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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.

by George Tiller

28 Jun 2009

In Doctor Who: The Next Doctor, the Doctor (David Tennant), arrives in London on Christmas Eve, 1851. As the Doctor exits the TARDIS he finds himself in scene out of Dickens. It’s snowing and the happy Londoners are singing carols, roasting chestnuts and doing other wholesome Christmasy things. Fortunately this state of affairs ends quickly when the Doctor notices an ape-like Cybershade running through the streets. Taking up the chase the Doctor meets Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) who happens to be the comely companion of The Next Doctor (David Morrissey).

After a great deal of confusion the Doctors decide to join forces and start to sort things out. They have quite a bit to do. Cybermen are bad news wherever they show up but of course everything is slightly worse in the Victorian era. Finding out what the nefarious schemes of the Cybermen are and thwarting them will be quite a challenge.

The challenge is made much more difficult by the machinations of the fiendish Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). She runs a workhouse for orphans but that’s just her hobby. Her real passion is to create the Cyberking and help the Cybermen take over the world. She also ruins funerals, shocks the clergy and wastes a good chunk of London before she’s done.

As if this weren’t enough there’s the vexing question of which Who is Who and how this all came about. The Next Doctor has the Doctor’s aplomb and his tools (sort of) but has no memories before he started fighting the Cybermen. Neither Doctor can remember the other so both are quite baffled. Is one an incarnation of the other?

With both the Doctor and the Cybermen forced to use steam-age technology the visual effects are very imaginative with a touch of H.G. Wells. Miss Hartigan is one of the better villains of the series and Morrissey had better watch out because he makes a good Doctor. (The fate of most actors who play the Doctor isn’t that great) The fans of “classic” Doctor Who will find the pace to be very quick and will wistfully dream of what Tom Baker and the old gang could have done with a budget. Everyone else will just enjoy a ripping good story even if it is a Christmas special airing a week after midsummer. But then again the Doctor doesn’t pay much heed to the seasons so why should the BBC?

by Bill Gibron

27 Jun 2009

Titles are a tough thing. Ask any writer or creative individual and they will agree - naming a thing is far more difficult than making it up in the first place. Such labels have to legitimize your efforts, explain them without fully giving away the entire premise. Sometimes, the shell game works too well. Who would have imagined that There Will Be Blood would wind up telling the story of a wildcatting oil man at the turn of the century? On the other hand, Masked Vigilante vs. a Psycho in Clown Make Up sounds a heck of a lot sillier than the far more brooding The Dark Knight. Sitting somewhere in the middle is the latest from Troma Entertainment, Pot Zombies. Yes, like the classic chainsaw massacre Pieces once stated, this is exactly what you think it is. On the other hand, the up front moniker masks a movie almost rebellious in its flailing exactitude.

A bunch of rednecks come across a marijuana field tainted with radioactive waste. A few blunts later and they are hankering for human flesh. When some of this wicked wacky weed winds up in local smoker’s circles, the cannabis’s cannibalistic tendencies start to spread. As more and more young people light up, a full blown zombie Armageddon occurs. That’s it. No major league hero steps in to save the day. No game government reaction to the entire bleary eyed living dead mess. No last girl limping around waiting for her date with the undead’s incisors. It’s just people getting high and then (as the cover art claims) getting the munchies for people pudding pops. Yum!

Pot Zombies is the senseless shampoo of scary movies. Director Justin Powers simply sets up his roach = reaction conceit, breaks out the green face paint, and repeats. Ad nauseam. As the mind behind the lame HP homage LovecraCked! The Movie, Master P is a titan of limited financial returns. He can make a mockery of no budget cinematics and still find a way to undermine one’s expectations - for good and for bad. Like a broken record, a hyperactive teen, or an accused politician, Powers constantly duplicates his ditzy horror hack brilliance as if we didn’t quite get it the first 253 times. Actors attempting to replicate news reporters do their damnedest to undermine our suspension of disbelief, and it’s not long before we wonder why it took a team of four - that FOUR - screenwriters to come up with what is, in essence, a collection of cinematic sameness.

The answer, of course, is desire. Moxie can make up for a lot in the world of independent art, and with Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as a lisping pizza “boy” flitting around the fringes (he appears and disappears for no apparent reason), Powers is clearly inspired by his peers. It takes guts the size of Godzilla to offer up third rate lesbians (why do all post-modern girl lovers have to be covered in a collection of proto-punk prison tattoos???), glowing green-eyed hillbillies, and arterial spray that looks like red Kool-Aid laced with cherry Hi-C. Powers doesn’t pretend to have a plot, can’t be bothered with things like characterization, storytelling subtlety, or directorial prowess. Had he made a movie about giant battling robots looking for some goofy garbage known as the All Spark, he’d be Michael Bay. With Pot Zombies, he’s more like Michael Bong.

Taken on its own Make Your Own Damn Movie terms (a call to aesthetic arms fostered by Kaufman and his company), Pot Zombies is still a direct to digital disaster. One imagines apes with amputated frontal lobes could foster a more fulfilling scary movie experience. But if you move beyond such bourgeois mainstream expectations and take this film for what it is, Powers’ peculiar approach will finally have its way with you. Instead of being humiliating, Pot Zombies becomes humorous. Instead of representing the bottom of the barrel in homemade horror comedies, we wind up with something dangerously close to the cream of the crop. Sure, it’s stunted, stupid, and sloppy, but it’s also a pure representation of one man’s desire to mimic the media that inspired him in the first place.

And isn’t that the main purpose behind any real work of art. Da Vinci wasn’t painting some manly she-male named Mona (or Lisa) because he was the Glamour Shots of Ancient Rome. Picasso didn’t fidget with the human form because he hoped someone would name an entire painting movement after him. Everything in expression, from Georgia O’Keefe’s vaginal flowers to Robert Maplethorpe’s S&M sex pics were crafted because of an unfettered need to create. Pot Zombies is the same way. Powers can be called all manner of misguided names - amateurish, unskilled, braindead, retarded - but he’s not. He’s merely bitten by the artisan’s bug, and the bite is clearly infected and running with pus. If he doesn’t pick at it, it will never scab over and heal.

By embracing the common consumer sense of truth in advertising - there are no lovelorn Yetis, dreamboat vampires, cocaine sniffing werewolves, or meth-crazed aliens in this able arthouse triumph - and delivering nothing but said reefer rejects, Justin Powers makes the convolution of cinematic standards into its own unique visionary statement. Sure, LovecraCked! will kill you with its overriding rancidness, and it’s hard to see anything helpful coming out of this undead doobie delight. Still, for all its gaping flaws, for its need to entertain and its middling ability to do so successfully, Pot Zombies should be celebrated. Go in expecting Mozart and you’ll be kicking yourself for days. Drop those designs down a couple hundred notches and you’ll be giggling all the way to the nearest Santeria head shop.

by Matt Mazur

26 Jun 2009

This one is self-explanatory and might blow your mind!

by Karen Zarker & Sarah Zupko

26 Jun 2009

PopMatters attends a Balkan wedding – and funeral…

It’s a perfect summer evening for a Balkan wedding—breezy, a light coolness to the air floating just above the silky warmth of summer brushing lightly against our bare skin. Ideal weather, too, for a funeral.  Either occasion is fine with us, as both call for plenty of ‘Alkohol’ and the communal feeling it evokes.

In the company of Serbian, Russian, and Polish-speaking people we stroll the meticulous grounds and enjoy the polished staff at Ravinia, anticipating the arrival of Goran Bregović & His Wedding and Funeral Orchestra. We see three, perhaps even four generations enjoying picnics in their familial clusters. It’s a good-looking crowd, dressy even in casual attire—some dolled up just short of formal.

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