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by Bill Gibron

8 Feb 2009

Titles are a tricky thing. Label a film incorrectly and you tend to completely confound audience expectations. The proper name not only puts things in perspective, but awards the attentive viewer with an additional piece of the motion picture puzzle that they might not have already possessed. Take the Jet Li film, Gei ba ba de xin. In America, it was known as The Enforcer. But in the star’s native China, it went by the more apropos moniker My Father is a Hero. To Western fans, the blood and guts label removes any doubt about the movie’s intentions: it’s going to be another installment of head busting Hong Kong marital artistry. Oddly enough, the Eastern tag is much more appropriate, since the film is really an action packed drama with as much emphasis on emotion as ass kicking.

Kung Wei is an undercover cop working for the Mainland police. He hangs out with lowlifes and other criminal scum, infiltrating their organizations and eliminating the bad guys. Sadly, he is unable to tell his sickly wife and doting son Johnny about his job. When a new case takes him to Hong Kong, Kung must face the humiliation of being “arrested”. And to make matters worse, while he’s away, his loving spouse falls gravely ill. This means that Johnny must take charge and become head of the household. He tries to protect his mother from the harassing jeers of the locals, while feeding her home remedies to make her well again. When Hong Kong policewoman Inspector Fong visits the family, she discovers Kung’s secret. When Johnny is suddenly left alone, she takes him back to the big city with her. This puts Johnny right in the sights of Po, a brutal mobster who Kung is working for.

The Enforcer (re-released on DVD as part of Genius Products Dragon Dynasty label) really is a poorly renamed effort. Not from a filmmaking standpoint. Li, as usual, is electric, his performance - and that of the amazing prodigy Miu Tse - giving the narrative a great deal of machismo and heft. And not from a directing position. The great Corey Yuen balances pathos with powerhouse stunt setpieces in a way few action helmers can even begin to handle. And The Enforcer really delivers in the character, narrative, and subplot category. Sure, the situation with Johnny, his mother, and the absentee Dad is manipulative as Hell, and Fong’s foolish relationship with a fellow officer sets her up for a last act bit of golly gender equity, but with Yuen and Li making everything work, we don’t really mind the old school exploitation.   

No, the only problem with this otherwise fine film is the flimsy, pro-USA moniker. Li doesn’t “enforce” anything here, nor is he really an “enforcer” for Po’s gang. In truth, he’s a put upon lackey that gets treated poorly by everyone, both legal and illegal. There’s the standard scene where Li begs his portly police superior for “a normal life” (which is naturally rejected) and the crime boss beats all his underlings senseless. As Bey Logan says in his always interesting commentary track, Po’s actions make one wonder why anyone would want to work with him. He’s nasty and inexplicably evil with very little motivation outside his own desire to be awful. Logan legitimizes the turn, however, arguing that this makes the villain that much more unpredictable - and deserving of any last act comeuppance.

When viewed through the veil of a title like My Father is a Hero however, the focus on Johnny, his competing storyline (he has as much screen time as Li - maybe more) and the work of Miu Tse becomes much more understandable. This undersized dynamo, around 10 at the time the movie was made, is jaw-droppingly brilliant in the role of pint-sized champion. He’s every bit the badass as his far more famous co-star and his kung fu skills are not to be questioned. During a clash with his fellow classmates at school, Tse’s Johnny teaches them all a lesson in butt kicking that they won’t soon forget. Not only that, but this sensational child star holds the camera like few in his age group. During the more emotional material, he manages moments of genuine pain and anguish. But he’s best when required to go toe to toe with the adult actors, more than holding his own in the cleverly choreographed fights.

Yuen also does an excellent job as a director. The opening skirmish in a high tech modern restaurant (complete with glass walls and waterfall) is eye-popping in its intricacy and drive, while individual sequences between Li and baddie Rongguang Yu have their own power and suspense. It’s fascinating that, in many of the sequences, our superstar often takes the fall. Li is seen as weak in certain situations, torn by his dedication to his job and love for his son. This is clearly something novel for the typical herculean sentiments of the genre. And unlike the work of Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, Li’s films boil with a hyper-seriousness that makes the violence almost too cruel to watch. We never think of the amiable Chan or the comic Chow getting hurt. In his however, Li always seems poised to be beaten to death.

As for the DVD release, there will be fans that foam over the lack of a Cantonese language track here. The original English dub is present (in Dolby Digital 5.1) and while not completely embarrassing or distracting, it does do the Chinese actors a disservice. Dragon Dynasty has responded to the complaints with the following official statement:

“Dragon Dynasty strives to provide fans with only the highest quality DVD releases, including restored video and audio and extensive never-before-seen bonus features created exclusively for the label.

Though no usable version of the original Cantonese-language track was available in time for this release, every effort was made to bring together the best elements in the world in creating the greatest version of The Enforcer ever experienced on DVD in the U.S.”

While that may not satiate purists, the additional material exclusive to the DVD (Logan’s narration, interviews with Tse and Yu) make the disc a must-own for fans of Li.

In fact, it’s the thrills and character interaction that makes The Enforcer much more than a stereotypical trip through the Asian underworld. Li is his typical smoldering self, but there are opportunities for the actor to play family man and foil, and he does so effortlessly. As his international profile has increased, it’s clear that this Hong Kong hero could essay just about any role. What’s shocking however, is the limited career of co-star Tse. It was almost nine years between The Enforcer and his next film (2004’s Iron Lion), and that’s a damn shame. Under the right circumstances, he was someone who could have easily achieved the same movie star mantle as his far more famous “mentor”. Don’t let the title fool you. There is much more to this incredibly film than flying kicks and fisticuffs.


by Matt White

8 Feb 2009

Only Everything was Juliana Hatfield’s third album after leaving Boston’s Blake Babies and with it she seemed on the verge of stardom. “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle” were modest hits and she appeared on the covers of Sassy and Spin. When Only Everything came out, however, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful. Even today it remains overshadowed by the album that it proceeded; the more fondly remembered Become What You Are.

Only Everything, however, is my favorite Juliana Hatfield record. Part of the reason might be because it was the first of her albums I heard, but there are less personal reasons too. The guitars are big and loud, the songs are melodic and tight, and the production is top notch. Some of the awkward lyric rhymes of Juliana’s previous albums are completely avoided here and her voice has never sounded better. Like Elliott Smith, Juliana’s small, soft voice sounded incredible when multi-tracked and on Only Everything layer after layer of overdubbing has made her vocals strong and rich and never in danger of getting overpowered by the wall of guitar fuzz. That’s quite an accomplishment considering how much the guitars dominate the mix. Hatfield has often cited J Mascis as an influence and on this record it shows.

The album opens with what sounds like Juliana coughing up some phlegm as the buzzsaw guitars of “What a Life” hit you in the face. “Greasy, dirty, smelly, wretched…grungy…” she sings and this is clearly the sound she wants for the album, albeit with high production values. The mix of clean and dirty, Juliana’s “pretty” voice and the fuzzed out guitars works perfectly. It’s not lo-fi but it never sounds too glossy. One of my complaints about her earlier albums is they seemed sonically thin, especially on the harder rocking songs. Here, the production is beefed up and Juliana finally sounds like she’s really rocking out. There are still plenty of softer songs though and they too benefit immensely from the top notch production, filled out with piano, organ and Juliana’s vocal harmonies.

My favorite song on the album might be “Outsider”, with its guitars sounding like they’re being played underwater and Juliana’s vocals thick and sweet. For the first two minutes of the song the only percussion is what sounds like hands tapping on the back of an acoustic guitar. Combined with the muted electric guitars and Juliana’s multi-tracked vocals, the song has an effervescent, spacey mood. The track may seem slight at first but it rewards with repeated listens.

Only Everything still conjures up good memories whenever I listen to it. Perhaps the album’s inability to take Hatfield to the next level of mainstream success was indication that the public had already tired of the alternative rock explosion of the early ‘90s. Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears were lurking just around the corner, like vampires, ready to suck the blood out of the music industry. Hatfield’s next record, entitled God’s Foot, never got released. Atlantic, her record company, felt it wasn’t commercial sounding enough, so Juliana asked to be dropped. Atlantic agreed to release her, but not her album. “God’s Foot, the master tapes, languishes still in a vault somewhere, gathering dust” wrote Juliana in her recently published memoir, When I Grow Up. After returning to the indies she put out four solo albums on Rounder Records before starting her own label, Ye Olde, in 2005. Her latest record was last year’s How to Walk Away. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it, as I have everything else she’s done, but this one goes out to the one I love: Only Everything.

by Bill Gibron

7 Feb 2009

We are clearly a nation of classes. We hear about it everyday: the haves and the have-nots; upper, middle, lower, impoverished, disenfranchised, and all the pecuniary parameters in between; the name families and the citizenry within the so-called welfare state; those with power and those struggling to make ends meet. To ignore the financial delineation between people is foolhardy. To make too much out of it is equally pointless. There will always be rich folk and it seems we are destined to live in a social structure which fails to fully reward those who are the hardest working among us. But according to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and economic intellectual, there’s another class to be concerned about - one we Americans thought we would never see.

Indeed, in a democracy, there should never be a hierarchy of power, or a true ruling class. Money can indeed buy you influence, but the ability of the populace to control its abuse is the premise upon which our nation is founded. And yet, in his inspired documentary dissertation on the subject The American Ruling Class (new to DVD from Alive Mind), Lapham argues that the US is gripped by a collection of familiar names, faces, and corporate facades that manipulate and micromanage ever other facet of our supposed Constitutional community. Inexplicably tied to capitalism, the desire for material gain, and the implied notion of happiness linked to both, we discover that those who want to make a difference are rare indeed. Everyone else just wants to make a dollar.

Lapham presents his thesis in a powerful, provocative manner. He takes two “actors”, turns them into stereotypical Ivy League grads (Yale), and then sets them on different paths. ‘Jack Bellami’ comes from privilege, and has a standing offer at Goldman Sachs come graduation. He sees himself as part of the overall banking/financial set-up of America. ‘Mark Vanzetti’ has more noble aspirations. While he too could instantly earn a job on Wall Street, he really wants to be a writer. He takes a year off, gets a self-described “bohemian” apartment, and waits tables during the day as he searches for his muse. Lapham acts as a guide for both progressing pilgrims, showing each the possibilities, and pitfalls, of their individual pursuits. Part of this process includes talking with and interviewing individuals - artists, politicians, businessmen, CEOs - who hope to clarify (and sometimes complicate) the multifaceted pros and cons.

During its opening moments, The American Ruling Class appears obvious. Lapham may look like a member of the Warren Buffet Appreciation Society, but he seems more ideological in his search. He constantly warns his charges that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of riches. Instead, he counters that one should “do no harm” during said quest. Thanks to insights from Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lapham himself, Jack feels authorized to begin his rise to prominence. After all, it’s just the way things are. But for Mark, our instructor forges a much more intricate path. We see a reporter playing waitress so she can chronicle the life of the minimum wage earner (the prognosis: not very good at all). There are conversations with Hollywood heavyweights Mike Medavoy and the late filmmaker Robert Altman. Mark even gets a last minute bit of advice from folk troubadour Pete Seeger.

Yet it’s the sit down with members of an elite think tank whose main purpose seems to be setting the policy for everyone on the planet that offers the most insight. It’s Mark who gets to match wits with such powerhouse individuals as Bill Bradley, Vartan Gregorian, Harold Brown, and William T. Coleman, among others. Most seem content to be part of the upper echelon, frequently speaking in terms that some might misinterpret as derogatory - or at the very least, unsympathetic. Perhaps the worst offender is former White House Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James A. Baker. Beginning from a position that believes there is nothing wrong with using wealth as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, and then extrapolating said position out onto the rest of the world, he remains a focused figure of Reagan/Bush neo-conservatism. Even his attempts at apologies seem arrogant.

It’s this sequence that turns The American Ruling Class from a dissenter to a dinner companion. It seems as if Lapham is backhandedly trying to support the notion of giving up activism for a life in service of the all mighty greenback. There’s never a time when child of means Jack reconsiders his career arc. He has doubts at first, but the film’s narrative seems to cement his resolve. Mark, ion the other hand, gets batted around like a dead mouse in a barn cat’s paw. He’s against the kind of corporate zombie stance. He bristles at the notion of “selling out”. He argues with wealthy friends who have the trust fund to let them work for pro bono agencies like Legal Aid. But in the end, he takes Jack’s offers to join Goldman Sachs, and even with the perturbed look on his face, he appears ready to start his own potential ascension into importance. 

The mixed message really hurts The American Ruling Class, much more than the nonsensical novelty numbers strewn throughout the movie (yes, this is a musical…of sorts) or Lapham’s cryptic narration, filled with fancy, flowery prose. Documentaries are notorious for their ability to act as eye-openers, shedding light on ideas and individuals that the mainstream media seems to ignore. This film I a lot like Mark’s trip to The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper must serve the wishes of pure journalism. It must offer reportage without the benefit of bias or political position. And then there is the demand for cash flow. Sometimes, the content must meet the requirements of the commercial sector as well. The American Ruling Class apparently wants to argue both sides of the situation. But as anyone familiar with the art of debate can tell you, sitting on the fence is ultimately non-persuasive.

by Matt White

7 Feb 2009

Morrissey was on Jimmy Kimmel Thursday night playing “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”, one of the best songs off his upcoming album Years of Refusal. Moz and the boys look a little confined on the tiny stage but deliver a strong performance with Morrissey shouting “Lux Interior!” at the end, in tribute to the Cramps’ singer who passed away the day before.

Years of Refusal is out February 17.

by Rob Horning

6 Feb 2009

I will take the bait. Here are a few theses inspired by Hipster Runoff, a site that bills itself as “The Most Conceptually Celebrated Blog in the History of the Memesphere.” It strikes me as the apotheosis of a new category of critical discourse that, for better or worse, has been slowly congealing over the past few years via such various modalities as LOL cats, Vice magazine do’s and don’ts, flame wars, douchebaggery and douche bags as a widely recognized species, text messaging, sock puppeteering, YouTube karaoke, intensely and disturbingly self-referential video art, and so on. This category still needs a label—I’m hoping that postpostmodern will not be employed. I’m not entirely convinced that this is not just a fresh iteration of previous forms of postmodernity. Anyway, to the theses!

1. Online sociality has brought on a crisis of identity. The self has been externalized and its evolution preserved in ways that were previously unthinkable. The burden of self has thereby become more palpable.

2. Social criticism has been resolved into self-expression.

3. One can’t be against hipsters. Hipsterism consists of its own repudiation. Recognizing the existence of hipsters to a certain degree makes one a hipster.

4. Social networks mandate identity formation on the model of cloud computing. One’s corporeal self is merely the local host for a self whose operating system is now fixed elsewhere, distributed across a digital array. Our bodies function merely to transfer data to the cloud, to the networked space in which it may be transmogrifed into identity. Akin to “software as a service,” we now have self as a service.

5. The variables we transfer to the cloud increasingly delimit the field of identity and condition what sorts of data will subsequently be considered relevant or applicable. Our data trail winnows, making online recommendation services seem more prescient and useful. These services will work to colonize more and more aspects of social being, suggesting friends and lovers as well as music, hobbies and interests. A song recommendation generated by your online practices will not be some byproduct of one’s identity but its very substance. One will exist as the residue of the recommendations that one generates actively or passively through consenting to consign most of one’s social activity to online forums and have them tracked and compiled. Our identity will only be as deep and complex as the quantitative density of our Facebook status updates and tweets.

6. Existence online appears accelerated, though in fact it consists of a series of frozen moments. It waits for and demands our input, perpetually presenting options and reminding us of alternatives while confronting us with the history of our previous tendencies. It thus forces on us unremitting self-consciousness. There can be no harmonizing of action and its preconception; no spontaneous authenticity.

7. Online, we are made painfully aware of the existential need to act, though that awareness is tempered by the way in which our actions online are always provisional and easily altered, augmented or supplanted. We can embrace necessary action with none of the responsibility for consequences.

8. Online practice is always a simulation in the sense that it occurs within a world that offers no real resistance to the self. A nondialectical space, the field of online being offers nothing to negate; it only assimilates. If, as Hegel claimed, the “rational is the actual” and vice versa, the realm of online simulacra is a realm where rationality is impossible. No critical intention can disrupt the reality presented online, nor can it merge with action and become praxis. Action results not in self-actualization but merely self-conscious agglomeration.

9. The collapse of language into abbreviations, arbitrary conditions of brevity, self-enforced infantilism and the like are attempts to import the the inflexible conditions of reality, against which we shape ourselves, to the online world, which lacks such conditions and threatens us with an amorphous and intolerable incontinence of identity.

10. Faced with the promise of a seemingly infinite extension of identity online, our actual lived identity shrivels to the disappearing point of spontaneous revisions at every instant, all of which are minutely recorded and make subsequent necessary reinventions that much more implausible and untenable.

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