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Sunday, Apr 20, 2008

Spring break means no school library hours for me this week. (Sadly, no actual spring break trip in sight, merely additional hours at my other part time job.) Naturally, many faculty and staff members were raiding the magazine rack and new fiction shelf on Friday before scattering for the week-long hiatus. I gave them the benefit of a head start (I have constant access, after all), and then snatched a number of magazines I had my eye on: the two most recent Newsweek issues (the second most recent because I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, and it has an environmental focus), the most recent Time (for its cover story on Senator Obama’s mother) and a ‘Special Issue’ National Geographic (the irresistible sanguine cover reminiscent of a Hannibal Lecter novel with its headline: ‘China: Inside the Dragon’). Since the two most recent Vogue issues were long gone, I settled for the March copy which I hadn’t properly looked at yet, with Drew Barrymore gracing the cover.


I don’t ordinarily muse about magazines on Re:Print but the truth is they represent a considerable amount of my weekly reading fare. I fondly remember reserving Friday afternoons as an undergraduate student for reading Newsweek cover to cover in a campus cafe. It was my end of the week treat, catching up on the news and issues I’d missed. These days I spend less time with more varied publications, which is probably a good thing. Naturally there are certain subscriptions I am more drawn to than others, but just the other day I found myself skimming a humorous ‘Last Word’ style editorial commentary in Outdoor Life, as it had just arrived and I was checking it in. Not one of my usual reads, but I do try to explore the materials on offer.


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Back to books, however: I’ve delved at last into Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, and a fresh copy of Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing in also my hands for breezing through over the holiday. Clocking in at over 800 pages, it follows the common pattern in a series of being heftier than the volumes that came before, but I think I can manage. I’ve been looking forward to catching up with the adventures of Miss Gemma Doyle. More on both these series, after the break. So to speak.


With spring recently arrived in New England and the current intermission from my usual book-filled surroundings, the opportunity to get through large chunks of Bray’s work of historical fiction and also enjoy the sun has presented itself, even if there is no tropical getaway in my near future.


And you? Is your vacation reading different from your usual fare? When the sun comes out do you get in more reading than usual while you work on your vitamin D levels?


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Sunday, Apr 20, 2008

In an old game of ‘she said’ and ‘they said,’ Alicia Keys is peeved about a Blender article where she claims that she didn’t say what they claim that she did say (about Tupac and Biggie being killed by the government, which even the Los Angeles Times’ Chuck Philips hasn’t come up with yet). It’s not the first time (or will be the last time) a magazine published a story where a star said “I never said that!”  I was just curious about what could be done to clear things up in cases like this.


Obviously, both Blender and Keys can’t be totally right about this. One of them is fibbing, at least a little. Even if you give the benefit of the doubt all around, the end result would be that the magazine did inadvertently misquote her.


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Saturday, Apr 19, 2008


In the world of Hong Kong action films, fights are the fists of fury equivalent to sex scenes. The more accomplished the actors, the “hotter” the performance. In the case of Asian superstar Donnie Yen, his career has been one big collection of kung fu pop shots. However, nothing can prepare you for the hardcore thrills of watching this talented fighter take on The Matrix‘s magnificent Collin Chou in Flash Point. The duo take a standard revenge tale, and with the help of some magnificent mixed martial arts, deliver one of the most amazing confronts ever.


For Det. Sgt. Ma Jun, pre-China Hong Kong is a desperate den of iniquity. Especially troublesome are the Vietnamese gangs trying to control the import/export trade. Among the most notorious are three young brothers lead by the charismatic and deadly Tony. Luckily, the police have someone on the inside. Wilson works as the boys’ right hand hired goon, but when a sting goes wrong, he is revealed to be a traitor. Soon his life, and the life of his girlfriend are in danger. Even worse, Wilson must testify against one of them, and the threats are becoming deadly. It is up to Ma to use his own brand of street justice - and his amazing fighting skills - to bring down the villains once and for all.


At only 86 minutes, Flash Point (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Group, and their impressive Dragon Dynasty label) seems even shorter. That’s because Bio-Zombie/Kill Point director Yip Wai Yun takes this very simple story and strips it back even further. The complicated blurring of legal and moral lines of something like Hard Boiled are rinsed away in favor of the genre’s bare bones - good vs. evil, duty vs. honor. As our hero, Yen is out to get the bad guys…by whatever means necessary. Our criminals are craven, threatening everyone (and their closest relatives) that gets in their way. Once Wilson’s predicament is created, leading to all kinds of fear and retaliation, Yun goes into overdrive. The last 40 minutes are essentially an extended chase culminating with an amazingly brutal one-on-one.


Indeed, in one of those rare instances where a single scene supplants much of the movie that came before, Yen and costar Chou redefine the big screen brawl with their kinetic, intense display. Yun adds some additional spice by slowing the movements down, using his lens to capture punches that land solidly, kicks colliding into torsos with untold power. You really feel the contact here. Even though the various DVD extras explain how hard the scene was to choreograph and create, it still seems all too real. Indeed, on the second disc, Yen and Chou describe how physically grueling and demanding Flash Point was. Nothing was easy, and yet it looks intoxicatingly simply onscreen.


There were other issues involved in the making of this movie, creative controversies that we learn about via the always loquacious guest commentator Bey Logan. He contributes a conversation here with star Yen that really explains the realm of mixed martial arts (the movie reflects Asia’s newfound appreciation of the genre-busting style) and how Flash Point was originally meant as a legitimate sequel to Yun’s S.P.L. Considering the number of known fighters used in the film, it’s amazing this movie hasn’t been more widely championed among aficionados. In fact, after watching this incredible display, it’s not hard to see why MMA is so incredibly popular.


But there is also enough of the standard kung fu stereotypes to keep the purists happy. At the beginning, a scuffle at a driving range substitutes an unusual setting for the same old posturing, and when Wilson’s cover is blown, his escape is rather routine. Yen is clearly the star here, and he gets two major sequences - the finale, and an equally violent food stand free for all. Yet Flash Point also subverts some of our expectations. After subduing his victim, Ma literally beats him to death. A bomb meant for another character takes out an unexpected cast member. There is some incredibly visual flair employed along the way - the aforementioned explosion is rendered in a Fight Club like CGI detail - and it’s always refreshing to see a camera that follows the action, instead of dictating it.


In fact, the DVD makes it very clear that Yun and Yen collaborate very closely on their films. As a direct result, Flash Point is a total reflection of both men’s dynamic - a little flashy, a little old fashioned, and very much geared toward a serious attention to martial arts detail. There’s a small amount of egotism involved, Yen specifically believing in the superiority of his technique and training. Yet when you see the results, when you witness the jaw-dropping speed and skill shown, you don’t really question the arrogance.


While some may find the story slow to start and over before any real depth or personal insight has occurred. Ma can come across as a renegade, the kind of cop that American officials would have chastised, or canned, a long, long time ago. But thanks to the pure kung fu magnetism of the leads, and the way in which director Yun cuts directly to the chaos, Flash Point really delivers. It literally kicks (and punches) the tired Asian crime drama up a few fabulous notches. 



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Friday, Apr 18, 2008


If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.


As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.

Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.


At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.


Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.


How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.


These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.


From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.


Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.



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Friday, Apr 18, 2008
J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee


Australians are quick to claim celebrities as our own, even when the connection is tenuous. Russell Crowe is ours (born in New Zealand); Naomi Watts (United Kingdom) likewise. Mel Gibson (United States) was, but that’s been kept quiet since his drunk-and-racist driving incident.


So it’s no surprise to see that J.M. Coetzee, newly naturalized as an Australian citizen, is already thoroughly “one of ours”. The South African-born novelist and Nobel laureate has spent most of his professional career in his homeland, but now resides in Adelaide. His recent works have even taken on Australian characters and locations.


The latest sign of his adoption as an Australian was his invitation to attend the Australia 2020 Summit this weekend. Australia 2020, a talk fest convened by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has some vague nation-building aspirations and Coetzee’s role is to join with 99 others to plan pathways “towards a creative Australia”.


The “creative Australia” stream is heavy with celebrities and big names, so it’s no surprise that our only living Nobel Prize for Literature winner would be invited. Many commentators are asking whether celebrities are the best people to determine national direction—as is how 100 people with individual ideas and agendas can agree on concrete plans for national creativity in two short days. Perhaps Hugh Jackman will go head to head with Baz Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin in a battle over theatre funding, while screenwriter Geoffrey Atherden will try to pitch his latest TV show to Joel Edgerton.


The choice of Coetzee, for all his newness as an Aussie, is one of the better selections. Unlike many of the established voices invited to attend, Coetzee is not part of any local mafia or interest group. He can bring a freshness of approach that the patronage-hungry locals may lack. In all likelihood, though, the notoriously taciturn Coetzee will probably just smile benignly throughout the weekend and write a book about it later.


A problem for the Summit is the vague nature of “creativity”. Australia’s working-class roots still impart to residents a distrust of “high” art from an early age. Television and movies are generally popular, although Australian movies are currently out of favour. Books by footballers and cricketers and J.K. Rowling are popular, but Coetzee sells far fewer copies than fellow South African expat Bryce Courtenay. Opera, ballet, and theatre that isn’t Mamma Mia! are niche tastes.


Yet the 2020 attendees span all these aspects of art and culture—so discussions of funding and priority may be particularly heated. Just exactly who “needs” funding and what Australia as a nation gets out of the arts—these are questions that will hopefully be asked. The contrast between a writer such as Anna Funder, whose excellent Stasiland was assisted by local arts funding, and Coetzee, who comes from a completely different system, will be interesting.


Maybe even a celebrity-heavy discussion forum can give some guidance on the future of Australian art. At least Germaine Greer’s invitation was lost in the post.


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