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Old allegiances die hard.  Most gamers gave up on Sonic the Hedgehog a long time ago—granted, his first three games on the Sega Genesis are all but universally acknowledged as classics, themselves arguments for the merits of the Genesis over the Super Nintendo.  As a middle-to-high schooler who only had a Genesis and not a Super Nintendo, I looked for any reason I could to favor my system of choice over the one that all my friends seemed to like.  “Blast processing” was a sufficiently impressive-sounding (not to mention ambiguous) argument that Sega had something in their arsenal that Nintendo didn’t.  To this day, I thank the marketing minds behind Sega for coming up with that two-token buzzword.

Obviously, the more recent incarnations of Sonic, without the fate of a console on his shoulders, hasn’t fared as well.  Perhaps he no longer feels the pressure that he once did, and feels content to coast on the strength of his name alone; regardless of the reasons, though, we’ve been “treated” to debacles like the Xbox 360 / PS3 Sonic the Hedgehog, not to mention forced to spend more than 50% of games with “Sonic” in the name as characters who are very much not Sonic.  Who’s here to save the day but Bioware, the heroes of such well-regarded games as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect taking Sonic into the realm of Western-style role playing, on the DS no less.  It’s called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, and if you’re into the whole role-playing thing, it actually looks pretty solid.

The early returns on the game have been mixed, but if anyone can pull the blue-haired wonder from the depths of mediocrity, Bioware can.  As such, my own hopes are guardedly high.

Also showing up this week on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is Silent Hill: Homecoming, the latest entry in the well-established (and some would say best) survival horror series.  Hey, have you noticed that survival horror, once a genre threatening to burst at the seams with knockoffs and sequels, seems awfully sparse lately?  The Silent Hill and Resident Evil series are still out there and doing just fine, but the second-tier entries just don’t seem to be garnering the sales or the recognition that they once did.  It’s not that I miss it, it’s just that it almost seems weird that the release of a survival horror game, any survival horror game, feels like a notable event.

The Wii has We Cheer, a cheerleading game that uses two Wiimotes as pom-poms, which has been (somewhat unfairly, if you asked me) largely mocked in the gaming press.  I say any game that has the musical knowledge to include two tracks from The Go! Team in a cheerleading game is worth supporting.  Plus, my (and your) daughter will probably dig it.  The more literary-inclined puzzle-solvers among you may enjoy some Hardy Boys action on the PC, a game that may well have been greenlighted in the recognition that Nancy Drew‘s business has been just fine in the PC puzzle arena.

As always, I ask you—did I miss anything?  What are you looking forward to this week?  Contemplate the question (and go ahead and comment!) as you look over this week’s release list and a trailer for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood after the hop.

Sometimes, we get so bogged down with titles here at SE&L that we can’t imagine ever getting through them all. Be it a summer weekend stuffed with possible blockbuster fare, or an awards season schedule that can frequently see as many as eight to ten screenings in a single work week, we do find ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed (isn’t that always the case). Still, in order to keep on top of the ever-changing media market, there will be times when we have to put in the extra effort, to go above and beyond a simple blurb banquet. Indeed, it appears it’s time for what will probably be a regular feature here at the PopMatters Film Blog - the Review-a-thon. 

Over the next few days, we’re going to suck it up, put on our critical thinking cap, and bang out a bunch of opinions. Between now and Sunday, we will tackle Michael Moore’s new documentary, visit a classic rock icon as he showcases a forgotten album, take on another Dragon Dynasty martial arts epic, and maybe even experience an unnecessary sequel or two - and this on top of the films in focus for this week (26 September). With no real schedule for when the latest installment of this endurance test will arrive, you’ll need to check back regularly to see if we indeed make it. The list is ambitious, and a tad unwieldy. Still, as a test of mental mantle, we believe we’re up to the task.

In no particular order, here are the cinematic obstacles that await us:

In Theaters - Nights in Rodanthe  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Eagle Eye (The IMAX Experience)  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Miracle at St. Anna  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Choke
Available Online - Slacker Uprising
On DVD - Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (1996)  (Now Available)
On DVD - War/Dance (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Pulse 2 (2008)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Plan 9 from Syracuse (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - The Rebel (2006)  (Now Available)

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By now you have all heard that Paul Newman has passed. And, me being too busy or stupified to log a comment am just getting around to paying homage. Since, most of what has already been said—about Newman’s philanthropy, his beauty, his grace, his humility, his political ethos, his sly, understated acting craft—has been said well enough, I don’t need to dwell on that. For those of you looking for more about any of this, The New York Times obit  well summarizes his life, and a capsule recap of his key films was posted a day or so ago on the PM site. Those are fine starts if you thirst to know more about the man that was.

But now Mr. Newman is gone and that means, like all passings in our peripatetic world, we experience a dual loss: deprived of one less human voice, while being reminded once more of our inexorable evanescence.

When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.

After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.

On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.

Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.

But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.

As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.

While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.

A few weeks ago, a NYT Magazine article prompted me to speculate about the implications of microblogging, but I thought I should at the same time, try to use Twitter in earnest and see what it was really like. At first, I had a really hard time writing anything. I had a strong inclination to lie, basically because I didn’t want to be frank about whatever it was that I was doing. Then it struck me to not mention what I was doing but instead transcribe random half-baked thoughts I may have had and use the space constraint Twitter imposes to transform them into gnomic, oracular pronouncements. This was sort of fun for a few days, and I started to get a sense of what might prompt someone to Twitter obsessively. I started to take my half-assed asides seriously. For the day or two that I was into it, I started living my life in search of snappy sentences, and this seemed like a life being lived poetically for about 24 hours, and then it just seemed totally contrived. But before that, I began to believe that I owed a report on my important thoughts to the world, that it was imperative that I share. I had this notion that people were out there eager to have bite-size pieces of my mind, and I was anxious to be consumed this way, as if my ideas were like those little Halloween candy bars. In other words, Twitter started to stoke my egomania (even more than mere blogging already does).

It may be that I don’t have a robust enough online network, or enough online-offline confluence to make Twitter work as anything other than a chance for me to try to make pithy, oblique observations. I’m not, for example, going to Twitter my whereabouts in the hopes that someone will find me in the real world, and I am not going to Twitter some personal dilemma I’m confronted with and expect someone out there to suggest solutions. And I am not interested in reading anyone else’s Twitters. I have too many blog posts to catch up with as it is, and yes, I know they are short and easily consumable, but it just seemed pointless. I would only be interested in the ones that were cryptic, and then these would take time to decipher that I could be spending reading up on, say, the bailout follies instead.

But the main reason I quit twittering is because it made me feel like a phony; I found myself trying to think of clever ways to describe what I was “doing.” Being honest seemed beside the point, and the more I twittered the less representative my posts were of who I actually think I am, and I started to think that some new dangerous personality I could become was starting to manifest. I didn’t want to get stuck there.

Anyway, I was reminded of this by this recent study about social networking and narcissism, which found “Narcissism predicted (a) higher levels of social activity in the online community and (b) more self-promoting content in several aspects of the social networking Web pages.” The main upshot is that one might be able to indentify narcissists through their online profiles. As one account of the study describes it:

Some researchers in the past have found that personal Web pages are more popular among narcissists, but Campbell said there’s no evidence that Facebook users are more narcissistic than others.
“Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions,” Campbell said. “It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships – for self promotion with an emphasis on quantity of over quality.”
Still, he points out that because narcissists tend to have more contacts on Facebook, any given Facebook user is likely to have an online friend population with a higher proportion of narcissists than in the real world. Right now it’s too early to predict if or how the norms of online self-promotion will change, Campbell said, since the study of social networking sites is still in its infancy.

I wonder, though, if maintaining online profiles doesn’t foment narcissism. If narcissism is a matter of privileging quantity over quality, then online networks—which are mainly a means of processing friendships more efficiently and with less spontaneity and more command-and-control through personal press releases on profile pages— would seem to provide fertile ground for narcissism to bloom. They encourage us to regard the pseudo-reciprocity of frequent updating for the actual commitments of friendship. This seems like the slippery slope to full-blown self-centeredness, in which sharing oneself seems an acceptable substitution for the ability to listen.

By providing the illusion of a world out there waiting for you to upload new photos and provide an urgent update about what you are doing right this instant, it certainly prompts self-aggrandizement. When I was Twittering, the imagined audience prompted me to post when I had nothing to share and encouraged me to invent something. And sometimes I log on to Facebook and feel jealous of all this activity logged there that my “friends” have been engaged in. I wonder if I just started dumping stuff into my Facebook page, it will make me feel more important, more connected, more interesting. I think that making a broadcast makes me register in some indelible way on the universe, and I suddenly have the moment of illusory control over my own fame, my own significance—and it seems so easy. Just cough up a clever line, or post an ambiguous photo, and just like that, I have (in my own mind, imagining the minds of others) intriguing.

Social networks and microblogging allow us to always have a stage on which to perform our personality successfully, and the allure of making that performance instead of engaging life more directly becomes pretty powerful—spending time thinking about what to Twittter instead of actually doing things that one might report about.

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