you look around the world, you see them everywhere. Japan has its kaiju, while India enjoys those bigger than life Bollywood gods. Yet no one can top Mexico and its worship of all things wrestling. Under the lucha libre label, a number of unstoppable heroes have managed to become media superstars - and none are bigger than the man mountain himself, Mil Mascaras. Returning to movies after years in semi-retirement, the suplex sensation reminds us that, no matter how comical they appear to the outside world, masked marvels like El Santo, Blue Demon, and himself stand as wonderful symbols of universal morays - and amazing movie entertainment like his latest offering, Resurrection.


With his love life in tatters and his professional career under scrutiny, it looks like things can’t get much worse for grappling Renaissance man Mil Mascaras. But when the local police chief asks for his help in solving several blood bank robberies, our hero can’t say no. Indeed, he discovers a link between the crimes and an ancient temple just outside of town. Sure enough, the Aztec Mummy is back, and he has a date with destiny - and Mil’s maybe girlfriend (and daughter of his learned science associate) Maria. As he calls on his minions to undermine the wrestler’s reputation with the public, the law begins breathing down the fiend’s reanimated neck. Before long, the professor has figure out the Mummy’s plan - he will use Mil Mascaras’ fame to take over the world, and then he will marry Maria and reestablish his kingdom on Earth.




Mil Mascaras: Resurrection is fantastic. It’s the answer to a prayer you didn’t even know you required. So inherently cheesy that it makes jarlsberg jealous, and yet firmly rooted in the camp crazy creature features of Mexico’s monster mythos, it’s entertainment as only students of the cinematic species could create. With a stellar script by Jeffrey Ulhmann that expertly balances homage with humor (not to mention some of the best over the top dialogue this side of a certain Santo) and a bevy of perfect performances, it marks a welcome return for the larger than life Latin American miracle. Mil Mascaras (“the man of a thousand masks”) is an amazing character - part James Bond, part Stephen Hawking, and far more fierce than Hulk Hogan or Tyra Banks (whose fashion sense he often outdoes). And after a 15 year absence from the big screen, this return to form is nothing short of outstanding.


At first, it seems that the forces behind this film will mistake kitsch for creativity. As a slinky, scantily clad babe does her version of the watusi, there’s lots of preening and pomp. The head priest (played by PopMatters’ own Marco Lanzagorta) shouts out some ritualistic rot. Blood is spilled. But then Mil’s main nemesis, the famed Aztec Mummy arrives, and he sets the tone for the rest of the film. He’s all ego and Egyptian jive. With the added excellence of Willard Pugh as a no nonsense police chief and Kurt Drennen Mirtsching as a scientific sidekick who’s a wealth of information - mostly expositional - the entire company is top class. It bears mentioning that Mil Mascaras Resurrection has several giggly cameos, including turns by PJ Soles (as a wrestling judge?), Richard Lynch (as the President of the United States??) and Harley Race (as himself???). But the best bit is saved for last, when several noted luchadores, including El Hijo Del Santo, Neutron, La Torcha, and Blue Demon Jr, among others, show up to kick some undead zombie butt.



Between the schlock scary premise and the occasional lapses into satisfying surrealism (gotta love the killer robot which appears to be built out of old steam table parts), Mil Mascaras: Resurrection rivals any super hero movie made in the mainstream. It provides enough fun to satisfy a schoolyard full of genre geeks, while never once looking down on or mocking its famed figurehead. Anyone who knows the luchadore films understands that these are examples of pure hero worship, idolatry without a lick of irony or self-imposed satire. Throw in a few flying drop kicks and you’ve got yourself a franchise. Besides, the audience believes in these men and they are not afraid to show their adoration. That’s why Mil Mascaras: Resurrection often feels like a religious experience. Our lead is the Messiah of the squared circle, a man beloved for his ability in the ring, and ethos outside of it. And his followers love every barrel-chested moment.


In fact, the lack of legitimate violence (there are a couple of minor gore effects) and the constant recounting of Mil’s moralistic code makes a movie like Resurrection appear greater than its goofball parts. After all, you wouldn’t expect a narrative that features a ranting pile of bandages to offer up sound personal principles. And yet that’s the key to the entire category’s endearing timelessness. These films are really aimed at kids, lobbing life lessons over their head while keeping them on the straight and narrow. Someone like Mil Mascaras offers up the valuable tutorials on such important issues as fair play, education, clean living, and the benefits of an unlimited sparkly wardrobe. Sure, this could seem like reaching, especially when many of the old school storylines seemed to regress into good guy/bad being dullness. Thanks to the careful consideration of Ulhmann and his collaborators, Mil Mascaras: Resurrection reestablishes the real legacy of the luchadore.



Unlike so many other attempts at recapturing a once prime motion picture format, this latest adventure for the masked marvel feels as familiar and friendly as a visit with an old childhood chum. Just because the associate wears several dozen sequin-draped façades doesn’t lessen our love, right? If you’ve never seen a luchadore film, or would like to experience the singlet sensation anew, Mil Mascaras: Resurrection is a great place to start. It’s faithful without being turgid, immensely charming without going overboard or obtuse. After decades as one of the leading lights in Mexican wrestling, Mil Mascaras has a great deal to be proud of. He can add this post-millennial update of his image to the long list of successes. 


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Thursday, Oct 23, 2008
by Steve Stirling
Words and Pictures by Steve Stirling

“This is the 4th performance we’ve had in three days, here at this venue, on this stage,” Women’s lead singer muttered into the microphone as the four-piece began their set. Really, I probably could have left then. The hype and subsequent overbooking that has surrounded Women at this year’s CMJ Marathon seems to have taken its toll. Throughout their performance, Women seemed tired and disinterested, and likely with good reason. Justified or not, their performance fell flat, sounding and looking more like a lethargic Interpol clad in thermals than the taut pysch/industrial rock they have come to be known for.



Tagged as: cmj, women
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Thursday, Oct 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Words and Pictures by Steve Stirling

Adept may have the least literal band name of any of the groups I caught at the Subbacultcha! showcase. Throughout their 30 minute set, these fuzzed-out new wavers were the picture of inconsistency and at times gave the impression there was more than one band performing on the basement corner stage. Combining noise’s complex musical texture and new wave’s steadfast simplicity is a difficult balancing act. When they got it right, Adept were both intriguing and enthralling. But more often than not, the wall of caustic distortion created by the guitarist and vocalist broke free from driving drum beats and dissonant keys, creating a separation that pulled apart Adept’s delicate tailoring at the seams.



Tagged as: adept, cmj
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Thursday, Oct 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Words and Pictures by Steve Stirling

In her 45-minute long set at the Living Room, Theresa Anderson captured the most illusive and sought after element of a CMJ performance—complete captivation. There was a distinct buzz about Anderson on the Lower East Side tonight, but admittedly I had never heard of her. Yet, from the moment her bare feet stepped onto an off-white shag rug crowded with pedals and looping devices, it was clear she would deliver something special. Without a glance at the petite songstress, you would swear Anderson was operating with a full band complete with a slew of backup singers. She effortlessly looped drums, violin, guitar, and her own vocals over one another—patching together complete soundscapes that either glided over the audience with a subtle delicacy or bowled them over with the guttural power of a New Orleans soul singer. By the end of her performance, several photographers had put down their cameras, journalists had dropped their pens, and many in the packed house smiled sheepishly, their eyes all fixated on the powerful set Anderson was delivering.



Tagged as: cmj, theresa anderson
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