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Saturday, Feb 23, 2008


The test of any great story is its adaptability - that is, how readily another individual or culture can take the basic tenets and make it their own. Myths and legends are a primary source of such interchangeable material, but there have been many ‘modern’ narratives that have found such universality. Though many may argue that he merely channeled the basic stories of the past, William Shakespeare created several plays that have become the standard bearer for dozens of updates and revisions. His most heralded work remains Hamlet, considered a true test of any actor’s mantle. Interestingly enough, it forms the basis for the luxurious martial arts spectacle The Legend of the Black Scorpion. But instead of focusing on the famous melancholy Dane, we get a decidedly female look at the complicated court politics.


This is a movie where Gertrude - in this case, Empress Wan (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang) - is the main focus. We have our Hamlet in the tormented Prince turned tortured artist Wu Lan (a wonderful Daniel Wu) and a backstabbing, scheming Uncle (You Ge) who may have murdered his own brother for the throne. Toss in the unrequited love of Qing Nu (a heartbreaking Xun Zhou) daughter of the crown’s chief advisor, her brother (Xiaoming Huang) exiled to a distant part of the Empire, and a defiant official who pays for his consternation with his life, and you’ve got the Bard’s basics clearly in place. But director Feng Xiaogang isn’t interested in just retelling the well honed saga. Instead, he adds subtle subtext about human nature, the need for individual facades (or masks), and the ruthless nature of power - both personal and political.


Together they combine to bring new life to a classic. The Legend of the Black Scorpion (on DVD as part of the Weinstein Company and Genius Products excellent Dragon Dynasty Collection), for all its Old Vic allusions, is purely Chinese in its execution. This is a film that flaunts massive, impressive sets, long, luxuriant takes, performances pitched somewhere between dour and delirious, and enough Yuen Wo-ping wire fu to soften even the most hardened of martial arts hearts. Thanks to the brilliant art direction, the use of tone and mood, the emphasis on interpersonal passions and pride, as well as the incomparable scope of events, we get a story that soars well above the typical elements. Instead, Xiaogang gives us tragedy as a type of cosmic destiny, a means of making the smallest act seem like the most significant and symbolic step ever taken by a human being.


The Legend of the Black Scorpion is indeed as eye opening as it is thought provoking. From the opening moments when we meet Wu Lan in his beautiful bamboo school, to the last act confrontation at the world’s most sumptuous banquet, Timmy Yip’s stunning designs, loaded with exotic and ephemeral touches, take us back in time and literally out of this world. While most period pieces strive for some semblance of era-appropriate realism, only the warrior uniforms here recall a feudal state. The rest of Black Scorpion shudders like an art gallery come to life, moments so magnificent and masterful that you wonder how they were ever achieved. As part of the new two disc DVD package, we learn a great deal about the production, how CGI and other optical tricks were used to realize some very ambitious aims. It highlights the big budget foundation of this fascinating film.


Yet pretty pictures are nothing without actors and performances to populate them. And in the casting of Black Scorpion, Xiaogang has found a fascinating company indeed. For all her plaintive, porcelain beauty, lead actress Zhang makes a devastating villainess. Perhaps because she is so regal in her demeanor she comes across as even more cruel and heartless. At the other end of the spectrum, no Western actor can out melancholy Wu when it comes to playing our notoriously depressed lead. Instead of being inactive or unable to defend himself, the Prince in this version of the story stands for his principles and fights when confronted. It is only when he sits with the Empress or his love Qing that his true sadness comes forth. Wu is a wonderful martial artist, a man who typically isn’t given much of a chance to highlight his kung fu. Here, he gets a pair of wonderful swordplay scenes, and he really excels in both.


As for his handling of the material overall, Xiaogang can be accused of going slo-mo more than necessary. During the opening attack at Wu Lan’s school, there is a great deal of undercranked blood spray. Indeed, fans of such formal epics may be put off by the amount of gore here. Bodies are bisected with regularity, and one character is beaten to death in a gauntlet so cruel it’s almost impossible to watch. Yet between all the garroting and wound gushing, suicides and mass slaughter, it’s the lesser intrigues that carry this film. And it is here where this director truly shines. The scenes between characters sizzle with unspoken fervor, and the contrasts between close-ups and massive establishing shots never let us forget the “cogs in a bigger machine” theme. In fact, it’s clear that Xiaogang used Hamlet for more than a fictional foundation. Something about the story truly resonated with him.


It’s a fact confirmed by ever-present commentator Bey Logan as part of Black Scorpion‘s excellent digital overview. Spending most of his time comparing and contrasting this version of the Bard with the original, there is a lot of insight in the alternate narrative track. From moments he feels surpasses the classic to times when traditional Hong Kong filmmaking took over, Logan lets us in on all aspects of the production. Perhaps the most engaging material offered centers on the missing scenes - intriguing sequences scripted but never filmed. We also learn who killed Wu Lan’s father, and why such a conclusion was cut out of the film. Along with the standard Dragon Dynasty interviews and featurettes (Xiaogang and Wu get the Q&A treatment, while there are two Making-of documentaries), we truly begin to understand the positives - and potential negatives - of adapting a very famous tale.


Yet it’s that very alteration that stands as The Legend of the Black Scorpion‘s biggest accomplishment. While it seems next to impossible to take Hamlet and make it your own, the creative company behind this film has done just that. There is just enough Shakespeare here to keep purists from crying foul. Yet there is also enough originality and outright vision to keep things looking and feeling wholly unique. Some may complain over the lack of action (there are probably four or five major martial arts sequences in a 140 minute movie), and the open-ended conclusion could leave audiences cold, but make no mistake about it - The Legend of the Black Scorpion is as opulent and overpowering as any version of the famous play you’ve ever seen. It stands as a true work of art.




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Saturday, Feb 23, 2008

A fellow writer bud from New York got a simple value meal at McDonald’s here in Oslo. 28 dollars. I kid you not. Thank the Norse gods for pølse, that’s all I have to say.


By:Larm! Day three of three! The madness came to a head, with venues seriously pushing (or violating) fire codes, the music on this night, at least that which was heard by your interpid reporter, stretching form the sublime to the jaw-droppingly ridiculous.


Anna Järvinen

Anna Järvinen


Anna Järvinen was on my to-see list from the get-go. The swedish singer-songwriter came from out of nowhere last year with the pretty, rustic Jag Fick Feeling, a sung-in-Swedish record featuring a backing band comprised of none other than members of Dungen. If Anna sung in English, she’d be an instant darling of the Americana set, boasting the kind of gentle, sublime voice that warrants comparisons to Emmylou Harris as she does. But as in all great music, it can transcend language, and even though I had no idea just what the hell she was singing about, it hardly mattered, her set starting from gentle acoustic folk to full-on roots rock.


Stalingrad Cowgirls

Stalingrad Cowgirls


Heading from the VG Teltet to the charmingly dingy John Dee club, the din coming from inside was rattling the windows of the old building. Once inside, I was surprised to see a trio of small, raven-haired young ladies, led by a drop-dead gorgeous singer guitarist, delivering an absolutely pulverizing variation of Donnas-style hard rock, Who are they, and where are they from?Kitos!” said the singer after the first song. Finland! Of course. Six miles north of the Arctic Circle, to be exact.That country likes their music loud and heavy, and this band, dubbed Stalingrad Cowgirls, displays more music muscle than most male bands of their like. Their debut album just hit stores here in Norway, and hopefully the rest fo the world will get it soon after. We have to. [player]


Lukestar

Lukestar


The one band that’s been mentioned almost as much as Lykke Li is Norwegian sensations Lukestar, whose second album Lake Toba is selling exceptionally well over here. Comparisons to Mew and Blonde Redhead have been bandied about, but these guys are more post-hardcore than anything, tightly executed and very catchy, the one ace card being a pudgy Black Francis look-alike with an unreal falsetto, falling somewhere between Greg Gilbert of Delays and the feller from Sigur Ros what don’t talk English. The album is led by the superb single “White Shade”, which went over huge with the punters, but the rest of the set had the band trying to sound more aggressive than they needed to be, “White Clouds” being the only moment where they made the jump from very good to astonishing. As it is, the Warped Tour crowd would love this, but as complimentary I mean that comment to be, that’s sort of beneath Lukestar, considering the promise they show on that one song. They’re not there yet, but greatness awaits. [player]


Super Family

Super Family


The night was drawing to a close, but on the way back in Sentrum Scene was hoppin’, so it was worth an investigation. It was easily the biggest crowd the 1,700 capacity venue had seen over the last three days, almost completely full from floor to balcony. And for whom? Super Family. Who? Just try to imagine this: a manic bespectacled lead singer who looks and acts like a cross between Gord Downie and Jarvis Cocker leading a septet, including two preening male dancers, that simultaneously rips off both Arcade Fire and the Killers to the point where newbies (i.e. us bewildered North American writers) are wondering just how much of it all is a gigantic piss-take. Granted, this is a part of the world that embraces kitsch rock, from hair metalers Wig Wam, to the costumed Lordi, to the demented genius of Turbonegro, but this spectacle was so over the top in its post-punk stick and overt gayness, that to see men who would otherwise come off as your average Linkin Park fan, go wild for this stuff, was simply logic’defying. In a way, you have to admire how well Super Family sells it all, but after three songs, it really started to wear too thin for comfort. Still, the big crowd ate it all up, and left the venue beaming. A group of us tired, jaded writers bemusedly watched as the happy kids exited the venue, off to raise hell in this lovely city that never seems to go to bed. [player]


“Would this go over in the States?”


“Not a chance.”


But to Super Family and their obviously strong cadre of followers, they couldn’t care less. It’s goofy, but it’s theirs, a perfect encapsulation of the likeable insularity of this part of the world, and to hell with the rest of the world if they don’t get it. In all honesty, you couldn’t ask for a more fitting end to easily the most well-run, enjoyable musical event yours truly has ever seen.


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Friday, Feb 22, 2008


At this point in its cinematic history, the zombie has been reduced to a journeyman horror workhorse. In a genre that once saw it as a frightmare superstar, rabid fanboy love (and the accompanying desire to show such affection via homemade imitation) has reduced your standard cannibalistic corpse into a hackneyed terror tenet. Gone are the days when the novelty of the creature could carry an entire film. Now, if there aren’t CGI hordes of these flesh craving fiends defying logic and physicality as they sprint across the screen like undead athletes, fright fans groan in disapproval. It will be interesting to see how they greet Jorge Grau’s 1974 old school scary movie The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, there’s a lot here that a new fangled macabre maven could love. There is also a great deal to test their post-modern patience. 


While on his way to a holiday in the country, antiquities dealer George has his motorcycle totaled by inconsiderate driver Edna. They strike up a bargain - she will take him to his cottage, if he will first let her visit her sick sister. Lost along the way, they seek directions from a local farmer. He is in the process of using a newfangled government device that kills bugs and other parasites via radioactivity. What they don’t know is that the machine also resurrects the dead. Edna is attacked by a strange man, and when they arrive at her sibling’s, the crazed woman is screaming about the death of her husband. Of course, the conservative police inspector doesn’t believe a word of their story. He thinks the duo are murderous hippies ala The Manson Family, ready to turn his lush part of England into their own killing fields. It will take more than a few hysterics to convince him there’s something more sinister going on. The reanimated bodies tearing up the hospital may be all the proof anyone needs.


If you’re looking for the missing link between George Romero’s zombie epics and his splattery Italian copycats, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue might just be that absentee connection. Combining the American ideal of suspense and social commentary with the Mediterranean love of all things gross and gory, Spanish transplant Jorge Grau was given a simple mandate by this eager backers - create a commercially viable color rip off of Romero’s 1968 black and white Night. With a long list of credits including recent genre efforts Penalty of Death and Bloody Ceremony (both from ‘73), the filmmaker was provided a hefty budget and the run of Cinecitta Studios. With some location work in England, and the growing emergence of Italian special effects, Grau gave his audience more than they bargained for.

Indeed, the main thing you notice about Manchester Morgue is the anti-counterculture screeds from American actor Arthur Kennedy. Attempting a passable Irish/Scottish brogue, and looking like your typical Establishment goon, the former Hollywood star repeatedly rails against, hippies, drugs, youth, long hair, non-conformity, and anything else that comes into his button down mind. He is backed up by some local bureaucrat that uses his preoccupation with the occult to accuse the newly arrived city slicker suspects of Satanism. It’s a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have the typical zombie dramatics - dark night, groaning and heavy breathing, the sudden appearance of a reanimated corpse. But by placing the blame squarely on our hero and heroine, Grau gives his movie a touch of necessary realism.


There is also a staunch pro-environment message here as well. The radioactive bug zapper, its five mile range bringing the recently deceased back to life, is part of a multilayered look by Grau at that time tested standby, man vs. nature. At the beginning, when George is riding around London on his motorcycle, we see shots of nuclear power plants and dirty, decaying buildings. This is not the slick, high tech city circa 2008. Instead, Manchester Morgue suggests a metropolis dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices. There’s even an overheard radio broadcast later on that supports such a view. Our lead also loves to chide the workers running the big red atom smashing pest controller. His shouting matches over the effect on the land - and later, the local corpses - provide the film with a solid bedrock of beliefs.


But for most horror fans, it’s gore that delivers the most perverse pleasure, and Manchester Morgue doesn’t disappoint. While you have to wade through 80 moody minutes to get to the sluice, Grau gives in to our basic bloodlusts. We get axes to the head, disemboweling, lopped off breasts, several bites to the neck, and enough walking ghouls to infect even the most cynical fan with a good case of the heebie jeebies. When you combine this material with the film’s already pea soup thick tone, it becomes a very unsettling experience. Like most great fear flicks, we get the distinct impression that anyone can die at any time. And since Kennedy is simply jonesing to deliver a little conservative comeuppance to the two ‘long hairs’ he feels are responsible, we get double the threat.


But The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is really centered on style and approach. Grau doesn’t give in to the temptation to merely imitate Romero. He avoids the documentary dynamic that made Night so memorable, and instead seems to channel a great deal of Hammer’s horror ideal. Similarly, the film is not fully Italian. Instead of completely painting the cinematic canvas red, this director explores character, hot button issues, and religious symbolism as a way to make his monster mythology more believable. There are oddball elements interspersed here and there - the opening London travelogue with the occasional mysterious figures in the background, the notion that the zombie can “create” members of their killer brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability.


Thanks to Blue Undergroud’s exceptional new transfer (bright and basically flawless) and attention to added DVD content (we get interviews with Grau, star Ray Lovelock and F/X artist Gianmetto De Rossi), The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is poised to be rediscovered by a new generation of terror aficionados. And it definitely deserves the chance, if for no other reason than to show how the entire subgenre changed and mutated to fit the current social and political clime. Instead of feeling dated, as some ‘70s films find themselves, there’s a timeless quality to what this movie accomplishes. By looking to the past while focusing on the present, Grau gives us an experience to contemplate for decades to come. It’s a dark and very disturbing vision. It also proves that, when done right, zombies can still be the creepshow kings. It’s a lesson many post-millennial moviemakers could definitely learn. 



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Friday, Feb 22, 2008

After an impressive start, by:Larm kicked into high gear on Friday, and the entire evening, for this writer anyway, couldn’t have been more eclectic, ranging from a performance that redefines the word “intimate”, to four nutty girls and a balalaika, to the kind of scorching jazz that would make Wynton Marsalis have a coronary, to galloping old school metal, to the triumphant return of Norway’s indie darling.


Hanne Hukkelberg

Hanne Hukkelberg


Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg made North American critics’ heads turn with her debut Little Things (including us here at PopMatters), and built on that momentum with last year’s dreamy Rykestrasse 68. Unfortunately for those of us stuck on the west side of the Atlantic, that critically acclaimed follow-up wasn’t released domestically, something Nettwerk is determined to rectify with the imminent ‘08 release of the record as well as a major US tour next month. So, to whet our appetites, Hukkelberg’s Norwegian prepresentation took a dozen or so of journos and music reps out to Oslo’s Propeller Studios for a quaint little showcase performance, where she and her four bandmates squeezed into a tiny, deathly quiet room with the rest of us for a gorgeous selections of songs from the new(ish) album. Whether it was the asthmatic wheeze of an accordion being pulled. the sustained chime of a Tibetan singing bowl, the innocent strains of a toy piano, or Hukkerlberg’s own tender voice, it made for an extraordinary experience that only enhanced the quiet power of the record.


Katzenjammer

Katzenjammer


Back at the festival, the one venue that had some of us wary was the VG Teltet, a gigantic white tent set up smack in the middle of Younstorget square, but jaws collectively dropped upon entry, as the carpeting, drapery-like roof, light rigs, and big lounge area with couches would have you believe you were anywhere but outside in the middle of downtown Oslo. And it was here that one of the bigger surprises of the week happened, as the female foursome Katzenjammer came out and made jaws drop. Part Nordic folk, part energetic pub tunes, part country, these young ladies came off as a cross between the Dixie Chicks and Gogol Bordello, each ridiculously talented member trading instruments between songs, moving from piano to mandolin to a gigantic bass balalaika that was taller than any of them, and the charismatic bunch won over the big crowd instantly. [player]


In Vain

In Vain


A few blocks away at the cleverly-arranged Rockefeller club, bands were busy trading off sets with finely-tuned precision, punters dashing form the main venue to the much cozier “annex” and back again in between sets. Norway’s In Vain offered a respectable mix of blackened death metal, doom, and prog and local faves Sahg, a band for whom Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky” is the Rosetta Stone (I mean that in a good way) sounded near flawless, the strong tenor voice of singer/guitarist Olav Iversen bringing to the band the kind of added dimension that trendier American counterparts the Sword desperately lack. However, it was jazz trio the Thing that was the best of the lot, who channeled the neo-beatnik cool of Morphine with a much more aggressive element than the sorely-missed band ever did, using pedals, pitchshifters, and a laptop to take the saxophone-bass-drums trio into some exciting territory, sounding both avant-garde and primal. [player]


Ida Maria

Ida Maria


Around the corner at Sentrum Scene, an enormous crowd awaited native daughter Ida Maria, who went into 2008 riding a big wave of hype following her performance at CMJ last October and now has the British press drooling all over her, this without an album that has yet to be released. Thanks to blogs and filesharing, though, the audience on this night knew the words to such faves as the lightly shuffling “Louie”, the somber “Going to Hell”, and the raucously catchy “Better When You’re Naked”, their enthusiasm responded in kind by Ms. Maria, who flung herself all over the stage, crashing into mic stands and band members, writhing on the floor, whipping her top off. It was during the brilliant “Oh My God”, one of the best tunes of 2007, that the entire exhausting night came to a head, a final explosion of energy that had us walking, heavy-legged back to our hotels to try to recuperate enough to withstand one more night. [player]


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Thursday, Feb 21, 2008


For the weekend beginning 22 February, here are the films in focus:


Be Kind, Rewind [rating: 9]


At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.


There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Vantage Point [rating: 5]


When a movie has to rely on a series of cinematic stunts to achieve its ends, the convolutions are bound to undermine the ambitions - and that’s exactly what happens in Peter Travis’ around about political thriller. Using the attempted assassination of a US president at a massive world terrorism summit (and an additional suicide bombing) as the grist for a ‘keep ‘em guessing’ bit of conspiracy theorizing, this TV director can only trade on a single glorified gimmick. The event here is replayed at least eight times, viewed from as many personal perspectives as possible, providing snippets of truth and indirect clues along the way. While the concept seems competent in theory, the execution is spotty and uninspired. Every time we think we have a handle on all the back stabbing, uneasy alliances, and double crossing, Barry Levy’s script takes an illogical shortcut, using unbelievable coincidence and contrivance to get all the actors in the same space at the same time. While the performances are uniformly good, and the last act car chase gets the pulse pounding, the overall effect is dizzying. Like a terminal case of déjà vu, Vantage Point appears destined to repeat its problems over an over again. And then it does.


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