Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Feb 11, 2008

OK, maybe I was a little harsh before but let’s face it- even most music fans reluctantly watch the Grammys.  If you’re a pop music junkie, you need to see it or maybe you need to root for your favorite artist but otherwise, you probably have better things to do with a few hours of your life.


Looking back, last year’s broadcast was actually pretty good (not great though).  But this year?  The Foo Fighters were good though that orchestra part and the American Idol rip-off were tacked on pretty clumsily.  Amy Wino deserved the kudos (even if the State Dept won’t have her) and she actually delivered a good performance which means that she should stop saying no, no, no to rehab. Aretha sounded in good voice though it seemed like they were trying to shove as many gospel acts on stage as they could after a while.  Other than Kanye (the tribute to his mom was moving and you gotta love the Daft Punk pyramid), Fogerty/Little Richard (though not poor Jerry Lee) and Tina/Beyonce (who tipped their hat to Ike whether they like it or not), the other performances were pretty snoozy.  It was nice to see Prince and Stevie up there but it would have been even better to have them perform instead of just presenting. 


The real news was Herbie Hancock upsetting not just Wino but also Kanye (can’t wait to hear his rants) and snagging the big prize- he looked genuinely surprised (as I’m sure most people were).  It’s a nice album and Herbie’s always been a great musician (for proof, check out not just Headhunters material but also his 70’s sessions with Miles and his early album Maiden Voyage, not to mention his early/mid 80’s hip-hop phase with “Rockit”- quite a varied career).  This particular album, his tribute to Joni Mitchell with guest shots by Nora Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen and JM herself, seemed OK to me when I first heard it but not extraordinary- basically, it’s good lounge jazz record aimed at the adult contemporary market.  Listening to it again, I still think the same way but I don’t see how it adds a lot to any of the original material.  Yet because it serves the AC market so well, it probably snagged enough votes from the Grammy constituency’s older crowd to beat Kanye and Wino, both of whom made better albums.  Which is not to take anything away from Herbie- I think it’s great that he nabbed a big award and certainly deserves the recognition (not to mention the inevitable sales boost he’ll get).  It makes me wonder about the academy voters though and when a younger (and MAYBE hipper) demographic will dominate there and be reflected in the voting choices.


Otherwise, it was actually a little more boring than I feared and longer than I thought but at least, it’ll be another 12 months before it comes back…


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 10, 2008


Now, over three decades and a billion jaded movie experiences later, it’s hard to explain the impact Jaws had on those who first experienced it. As any film fan will tell you, Universal didn’t expect much from the project. The book by Peter Benchley was indeed a bestseller, but it was a terribly tawdry read, more Peyton Place with sharks than a pulse pounding actioner. The director, a certain tenderfooter named Steven Spielberg, was more accustomed to doing TV films. In his naïve, novice way, he thought it would be simple to film the complicated story on the actual waters of the Atlantic Ocean. And then there was the cast - a relative unknown group of struggling stars that had solid credentials, but very little turnstile twisting face value.


All of that changed when the first few moments unfurled. By the time Chrissie was crunched up like so much skinny dipping granola by our unseen aquatic villain, audiences were indeed hooked. But it took a classic line delivered by an equally iconic actor to really sell the situation. Decked out in a season hiding slicker (the Summer film was shot in deepest winter), rugged tan, and lawman like glasses, Police Chief Martin Brody manned the Orca’s chum bucket with a sense of immature consternation. When boat Captain Quint demanded he keep the slurry line going while Oceanographer Matt Hooper manned the engine to go slow ahead, Brody was pissed. “Slow ahead?” the words echoed. “I can go slow ahead. Come down here and chum some of this shit”.


And with those words, viewers got their first major glimpse of 25 foot sea beast Bruce, the great white devil at the center of Jaws’ story. And at that moment, Roy Scheider became an instant member of cinema’s indelible icons. An already mature 42 when he made the proto-blockbuster, the seasoned stage and television actor was better known for his episodic work than his feature films. While he had starred alongside Gene Hackman in The French Connection and proved his tough guy mantle in 1973’s The Seven-Ups, it would be the timeless fish frightmare that cemented Scheider’s status. He never went on to top the popularity of his work in Spielberg’s popcorn perfection, yet his career would remain one of grace, gravitas, and gumption.


Born Roy Richard Scheider on 10 November 1932 in Orange, New Jersey, sports would dominate the future thespians young life. By the time he hit college, he was already the proud owner of a broken nose (the emblematic feature was his only reward after a stint in the Golden Gloves competition) and an adventurous spirit. Studying drama at both Rutgers and Franklin and Marshall, he spent some time in the military before finally foraying into performance. He even won an Obie Award (the off Broadway equivalent of a Tony) for his work in Stephen D, and was part of the New York Shakespeare Festival company. Early film roles, however, found him wallowing in grade-Z schlock (Curse of the Living Corpse) and minor supporting parts (Star! , Paper Lion).


In 1971, he was lucky enough to costar alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in the controversial award winner Klute. He was so memorable that, from there, William Friedkin hired him to play Det. Buddy Russo in Connection. That turn would earn Scheider his first Academy Award nomination. It would also threaten to typecast him as a tough as nails NYC cop. His role in The Seven-Ups, as Det. Buddy Manucci seemed to stress that possibility. But when he was tapped by Spielberg to play the transplanted New Yorker charged with keeping Amity Island safe from an unusual string of shark attacks, Scheider sensed something was about to change. Though Jaws would be one of the most grueling shoots of his entire career, it raised his professional profile drastically.

Marathon Man followed, the newfound A-lister standing astride acting maverick Dustin Hoffman as the sibling catalyst for all the diamonds and Nazis intrigue. He then turned down the role of Michael Vronsky in Michael Cimono’s Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, believing the script was illogical and implausible. Robert DeNiro ended up with the part. Reports claim that Universal was so angry about his stance and consternation (he even reneged on his contract) that he was forced to appear in Jaws 2 as punishment. It was not his most memorable work.


There was another film for Friedkin (the Wages of Sin remake Sorcerer), that second dip into dorsal fin territory, before the role that would come to redefine who audiences thought Roy Scheider was literally fell into his lap. When despotic stage director Bob Fosse found newly anointed Academy prima donna Richard Dreyfuss wanting in the role of Joe Gideon, he realized his egomaniacal epic needed a new leading man.  He immediately said “Goodbye” to his star and went looking for a singing/dancing reflection of his onscreen, autobiographical self. Oddly enough, he wound up picking Dreyfuss’ costar, the man who endemically complained about the rotten fish buffet he was forced to serve up.


Scheider was the first to admit that he was the completely wrong choice for 1979’s All That Jazz. While his resemblance to Fosse was frightening, he was practically tone deaf and had a self-described pair of two left feet. Weeks of intense training as well as careful song reconstruction in the studio resulted in one of the stand out tour de forces in the actor’s canon. Jazz would go on to become one of 1979’s most critically acclaimed films, and while the Academy chose to ignore it in favor of the family drama Kramer vs. Kramer (it got to share the loser’s circle with Apocalypse Now - not the worst company to keep), Fosse’s vision has since stood the test of time.


Oddly enough, it appeared as if Jazz jinxed Scheider’s fortunes. While he worked consistently (Blue Thunder, 2010, 52 Pick-up), he never eclipsed his performances from the ‘70s. In fact, by the end of the ‘80s, he was resorting to direct-to-video filler (Night Game) and off the radar independents (he was very good in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch). He would eventually reteam with Spielberg for a project about a futuristic underwater science vessel (SeaQuest DSV), but the F/X heavy TV drama failed to capture the imagination of audiences. It was back to the ‘Bs’ then, popping up occasionally in minor roles in mainstream movies (The Rainmaker, The Punisher).


Schieder never stopped acting, though. When the news of his passing at age 75 was released this past Sunday 10 February, the Associated Press quoted longtime friend Dreyfuss as follows:


“He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call ‘a knockaround actor’. A ‘knockaround actor’ to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn’t’ yell and scream at the fates and does his job and does it as well as he can.”


He also never shied away from his past. When DVD arrived, allowing actors to offer their often unheard perspective on the films they appeared in, Scheider was there for interviews and commentaries. His insights into the directing styles of now legendary filmmakers (he once called Fosse “a real SOB”) added a great deal to the historical legacy of cinema. He also participated in the 2005 Jawsfest celebration which saw many in the cast and crew return to Martha’s Vineyard (where the film was shot) to share memories and memorabilia with fans. His contributions to the convention (captured by filmmaker Erik Hollander in the Scheider produced The Shark is Still Working) were a major part of its success.


As an actor and an activist (he championed environmental causes), Scheider was never known to back down. Even during times when the freezing waters off the Maine coast threatened to chill everyone to the bone, he jumped in and did his job. Rumor has it that Spielberg needed 75 takes of the sinking Orca to get said all important final shot right - and the angular actor was there for every one. While family and friends will remember a man who was dedicated in all pursuits that struck his fancy, those of us mulling middle age will never forget his turn as Chief Brody. If anyone could make it safe to go back in the water, this well meaning peace officer had the ability. Quint will just have to find someone else to do his dirty work now.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 10, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Shanghai Restoration Project: Story of a City
Preface - The Shanghai Restoration Project feat. Di Johnston [MP3]
     


Movement - The Shanghai Restoration Project feat. Heath Brandon [MP3]
     


Touchdown - The Shanghai Restoration Project feat. Natural Fact of Unconscious Logic [MP3]
     


Last Morning - The Shanghai Restoration Project feat. Jordan Cooper [MP3]
     


Buy at Amazon.com


Jason Collett
Out of Time [MP3]
     


Charlyn, Angel of Kensington [MP3]
     


Daedelus
Now’s the Time [MP3] (from Live at Low End Theory released 22 January)
     


Nada Surf
See These Bones [MP3]
     


Crushed Stars
Spies [MP3] (from Gossamer Days releasing 19 February)
     



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 10, 2008

Despite the mash-up’s of artists from different genres that they try at the Grammys (which usually makes for interesting visual moments but not great musical moments), the real drama of the ceremony is “who’s gonna get bragging rights?”  The winners not only get to tack this on their resume but also get a sales boost out of it too.  So with the ongoing writers’ strike not threatening the ceremony, this time going in, the big questions is how many awards would the physically-absent and still detoxing Amy Winehouse win plus how many would Kanye West win and how many fits would he throw.  It’s pretty snoozy stuff compared to the ongoing tussles in the presidential campaign now between another woman and another African-American, not to mention a ‘moderate’ GOP front-runner who’s still getting beaten in the primaries.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Feb 9, 2008


Stephen Chow is the Daffy Duck of Hong Kong marital arts superstars. Far more subversive than Jackie Chan ever was, and endearingly idiosyncratic compared to other cookie cutter action stars (especially the muscled voids of today), the 45 year old maverick stands as the genre’s biggest undiscovered superstar. Sure, Western audiences were wowed by the cartoonish chaos of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, but Chow had been part of the Asian entertainment industry for more than two decades before making it big across the Atlantic. Of course, through our narrow, near xenophobic view of the modern motion picture, he seemed like an overnight sensation.


Yet Chow has been long regarded by film fans who’ve ventured beyond their local video stores standard selection. With such well received efforts as King of Comedy, God of Cookery, Forbidden City Cop, and From Beijing with Love, he’s accumulated quite a reputation in his native land. In fact, when 1992’s Royal Tramp won the box office that year, Chow had the distinction of starring in the other four films making up the top five as well. Considered by many to be an excellent example of the mo lei tau - or “makes no sense” - genre of Chinese comedy, this wacky historical epic spawned an equally outrageous sequel - Royal Tramp II and solidified Chow’s status as a top foreign funnyman.


Long unavailable on Region 1 DVD, The Weinstein Company and Genius Products, under their marvelous imprint Dragon Dynasty, are giving the English speaking world a chance to savor these significant works. Presented in a two disc special edition loaded with exceptional added content, Royal Tramp and Royal Tramp II strike the perfect balance between period piece and pantomime, amazing wire-fu fisticuffs and intricate, entendre-laced dialogue. Some may be shocked at the scatological humor. Others may marvel at the amount of violence. But in the end, few can question Chow’s abilities before the camera. He takes material that many in his native land feels cheapens both himself and their history and turns it into a sensational combination of machismo and mirth.

The first film, Royal Tramp, sets up Chow’s character perfectly. When a young emperor is declared too inexperienced to run his dynasty, he brings on four advisors to guide and counsel. One member of the group, a despotic old man named Obai, turns traitor, and begins a singular revolution against the throne. But this is not the only threat to the crown. Seems another group, called the Heaven and Earth Society, want to bring down the Quing dynasty and reestablish the Ming name. While working at his sister’s brothel, a young con artist/storyteller named Bo winds up helping the leader of Heaven and Earth escape harm. He agrees to work for the organization as a spy.



Once in the castle, he is taken in by head of the Eunuchs, Ha Da-Fu, and trained in the ways of kung fu. He befriends the emperor and his horny sister. He also runs into trouble with the Queen Mother, who may not be who she seems. As Obai gathers his army for attack, and the Dragon Sect’s operative plans her internal coup, Bo tries to balance his loyalties. Most importantly, everyone wants a book known as the 42 Chapters. In it is a secret so amazing that it could change the course of history. Of course, they look to their royal jester as a means of obtaining the tome. It’s just too bad Bo is busy wheeling and double dealing. After all, once a huckster, always a huckster.


Combining classic stunt choreography with Chow’s by then patented patter, Royal Tramp is an eye popping, rib tickling romp. It serves as notice for what a sprawling martial arts spectacle can be while simultaneously establishing a heretofore unknown level of verbal wit. Most fans of this type of film associate comedy with kung fu, stylized slapstick where the physical proffers the funny business. But typical to the mo lei tau genre, where dialogue is as important as daring-do, Royal Tramp delivers a high level of multifaceted farce. Chow is particularly good at this. His character is constantly conniving, making up stories to subvert potential danger (or death). He is outrageous and outsized, lowbrow and quick witted.


While many will assume that the R rating comes from the typical body blows traded by the characters, there is a great deal of blue humor present. Bo is introduced to the “penis” room by Ha Da-Fu, and one of the classic kung fu moves used requires the characters to literally feel each other up (no matter the region). Sex is suggested and never shied away from, and various Western swears (the F-bomb, the S-word) make regular appearances. There are online scholars who question the English translation of Chow’s lines. They insist that much of the nuance and copious wordplay used in mo lei tau is lost here. In addition, historians hate this film. While it’s based on traditional Chinese legend and literature (Tramp is indeed loosely taken from the wuxia novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Jin Yong), it does denigrate much of the heroic heritage.


Still, for pure cinematic enjoyment, for watching exceptional actors bring life to exaggerated actions, Royal Tramp is terrific. It never ceases to amaze while it continuously calls upon established Hong Kong elements to sell its scope. The opening attack on Obai is spellbinding, and the last act forest fracas offers nonstop thrills. Oddly enough, Chow doesn’t do a lot of martial arts here. He usually stands in the background, quipping away, while other genre icons - Ng Man Tat, Damian Lau, Elvis Tsui - take all the round house kicks and body blows. Visually stunning, thanks in no small part to directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung (you can see the latter’s work in Chinese Ghost Story here) and overflowing with memorable moments, Royal Tramp is a regal treat.



It’s no wonder there was a sequel planned. Thanks in part to Chow’s popularity, and the film’s suspected financial returns, Royal Tramp II was an inevitability (the movies were filmed back to back). This time around, Bo has been promoted. After defeating Obai and sending the fake dowager Queen back to the Dragon Sect, he feels secure in his position of power. But trouble looms on the horizon. Seems the angry underground wants the son of Ping Shi to marry the Emperor’s sister. So Wu Sun-Gwei, under the protection of the Dragons and evil military mastermind Feng Shi -Fan head out to meet with the royal family. Along the way, their efforts are thwarted by a one armed nun who uses her magical kung fu to protect her interests. It is up to Bo to defeat the various factions, woo those who want him dead, and learn the practicality of being the greatest non-fighter fighter in all of ancient China.


Far more action oriented than its predecessor (not that Royal Tramp I is a slouch in the stunt department), the return of fast talking Bo and his adventures in backdoor political intrigue is just as good as the original. Chow, now completely comfortable in the role, expands the character’s qualities by giving him more swagger in the persuasion department. Far less whiny than he was in Tramp I, Bo is now a man of means, and the anarchic arrogance he shows is ‘rich’ in hilarious rewards. When we first meet him, trying to persuade to young warrior gals to sleep with him as a means of warding off a fictional poison, the exchange is priceless. Similarly, the polygamy angle is used to great effect, especially when the spoiled princess from the first film is reduced to playing supporting concubine. Indeed, aside from the young emperor, who’s reduced to a mere plot device, the returning members of the Royal Tramp company do a terrific job of expanding on what was presented before.


Even more impressive are the fight scenes. Directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung seem bent on making these new confrontations as balletic and broad as possible. It seems like, ever time enemies meet, they begin a surreal dance that offers swordplay, spins, leaps, lacerations, kicks, cracks, and other unbelievable feats of physicality. Filmed in a manner that manages to protect both the fiction and the fighting, it is truly amazing. Sadly some will miss the nonstop verbal volleys of the original film. The tripwire dialogue is present, by delivered in dribs and drabs instead of in a steady stream. Running gags are used (a reference to respect being like water), and the same scatology that was present before is metered out in tiny little particles. The main emphasis of the narrative is on interpersonal intrigue, people playing off each other to formulate alliances, rivalries, and romantic couplets.


In fact, the Royal Tramp films do a fascinating job of combining the traditional with the up to date to create a crazy world where Chow’s mo lei tau can function freely. By following his flim flam man from whorehouse entertainer to court confidant, from leader of the rebellion to creator of reconciliation, the movies make a sincere statement about human nature as ever changing and challenging. The use of a mythical backdrop, with its ability to provide untold levels of magic, makes for a startling subtext. Equally entertaining is the way Chow channels contemporary values through old world routines. It represented something of a novelty for the conventional Hong Kong film industry. It’s also why many purists still dislike the Royal Tramp films.


It’s a sentiment seconded by commentator Bey Logan on his alternate DVD tracks provided. Offering both history and context for each film, these discussions provide a unique perspective on Chow’s career, his rise through the Shaw Brothers system, and how his popularity literally rewrote the Asian action film rulebook. Along with an interview with co-writer/director Ling, and the original theatrical trailers, we get a rather thorough look at how a desire to play dumb and lowbrow revitalized a dying genre, and how one man triumphed in the face of much criticism and social consternation.


For Stephen Chow, however, superstar celebrity was just a matter of time. Once he got his way, starting his own projects and infusing them with his special creative input, the sky was literally the limit. Cockier than most of his fellow filmmakers, willing to take chances that time and tradition would never consider critically viable, he made the combination of kung fu and craziness a winning fiscal formula. Now capable of doing virtually anything he wants (his latest effort is the kid friendly ET-like alien epic CJ7), the future looks very bright for Chow’s brand of buffoonery. Anyone interested in seeing where he started could do worse than experiencing the Royal Tramp collection. Both films are fine examples of the man’s amazing talent.


DVD
Royal Tramp


 
Royal Tramp II


EXTRAS



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.