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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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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

This comes from the three-part WSJ series on the last days of Bear Stearns:


At least six efforts to raise billions of dollars—including selling a stake to leveraged-buyout titan Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.—fizzled as either Bear Stearns or the suitors turned skittish. And repeated warnings from experienced traders, including 59-year Bear Stearns veteran Alan “Ace” Greenberg, to unload mortgages went unheeded.
Top executives resisted, in part, because they were concerned the moves would upset the delicate calculus of appearances and perceptions that is as important on Wall Street as dollars and cents. If Bear Stearns betrayed weakness, they worried, skittish customers would pull their money out of the firm, and other financial institutions would refuse to trade with it.


It’s an uncontroversial point, but I’m still shocked whenever I contemplate how the world of finance runs on carefully constructed, necessary fictions. When I ignored the business world, I always assumed it was build on bottom-line numbers and empirically deduced decisions—I thought it was far more technocratic than it actually is, and I totally overlooked such socio-psychological phenomena as the entrepreneurial “animal spirits” that Keynes posits, and the significance of inflation expectations, and consumer confidence, all of which can be ideologically sustained and manipulated. It makes me think there must ultimately be some renumerative use for the skills I learned as a literature graduate student, where we were taught precisely how to analyze carefully constructed fictions to reveal their carefully concealed presuppositions as well as their lacunae. It seems like the delicate calculus of appearances and perceptions requires a mastery of rhetorical skills required for building a believable picture of reality as well as a mastery of the tenets of risk management.


But the necessary fictions lead to problems like what Dean Baker details here.


Since the vast majority of economists failed to recognize two huge financial bubbles, the collapse of which had enormous consequences for the economy, it is reasonable to conclude that there is some inherent problem with the nature of the consensus within the economics profession. Either these economists hold views about the world that prevent them from seeing financial bubbles, or the sociology of the profession is such that they are unable to express independent opinions.


Perhaps economists are institutionally discouraged from promulgating opinions that might compromise the business built on fragile hopes.


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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

For a while, it seemed like the rumors would turn out to be true. Months of speculation had concluded that Troma, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was on the verge of closing its doors forever. The production company, now largely in the business of distributing films produced outside their umbrella, had sunk all its cash into the demented zombie comedy Poultrygeist, and the lack of legitimate support from theater owners was driving founder Lloyd Kaufman and crew to the point of bankruptcy. There were even stories that inventory was being sold off and the main offices moved to the more “financially friendly” confines of New Jersey, the last desperate gasp of a business barely afloat.


Well, apparently, the gossip got it wrong. Sure, Troma left its Manhattan digs to travel over to the shores of its notorious neighbor, but this was done out of bold face necessity. Landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and there was no way the company could compete under such lend/lease larceny. Similarly, the lack of available product had nothing to do with a frantic fire sale. Instead, the business model mandated the push for Poultrygeist before unleashing another slew of digital delights. This past April saw the label finally return from the DVD dead, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And just like other items in the cockeyed catalog, Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos prove why, when it comes to sensational schlock, no one tops Troma.


Oddly enough, both movies come from outside the US. Australia is the setting for the story of a long dead vampire, back from the dead and desperate to retrieve a magical coat of arms. With the brand, the aging neckbiter can return to the land of mirrors (otherwise known as “Mirrorland”) and rejuvenate. While waiting to reclaim his birthright, he spends his off hours sexing it up with the hired help. Of course, his main nemesis, the wheelchair bound Dr. Ludvic, has discovered the power inherent in the tacky talisman, and the mad medico intends to use it to destroy the crafty Count Blaughspich (aka “Bloodspit”) once and for all - that is, if the demon’s wantonly wicked sister doesn’t stop him beforehand.


Spain is our next exotic location, and outside Madrid we meet up with a band of unhappy hookers. When heroin addict Mani gets involved in a robbery turned fatal, she spends time in prison. Upon release, she returns to her sex for sale ways. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend, a rocker named Toni, has magically transformed into Belcebu - a death metal menace whose unwieldy popularity has led to fan suicides and public censure. Hoping to find the sister - and sense of purpose - she left with the musician, Mani reconnects with him. Of course, by this time, Belcebu has successfully sold himself to the Devil. In return, he must make an annual sacrifice to the mangoat, and his ex may be the ritual’s main stage star.


As is typical with Troma, both of these movies are under the radar remnants of a DIY ethos that has long since stopped being practical within the artform. Sure, the current technology allows almost anyone to make their own damn movie (and even better, distribute it in a professional manner), yet when you watch either effort offered here, you get the distinct feeling of the personal passion the filmmakers had for their project more than any major moneymaking ideal. This is clearly the case with Bloodspit, which seems to be celebrating every outrageous horror spoof made in the last 20 years. Director Duke Hendrix, who co-wrote the wacky wayback weirdness with partner Leon Fish, fashions a kind of John Waters look at European exploitation, a movie with as much atmosphere as comic anarchy - and twice the tasteless tawdriness.



Drawing on sources as surreal as The Addams Family, Nosferatu, the typical Dracula dynamic and what appears to be the films of Chris Seaver, Hendrix and Fish proffer nonstop laughs, some wonderfully ridiculous characters, and more than a little unnatural skin. The ladies hired by the duo to do their flesh flashing dirty work give a new meaning to the word ‘dive bar’, yet they fit in perfectly with the pair’s aesthetic. Certainly, the level of toilet humor and dirty double entendre will remind one of the LBP universe. There are trips to the toilet bowl and graphic descriptions of human (and monster) genitalia, the whole thing reeking of middle schoolers mocking each others physical inadequacies. Hendrix and Fish also love accents. Between the Scots, the Brits, the Slavic and the just plain undecipherable, we are treated to a literal UN of vocal lunacy.



And yet thanks to the directorial style implied, an odd angle approach that utilizes the language of film as much as the dialogue of debauchery to get its point across, Bloodspit becomes a minor masterwork. Sure, it looses its bearings halfway through, demanding that the actors actually lift the narrative back on track, and if you’ve seen one Aussie stripper in her skivvies, reminding everyone that personal grooming and nutrition are actually GOOD things, but for the most part, this movie is terrifically entertaining. You can tell that Hendrix and Fish know their local lore. Peter Jackson and his pre-Rings gross out glory spews from every psycho shock sequence, and thanks to the ultra-low budget, imagination takes the place of production value. With pitch perfect performances from everyone involved, and a gamey grindhouse ideal at work, this is one incredibly infectious entertainment.


As silly as Bloodspit is, Belcebu is the exact opposite. This is a foreign film than takes itself far more seriously. Sure, there is a slightly satiric tone to the material, a Rosemary’s Baby like look at how the Devil controls all aspects of business and popular culture, but the real message behind Sergio Blasco’s self styled vanity project is that a life devoted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll can only lead to misery, addiction, and death. Starting off as a complicated character study before careening wildly over into pornography and a last act orgy of desecration and dismemberment, the writer/director/star accomplishes something quite rare. He makes us believe in the freakish and unfathomable while staying true to the blasphemous nature of the beliefs he is channeling. This is not your typical Satanic romp. Blasco really delves deep into the entire Black Mass basics.



Of course, we have to wade through Mani’s initial fall from grace, and there are times when Belcebu seems more interested in the life of a low rent hooker than dealing with its literal demons. The rock star storyline is frequently shuttled to the back so we can see our heroine shooting up, strung out, or slagging off. There are even moments reminiscent of Mamma Roma, when the local prostitutes hang out and trade secrets and safety tips. Blasco creates a real sense of community for his Spanish skanks, and it helps establish a tone of authenticity that supports the slam dunk surrealism to come. Indeed, once the professional cameraman Angel arrives on the scene, his oddball reaction to sex signifying that something is wrong with his supposedly straight machismo, we sense Belcebu beginning its turn. Sure enough, within seconds, Mani is a memory and its all soft core shuck and underworld jive.



Blasco looks the part of a long haired metal head, delivering his doom and gloom bombast in a manner that reflects every outsider rock act endlessly touring the club concert circuit. He lends his movie a real sense of scope. Similarly, the F/X work is very effective, gory and gruesome in that always welcome return to the practical and physical side of splatter. There are some sensational kills here, including a Cannibal Holocaust homage where a female victim is literally skewered from crotch to cranium, the massive pole then used as a statue for the rest of the dark ritual. There’s even a little winged imp that adds some crazy comic relief amongst all the arterial spray. Some may feel that Belcebu takes too long to get to its blood soaked climax, and many will find the street walker sequences to be dour and depressing. But the end result is something unique and totally of its own accord - a true indicator of what Troma tries to bring to all of its releases.


As for the DVDs themselves, nothing much has changed. The tech specs are uniformly good, the audio and video neither horribly misguided nor reference quality. It’s always a treat to see Kaufman do his patented proto-pervert act during his pre-feature introductions, and here he provides two classic examples of his extremism. For Bloodspit, the Tro-man is ensconced on the throne, doing his ‘duty’ to support the film. For Belcebu, it’s a Spanish language send-up complete with very un-PC pronouncements from his female co-hosts. As for extras, there are interviews with Hendrix and Fish, some outtakes, and a Behind the Scenes discussion with Blasco that, sadly, is not subtitled. In addition, there are lots of corporate come-ons to keep you spending those hard earned dollars in the distributor’s direction.


But the most important part about the release of Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos is that the creature feature carnival barker known as Troma is back in business. In another few weeks, two more titles will be featured, and long in development projects like the proposed Giuseppe Andrews box set may now actually see the light of day. And considering how amazing Poultrygeist actually is (read the review here), it’s clear that the company wasn’t merely spinning its excess cash wheels. For anyone wondering what happened to the formidable B-movie madhouse, the return to DVD distribution indicates that everything is fine in the feverish land of Tromaville. It’s a welcome return for devotees desperate for the diseased and the dopey


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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

Where he once sounded like a crank, U2 manager Paul McGuinness now sounds prescient when he rails against Internet Service Provides (ISPs) and their adverse effect on the music business.  He has his own reasons for being mad at them but now there’s yet another reason.  That’s because Time Warner is starting to test out a new system which will charge consumers extra when they go over a certain download limit.  If they can get away with it in the first market they’re testing it in, they’re likely to bring the system nationwide and then other ISPs will follow- see this Yahoo/AP report for details. 


So why should you care?  Normal websites’ pictures and text don’t add up to anything but if you’re used to streaming music all day (through an online station or a service like Napster or LastFM), you might get stung by the extra charges.  Similarly, if you’re a video buff who likes to watch YouTube a lot or stream movies through a service like Netflix (which I do), you’ll probably gonna get stuck with an extra bill too.  Admittedly, you’d have to stay on for about 5-10 hours to incur the charges but do you really want to time yourself daily on Net use (though you do need to step away from your computer now and then)?


The end result could then be that web users may shun these services or cut back on their use of them.  That means that these services would also lose money and have a harder time staying in business if they start losing their audiences.  If they were smart, these companies would team up to make the public aware of this coming storm and get them made enough to complain to Time Warner and any other company that tries to stick consumers with higher rates for Net access.  Otherwise, you could have less and less choices for online entertainment…


And don’t think it’s just Time Warner who’s going to be watching your Net use and leaning on you if they think it’s too excessive.  Comcast now seems to be going after ‘Net hogs,’ seeming to go after users who access streaming videos (i.e. YouTube).


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

Wisdom and Sense interviews Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain just won the Orange Prize for her book, The Road Home. In this 1996 interview with Elena Dedukhina, she talks about literary prizes in detail. Tremain was a Booker Prize judge in 1988 and 1990. On literary prizes, she says: “Prizes are confirming. Self-belief is a profound requisite of being a writer and—as with any self-generated phenomenon, it can falter from time to time. Winning a prize helps to get you back on the road of self-belief.”


Philip Pullman talks to the Telegraph
It’s all about age-branding. If you haven’t heard, books in the UK will be marketed towards very specific age groups come Autumn. Books will be printed with labels stuck on covers indicating that a book is for the “9+” group or the “11+” group. Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, is not impressed: “I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested.”


Sophie Kinsella tackles the 5-minute interview
She’s the perfect judge for the new Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance (is there a book award they haven’t thought of?) with her hugely successful Shopaholic series, and here she discusses buying high heels but never wearing them: “The moment for those gold-encrusted Manolo Blahniks just never seems to present itself.”


Frank Herbert visits the Mother Earth News
I couldn’t go past this one. It’s just about the longest interview you’re ever likely to read, in one of the strangest places. I bet when you’re done with this, you’ll want to grab a sleeping bag and head for the wilderness, because Herbert likes to do that, and because the ads on this site are all about appreciating nature. Herbert’s first words: “I’ve always considered myself to be a yellow journalist.”


Daniel Wallace is interviewed at Cosmoetics
This is really worth a read. Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish opens up about writing, publishing, MFA programs, and the fact that he’s “never been a huge reader”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an author say that. His comments on an author’s luck:


I think luck plays a big part in a writer’s career.  But my first five novels didn’t get published because I was unlucky; they didn’t get published because they were bad.  I had the same agent for three of those books.  So Big Fish was definitely a better book than the others. It was turned down by 16 houses before Algonquin took it.  Still, here, there was luck involved.  Algonquin had been expected a book by one its established writers and it didn’t come in.  They needed a book to take its place, and quick.  They opened that day’s mail and what was in it: my book.


 


 


 


 


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