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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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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The most notable thing about the Australian book industry is just how small and isolated it is.  There are only a handful of major publishers (mostly Australian operations of larger UK and US houses) and the smaller publishers are very, very small. 

With only 20 million inhabitants and a serious reading population much smaller than that, there simply isn’t the critical mass that would allow independent and new talents to find a foothold. And “making it” in Australia doesn’t equal “making it” in practical terms—things like reaching a large audience and earning a living from writing.  The number of local authors with any substantial profile can be counted on a couple of fingers.

Australia does not have as well-developed systems for nurturing young authors as North America or Europe.  Our literary journals are small and generally conservative.  Our creative writing schools do not have high profiles, nor are their links with the global publishing industry very strong.

Even to achieve success and recognition from local critics, writers are often expected to gain overseas validation.  Our biggest cultural and literary icons are usually those who have found success in the wider world.  To be simply a local taste is to be perceived as a B-lister: maybe good for a trashy read, but not enough for real critical acclaim.  It’s probably unfair, but it’s hard not to see it as the difference between an Olympian and the winner of the Upper Bradfield Little Athletics U14 long-jump.

An interesting case study is young Australian writer Max Barry.  American readers are actually more likely to have heard of Barry or read one of his books than his fellow Australians.  Even though Barry is Australian born-and-bred and even lives in Melbourne, he is only belatedly receiving some attention in his homeland.

I came across Barry with his 2006 novel Company, an offbeat corporate satire inspired by Barry’s time with Hewlett Packard.  It was a funny, if imperfect, novel and it pointed to an exciting new talent.

Syrup by Max Barry Scribe Publications March 2008, 304 pages

by Max Barry
Scribe Publications
March 2008, 304 pages

Except that it wasn’t so new—because Barry had already published two novels in the US, Syrup and Jennifer Government, both mostly unnoticed in Australia.  In fact, Scribe Publications has just re-issued Syrup for the Australian market, a mere 9 years after its first publication, in response to the success of Company.

Barry didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.  As an aspiring writer with a populist bent, why would you bother “paying your dues” in Australia, where the most you could expect would be a short run with a niche publisher with your book stocked in three shops?

Yet he had an option that many local writers do not have—the advantage of writing American-themed books, rather than idiosyncratically Australian work.  Sadly, a lot of writers telling Australian stories are going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Australia is not exotic enough for publishers to see escapist potential, but is too foreign to be an easy sell.

In that sense the Australian industry serves its purpose by keeping alive our national tales and experiences.  But there will always be the suspicion that those who don’t sell well offshore don’t quite have what it takes.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dear Fellow Writer:

The time is now. It’s our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there’s no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we’re doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It’s time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.

As more and more fourth estaters are “bought out”, as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it’s time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It’s all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can’t see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it’s time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.

Let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It’s the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your ‘review’ as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It’s how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).

Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don’t take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.

Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we’re constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.

Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it’s easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it’s that we’re desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.

Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can’t stop the ‘anonymous’ audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain’t It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.

Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.

As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.

If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you’ve got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don’t pride yourself on being the ‘horror expert’ or the ‘foreign film champion’. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you’ll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn’t mean you can’t lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.

Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform’s greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it’s okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood’s past, or Europe’s Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you’re going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.

Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It’s not out of necessity. No, it’s more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it’s better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.

Unless you’re happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified ‘pro/con’ consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it’s time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won’t support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it’s better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they’re on. 

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