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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Feel that heat? Summer is really starting to fire up. For 6 June, here are the films in focus:


Kung Fu Panda [rating: 8]


If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics.

It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end. read full review…


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan [rating: 7]


From the wholly insular and yet perfectly realized fantasy world it creates to the nonstop barrage of ethnic slams, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy of contradictions..

Jewish humor has driven American mirth for as long as their have been baggy pants burlesque comics and joke-stealing vaudevillians. Update it to the pre-modern mirth of Mel Brooks and the post-modern mensching of Woody Allen and you’ve got the current concept of wit in both of its ethnic excesses. But is there such a thing as plain old ‘Jew’ humor, that is, satire based solely on the notion of what an entire race of people find culturally significant and outwardly uncomfortable.  Or for that matter, can the entire Middle East crisis be summed up in a series of slapstick sight gags and borderline racist rejoinders? Adam Sadler wants to find out, and he’s bringing along that fascinating flavor of the moment Judd Apatow with him. read full review…


Mother of Tears: The Third Mother [rating: 8]


Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, Mother of Tears is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread..

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality. read full review…


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.


When an ancient urn is unearthed in an old Italian cemetery, it brings with it the standard portents of evil. The death of an innocent art historian marks just the first of many unspeakable acts. Soon, Sarah Mandy is caught up in a sinister situation that she barely understands. Chased by forces bent on destroying her, and unsure of the admonishing voice in her head, she seeks the help of fellow museum employee Michael Pierce. When he proves ineffectual, she searches out the counsel of the Vatican’s last official Exorcist, as well as one of Rome’s leading alchemists. Through her connection to her late mother, and the previous incarnations of Maters Suspiriorum and Tenebrarum, Sarah soon learns that Mother Lachrimarum has risen, and plans on orchestrating the second fall of Rome - unless our heroine can find a way to stop her.


Hitting the ground running and never giving up for 90 nasty minutes, The Mother of Tears is Dario Argento’s final statement on his precedent as the definitive Delacroix of dread. Avoiding most of the slow burn visual splendor that made Suspiria a classic, and shunning all of Inferno‘s incomprehensible tone poetry, the 68 year old director has finally finished this long gestating journey - for better and for worse. There will be complaints that this film feels nothing like its predecessors, that there’s an obvious scary movie overkill methodology at play. Indeed, the first film used witchcraft as an afterthought, the denouement in a plotline that had numerous other elements going for it. Similarly, the notion that pagans ruled a decadent New York apartment building was but a single facet in a film overloaded with optical - and occult - wonders.


Here, Argento seems to be saying ‘enough is enough’. Instead of painting the screen with memorable imagery, or provocative pictures, he just antes up the arterial spray and hopes for the horrific. Luckily, he delivers some delightfully disgusting set pieces. Throats are slit, bodies carved open, and various torture devices remove eyes, mouths, and other organs from their biological owners. This is also one of the few films that put kids directly in harms way. A baby is tossed off the side of a bridge, while another toddler is vivisected into several disturbing parts. The F/X work is wonderful, unsettling in its power and putrescence. Sure, there are some moments of mindless CGI that get in the way of the wickedness, but overall, The Mother of Tears provides an open grave full of gruesomeness.


The director also has a capable cast on hand to sell the sluice. Though she’s reduced to ‘last girl’ role quite often in this splatter rampage, daughter Asia Argento is an agreeable lead. She may act whiny and weak a great deal of the time, but she has a presence that the camera can’t deny. And though she’s hidden in smoke and mirrors for her part here, it’s great to see Daria Nicolodi back in the genre camp. As Detective Enzio Marchi, Christian Solimeno may come across as nothing more than plot fodder, but he makes good use of his screen time, and Adam James does a decent job as Mike, the art historian with an interest in the supernatural. Elsewhere, moments with the legendary Udo Kier and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni remind us of why Argento is the master. No one kills a character like Dario.


Yet what most fans are probably wondering is where Mother of Tears fits in the entire Mater mythology. It is clear that, when he came to this fabled finale, Argento knew his narrative would have to do some rather basic back peddling. He ties to Suspiria and it’s dance school setting and makes reference to the Manhattan mayhem section of his set-up. There are call backs to the original Three Mothers book (which we see in Inferno) and lots of exposition regarding architecture, cults, history, and death. Again, this is the first of these films to feature the Mother plotline almost exclusively. We aren’t dealing with a character discovering the witch and her secret, underlying purpose. Here, everything’s out in the open and a part of it.


The observant obsessive will see references to other Argento works as well. The obvious bow is to his mostly forgotten effort Phenomena. With the use of a monkey familiar, and a last act flood of maggot-filled offal, the director clearly delights in reminding us of his legacy. Similarly, he seems to be channeling the entire post-modern creepshow canon, tossing in a homage to Clive Barker here, a direct reference to Peter Jackson and The Frighteners there.


Mother of Tears works best when it avoids conversation and simply brings on the carnage. It may not satisfy every fan of Argento’s prosaic past, nor is it the realistic return to form everyone has been hoping for. Still, for anyone who doubts his power behind the lens, one look at this luxuriant, ludicrous exercise in excess will convince you - Dario Argento is a master, and Mother of Tears is an effective, engaging statement of same.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

Jewish humor has driven American mirth for as long as their have been baggy pants burlesque comics and joke-stealing vaudevillians. Update it to the pre-modern mirth of Mel Brooks and the post-modern mensching of Woody Allen and you’ve got the current concept of wit in both of its ethnic excesses. But is there such a thing as plain old ‘Jew’ humor, that is, satire based solely on the notion of what an entire race of people find culturally significant and outwardly uncomfortable.  Or for that matter, can the entire Middle East crisis be summed up in a series of slapstick sight gags and borderline racist rejoinders? Adam Sadler wants to find out, and he’s bringing along that fascinating flavor of the moment Judd Apatow with him.


As one of Israel’s top anti-terrorist operatives, the Zohan lives the good life. His days are spent semi-clothed on the beach, his nights are taken with tripping up members of radical fundamentalist sects. Of course, he can’t stand the violence and the incomprehensible politics of the region. He just does his job with all the invincibility of a superhero. After once again battling the famed Palestinian rogue The Phantom, Zohan wants out. So he fakes his death and heads to America with a dream of being - a Paul Mitchell hair stylist. Rebuffed by the famed salon, he winds up in the Arab/Israeli section of New York. There, he works for a fetching female shop owner named Dalia. As he plots his move into ‘silky smoothness’, the Phantom discovers Zohan’s still alive - and plots to take him out once and for all.


From the wholly insular and yet perfectly realized fantasy world it creates to the nonstop barrage of ethnic slams, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy of contradictions. On the one hand, Sandler is back in fully familiar territory. He is putting on an accent, creating a complete camouflage of a character, and sticking with his shtick no matter how uneven or unusual it becomes. At the same time, co-writers Apatow and Robert Smigel reduce the entire Arab world into a series of disco loving, diarrhea inducing soft drink swilling, hacky sack playing Mariah Carrey worshippers. When they’re not arguing policy, they’re playing into every cultural cliché a group of Klansman could possibly conceive.


This is the kind of movie that requires its own unique modifier to describe. Perhaps a nice abbreviation would be “E3” - for “ethnically embarrassing eccentricities”. Sandler and crew then take these ideas and beat them to within an inch of their life. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is also the classic example of an in sync spoof. Like George W. Bush’s Iraq plan, you’re either for it, or against it. There is no meeting this movie halfway. If you don’t “get” what this story is selling, if you’re offended by the marginalization of an entire race into a series of unattractive targets, you’ll hate everything about the Zohan experience. It’s a gamble on the part of the filmmakers. If they can’t convince the mainstream to embrace this worldview wackiness, it’s straight to the cult classic section - or the cut out bin. 


The failure really won’t be Sandler fault. He’s like a Method mirth maker here, so fully immersed in his performance that there are times when we forget we are watching the former SNL slugger. The thick Israeli accent helps, even if some of the faux Yiddish/Hebrew phrases play like an in-joke to inattentive and absent audiences. Far more obvious is John Tuturro as The Phantom. He frequently stands outside the material and makes faces, implying a secret code with the crowd that he’s in on how bizzaro this movie truly is. It would have been nice if he played it straight, a real live terrorist taking on an oversexed ex-Mossad agent with a dizzying dream of blowdryers, but You Don’t Mess with the Zohan goes for something more ungainly - and achieves it more times than not. 


Director Dennis Dugan, redeeming himself from the horrid misstep that was last year’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, doesn’t let his journeyman blandness undermine the surreality. He applies tricks learned from a dozen different movies (everything from Hong Kong action flicks to Bourne style thrillers) and yet never forgets to let his stars do most of the heavy lifting. Certainly, there is too much Rob Schneider for anyone’s comfort level. What should have been another Sandler comedy cameo turns into a wildly underwritten supporting role, and the whole Israeli/Palestinian divide is treated as a massively misguided goof, a result of location vs. long simmering animosity. Luckily, this movie takes nothing seriously. Not even its retarded redneck vigilantes or tagged on corporate land scheming. 


Still, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan remains a tough sell. Anyone coming in expecting Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison will be treated to a West Bank version of Little Nicky. Those craving political insights within a smartly styled satire will find their jaw permanently unhinged at how chock full of cheese the comic commentary is. Sandler deserves credit for taking such a risk, especially when you consider that his box office fortunes have been lagging as of late. And bringing Apatow along was a smart move, even if this kind of humor falls outside his far more successful interpersonal irony ideal. Just like all proposed laughfests, funny is fiercely personal. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is destined to push such a genre maxim to the very limits of its legitimacy.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end.


Poor Po. He has a dream that, as a panda, he will probably never fulfill. Longing to imitate his heroes, the five masters of the main martial art styles (tiger, monkey, crane, mantis, and snake), he hopes to be a kung fu icon himself. Sadly, he seems stuck following in his father’s noodle vending footsteps. Then the Jade Temple announces the choosing of the newest Dragon Master, and Po is excited. He wants to see who gets the honor. In a bizarre turn of events, elder Oogway selects….our amiable overweight bear. This infuriates Shifu, teacher of the five masters. He must now prepare this pudgy ‘loser’ for the ultimate challenge - long exiled panther Tai Lung has escaped from prison, and is headed for a showdown with the newest handpicked hero.


If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.


Indeed, Kung Fu Panda is a feast for the fanboy as well as the eyes. Immerse yourself long enough in these films and you start to see patterns - folklore forged into a viable entertainment. The Shaws, more than any other studio, followed these formulas to the letter. While no one expects authenticity from what is, by all accounts, a kiddie film, Panda provides enough archetypes to stand solidly alongside the category’s very best. Even better, it delves deep into the varying kung fu formats, allowing the characters named after certain fighting styles to effortlessly illustrate said forms. This means monkey boxes the way a student of said discipline would. The same applies to all the others, creating a real sense of respect and recognizability within the differing skill sets.


Of course, there are jokes for the wee ones as well. Lots of Kung Fu Panda‘s humor is of the physical shtick/fat guy variety. Po falls down a lot, and his girth causes him problems all along the way. There are gags about food, eating, and our hero’s uncontrollable appetite. When he’s not gorging on snacks, he’s falling down long flights of stairs. The standard issue crudities are also available (a blow to the crotch offers the exclamation “My tenders!”) with, luckily, none of the random pop culture referencing. Indeed, one of the best things about this movie is its desire to avoid type to traverse its own eclectic territory.


Speaking of the talent involved, all the voice work done on behalf of Kung Fu Panda is excellent. Jack Black does little more than channel his own chaotic yet huggable personality, and it works wonderfully. He’s very endearing as the portly Po. Equally amazing is Dustin Hoffman, refusing to fall into some manner of caricature. Instead, he makes Master Shifu appear real and authentic. Of the five main fighters, Angelina Jolie gets the most screen time as Tigress, though her character is quite irresponsible at times. Jackie Chan may be barely recognizable as Monkey (as is Seth Rogen as the miniature Mantis), but David Cross does a great job as Crane. His slightly sarcastic delivery plays perfectly to the post-adolescent crowd.


Yet the most memorable thing about Kung Fu Panda is its sumptuous look. It’s the main reason why the Shaws would gladly call it there own. There is a lavish quality to the illustrations, a real artistic aura that grows richer and more refined as the film moves along. The landscapes are breathtaking, the fights lightning quick without being too busy. Obsorne and Stevenson even deliver a memorable melee of their own, as when Po and Shifu fight, chopsticks in hand, over a plate of dumplings. It’s the kind of brawny ballet the genre is known for, and why Kung Fu Panda fits within it perfectly.


Certainly there is little drama in whether Po will defeat the evil Tai Lung, and the message about finding the truth outside the obvious is unsatisfactory in its blatancy. Yet Black and company are having so much fun, refusing to fall into self-parody or spoof, that we instantly forgive these minor flaws. In fact, by the time of the final send off, we happily celebrate the entire storyline. Kung Fu Panda is probably the biggest surprise of this already above-average Summer season. CGI loves to cannibalize itself in ways that undermine the inherent joy in the artform. This is the kind of film that completely reinvigorates your faith in the format.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

In the 1960s, Alain Robbe-Grillet was a proponent of the New Novel, whose purpose seems to have been to dispense with plot and characters, forcing readers to sift through a pile of description in search of what might be the writer’s guiding purpose. A collection of Robbe-Grillet’s essays, For a New Novel sheds less light than you would think on what he was up to, but I found it very interesting to read in conjunction with Rob Walker’s book about contemporary marketing techniques, which are avant-garde in their own way, ignoring traditional limits and taking on unexpected forms and dispensing with its expected purpose of delivering an unambiguous sales pitch. It’s no accident that Robbe-Grillet’s most famous film, Last Year at Marienbad, has been a continual source inspiration to luxury marketers since it was released in 1961. It is hyperstylized but sufficiently empty, so that one can invest whatever significance one wants into the unresolvable situations depicted. It’s a perfect approach for marketing goods like perfume—conjure an aura akin to that which perfume is supposed to have, but make it indeterminate and “mysterious.” The film is an encyclopedia of techniques for destroying the sense of time, place, contingency, and logic—all things that marketing seeks to undermine in order to exert its illogical, free-associational form of persuasion that relies on consumers to connect the dots. The nature of the marketing is adaptable enough to inspire and then absorb a wide variety of wishes projected by consumers. Effective marketing coaxes us into doing the work of persuading ourselves. The goods have a chance of becoming placebos, that work because we believe.


This passage from Robbe-Grillet’s “Time and Description” is about avant-garde fiction and film, but it seems like it applies strikingly well to any number of the “murketing” campaigns underway, or even to the nature of contemporary advertising itself:


Now, if temporality gratifies expectation, instantaneity disappoints it; just as spacial discontinuity dissolves the trap of the anecdote. These descriptions whose movement destroys all confidence in the things described, these heroes without naturalness as without identity, this present which constantly invents itself, as though in the course of the very writing, which repeats, doubles, modifies, denies itself, without ever accumulating in order to constitute a past—hence a “story”, a “history” in the traditional sense of the word—all this can only invite the reader (or the spectator) to another mode of participation than the one to which he was accustomed. If he is sometimes led to condemn the works of his time, that is, those which most directly address him, if he even complains of being deliberately abandoned, held off, disdained by the authors, this is solely because he persists in seeking a kind of communication which has long ceases to be the one which is proposed to him.
For far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work—and the world—and thus to learn to invent his own life.


That strikes me as marketing’s broader sales mission: draw consumers in, entice them to fantasize and narrate themselves into a slightly refreshed existence through a vicarious participation in the indeterminate fragments of experience the marketers supply—and of course through purchasing the goods associated with the whole process, which come to seem like the catalyst for all that creativity.


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