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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

With the Fourth arriving on Friday, Hollywood is getting an early jump on the holiday box office bonanza. For 2 July, here are the films in focus:


Hancock [rating: 6]


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late.

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen. read full review…



The Children of Huang Shi [rating: 5]


The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context. 


While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.  read full review…



In Brief


Kit Kittredge: An American Girl [rating: 4]


G Rated fare is so rare in Hollywood these days that even the most mediocre example of kid pandering receives a slap on the patently wholesome back. Who cares then if the premise is founded in a misleading marketing gambit? As a popular doll and book series, the American Girl movies have been boob tube staples of years. Now, Oscar nom Abigail Breslin is aiming her prepubescent crossover appeal by playing the juvenile reporter turned community defender…and she doesn’t even look Nancy Drew-ish. When her dad looses his job and heads off to Chicago in search of work, a Depression era Kit helps her mom convert their Cincinnati abode into a boarding house. While a series of shady and stereotyped characters wander in and out of the front door our high-strung heroine helps the poor misguided hobo population redeem themselves in the eyes of a prejudiced public. In between homeless slurs (usually centering on the term “evil”) and soft sell slapstick, there is an attempt to impart a meaningful message of not judging a book by its penniless cover. Unfortunately, said good intentions get lost in a sea of formulaic plotting and tear-jerking contrivances. Even the mystery at the center of the story delivers an obvious dumbed down denouement.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.


As a reporter trying to buy his way into the battle torn provinces deep inside the China countryside, George Hogg is willing to risk his life for a story. But when he witnesses a horrible massacre, and is taken prisoner by the Japanese, it looks like his tour of duty is over. Luckily, he is saved by the Chinese rebellion, led by Chen Hansheng, and sent off to a remote school to care for some orphans. There he meets up with Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson, and together they try to reconstruct the lives of these poor, unfortunate kids. Luckily, Hogg is a natural teacher, and he manages to make ends meet with the help of a local opium merchant named Mrs. Wang. But when the Japanese push ever closer to their compound, our hero decides to do something desperate. His plan? Take his kids across the dangerous Liu Pan Shan mountains and relocate on the edge of the Mongolian desert.


While it would definitely make a far better documentary than a drama (it is based on a true story and an actual person, after all), The Children of Huang Shi has some potential at first. Granted, the site of The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Hogg and the enigmatic Chow Yun-Fat as Hansheng prepares us for a fully fictionalized take on this material. Add in Radha Mitchell as our medical missionary and Michelle Yeoh as the poppy peddler and you know reality is slowly drifting away. And thanks to the gloss of good intentions ladled on top by journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode, we sense there will be more heart tugging and hand wringing than history. Unfortunately, that’s just the start of this film’s problems. The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context.


Since the crimes committed in the name of Japan are so utterly reprehensible, it’s hard to believe the movie needs more scope. But the truth is that few in the audience are students of the facts, and without such a perspective, the mass murder witness feels gratuitous. Similarly, we never buy into Hogg’s desire to play the part of reporter. His initial goals seem far more selfish than Fourth Estate-d. It makes his personal sacrifice later seem cockeyed, not commendable, and the entire middle section reeks of an Eastern Dead Poet’s Society. Mitchell and Chow appear superfluous, foisted on the viewer every once in a while so as to keep the narrative in forward motion. Far more interesting are the moments with Madame Wang, Yeoh bringing her standard grace to a part played mostly for what it infers, not what it deliberately does.


This is part of Spottiwoode’s style, to incorporate as much of Hogg’s mythos into his movie as possible without going into too much heady explanation. Montages take the place of the standard growing pains, and when the group finally starts that celebrated trek across the Chinese mountains, it’s like Lord of the Rings retrofitted to a 1930’s travelogue. What we require here is a center, a clear focus on what we should care about and why. Since the kids, with a rare exception here and there, are mostly interchangeable, their dilemma is not daunting enough. And since Rhys Meyers seems too perky to be perturbed by his stranger in a strange land fate (he picks up the language and customs quite easily), his eventual arc leaves little impact.


And then there is that gnawing cinematic de-vice of having a white man save the day. In films like Cry Freedom, where South African reporter Donald Woods winds up accepting the cinematic martyrdom for befriending Stephen Biko, there is an unhealthy implication that people of color can’t champion their own causes. Instead, they need someone like Hogg to bring their colonialist bravado to the fore and face off against the enemy. The Children of Huang Shi is not quite as obvious as the aforementioned narrative affront, but it does rely an awful lot on our twee English gentleman to get us over the potential dangers. Even worse, the role of the Chinese resistance is reduced to off-hand champions. They love to blow stuff up, but never seem to arrive in time to completely save the day.


No, it’s a tribute to what Hogg managed to do with just his wits and a few lucky breaks that the post-credits testimonials from the last remaining real life ‘children’ he helped (Now very old men) manage to resonate. Amidst all the grandstanding and skylarking, moments of misplaced manipulation, and outright disingenuousness, this movie manages to make its point. Since Spottiswoode’s bio would never suggest a Spielberg or Scorsese style epiphany, he can’t help but fumble the film’s many contradictory threads. At any given moment, in any given scene, we could have a far reaching family film, a war-torn thriller, a too languid love story, an able international intrigue, and an illustration of misguided political policy pitting one foreign locale against another. And even then, the movie manages to leave the smallest of impressions. The Children of Huang Shi is not a bad movie. It’s just not the great historic document it pretends to be.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen.


LA is riddled with crime, but there’s a bigger problem within their midst. You’d figure that the city would love its resident comic book style crime fighter. But John Hancock is a troubled man. Driven to drink by demons he cannot control (or in most cases, remember) and horribly unappreciated - thanks in part to his antisocial attitude and tendency to destroy more than he saves - he still tries to bring down the bad guys. One day, he rescues PR man Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, and in an attempt to return the favor, the image maker proposes to overhaul Hancock’s reputation. This makes his young son ecstatic, and his pretty wife Mary uncomfortable. From the moment she sees the angry superhero, she senses a connection. After a stint in jail and a political change of heart, the public may have forgiven Hancock, but his past seems destined to destroy him.


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late. While it cements actor/turned director Peter Berg’s status as a filmmaker to watch (next up for him - another try at bringing Dune to the big screen), it doesn’t do more than his fascinating USA/A-OK actioner of last year, The Kingdom. And with a supporting cast consisting of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, it’s hard to question the talent on display. But a quick glance at the film’s history (multiple stints in development Hell over the last few decades) and the numerous names previously attached to it indicates that, considering the chaos it was forged in, we’re lucky that the results are so likeable.


There are actually two movies battling like graphic novel champions to dominate Hancock‘s narrative. One literally wants to wonder about Gods on Earth, how their immortal powers play amongst the more humble elements of humanity. The other feeds off this, turning our surprisingly sour hero into an anger fueled alcoholic who has nothing but contempt for those he’s supposed to serve. Like the shabby My Super Ex-Girlfriend before, Hancock tries to show a jaded populace taking their savior for granted, unable to appreciate the altruistic acts he accomplishes. Instead, there are noisy news reports condemning the destruction that comes with his crime-fighting (isn’t that a given, considering he has to do what people can’t?) and the surliness he projects to cover the pain of being taken for granted.


From an audience perspective, the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the inherent anticipation Smith brings to his projects. From the trailers, the film appears to be a rollicking comedy with some more action-oriented undertones. Our statured celeb will be dishing the dingers and driving home the humor with his natural personality and panache. In truth, the second half spirals into a deep meditation on the notion of fate, and how even beings unbound to this reality can’t avoid its fickle hand. Things turn dark, dour, and very depressive. The moment this happens, at least half the audience will abandon Hancock in a manner similar to how the citizens of LA treat the onscreen character. They won’t buy into the last act dramaturgy, preferring the sequences where Smith curses out old ladies and tosses French-accented bullies up in the air.


Yet it’s this very notion of how to deal with immortal mortality that lifts Hancock above the typical popcorn fare. It suggests something rather intriguing, and director Berg appears comfortable dealing with these more substantive themes. The opening car chase is cute clever, what with the oversized slapstick of our drunken hero using buildings as a backdrop for his unstable gestures. But when he gets down one-on-one, our filmmaker finds engaging ways to deconstruct the genre. Had the film featured more of this, had it stuck to its Tonight He Comes origins (there are too many post-greenlight script doctors to bother mentioning), there’d be something really unique here. By it’s very definition, any attempt to break convention is awkward and disorienting. Unfortunately, Hancock can’t find a way to make said struggles work for itself. Instead, it falls back on old fashioned motion picture majesty - and can’t quite make it all the way.


Smith’s performance is pitched perfectly between art and artifice. He never stretches beyond the boundaries his paycheck demands, but at the same time you can sense he understands where a Hancock success would take him. As part of Berg’s growing company, Jason Bateman does the mild mannered idealist act quite well. He never overplays the obvious one-liners he’s sometimes reduced to relying on. Then there’s Charlize Theron. Given a not so subtle supermodel glow, her role is so ridiculously underwritten that you wonder how the minds behind this movie thought they could get away with it. She’s a last act catalyst, a red herring as real clue creation that definitely fails to live up to the inferences.


In fact, Hancock often feels like the outline for a much larger epic. At 90 minutes, it breezes by on waves of scheduled superficiality, and when it needs to stop and make an impact, editing takes us quickly to the next F/X setpiece. Indeed, the biggest battle within this film is not the one between our hero and the bad guys. Instead, it’s the clash between grand intentions and focus group execution…and it looks like those comment cards almost won out. There will be those who dismiss this movie as nothing more than subpar Smith, a blip on a retail radar that usually brings home the bacon in grand style. But there is something more inventive going on here, a chance at changing the genre dynamic that Tinsel Town just couldn’t handle. The results become an uneven, if ultimately entertaining, experience. Leave it to Smith to succeed despite himself. 


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

Just wanted to give the nod to two good organizations related to music.  The first is the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which is headed up by a number of R&B artists (including Jerry Butler, Gamble & Huff) to help out musicians and performers get by in an industry that rarely takes care of its own.  For more info, see their website.  Then there’s (RED) which this NY Times article describes as “a nonprofit organization that arranges for companies to contribute a share of profits on certain products to fight AIDS in Africa (which) is starting a digital music service for that purpose.”  For more info, see (RED) at their website.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

In his essay about the Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes seems somewhat dazzled by its singularity, but part of what he says about it seems true not just of the tower but of much of totemic goods circulated in our consumerist economy.  Barthes points out the essential uselessness of the tower, which makes it a “pure signifier, i.e., a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” The key to its usefulness as a signifier is its functional pointlessness. “In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind of total monument, the Tower must escape reason.” In this, it resembles our advertising discourse, which is increasingly desgined to achieve our blithe acceptance of illogic as a matter of course and is likewise aspiring to the level of “total monument”—its monolithic presence and fluid adaptability offers everyone a reason to become wrapped up in it. Barthes continues, “The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument.” But since we are under the illusion that ours is a pragmatic, rational culture, we are scandalized by this apparent lack of function, so, as Barthes points out, we supply alibis enumerating its usefulness to science and engineering. These are “quite ridiculous” since they “are nothing in comparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictly human.” 


It seems to me that what Barthes is saying about the Eiffel Tower is very similar to what Rob Walker argues about various brands in Buying In. Hello Kitty and Red Bull are gloriously meaningless in and of themselves, which make them adaptable to whatever personal uses we want to put them to in order to conjure our identity into being through the language of goods—before this articulation identity remains notional and inchoate, something we can’t define or prove. Once we make our identity manifest in the goods, we need to broadcast our ownership of the goods to make the identity functional in the social sphere. So the Eiffel Tower is not useless, it’s just that its purported use masks its real one, the same way that Red Bull (or Coca Cola for that matter) pretends to be a beverage while truly offering us a malleable symbol—a lifestyle or personality building-block. What’s more, if Barthes is right, the prevalence of these symbols is not a blight but the essence of our humanity, that which “enables men to be strictly human.” One wonders if there are any alternatives to the commercial brands for the sort of symbols that can be at once deeply personal and near-universally recognizable—through which, as Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower, “one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.”


From what repository did such symbols come from in the past, before consumerism? Were people simply human in a different, more circumscribed way? Would we want to return to it, even if we could?


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