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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
New Releases for the Week of 2008-06-09...

I’ve never been someone you could call a launch-day adopter, usually opting to wait until brand new consoles get a) cheaper and b) a little bit more readily available.


We're counting the minutes…

We’re counting the minutes…


There was a time, however, when my then-girlfriend and I decided that paying out the ear for a PlayStation 2 was a good idea (this was in January of ‘01), because hey, it was a DVD player too!  And for the better part of that year, it was a fun toy that occasionally came in most handy when we really, desperately felt that we needed to have a DVD (a format which, at that point, was still something of a novelty).


In November, everything changed.


I hadn’t actually played anything past the demo of the original Metal Gear Solid, but I got swept up in the massive amounts of hype for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, purchasing it as soon as it came out.  It remains, to this day, my favorite PlayStation 2 experience of all time.  It was something that I could play while my girlfriend watched, and while I would be entertained by the stealth and the constant tension, my girlfriend could be entertained by the lengthy (and often hilariously convoluted) storyline.  It was a game we would play instead of watching our favorite television shows, and the turning point that transformed the PS2 from a fun curiosity to an all-out entertainment machine.


The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I stillwouldn't want to mess with Snake.

The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I still
wouldn’t want to mess with Snake.


Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was just as good a play experience, but it came at a time in our lives when games simply could not take the priority that they once did, so it didn’t leave nearly the impression that MGS2 did.  Still, the affection I hold for MGS2 means that anything related to the series gets my full attention—especially a full-on sequel.


Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots looks incredible.  From the shock and awe of the Movie Voiceover Guy trailer to the 15-minute beast that’s been floating around for a couple of years now, every little bit of publicity I’ve seen for MGS4 makes it look like an incredible experience.  Heck, even Raiden, the much-ridiculed primary player of MGS2, looks like he’s grown up a bit, perhaps inspiring a mite less criticism for his presence.  All in all, the thing looks incredible, and I’m going to have a really, really hard time paying attention to anything else until next week.  Maybe this game is what transforms the PS3 into its own full-on entertainment machine.


Once again, it's style over realism on the Wii.  Developers arefinally getting the hang of this little console…

Once again, it’s style over realism on the Wii.  Developers are
finally getting the hang of this little console…


Obviously, things are pretty quiet elsewhere on the release front.  Nascar fans get the latest iteration of EA’s circuit simulation, and Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles looks fun in a sort of Hotel Dusk meets Phoenix Wright kind of way.  Wii owners also have the inventive-looking shooter Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy on its way this week, in which you get to build up your own ship out of the pieces of other ships.  Like a cannibalistic Vic Viper.  It’ll make a perfect game to play with the kids (rated E and everything!) during those times of day when Metal Gear Solid 4 might not be, you know, appropriate.


The full release list and the Movie Trailer Guy trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 (just because I’m obsessed with it) is after the break.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

It’s a totally mixed bag this week. I’ve just started reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I’m halfway through Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger. Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi is also in the bedside pile, as it caught my eye when I was shelf-reading the biographies last week at the library.


image

The more ‘literary’ graphic novel trend continues as well as I am slowly working through Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History on short breaks at work; Art Spiegelman’s incredible Holocaust memoir (rendered on behalf of his father) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, which was a huge step forward for the graphic novel genre.


Time is not on my side, however, because the high school is going to close soon and all materials are due to be returned in the next week. Perhaps I can try to do without sleep for a few days?


I tend to read mostly fiction, but I’m trying to be more openminded about nonfiction, biography, and other genres. Do you stick to one genre most of the time or alternate between several? Perhaps get caught up in historical nonfiction for awhile, then switch to Victorian fiction and on to comic books a few weeks later? What genre(s) are you reading this week?


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
Pictures by Craig Bailey / Words by Christian John Wikane.
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo


A heat wave swept through New York City last week as Donna Summer held court at the posh west-side haunt, Mansion, to officially celebrate the launch of her new album, Crayons (Burgundy, 2008). Greeted by an ovation that lasted well towards five minutes, Summer was moved to tears by the genuine adoration of fans, friends, and industry folk gathered for the occasion. Though Summer has consistently worked onstage and in the studio over the past two decades since her last full-length studio album—a fact she emphasized to the intimately gathered audience—this appearance marked an emotional, poignant “coming home” for the woman whose voice has echoed through the hallowed dance halls of Gotham for more than 30 years.


Hosted by Burgundy and radio station WKTU, the evening featured Donna Summer joined by a full band, including husband Bruce Sudano on background vocals.  Vocally impeccable throughout the eight-song set, Summer served up a cocktail of sass, humility, and divine diva stylizations. Thunder roared out of the speakers (and from the audience) on the opener, “MacArthur Park”, where every set of ears and eyes was porous with anticipation for Summer’s classic, chill-inducing belt. Turning to Crayons, the seven-minute “I’m a Fire” translated extremely well to the stage from the studio recording’s neo-disco beat thanks to the deftness of Summer’s drummer. After hitting number one on the club play charts earlier this year, “I’m a Fire” is already an audience favorite.


All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo


Summer sizzled during a simmering medley of “Bad Girls”/“Hot Stuff”, playfully exchanging moves with the lead guitarist and striking a stance befitting a rock star with the mic stand. “Science of Love”, arguably the best track on Crayons, continued the blistering dance-rock fusion to scintillating effect while the anthem-like “Stamp Your Feet” (her latest single) elicited a sea of fist-pounding pantomime. Summer clearly relished the opportunity to perform new songs. Based on the number of people singing along, so did the audience.


Still moved by the uproarious reception, Summer extemporaneously included one verse of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” in the evening’s repertoire, dedicated especially to the audience. The spontaneity of that moment was followed by the inevitable—moments later, the familiar chords of “Last Dance” raised the energy in the room to a feverish pitch. Summer’s extended performance of the Oscar-winning song signaled the conclusion of a night that succinctly paid tribute to Summer’s iconic status across three generations of listeners.


Donna Summer embarks on a two-month U.S. tour beginning July 3 in Newport News, VA.


All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

All photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo



Tagged as: donna summer
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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
In preparation for the franchise reboot starring Edward Norton, SE&L looks back at Ang Lee's 2003 version of the Big Green Meanie, a criminally marginalized movie that truly didn't deserve the critical or commercial drubbing it took at the time.

It’s true: you either “get” what Ang Lee did to the Hulk or you don’t. It’s not a “love it or hate” it kind of quandary. It’s much more of a “yes” or “no” proposition. If you are used to the Raimi ideal of comic book moviemaking or think that Bryan Singer got the X down to a simple science, then avoid this movie at all costs, and chalk up the big green monster man to yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to bring the graphic novel to life. But if it clicks for you, if you stick with it, buy into the premise and the way director Lee presents it, Hulk will stay with you for days after you’ve watched it. It will be the first superhero action film that actually says something profound about parental relationships, the untapped power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control.


The nature of the Hulk has always been described as the out of control id of Bruce Banner’s mild-mannered scientist nerd. The original origins for the character were steeped in repressed memories and parental abuse. Lee magnifies this concept, wanting to fully explore all aspects of it, to make the beast not only the representation of the human mind, but also the true physical interpretation of it. Most fans of fast action cartoon chaos claim Lee missed his chance to make the monster of all cartoon films. They lament how he instead focused all the fun into a dry, dreary drama revolving around Bruce Banner’s childhood and the genetic experimentation that physically mutated him and the emotional trauma that mentally manipulated him.


And still there were those who wept for that forgotten foe in the standard comic film canon, the arch villain, a Joker/Magneto/Green Goblin of equal energy and emergence. But in Lee’s marvel universe, there isn’t one. All the bad guy vibe lands on the shoulders of Bruce’s father, which means that we must deal with Banner the son/man first and Banner the CGI beast secondary. And for most fans of carefree eye candy blockbusters, individualized character studies and special effects fantasy just do not mix, nor should anyone try.


It’s the more human issues in Hulk (interesting how Lee chose to skip both the “Incredible” tag and the impersonal pronoun as well) that Lee wants to focus on. If the idea of massive back story and flashbacks o’plenty make your stomach seize, or if you really wish the actors would just shut up and fight/blow something up, this movie will not be a pleasant ride for you. Lee is striving for something deeper here, something more philosophical and universal. He wants to tap into that time-tested relationship between parent and child and work its intense Freudian fire into an inferno of pent-up rage. Hulk is meant to be a release of that rage, to show how failures on the part of our guardians result in destructive behavior.


This is not some subtle, cinematically created symbolism. This was the basis for another Lee’s - Stan Lee’s - desire in crafting the original character. The genius of the Hulk as an entity is that he is indeed us, fueled at the genetic level by trauma and terror and overblown into a destructive force that must be reckoned with. It’s intriguing to note how there is not a real revelatory arc to the Hulk’s development. At one moment, Bruce Banner is a normal human being. The next he is an outraged giant with an even larger, deadlier chip on his behemoth shoulders.


The transformation of the psychological into the physiological is at the heart of Hulk as a character and Hulk as a movie. The entire film is actually about our biological and emotional heritage, about how our bodily chemistry and interpersonal lineage, become the reason for who we are. Unlike the comic book version, this Hulk was a fiend just waiting to be forged. Daddy Banner’s experiments and the unfortunate ramifications are just a more modern, less meat-fisted way of handling the humongous’ foundation. In Stan Lee’s comic book world, Bruce is escaping an abusively alcoholic and murderous father. In Ang Lee’s world, David Banner is DNA destiny, the reason why Bruce is who he is at the molecular as well as the persona level.


This one-two punch makes the movie Hulk a far more complex, preordained brute. The notion of not being able to control one’s own providence is a fear that most offspring have, and Hulk blows it up into a big green overtly violent twisted mass of muscle without the ability to properly control itself; again, another part of the panic of growing up. True, we all aren’t worried about growing thirty feet in every direction and raging without rhyme or reason, but we do concern ourselves with the notion that our past controls our present and future and we are unable to keep it from happening.


This is, perhaps, why Hulk does not resonate with the standard blockbuster audience: the teenage boy. As the unbearable kings of the planet, they have yet to figure out how their past and their father figure (or lack thereof) has influenced their life. To them, Hulk should be about smashing and bashing. He should not be a reflection of a youth unfulfilled or a life filled with empty pain. So this is really the first adult action film, a movie that uses a unique cinematic style and obvious operatic tendencies to invoke more than tell its tale. Indeed, there is not a lot of mood swinging going on in this film. Lee gives us emotional archetypes versus real three-dimensional people.


Thankfully, all this deep-seeded child rearing rhetoric is couched in a wonderfully visual and abstractly arresting set of moviemaking ideals. There are those who find Ang Lee’s choices suspect and/or even irritating. He uses more split screen sequences than Brian De Palma has ever fantasized over and loves to overlap shots to give us multiple “every conceivable angle” opportunities. It helps to propel the narrative over the deeply bruised sequences of psyche in somersault and shows us that someone can literally take the structure of a comic book, apply it to the movies, and make it work.


As a CGI creation, the Hulk himself seems one shadow and character crafting computer map pass away from being the most amazing digital creation ever. It appears that, after the success of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated imagists at ILM just can’t quite figure out how to make something not look fake. While this may seem like an oxymoron, the completely green, oversized giant never once looks natural or “human” enough. He is overly detailed, all carefully placed ripples and dirt. We never get the full effect of the Hulk being flawed or part of his environment. Instead, we can see the environment conforming to him, with tanks and planes and houses becoming more “cartoon” like to fit in to what the Hulk has in mind.


No place is this more abundantly clear than in the much-discussed ‘Hulk Dogs’ sequence. While overall it’s a very well done action scene (what else would you expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the oversized mutts look Scooby-Doo awful. They don’t appear as genetically altered hounds; they’re animated cartoon monsters in puppy suits that look phony from the minute the binary spit flies from their flapping jowls. What many computer artists forget is that they are supposed to be rendering the unreal real, not crafting perfectly painted practicality. For all his accurate body movement and incredible facial gesturing, more times than not the Hulk just looks like a well-painted drawing.


Thankfully, the depth of symbolism and the sheer cinematic artistry of Ang Lee keep Hulk afloat. Yes, the movie is too long and the effects are not always special, but what this Lee does is prove the Stan Lee thesis of Marvel’s best comic creations. It was the elder Lee’s belief that the best entertainment came out of the personalities and storylines, not fancy ink sketches. Hollywood, in turn, definitely lives by the bright lights, pretty colors theory of superhero movies. Details just get in the way of the next attractive explosion or the fast food tie-in moment. Hulk is a good movie burdened by expectations it could never meet and limitations that couldn’t be overcome. It is an effective denouncement of the parent/child relationship, of the basic progeny’s fear that we will grow up under the direct influence of our parents, almost to the point of pinpoint replication.


Bruce Banner’s problem is that, if he indeed matures exactly like his father, there is truly no hope for mankind. In order to survive, he will have to come to terms with what he is, and how he can manage it - if ever. Actually, this critic predicts that ten years from now, Hulk will be viewed as way ahead of its time in grappling with subjects that something like X-Men only skims over or Spider-Man avoids altogether. With a push to give every bi-monthly name a cinematic incarnation of its own (and even the revisiting of some previous franchise presentations), Hulk is destined to get lost. But wipe the blockbuster mentality from your perception and view this film again. Perhaps you’ll see an excellent exploration of human nature wrapped inside a thick green shell.


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Sunday, Jun 8, 2008

Action films are forged out of some very tenuous threads, each one required to carry its own weight while intricately balancing the needs of the other ingredients. They can certainly be crafted after a formula, years of practice guaranteeing that once all the elements are in place, something viable will result. Those who try to stretch or even break the mold are destined to either fail, or fracture and reconstruct the cinematic blueprint, revising the standard for the next generation of artists to come. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being really, really good at what the basics already provide, and this would describe the Hong Kong thriller Invisible Target rather well;. Now out on DVD from Dragon Dynasty, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company, this film is not out to redefine the genre. Instead, it wants to perfect it, and does so magnificently.


After an armored car explosion robs Fong Yik Wei of his fiancé, the policeman becomes a broken man. Six months later, his unpredictable nature has made him a law enforcement disadvantage. It’s the same with Detective Chan Chun. He’s so caught up in capturing a gang of international mercenaries that he can’t see the connection to Wei’s situation. It takes a chance meeting with rookie officer Wai King Ho to bring the cases together. Looking for his missing brother, who went undercover years ago and never came back, this department newbie sees only one course of action - a by-the-book belief in the rules. But when the self-described Ronin Gang reveals that they have someone on the inside helping them out, our trio will stop at nothing to discover the turncoat, and stop leader Tien Yeng Seng in his quest for death, destruction, and millions in cash.


Like a primer on how to proficiently kick, punch, fire, slash, and in general blow stuff up, Invisible Target is one of the best bombastic macho man movies that Hollywood never made. It’s Die Hard with an Asian accent, The Departed taken back to its Infernal Affairs origins and draped in thousands of glass shards and bullet holes. Director Benny Chan, best known for working with Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan on later day vehicles such as Robin-B-Hood, Who Am I, and New Police Story, takes a page out of the Western gonzo guidebook and delivers the kind of electrifying mayhem that has defined the shoot ‘em up since Arnold was just a bodybuilder. We are introduced to the customary good/bad dynamic, have the archetypes peppered with competing motives, lash everything together with a few of the deadly sins, and send it all careening into crowded streets and highly populated locales.

Chan certainly knows his references. There are lashings of John Woo here, the kind of emotional underpinning crucial to the slo-mo masters thrill ride successes. Of course, when we see a last act stand off in a massive office building, innocents locked in with the villains for the ultimate standoff, it’s hard not to think of Chow-Yuen Fat kicking ass in Hard Boiled. Similarly, our Asian auteur channels the Paul Verhoeven school of window shattering. No fight is complete without panes being pulverized into hundreds of chaotic crystals. It’s so deliberate that a drinking game could come of it. When you add in the excellent chases, both on foot and via automobile, it is clear that we are witnessing a solid cinematic eye with an easy ability to keep our heart racing and our eyes glued to the screen.


The superb actors help out immensely. As our seasoned and soured officers, Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue are a couple of confident bastards. They play both sides of the law to their own ends, and come across as equally belligerent and highly vulnerable. Both must face demons bent on destroying their pursuit of justice, and each one handles said clash in a differing yet dramatic manner. It also helps that both men are adept in the major martial arts. It really aids in selling the numerous fight scenes. Similarly, Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) does a wonderful job with a rather thankless third wheel role. He’s the voice of naïve reason among the back biting and double crossing of the Hong Kong police force, and his last act redemption is a bit too maudlin for the material. It definitely works, but the feelings seem strained and unearned.


Perhaps the biggest revelation, especially for those of us unfamiliar with his entire career arc, is the twisted turn by Jacky Wu. Playing the most malevolent of mobsters, here is a man unafraid of killing and quite capable of any act to maintain his power and position. It’s important to note that Tien Yeng Seng’s gang has only one purpose - the mindless pursuit of money - and it is clear that they are capable of anything…ANYTHING...to get it. Invisible Target is the kind of movie where children are visibly threatened, unarmed men are mowed down in cold blood, and pain is inflicted randomly and without warrant. And it is Wu doing most of the dirty work. While he is surrounded by a barely distinguishable group of gangsters, it is clear who holds the reigns in this racket.


With the simple storyline and two hour plus running time, director Chan is allowed to mine both the sentimental and the stunt. Make no mistake, this is some brutal stuff. The second disc of this two DVD set offers many in the cast talking about their participation, and more often than not, the grueling action and physical preparation for the fight scenes dominate the discussion. Wu, Yue, and Tse seem particularly interested in dishing the dirt about long days in training and long nights knocking each other out. Even better, the bonus featurettes explain how some of the more dangerous bits were created and captured. There are times in this movie when actors tumble down buildings, jump across rooftops, run into passing cars, and escape optically oversized explosions. While there is some CG trickery involved, many actual man hours were used to achieve the engaging ends.


Indeed, if you don’t expect the latest redefinition of the action epic, Invisible Target will warm you in a wonderfully old school manner. It takes its time getting started, develops its situations and characters fully, and then never lets up once the pedal is put to the edge of your seat metal. There is enough visual spectacle present to satisfy even the most fastidious film fan, and Chan definitely knows his way around the Hong Kong locales. Sometimes, getting the basics 100% right is much better than merely trying to reinvent what’s tried and true. That’s clearly the case with this on ‘Target’ title.


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