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Thursday, May 15, 2008


Summer’s still sizzling away, and for the weekend beginning 16 May, here are the films in focus:


CJ7 [rating: 7]


CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course

Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom.  read full review…
 


Frontier(s) [rating: 7]


Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.


When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride. read full review…
 


Hats Off [rating: 5]


Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic.


There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested. .read full review…


Other Releases—In Brief


Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [rating: 5]


When will Hollywood learn that you can’t recapture the magic of a previous cinematic epic. If it was possible to capture lightning in a bottle over and over again, no franchise would fail. The sad fact remains that, for every Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter tale, there are a dozen Golden Compasses. The Chronicles of Narnia were reviled by J.R.R. Tolkein, the author arguing that C. S. Lewis’ faith-based fantasies were too enamored of their internal belief subtext to work as actual adventures. Mr. Hobbit had a helluva point. While the first film in the series, the likeable The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had the entire make believe mythos to deal with, the sullen sequel Prince Caspian just pours on the pointless war mongering. The Penvensie quartet is back in their former kingdom for the first time in a year. Sadly, 13 centuries have passed, and a despotic race of human Telmarines is in charge. They have all but destroyed the empire, and evil King Miraz has removed rightful heir Caspian from the throne. With everyone speaking in thick Spanish accents and relying on knowledge of the books to avoid narrative depth, we wind up with a series of long walks followed by sequences of slipshod CGI swordplay. While it’s not quite dull, it’s never the spectacle that returning director Andrew Adamson thinks it is. In the end, we find ourselves waiting for an entertainment epiphany that never comes. 


 


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Thursday, May 15, 2008


There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested.


Though she always fancied herself a star, Mimi Weddell spent the first 60 years of her life as a wife, mother, and unexpected career gal. While never earning much money, she helped her beloved husband Dick through many a hard time. When he finally lost his job with RCA, it almost destroyed him. Yet Mimi was there, working two or three jobs, getting up at six and coming home at eleven, just to maintain the household. Of course, this didn’t leave much time for her daughter Sarah or son Tom. They were lucky to catch a moment with their mother before she collapsed to catch a few hours sleep.


When Dick finally died, Mimi decided to pursue her dream. She loved the theater and acting, and with perseverance and some unusual casting stock (there aren’t a lot of viable 70, 80, or 90 year olds out there), she soon landed small parts in film and television. She also became a sought after model, and in the process, a New York staple. Now, at 93, she looks back at her life and offers a simple philosophy - rise above it. Life isn’t supposed to be all happiness and fun. When problems come (and she’s faced a veritable mountain of them), she simply stands strong and tries to go beyond them. It’s just too bad that the movie of her life can’t do the same.


Sometimes, blame is easily laid at a film’s foundation. In the case of Hats Off, the critical culprit is Jyll Johnstone. Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic. Indeed, one of the key things we learn about the aging actress is that she’s not an eccentric by circumstance, but by choice. Her idiosyncrasies come from a concerted desire to be different, to stand out in a system that saw her as a nothing more than a gender stereotype. While hopelessly devoted to her husband (the only time we see Mimi tear up is when discussing Dick), she also needed to be her own person. So she developed a mindset, played by the standard social rules, and waited for her moment. 


That it came when she was 70, not 20, is nothing novel. In fact, the concept of the elderly doing unbelievable things has become a Baby Boomer cinematic subject du jour as of late. Luckily, Jonstone doesn’t treat Mimi like a too cute cuddly toy. We get to see her in all her cynical, snarky glory. From the time she rises in the morning to the moment she turns in for the night, our heroine acts like the most put upon person in all of entertainment. She tolerates every audition, reminiscing about jobs she landed and lost (we see clips from her few featured parts). She walks around her cramped apartment, showing off the many hats that define her late in life look (the better to hide her unruly hair).


But Hats Off misses the more absorbing moments. We learn that Mimi is a devotee of Elizabeth Arden, sometimes going to the exclusive NYC salon two or three times a week when she has the money. Yet aside from a tossed off anecdote (Sarah claims that, in response to the death of her dad, she was sent to said beauty parlor on the day he passed), we don’t learn the rationale or reason why. Similarly, both adult children still live with Mimi, though the explanation for such a set-up is specious and lacking vital familial information. Johnstone clearly believes that her star is more than capable of carrying the narrative. Unfortunately, the weight of such an aesthetic want is too great for this nonagenarian to manage.


As we watch her work out, tumbling through gymnastics and stumbling through dicey dance routines, we get hints of hospital visits and advancing physical frailty. With money troubles a constant, we also learn very little about how the clan makes ends meet. The directing would have us believe that the Weddells have always been impoverished, and if not outright poor, generally lacking in anything like disposable cash. Yet Mimi takes off to Florence in an unexpected last act dash, and the before credits title cards indicate that both Sarah and Tom are gainfully employed. There are several creative contradictions in Hats Off, statements starting off along one path only to double back and deaden the impact of previous pronouncements. Mimi may be the most compelling old lady in all of Manhattan. We wouldn’t know.


And in the end, that’s Hats Off biggest problem - a lack of knowledge. Audiences need to walk away from such films feeling something of an identification and a kinship with the subject. It’s an emotional bond that has to move beyond the superficial and the strained. While it’s never boring or lacking in intellectual color, this is one fact film that forgets to add in the “stranger than fiction” facet of the overall picture. As a result, we feel satisfied, but sadly underwhelmed. Mimi Weddell probably deserves better than this. Or maybe, this is all her story demanded. Either way, she makes for a strange subject.



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Thursday, May 15, 2008


Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom. 


Dicky Chow and his father Ti live in a broken down building on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis. Everyday, Dad goes to work as a laborer. Recently widowed, he scrimps and saves to send his son to a fine finishing school. Sure, it means shopping at the local landfill for clothes, food, and necessities, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. Sadly, Dicky is not so inclined. The rich kids at school mock his lack of material goods, and one teacher in particular keeps the boy at ample arms length, finding him dirty and disgusting. When a particularly nasty little snob gets a CJ1 robotic dog as a gift, Dicky immediately wants one too. Sadly, his father can’t afford it. A trip to the dump however yields an odd green orb that may be from outer space. Dubbing it ‘CJ7’, he hopes his son will be impressed. The destitute man has no idea the changes that his discovery will bring.


CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course. Naturally, the nods are easily identified and tend to distract us from the bigger picture Chow is trying to paint. But if you grant the film its E.T. love, and move on to the more engaging class/kids dynamic, you’ll be rewarded with some sunny sci-fi silliness. Of course, there are other motion picture artifacts that Chow is freely filing through, references to the work of Charlie Chaplin, old school slapstick, and the Looney Tunes cartoons the Hong Kong icon loves so dearly. Luckily, a story like CJ7 can sustain such creative schizophrenia. Chow is too good as an actor and auteur to fumble things completely.


Still, the CGI creature at the top of this tale can venture into pop culture crassness now and then. There are moments when such oddball elements as the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rube Goldberg, crime film riffing, and ‘70s disco become part of the comic commentary. Seeing a little green blob “shake its booty” might seem like the height of post-millennial irony, but it comes across as unnecessary and pandering. When Chow allows the character to simply be itself, to stand as a symbol of possibility in an impoverished child’s life, everything gels together effortlessly. The minute it turns into a sloppy sight gag, we share in the need for regurgitation. Movies such as this remind us time and again of Steven Spielberg’s skill. It’s a rare talent that can turn a special effect into an emotional element. CJ7 can’t quite match its main inspiration.


Thankfully, Chow’s reliance on these other sources of inspiration serves him well. Dicky has a wonderful sequence where his newfound toy fulfills all of his wishes. It’s warm without going all gooey. Similarly, a moment when father and son share a ghoulish game of “squash the cockroaches” offers some gross out kiddie fun. An accident at Ti’s workplace has the kind of danger flecked physical comedy that Harold Lloyd and his pre-sound ilk did so well. Chow also has a special way with kids, making them come across as both cartoonish and completely believable. This is especially true of Dicky, who is actually essayed by a young girl. There is other gender bending going on as well, one elephantine young lady appearing to be a boy in bad drag (and a dubbed voice). Chow and the rest of his cast do a good job of balancing the needs of the narrative with the desire to add dimension to these individuals.


Not everything helps, however. The love story between Ti and a teacher is horribly underdeveloped, and the nonstop berating of boy by more mature man and adults will test even the most tolerant individual. Clearly, the Asians believe in the power of corporal punishment, and aren’t beyond slapping a child in the face once in a while. It’s moments like these that argue for CJ7‘s foreign film foundation. We have to accept certain elements of Hong Kong culture - the reliance on dignity and honor, the hard cut distinctions between the rich and the poor - in order to appreciate what Chow is championing. It may seem overdone to us, but we’re not necessarily the choir he is preaching to.


In the end, CJ7 is wise enough to carefully balance its many crazily contradictory aspects. It’s cheesy without being fetid, fun without overdosing on pure juvenile pandering. Those anticipating nothing but “phone home” histrionics will be pleasantly surprised at how this film skirts said expectations. However, those who hate the entire Shrek school of postdated cinematic humor will definitely have issues here. Chow can be forgiven for reverting back to his roots. He wasn’t always a member of the Jackie/Jet set. This kind of pie in the sky production argues for his overall talent and why many see his abilities as infinite. Whimsy can indeed work, as long as it’s handled with care. Chow mostly fulfills the genre’s tenuous needs. 



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Thursday, May 15, 2008


When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride.


The current political situation in France is horribly unstable. Young people, fed up with the conservative tone of the government, the institutional racism, and lack of opportunities, are rioting everywhere. During one of these fracases, Yasmin and her criminal brother Sami are trapped. With the help of other gang members Alex, Gilberte, and Farid, they get their fallen mate to the hospital and head out into the countryside. The plan? Make it across the border and into Amsterdam. Stopping off at an out of the way motel, they run into a group of nasty neo-Nazis. Ethnic hatred aside, the leader is looking for someone to help continue his family’s master race…and Yasmin might just fit the bill.


If Lionsgate, distributor of this After Dark Film Festival reject (originally part of the eight film overview, but pulled at the last minute to avoid MPAA hassles) was looking for an American title for this oddly named French film, there’s a couple of obvious suggestions. With its killers in a remote locale leanings, The Teutonic Chainsaw Massacre would make for a nice exploitation name. Or better yet, the secluded slaughterhouse posing as a hostel might suggest something like Motel Heil. Seig Psycho also comes to mind. Any one of these marketable monikers would come close to describing the sluice induced grotesqueries that make up this movie’s motives.


For those offended by blood and guts, Frontier(s) flaunts the very limits of both. While the opening sequences are rather sedate, once Gens gets going, it’s brutality and vivisection served up in heaping hack and slash helpings. Characters are carved up with sadistic regularity, and no one is exempt from the bountiful bloodletting. One individual winds up literally covered, head to toe, in arterial spray. It makes the critter claret bath Carrie White takes while at the prom seem calm by comparison. With its buzz-sawed body parts and exploding heads, this is one juicy jaunt.


There is also a fair amount of suspense here as well. Because it plays directly into the recent social strife dividing France (unrest settled mostly around class, immigrants, and race), the entire black/white - Caucasian/minority subtext suggests something much deeper. When our first two gang members stumble upon the out of the way inn, their ethnicity is enhanced by the Brunhilda nature of the lead villainess. Even better, the old school Hitler devotee is all Reich rants and ethnic cleanser. How this unusual dynamic plays out gives Gens plenty of room to maneuver. He drinks in the hatred and spits out sequences of unconscionable cruelty. 


Yet there are a couple of minor flaws here. One revolves around familiarity. If you remember that famed Southwestern splatter fest from the early ‘70s, you’ll be able to predict almost every one of Frontier(s) freak show plot points. There’s the carefree kids, the remote backdrop, the oversized killer, the crazed family, the second act escape, the eventual recapture, the final confrontation, and the “will she or won’t she” run for freedom. Certainly, Gens offers a couple of critical changes here and there (the Sawyers didn’t have mutant cannibal “children” crawling around their Texas homestead). Still, enough of this movie feels recognizable that tiny hints of disappointment pepper the grue.


And the acting is no great shakes either. Yasmin, more or less reduced to illogical ‘last girl’ status, is essayed by Karina Testa as a series of whines and pouts. Once it’s knives out, she substitutes shrieks for the latter. The rest of her crew is equally one note and indecipherable. They are reduced to playing types - scared novice, hard ass hero - before falling under the bad guys’ assault. Only our Nazis get any kind of characterization, and it’s more scripted than performed. The men are thuggish ideologues, concentration camp guard types without a prison populace to destroy. The head of household, on the other hand, is the kind of Final Solution apologist who appears frightening for what he stands for as well as his actions.


Since it all seems so obvious, so steeped in what previous masters of horror have handed out over the last four decades, Frontier(s) fails to appear fresh. It also cheats a bit, giving audiences ample false hope before finally fulfilling its payback parameters. But just like Ils, and Inside (as well as Haute Tension and a few other prime examples), it is clear that the current social clime in France is feeding fear in a big bad way. Most macabre scholars like to point to political uncertainty as a spawning ground for our most violent, repugnant terrors. Some even liken the rise in so-called ‘torture porn’ to the post-9/11 uncertainty in the world. Whether this is true or not, Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.



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Thursday, May 15, 2008
Clover Studio has returned as PlatinumGames, complete with a publishing deal with Sega. It's time to celebrate, people.

It was a sad, sad day when Clover Studio was unceremoniously disbanded.  Honestly, when you look at Clover’s body of work, there’s not much to it: a pile of Viewtiful Joe games, Okami, God Hand, and…well, that’s pretty much it.  Still, when Capcom decided that Clover’s time had come and gone (probably due to the fact that God Hand sold something like 53 copies, total), it was like a punch to the gut for gamers who had already come to look forward to the development studio’s unique, wonderfully independent approach to making games.


Clover's Okami

Clover’s Okami


Okami, of course, is the big name in Clover’s history.  Okami actually managed to take some of the wind out of the sails of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess upon that game’s release, offering a play dynamic that was quite similar to that of Zelda, but with a thumbstick painting dynamic combined with an art style which together created an experience that felt unique and utterly unprecedented.  The game sold pretty well, but was of course ultimately overshadowed by the impressive pedigree of its Triforce-adorned counterpart (of course, the ultimate slap in regard to Okami was the removal of the Clover team’s names from the newly-released Wii port).


God Hand, for its part, was a unique take on the God of War-meets-Double Dragon genre, focusing on combos and an ultra-violent (thought bloodless) style that was utterly unique in its style (again) and its execution (again).  Indeed, Clover to this point had been masters of taking established genres and twisting them in completely unexpected ways.


Clover's God Hand

Clover’s God Hand


It’s been just over a year since Clover went the way of Moonlight, but those of us who mourned Clover’s departure now have reason to celebrate.


Hot on the heels of the announcement of an exclusive publishing deal with Sega (Sega!), the ashes of Clover have made themselves known as PlatinumGames, which could logically be called the evolution of Clover (it’s basically Clover with a few extra developers added on for good measure).  We haven’t seen much of PlatinumGames to date, and it’s going to be a while before we actually get to play any of their games, but given what they have allowed us to see so far, they’re picking up right where Clover left off.


There’s Bayonetta, which is being described loosely as a Devil May Cry-like game, and at the very least, it features a character who uses a pistol as a stiletto heel.  It’s not exactly a chainsaw gun, I suppose, but it’s pretty freakin’ cool nonetheless, and the nigh-unintelligible action style hinted at in the short trailer (which I have helpfully appended to this post) looks like an utter trip.  That one’s for the Xbox and the PS3, but to these eyes, it’s the PlatinumGames Wii offering that looks like the true winner.  Think Sin City meets The Evil Dead, in video game form.  MADWORLD features a protagonist with a chainsaw for a right hand, and an art style that features only three colors: black, white, and red.  You see, red only appears when someone is bleeding, which happens, apparently, a lot.


PlatinumGames' MadWorld

PlatinumGames’ MADWORLD


Again, on the surface, it’s not really a unique idea for a game, in that you’re basically going to be walking around ripping baddies open with your chainsaw hand.  Still, style counts for a lot, and MADWORLD looks to have style bleeding out its ears.


There’s even a DS RPG called Infinite Line that’s going to be showing up along the way as well.  They certainly seem to have the platforms covered, anyway.


In any case, the rebirth of Clover as PlatinumGames is an excellent thing on so many levels.  For one, and perhaps most importantly, it’s excellent for the developers themselves, as it seems that they have not had to sacrifice their vision of what makes a great game.  It’s a great thing for Sega, as a publisher whose name has suffered under the weight of countless subpar Sonic franchise offerings and a lack of other universally-known IPs gets to bask in the credibility that comes with the admiration of hardcore gamers for whom the PlatinumGames/Sega deal means something.  Finally, of course, this is great news for us, the gamers, the ones who died a little when Clover disbanded, the ones who believe that games can be art and appreciate the developers who make a concerted effort to make sure it is seen as such.  We won’t get to see the fruits of PlatinumGames’ labor until next year, but for this, I’ll wait.


I’ll wait patiently, and try to not let the anticipation kill me.


UPDATE: The MADWORLD trailer is out.  Hide the kids:




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