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Sunday, Feb 10, 2008

Despite the mash-up’s of artists from different genres that they try at the Grammys (which usually makes for interesting visual moments but not great musical moments), the real drama of the ceremony is “who’s gonna get bragging rights?”  The winners not only get to tack this on their resume but also get a sales boost out of it too.  So with the ongoing writers’ strike not threatening the ceremony, this time going in, the big questions is how many awards would the physically-absent and still detoxing Amy Winehouse win plus how many would Kanye West win and how many fits would he throw.  It’s pretty snoozy stuff compared to the ongoing tussles in the presidential campaign now between another woman and another African-American, not to mention a ‘moderate’ GOP front-runner who’s still getting beaten in the primaries.


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Saturday, Feb 9, 2008


Stephen Chow is the Daffy Duck of Hong Kong marital arts superstars. Far more subversive than Jackie Chan ever was, and endearingly idiosyncratic compared to other cookie cutter action stars (especially the muscled voids of today), the 45 year old maverick stands as the genre’s biggest undiscovered superstar. Sure, Western audiences were wowed by the cartoonish chaos of 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, but Chow had been part of the Asian entertainment industry for more than two decades before making it big across the Atlantic. Of course, through our narrow, near xenophobic view of the modern motion picture, he seemed like an overnight sensation.


Yet Chow has been long regarded by film fans who’ve ventured beyond their local video stores standard selection. With such well received efforts as King of Comedy, God of Cookery, Forbidden City Cop, and From Beijing with Love, he’s accumulated quite a reputation in his native land. In fact, when 1992’s Royal Tramp won the box office that year, Chow had the distinction of starring in the other four films making up the top five as well. Considered by many to be an excellent example of the mo lei tau - or “makes no sense” - genre of Chinese comedy, this wacky historical epic spawned an equally outrageous sequel - Royal Tramp II and solidified Chow’s status as a top foreign funnyman.


Long unavailable on Region 1 DVD, The Weinstein Company and Genius Products, under their marvelous imprint Dragon Dynasty, are giving the English speaking world a chance to savor these significant works. Presented in a two disc special edition loaded with exceptional added content, Royal Tramp and Royal Tramp II strike the perfect balance between period piece and pantomime, amazing wire-fu fisticuffs and intricate, entendre-laced dialogue. Some may be shocked at the scatological humor. Others may marvel at the amount of violence. But in the end, few can question Chow’s abilities before the camera. He takes material that many in his native land feels cheapens both himself and their history and turns it into a sensational combination of machismo and mirth.

The first film, Royal Tramp, sets up Chow’s character perfectly. When a young emperor is declared too inexperienced to run his dynasty, he brings on four advisors to guide and counsel. One member of the group, a despotic old man named Obai, turns traitor, and begins a singular revolution against the throne. But this is not the only threat to the crown. Seems another group, called the Heaven and Earth Society, want to bring down the Quing dynasty and reestablish the Ming name. While working at his sister’s brothel, a young con artist/storyteller named Bo winds up helping the leader of Heaven and Earth escape harm. He agrees to work for the organization as a spy.



Once in the castle, he is taken in by head of the Eunuchs, Ha Da-Fu, and trained in the ways of kung fu. He befriends the emperor and his horny sister. He also runs into trouble with the Queen Mother, who may not be who she seems. As Obai gathers his army for attack, and the Dragon Sect’s operative plans her internal coup, Bo tries to balance his loyalties. Most importantly, everyone wants a book known as the 42 Chapters. In it is a secret so amazing that it could change the course of history. Of course, they look to their royal jester as a means of obtaining the tome. It’s just too bad Bo is busy wheeling and double dealing. After all, once a huckster, always a huckster.


Combining classic stunt choreography with Chow’s by then patented patter, Royal Tramp is an eye popping, rib tickling romp. It serves as notice for what a sprawling martial arts spectacle can be while simultaneously establishing a heretofore unknown level of verbal wit. Most fans of this type of film associate comedy with kung fu, stylized slapstick where the physical proffers the funny business. But typical to the mo lei tau genre, where dialogue is as important as daring-do, Royal Tramp delivers a high level of multifaceted farce. Chow is particularly good at this. His character is constantly conniving, making up stories to subvert potential danger (or death). He is outrageous and outsized, lowbrow and quick witted.


While many will assume that the R rating comes from the typical body blows traded by the characters, there is a great deal of blue humor present. Bo is introduced to the “penis” room by Ha Da-Fu, and one of the classic kung fu moves used requires the characters to literally feel each other up (no matter the region). Sex is suggested and never shied away from, and various Western swears (the F-bomb, the S-word) make regular appearances. There are online scholars who question the English translation of Chow’s lines. They insist that much of the nuance and copious wordplay used in mo lei tau is lost here. In addition, historians hate this film. While it’s based on traditional Chinese legend and literature (Tramp is indeed loosely taken from the wuxia novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Jin Yong), it does denigrate much of the heroic heritage.


Still, for pure cinematic enjoyment, for watching exceptional actors bring life to exaggerated actions, Royal Tramp is terrific. It never ceases to amaze while it continuously calls upon established Hong Kong elements to sell its scope. The opening attack on Obai is spellbinding, and the last act forest fracas offers nonstop thrills. Oddly enough, Chow doesn’t do a lot of martial arts here. He usually stands in the background, quipping away, while other genre icons - Ng Man Tat, Damian Lau, Elvis Tsui - take all the round house kicks and body blows. Visually stunning, thanks in no small part to directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung (you can see the latter’s work in Chinese Ghost Story here) and overflowing with memorable moments, Royal Tramp is a regal treat.



It’s no wonder there was a sequel planned. Thanks in part to Chow’s popularity, and the film’s suspected financial returns, Royal Tramp II was an inevitability (the movies were filmed back to back). This time around, Bo has been promoted. After defeating Obai and sending the fake dowager Queen back to the Dragon Sect, he feels secure in his position of power. But trouble looms on the horizon. Seems the angry underground wants the son of Ping Shi to marry the Emperor’s sister. So Wu Sun-Gwei, under the protection of the Dragons and evil military mastermind Feng Shi -Fan head out to meet with the royal family. Along the way, their efforts are thwarted by a one armed nun who uses her magical kung fu to protect her interests. It is up to Bo to defeat the various factions, woo those who want him dead, and learn the practicality of being the greatest non-fighter fighter in all of ancient China.


Far more action oriented than its predecessor (not that Royal Tramp I is a slouch in the stunt department), the return of fast talking Bo and his adventures in backdoor political intrigue is just as good as the original. Chow, now completely comfortable in the role, expands the character’s qualities by giving him more swagger in the persuasion department. Far less whiny than he was in Tramp I, Bo is now a man of means, and the anarchic arrogance he shows is ‘rich’ in hilarious rewards. When we first meet him, trying to persuade to young warrior gals to sleep with him as a means of warding off a fictional poison, the exchange is priceless. Similarly, the polygamy angle is used to great effect, especially when the spoiled princess from the first film is reduced to playing supporting concubine. Indeed, aside from the young emperor, who’s reduced to a mere plot device, the returning members of the Royal Tramp company do a terrific job of expanding on what was presented before.


Even more impressive are the fight scenes. Directors Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung seem bent on making these new confrontations as balletic and broad as possible. It seems like, ever time enemies meet, they begin a surreal dance that offers swordplay, spins, leaps, lacerations, kicks, cracks, and other unbelievable feats of physicality. Filmed in a manner that manages to protect both the fiction and the fighting, it is truly amazing. Sadly some will miss the nonstop verbal volleys of the original film. The tripwire dialogue is present, by delivered in dribs and drabs instead of in a steady stream. Running gags are used (a reference to respect being like water), and the same scatology that was present before is metered out in tiny little particles. The main emphasis of the narrative is on interpersonal intrigue, people playing off each other to formulate alliances, rivalries, and romantic couplets.


In fact, the Royal Tramp films do a fascinating job of combining the traditional with the up to date to create a crazy world where Chow’s mo lei tau can function freely. By following his flim flam man from whorehouse entertainer to court confidant, from leader of the rebellion to creator of reconciliation, the movies make a sincere statement about human nature as ever changing and challenging. The use of a mythical backdrop, with its ability to provide untold levels of magic, makes for a startling subtext. Equally entertaining is the way Chow channels contemporary values through old world routines. It represented something of a novelty for the conventional Hong Kong film industry. It’s also why many purists still dislike the Royal Tramp films.


It’s a sentiment seconded by commentator Bey Logan on his alternate DVD tracks provided. Offering both history and context for each film, these discussions provide a unique perspective on Chow’s career, his rise through the Shaw Brothers system, and how his popularity literally rewrote the Asian action film rulebook. Along with an interview with co-writer/director Ling, and the original theatrical trailers, we get a rather thorough look at how a desire to play dumb and lowbrow revitalized a dying genre, and how one man triumphed in the face of much criticism and social consternation.


For Stephen Chow, however, superstar celebrity was just a matter of time. Once he got his way, starting his own projects and infusing them with his special creative input, the sky was literally the limit. Cockier than most of his fellow filmmakers, willing to take chances that time and tradition would never consider critically viable, he made the combination of kung fu and craziness a winning fiscal formula. Now capable of doing virtually anything he wants (his latest effort is the kid friendly ET-like alien epic CJ7), the future looks very bright for Chow’s brand of buffoonery. Anyone interested in seeing where he started could do worse than experiencing the Royal Tramp collection. Both films are fine examples of the man’s amazing talent.


DVD
Royal Tramp


 
Royal Tramp II


EXTRAS



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Saturday, Feb 9, 2008

With the writers’ strike still on now (though hopefully resolved soon), talk shows are scrambling to find guests. Along with sports figures and musicians, you can now add music scribes to the list.  The Monday night edition of Conan O’Brien’s show will have the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis and the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot (both also from the Sound Opinions radio show) on there, which might be a first for the trade (correct…?).  Jim thinks that Mr. Bangs would have been proud but I’m more concerned that the discussion is more about how Radiohead and Timbaland are reshaping the biz than anything about the latest travails of Ms. Spears.


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Saturday, Feb 9, 2008

Congress recently passed a stimulus package—which has become one of those weird set phrases in the recent news cycle, like “rogue trader” Jerome Kerviel, or the subprime meltdown or the “credit crunch.” The demands of internet search engines seem to encourage the formation of such news nuggets. These set phrases become what Marx (according to literary critic Michael McKeon) called simple abstractions, holding together and stabilizing a collection of related ideas that are actually in tension. Thereby simplified, they circulate like currency and can be deployed in lieu of a richer understanding or a more comprehensive explanation of the forces at work. The main thing I know about the stimulus package is that it means the government will send me $600 simply for being a taxpayer.


You would that would be delightful, but it seems more frightening, like something a banana republic would do. It seems akin to giving hobos booze on election day as a reward for their vote. Also, the economic problems seem to be derived from too much irresponsible borrowing and spending, so it seems peculiar that the solution would be to give consumers more money and tell them to spend it freely. It’s like giving kids pudding when they haven’t eaten their meat.


Built into the phrase stimulus package are assumptions about what fiscal policy (aka money spent by the government) can accomplish. The main assumption is that the economy is moving into a recession because of a failure of aggregate demand, which is a consequence of credit suddenly becoming unavailable for risky and non-risky borrowers alike. Therefore the government borrows from the future (by increasing the deficit) and hands out checks to regular folks and encourages them to spend it. You don’t have to revile Keynes to be skeptical of this. Tyler Cowen makes a good case against it here:


Most fundamentally, more aggregate demand is not the answer because insufficient aggregate demand was not the problem in the first place.  Just as a social framing effect (and lots of fraud) led subprime loans to be perceived as “not very risky,” right now social framing effects—call them collective fear—are causing lower asset prices, some degree of credit constipation, and higher risk premia.  The economy is undergoing a sectoral shift toward less risky assets and that can bring an economic downturn.  The shift itself is costly, it brings thorny coordination problems (e.g., sudden insolvencies, overturning of credit expectations), and lower-yielding assets also mean less wealth.  Lack of liquidity simply is not the fundamental problem.


But then logic of the stimulus package may be less economical than political, as is usually the case when it comes to fiscal policy—who should get the fruits of government spending is always a political question. This package is not likely to have much direct effect on the economy, but it will certainly affect voters’ attitudes. The stimulus seems a matter of preventing a hiatus in standards of living—of habitual shopping, that is—and forestalling the unrest this would cause. So instead of helping adapt consumers to more “realistic” limitations on their consumption, we will do what we can to encourage them that no limits exist. This is called bolstering consumer confidence, and seems likely enough to work. America is an optimistic place, after all.


 


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Friday, Feb 8, 2008


Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.


Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.



Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.


Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.



Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.


It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.



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