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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008



“You ought not to do that.”


The first time I ignored her because, frankly, I couldn’t believe someone would be speaking to me. A complete stranger, just off the plane.


“I say, you really ought not to be doing that.”


The second time I ignored her, because, although I now appreciated that a complete stranger was speaking to me, a complete stranger, I had no idea what she was saying. Swedish not being a part of my linguistic repertoire.


“You see . . . “ she, now switching to a version of English—(proving that she wasn’t simply a deranged crackpot reciting gibberish in my direction, but, rather was a multi-talent, with an aim to communicate, and quick on the up-take)—“it really isn’t . . . safe . . . to leave your bag sitting by itself like that. It simply is


not

safe.”


 




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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

In American culture, when we think of classic soul, chances are the names that pop into our heads are among the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, and many others from Motown, Stax, and various labels around the country. In Brazil, the two names you are most likely to hear when talking about soul music are the recently popularized in America, Jorge Ben (thanks to the likes of Dusty Groove and the Tropicalia resurgence) and the virtually unrecognized Tim Maia.


If any were to be compared to the westernized soul sound, it would be Tim Maia. Although don’t get me wrong, his recordings were undeniably Brazilian. Unlike Jorge Ben though, Maia was able to mix these westernized elements into his brand of crooning soul that later developed into some of the funkiest sounds in the Western Hemisphere (much like Marvin Gaye’s development, in fact).


It’s important to look at Brazilian music not only as a melting pot of Bossa Nova, Samba, and its many traditional elements, but also as a nation that was able to take elements from African traditional music and put their own spin on it. Maia is one of the masters of Brazilian soul music, and if I spend my entire life dragging his presence to America, then so be it. It’s a worthy cause.


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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

It only took 10 days. Less than two weeks. It remains a stunning accomplishment. It took Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 16 days to get there. It took the overly hyped third Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith 17. Even Spider-Man 3 had to wait 19 days to pull in such scratch. But the superhero phenomenon which is The Dark Knight crossed over the $300 million mark this weekend, cementing the film’s place as 2008’s biggest cinematic story. No one could have predicted such a response, especially for a 150 minute drama that’s more serious than spectacle. Add to that the messageboard concerns over the film’s dark quality and downbeat ending, and the suggestion is that something significant is happening here that just doesn’t occur with your standard popcorn flair.


One thing is clear - Hollywood hacks who think material must be dumbed down and homogenized for audience consumption are probably rethinking said position (and looking for work, hopefully). The Dark Knight is indeed a savvy, smart thriller, built more out of a model similar to the crime epics of Coppola, Mann, and Scorsese than the cut and paste product of your typical comic book adaptation. Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan took some major risks with the material, keeping the danger palpable and the characters complex. As a result, there was a real possibility that this film would not click with crowds. And with the already sizeable returns for other superhero movies this summer (Iron Man and Hancock making the most monetary noise), there was a real risk of something akin to also-ran status


But $300 million big ones speak for themselves, and Knight shows no signs of letting up. It is still a watercolor work, something everyone it talking about in reverent, must-see terms. Granted, the Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger may be a bit premature (a nomination is not out of the question, but let’s not hand the statue over to his family just yet), but it is clear that this will be a movie remembered come awards season. But the biggest question, as always, is this - what does this level of success mean for everyone involved? What does earning such a vast sum so quickly signify for the studio? The comic book company? The individuals in front of and behind the camera? For that, we’ll need to do a little above the bottom line analysis. Only then can we see if there’s anything other than triumph for all involved. Let’s begin with:


The Studio - Warner Brothers
After the debacle known as Speed Racer (the audience’s fault, not the film), Warners really needed this sort of monumental result. It helps make that major misstep in marketing seem like nothing more than a business model blip on a high return radar. The studio has been lucky like that as of recent - backing Will Smith’s Christmas hit I Am Legend while taking a drubbing for failures like The Invasion and 10,000 BC. Of course, the real challenge will come when the subject of a third installment is breached. Does the studio rely on Nolan to continue his winning ways, or will they balk and pull a Schumacher out of thin air. Either way, their upcoming releases (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Watchmen) seem to suggest more pluses than movie minuses.


The Source - DC Comics
With Marvel making all the news during Summer’s inaugural months - both good (Iron Man) and not so (The Incredible Hulk) - the comic rival really needed something like this to settle the score. With such underperforming efforts as Constantine and Superman Returns, it was clear that Nolan and his take on the Caped Crusader would make or break the company’s cinematic fortunes. Now, with $300 million and counting, DC has a real reason to smile - and the accolades just keep coming. Last week, the long awaited teaser trailer for Watchmen finally hit the ‘Net, and along with the highly praised Comic-con panel, hinted that 2009 might be equally successful for the catalog - both critically and commercially.


The Writers - Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
If there is any justice in the business of show - and there usually isn’t - Chris and his brother John will become the script doctors du jour of a failing Tinsel Town talent pool. Let’s face it, if Akiva Goldsman can claim an Oscar (and the literary omniscience that seems to accompany it) for his work within the genre, the Nolans should have a rec room full of accolades. The one consistent thing about the product they present is how smart, substantive, and cocksure it really is. When characters speak, they do so in assertions that seem perfect for the situation they are facing. Even better, the dialogue resonates in ways that come back to complement the conservation’s true intent. If Chris decides to drop directing for a while - that is, until the right project comes along - he and Jonathan could clean up in the screenplay polishing department. 


The Director - Christopher Nolan
If he didn’t already have carte blanche from the film’s critical reaction, the man behind the Bat’s recent success can surely write his own ticket anywhere in Hollywood now. While there have been hints that he will go back to his inventive indie roots (more Memento than Insomnia, one supposes), it’s clear that Nolan can claim any commercial project he wants. Even better, he’s proven that, within the right framework, audiences will sit through even the most serious, complex entertainment. If he chooses carefully, he can cement his status as one of his generation’s guiding cinematic lights. And of course, there’s always the third installment in the Caped Crusader’s saga to fall back on should he fail. Given his amazing track record so for, that doesn’t seem very likely.


The Actors
Christian Bale
Bale has already proved the impact of a multimillion dollar opening weekend - he was accused of assaulting his mother and sister before the British premiere of The Dark Knight, and even the tabloids have taken his side. Of course, the personal scandal may be nothing more than old school family dissention fueled by sudden financial success, but this is one actor who really doesn’t need the money to make his mark. He’s already keen to revisit the Bruce Wayne saga again (as long as Nolan is behind the lens), and he’s signed on to play another heroic icon - John Connor, the man behind the human rebellion against the machines in the new Terminator film(s). His resume from the past few years is so impressive, that it’s hard to imagine he ever struggled. Hopefully, his success as the Caped Crusader only broadens his potential performance horizons.


Aaron Eckhart
Eckhart has been an indie idol for so long that it’s hard to remember when he was the one getting the push for mainstream leading man status. Remember his turn in the disaster flop The Core? Of his solid work in Erin Brockovich? Returning to smaller projects surely helped his acting cred, but he still needed a breakout part to produce a kind of casting clarity he will surely have now. His amazing working as Harvey “Two Face” Dent delivers that knockout blow. On equal par with the work done by costars Bale and Ledger, Eckhart elevates his spurned and scarred District Attorney into something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. His arc is so fully formed, and his transformation within it so authentic and real, that when he goes on his last act spree, we sigh at the inevitability of it all - and marvel at how this underrated performer pulls it off. 


Heath Ledger
The saddest element of Ledger’s untimely death isn’t the fact that he’s not around now to enjoy the universal praise his eerie work as the Joker is receiving. Nor is it the fact that he won’t be around for the inevitable big money payday once the next installment comes calling. No, what’s most disturbing about Ledger’s passing is that, with this undeniably diabolic characterization, we realize just how much talent we as film fans will be missing out on. No one could have predicted that the sweet, vulnerable man from Brokeback Mountain or The Brothers Grimm had this much menace in him. Even better, his work as the clown prince of chaos leaves a lasting legacy that, in essence, could have tainted the actor forever. If one has to go out - and there is never a rhyme or reason for doing so by your own hand - this unbelievable blaze of glory surely brings things to a clean, karmic conclusion.


The Franchise
This is perhaps the hardest question for the entire post-modern Batman movie. For those who’ve not seen the film, this SPOILER will probably be an unwelcomed bit of advance information, so perhaps you should simply skip this paragraph. Otherwise - having taken the advice of newly appointed Commission Gordon, the Caped Crusader has decided to accept the blame for the many deaths caused by Dent. Instead of a hero, he will become a renegade - or even worse, the stuff of social nightmares. By becoming the bad guy (indirectly, that is), the entire mythos takes a tantalizing turn. Nolan has said that he spent all his creative wealth making this version of the comic book hero, and may not have an answer as to where it goes from here. Between potential villains and likely storylines, there is a lot of uncertainty present, that’s for sure. But where there’s a will - and a big pile of cash - there’s a way. And as they proved this time around, as long as there is true talent involved, anything is possible.


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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.


With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.


When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.


Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.


This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.


This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.


When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).


With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.


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Saturday, Jul 26, 2008

It’s incredible when you think of it, but Jet Li’s first Hollywood film (as a villain in Lethal Weapon IV) was a mere 10 years ago. That’s right, back in 1998, few outside the Hong Kong action film fanbase knew the amazing talents of this life long kung fu expert. Certainly his work in the Once Upon a Time in China films made a major impact, but it took DVD and the digital format to really serve those epics the way they deserved. Indeed, Li’s rise from cult to commodity, geek glory to A-list action man, is nothing short of amazing.


And with said ascent we Westerners are finally being treated to the many unknown movies in his resume. Thanks to Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their definitive Dragon Dynasty label, his 1993 tour de force Tai Chi Master is now available. Featuring several major players in the genre both in front of and behind the camera, we get a clear example of why Li is the superstar he is today.


As young boys among the Shaolin, Jun Bao and Tien Bo were almost inseparable - that is, when they weren’t trying to outdo each other in the martial arts arena. A mistake sees them banned from the temple, and set out into the world. Soon, Tien Bo has fallen under the corrupting influence of the local eunuch governor, while Jun Bao works with a Robin Hood like insurrection taking back the excessive taxes and shakedown protection monies manipulated out of the population. In a grab for power, Tien Bo promises to stop the rebellion.


He tricks his friends into an attempted assassination. Only Jun Bao and broken woman Sui Lin make it out alive. Vowing to end the reign of terror instigated by his childhood friend, our hero takes up the sacred teachings of Chi, and learns the invaluable fighting lessons of its skill set. Naturally, a showdown between Jun Bao and Tien Bo will prove who is indeed the master, and whose been a servant to secular whims for far too long.


Tai Chi Master is one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time. This is no exaggeration. When you combine the stellar talents of a prime Li (30 years old and ready to rock), an amazing Michelle Yeoh, a ballsy turn by Chin Siu Ho, and nonstop action amazement from a directing God Yuen Wo Ping, this is the kind of kung fu spectacle that turns the novice into a fan and the knowledgeable into something akin to rabid. The basic plot serves as a model cinematic clothesline, perfect for the filmmaker to hang his patented wire fighting stunt scenes on. Even better, each one builds in skill level and execution, leading to a series of third act showdowns which close the story in absolutely epic fashion.


Unlike other examples of the genre, which focus almost exclusively on honor and duty, tradition and the trappings of society, Tai Chi Master is more concerned about the philosophical underpinnings of the title art form. Here, Jun Bao and Tien Bo are exiled for violating the monastery’s strict codes. But before they leave, their master explains how this is a blessing in disguise. Without understanding how their skill set plays within the parameters of the real world - and in turn, how the pair will respond when temptation and teachings clash - they will never truly gain wisdom. All throughout the first third of the narrative, our neophytes are tested over and over.


Part of the joy in this majestic battle royale is in how the characters react. Chin Siu Ho has the hardest role to fulfill, since we have to watch him turn from ambitious to evil in a very short period of time. Of course, the script gives him some truly horrendous crimes to commit, yet we have to buy the personal motivation and find empathy. Ho helps us do so. Similarly, Ms. Yeoh is hardly a weak willed woman, especially within these settings. But Tai Chi Master throws her for a loop early on, when an ex-husband shows up with his new horrible harpy wife. After another classic confront, Siu Lin drowns her sorrows in massive vats of wine. It’s spellbinding to see the actress in anything other than superhero mode.


The biggest surprise, however, is Jet Li’s effervescent, almost tragicomic performance as Jun Bao. There is lots of clowning and confused physical shtick in his humor-laced routine, but the overall façade he presents is one of dismay, betrayal, and anger. He even gets to play inebriated and insane (while recuperating from an attack). While he maintains the same stature and grace throughout, his is a troubled man, tormented by a true lack of understanding. Once he gets into the montage-style Tai Chi material, complete with voiceover lessons and artful fighting illustrations, we sense the champion coming to the fore. His last battle with Tien Bo seals the deal…and the movie.


Lacking some of the insight we’ve come to expect from the DVD series, the bonus features presented are more praise-oriented than production dense. Brett Ratner and Elvis Mitchell are on hand to give Jet li, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wo Ping their due, while another featurette focuses on the location for the shoot. The only star we hear from is Tien Bo - Chin Siu Ho. Looking surprisingly young, he discusses his own martial arts past and what it was like working with the various icons present. Wrapping everything up is another excellent commentary from Bey Logan. Desperate to fill in the blanks located at places like Wikipedia and IMDb, he delivers a detailed, dense, discussion of both the players and the pitfalls in making this kind of action ‘opera’. It’s an intriguing listen. 


With its lightening swordplay, flawless fisticuffs, slapstick style physical stunts, and well-choreographed genius, Tai Chi Master instantly takes its place among the many noted genre classics. It contains timeless performances from all involved while staying true to the recognizable approaches that keep fans flocking to this area of entertainment. Even better, this is the perfect introductory film for anyone wondering why, in today’s clime of CGI inspired bravado and outsized visuals, the basic body movements associated with the martial arts remain compelling. It’s much more than the violence. It’s the names responsible for the mayhem that are equally important. And Tai Chi Master has an amazing collection of talent behind it.


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