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by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2009

It’s official - the great cinematic experiment known as the video game adaptation is an outright failure. There’s no denying it. Just look at the evidence. There have been so many bad examples of the attempted genre, weak-willed efforts like Hitman, House of the Dead, Max Payne, and the ridiculous Resident Evil franchise that the few noted successes (Silent Hill, umm….) barely make a dent in the discussion. Apparently, the inherent motion picture quality that most console titles come with just doesn’t translate over to big budget Hollywood hit making - or put another way, whatever made these immersive adventures successful in the first place just can’t survive the seemingly destructive Tinsel Town focus group process.

Just look at Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. In this proposed prequel to the popular Camcon classic, our heroine is raised as a pianist, learns martial arts from her mysterious businessman daddy, and then is devastated when he is kidnapped by corrupt corporate CEO (and moonlighting mobster) Bison. As she ages, she receives an ancient scroll that tells her to seek out a seminal member of The Order of the Web. His name is Gen and he was once a criminal compatriot of Bison. Now he plans on stopping the evil entrepreneur once and for all. With Bison’s plans to take over the ghetto district of Shanghai and turn it into one big upscale residential area, thousands of lives are threatened. Chun-Li trains with Gen while various heinous henchmen like Balrog and Vega protect the villian’s project. It seems the Order has its work cut out for them. Luckily, our heroine is a very fast learner indeed.

This sloppy second attempt at bringing the Street Fighter franchise to the big screen (the first being the Raul Julia/Jean-Claude Van Damme effort from 1994) violates one of the primary rules for any Playstation to motion picture translation - never mess with the mythology. Fans love these games because of the way in which legend is meshed with logistics to make the often difficult and time consuming game play that much more meaningful. Sure, in the end, something like Street Fighter is a mere set of remote moves tested against an opponent’s/computer’s competing motor skills, but devotees love their digital folklore. So when a studio takes the story of Chun-Li, one of the geeks most beloved female ass-kickers, and turns her into a superficial shadow of her formerly aggressive arcade self, you should be prepared for the backlash.

But this new Street Fighter goes even further. It screws around with all the characters. Bison is no longer a military man. Instead, he’s a suave and sadistic corporate weasel who uses his mob connections and regular crew of street toughs to enact his malevolent desires. Balrog is his sidekick, not a solid ex-boxing champ. For his part, Vega shows up late, gets his butt handed to him by a suddenly psycho Chun-Li, and then disappears from the narrative all together. That just leaves our heroine and Gen to pick up the slack and with no martial arts competition to support the story, what we wind up with is a lot of talking followed by some less than entertaining action scenes. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak has a lot to do with how incredibly lame the fisticuffs are. He’s been trading on the reputation of Romeo Must Die for far too long now. Here’s he’s too enamored with a sense of gritty authenticity to make the martial arts meaningful.

What’s even worse, we don’t really understand all the backstabbing set-ups and diabolic double-crossings. So Bison wants to drive all the people out of the waterfront shanty towns so he can buy up the property cheap and build his exclusive suburb. Aren’t their better ways of eviction than trying to beat up a couple hundred thousand people? The police seem as ineffectual as humanly possible, especially a visiting Interpol agent played with obvious contractual discontent by American Chris Klein. One look at his face and his pathetic performance posture, and you know he was hoping that his American Pie fame would lead to something other than this. Elsewhere, Neal McDonough makes a good villain, if a rather standard and manipulative baddie. Sure, we wince when he cracks a victims head open with his hands. But for the most part, he’s all gun pointing and pouts.

But the real problem, performance wise, is leading lady Kristin Kreuk. Smallville may be a good place for her rather limited range, but she’s not a convincing action hero. She comes across as sheepish and ineffectual, even as the CG-ed stuntwomen are giving her all the moves she needs. Even worse, her hobbled backstory is so blank, so “I love Daddy” oriented that her sudden decision to move beyond such motives seems silly. Bartkowiak obviously believed that if he took this material more seriously, if he toned down the cartoon and upped the angst, we’d get something akin to The Dark Knight. But the truth is, he should have handled the material like Corey Yuen did for DOA: Dead or Alive. Realism just doesn’t go with such over-the-top, male minded adolescent fairy tales.

Sometime, in the near future, when comic books have stopped being successful sources and big budget blockbuster bombast is again desperate for another saleable subject matter infusion, the video game will indeed get another chance. And perhaps someone like Timur Bekmambetov who more or less turned Wanted into his own personal Nintendo title, could enliven the material with their own unique cinematic vision. Until that time, we will be stuck with massive moviemaking disappointments like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Anyone who loved the game, either during daily visits to their local mall or in the privacy of their own basement bachelor pad, will more or less hate what is happening here. But movie mavens shouldn’t feel left out. For all its faux feeling of authenticity, this is unsuccessful cinema at its worst.

by Kirstie Shanley

29 Jun 2009

There are many frontmen of once awe inspiring bands that are now defunct who could learn quite a bit from Rob Dickinson. Though he has released a solo album—2005’s Fresh Wine for the Horses—he’s well aware that most people want to hear songs from his Catherine Wheel days. This fact means his fans are hopelessly devoted to seeing him live (he was even given flowers at this show!), and though it may not be the same as seeing an actual Catherine Wheel reunion, it’s the closest most of us will get to this perfection.

by Rachel Kipp

29 Jun 2009

On NYC Prep it’s not enough just to be rich.

Taylor, the lone public school student among the private school elite of the new Bravo reality show, would easily be the queen bee in any other corner of the world. But she’s cast in the role of the striver here, the Jenny Humphrey trying to keep up with a group of unfathomably wealthy teens for whom trivial things like credit card limits, curfews and parents just don’t exist.

Taylor and her frenemies cruise from one New York hotspot to another, BlackBerrys surgically attached to their hands. Though one of the girls emphatically proclaims her hatred for Gossip Girl, these kids revel in living out every cliché the fictional series has introduced to the masses.

With his Peter Frampton haircut and husky mumble, Nate Archibald clone Sebastian is a magnet for unsuspecting teenage girls. Just one hair flip and they treat him like a long-lost Jonas brother. PC, Chuck Bass surrogate and real-life step-grandson of the woman who created Sesame Street, provides a tutorial on how this society works: it’s all about money and connections. He’s got them; the rest of us don’t.

by PopMatters Staff

29 Jun 2009

Grizzly Bear played “Cheerleader” off their recent album Veckatimest Friday night on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Mike Newmark said of the song that it “reaches back to a fading glitzy nostalgia with swaying rhythms, American Bandstand guitars, Muhly’s wonderfully sappy strings and Droste’s falsetto that lingers in the air long after the track ends”.

by Bill Gibron

28 Jun 2009

It’s amazing how quickly illustrators and designers forget that animation is art. For most of them, the concept of cartooning and commerciality are so closely linked that, as long as it looks good and can be sold across the widest possible demographic, the job is all but done. But when you look at some of the more inventive designs, when you look at the time and effort taken with something like Robots (ridiculous to sit through, gorgeous to look at) or any Pixar title and you realize that there can be some beauty inside the box office. This is especially true of French import Dragon Hunters. While some may mistake it for a low rent direct to DVD offering, this motion picture based on a famous TV series is actually quite pleasant. The script is rather pedestrian and crude. The computer generated images, on the other hand, are magnificent. 

In a sensationally surreal world slowly falling apart, various floating islands and spheres make up the crazy kingdom of Lord Arnold. When the latest in a long line of monsters known as dragons show up, the despotic ruler demands his knights avenge his empire. Sadly, the last of these noble warriors has been driven insane by the evil creatures. Hoping to help, Zoe, Arnold’s grand-niece, suggests that two wandering drifters - hulking hero Lian-Chu and his con artist assistant Gwizdo, take on the horrific beast. The only problem? They have no skills as dragon hunters. But with the realm crumbling and falling away, it is up to these novice champions to save the day. But as they will soon learn, this World Eater is the most vicious of all the mythic beings - and perhaps, the most difficult to destroy.

Clearly a case of getting lost in translation, Dragon Hunters is a drop dead gorgeous CG adventure with a script that sounds like someone’s idea of what everyday English-speaking stooges say in the face of imminent danger. The dialogue, absolutely dripping with toilet humor putdowns and calm clichéd platitudes can’t rob this stunning film of its visual grace, but it damn sure tries, you smelly ass-face! With only a single recognizable name among the other voice actors (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is Lian-Chu) and a narrative that sets up a simple adventure, it is up designers and directors Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak (who also created the original TV show this is based on) to build upon the idea - and what they construct will have your jaw almost permanently affixed to the flooring below your home theater.

It’s hard to describe the look and feel of this film. Imagine Terry Gilliam collaborating with the late Edward Gorey with the results filtered through a very European view of science fiction. Sure, the look of the leads is very exaggerated, shoulders, hands, and heads embellished to give the characters a clear, otherworldly look. But the background elements, from floating farmland orbs to disintegrating Baroque buildings are breathtaking in their execution. One could literally sit and watch the film without its soundtrack and still experience something incredibly exciting and optically moving. As the heroes come to their final stand-off, as the world continues to fail all around them, there is a Wall-E level of desolation and destruction that is hard to forget. Even in its most idiotic moments - and there are more than a few - Dragon Hunters is heaven on the eyes.

But it’s the plot that will constantly give you pause, if only to keep you wondering about why this particular story is being told (when we learn it is a prequel of sorts to the standard 2D animated TV series, the idea makes more sense). Zoe can be a bit of a pain, especially since she’s not necessarily involved in the hyper-heroics. Whitaker is wonderful, underplaying the role of champion Lian-Chu with just enough halting humility to make us fully comprehend the traumatic youth we witness in flashbacks. The main stumbling block for some will be Gwizdo, voiced with Steve Buscemi like prowess by Rob Paulsen. Though small in size, he has a massive ego, lots of interpersonal issues, and tends toward selfishness, cowardice, and an overall unpleasant disposition - and this is someone we should be rooting for. By the time of his denouement, we have grown to literally loathe him.

Luckily, the direction both in action and art saves the day over and over again. Perhaps in its native tongue, without all the Americanized crudities included, this would play perfectly. We wouldn’t cringe at the implied fixation with farts and other bodily belches, nor would the various arguments and confrontations sound so forced and flippant. Since this is one of the rare speculative fictions that creates its own clever world and its unusual gravity defying rules, we wait for the moment the filmmakers violate same. After all, it takes an equally extraordinary person (or persons) to preserve said scenic prerequisites every step the way. Dragon Hunters does so, and then just to make things a little more exceptional, it attempts to reinvent the animated movie genre as well.

It’s a shame then that so few will seek out and actually find this film. Though it’s a big hit in other foreign markets, and the TV series has been seen worldwide, the USA can be so closed minded sometimes. Indeed, tell someone that this is a French made sci-fi parable with incredible CG and some equally visionary work behind the camera and they will probably crack wise. In their mind, if it’s not Shrek, or Ice Age, or any number of mindless animated pop culture comedies, they turn their head and tune out. For once, they should instead open their eyes and see what they’ve been missing. Other international efforts may make for rough going for American mindsets, but Dragon Hunters is different. This is the rare cartoon that takes its art seriously - and it shows. Boy, does it show.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

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