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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007


When East meets West in cuisine, they call it fusion. When they collide cinematically, it could easily be labeled con-fusion. When a fan approaches a Hong Kong action epic, they don’t expect an overemphasis on plot, a lot of confused character double dealing, and a visit from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Nor are they looking for ex-Hollywood A-list desperate for a paycheck. No, they hear the premise of a particular Asian stunt spectacle and assume its time for the spirit of John Woo to infect yet another franchise. And when you add in the now mandatory international angle (for financial and marketing reasons), the results can be inconsistent at best. For director Danny Lee, the combination cast, along with the overly complicated narrative, should have spelled motion picture disaster. But thanks to his skill behind the lens, his epic police procedural Dragon Heat becomes an imminently watchable bullet ballet.


Offered under the Weinstein Company and Genius Entertainment’s continuing Dragon Dynasty series, this 2005 effort (originally labeled Dragon Squad), is a multimedia movie functioning under some very peculiar plot parameters. When we first meet our band of good guys – a ragtag collective of cops including a sharpshooter, a sniper, and an undercover expert, among others – they are preparing to present evidence against drug running mobster Panther Duen. On the way to court, their convoy is ambushed and the criminal is eventually kidnapped. At first, everyone thinks it’s a well planed rescue. But soon, the truth is revealed. Another group of bad guys, including a disgruntled South Korean General and a sinister Columbian mercenary, are out to make the Duen Brothers pay for double crossing them. With the help of police chauffer (and ex-Commandant) Kong Long, the novice police agents intend to get to the bottom of this case and dispose of all the felons once and for all.


Clearly created to showcase a meshing of old school heroism with new jack bravado, Dragon Heat has its moments of stellar symbolism. When martial arts master Sammo Hung (as the aforementioned driver) goes mano y mano with Jun-ho Heo (as the disgruntled military man) in a close combat sequence, its pure archaeological adrenaline. Our pulse quickens just knowing that we’re about the see a true screen legend open up a can of whoop ass with nothing more than his fists. Similarly, Maggie Q has an excellent cemetery shoot out with her good guy equivalent, and the trading of carefully aimed gunfire among the grave markers is certainly suspenseful. But Lee also allows his purpose to undermine his young ones. They appear strategically inept, impulsive to a fatal fault, and marksmen in name only. During a setpiece factory alley firefight, with apparently plentiful ammunition, no one is capable of hitting a criminal, let alone the broad side of a building. Yet we’re supposed to buy these noble newcomers as the next “wave” in justice. It’s an odd juxtaposition that frequently fails to engage.


Still, Lee is enough of a craftsman to help us forget the kids and their incomplete acumen. The narrative relies on context and flashback to fill in the missing interpersonal blanks, and just when we think we’ve learned all we can about our players, we get subplot scenes involving lost loves, paralyzed brothers, and fame-hungry supervisors. Edited into the film in a manner that makes a quick and considered impact, Lee does go a tad overboard at the end, offering repeats of these montages just before the plot ordered face-offs occur. Still, for a potential viewer raised on video games and other forms of multifaceted media, it makes for a visually arresting and appealing ideal. In fact, Dragon Heat often acts like a metamorphosis between the staged spectacle of previous Hong Kong crime cinema and a new, more naturalized motion picture approach.


There are some stylistic choices that will undermine your enjoyment, especially in light of how Lee handles their happenstance. Every gun battle in Dragon Heat is a borderline irritating exercise in ammunitus interruptus. In order to lengthen said action scenes, our director makes these heroes and villains all pomp and very little precision. During a single volley of gunfire, we can see thousands of rounds exchanged, but very few come close to hitting their mark. Indeed, even when a scope shows a body part clearly in the crosshairs, the round rarely arrives as planned. This is especially disquieting during the finale. Our leads have all been talking semi-smack for at least 20 minutes or so, pumping themselves up to take on these fiends who are clearly more aggressive than they will ever be. They even get Sammo’s sage character to agree to a blade on blade rematch. But as our kung fu god is slicing and dicing with a machete, these literal young guns are proving, yet again, their lack of rudimentary trigger pulling skills.


It also doesn’t help that our supposedly formidable force frequently sulk like Kenny when he learns that Gamera is not coming out to play. Their dour, disappointed personalities often remind one of brats being scolded, not seasoned cops looking to take a bite out of crime. Part of this is Lee’s fault. Aside from a silly sequence where our agents show off their questionable talents at a pub’s shooting gallery, we never see them successfully complete a mission. They always miss by a hair, or underestimate their opponents or their strategies, leading to another dressing down by their superiors. In fact, we are told on more than one occasion that these visiting lawmen (and women) are not really wanted. They’re sheepishly given a role here because they hold the evidence to convict the local drug kingpin. But once that villain meets a rather grizzly fate, it’s fairly clear their “expertise” is a marginalized commodity at best.


Still, Dragon Heat delivers enough suspense and old world moralizing to make the trip well worth while. The inclusion of an international cast definitely gives the film a unique edge, especially when cult favorites like Michael Biehn pop up to show us how it’s done. As part of the ample added content provided by the DVD, we learn of the money men’s desire for a ‘name’ cast, some Western flair, and a native angle that spanned demographical and media interests. From the commentary track by producer/Hong Kong film historian Bey Logan to the music video like Making-Of featurette, there is a clear, calculated approach to this project which explains a lot of its appeal – and a great deal of its entertainment apprehension. Call it a “too many cooks” conceit, or intrusion by people who have no business determining aesthetic, but the “everything to everyone” designs are apparent all throughout this otherwise exceptional effort.


Flaws and all, Dragon Heat is definitely worth paying attention to. It seems to indicate the future of Asian action while commenting directly on the expectations of and exceptions to the standard genre archetypes. It’s more a movie of individual moments than all out epic of excitement, and the futuristic metropolitan backdrop delivers a beneficial, big city appeal. While it would have been nice to see more hand to hand combat vs. all the non-stop firefighting, the final result is something even the most jaded slo-mo shoot out lover could embrace. In some ways, Dragon Heat expertly mirrors the guerilla style of battle exploding all across the post-millennial urban landscape. While duty and honor are still important, quick reflexes and a brazen determination are far more valuable. This is one fusion film that actually works – in spite of itself.


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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007


Girls in bikinis kicking butt – sounds like nothing more than sexist male fantasy fodder, right? No matter the scholarly interpretation and arguments over empowerment, it’s hard to see the feminism in fisticuffs between scantily clad babes…especially when the narrative emphasizes the eroticism, and exploits their camera ready ‘assets’ in a very up close and personal manner. So would it surprise you that D.O.A.: Dead or Alive, based on the lusty adolescent console title of the same name, is readily one of the more estrogen-ccentric films in a long time? It’s a movie geared to make the supposedly weaker sex a smarter, savvier and far more substantive opponent – both in and out of the competitive ring. While its sci-fi subtext may be laughable at best, and its characters cut out of bitmap believability, it remains a gloriously goofy romp as choice chick flick.


In fact, DOA is actually the gender equity version of August 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up! , a mindless exercise in violence with enough style and sass to get an audience over its superficial stutters. This is not a movie interested in three dimensional development, narrative coherence, or sentimental subtlety. Instead, it’s a C cup full of nonstop action, a collection of incredibly effective fistfights and sword standoffs played out against a wonderfully cartoonish and creative backdrop. Hong Kong director Corey Yuen, who made his name stateside delivering Jason Statham through The Transporter and Jet Li in The Enforcer, uses the same over the top, in your face approach that defined those films to make these superhero supermodels more deadly than Charlie’s so-called Angels, and a heck of a lot more fun.

Our story begins when Princess Kasumi, leader of her Japanese clan, decides to ignore royal protocol and go after her missing brother. By doing so, she becomes an outcast, leading loyal guard Ayane to automatically switch allegiances and become a court bounty hunter. Her prey? The MIA princess. Meanwhile, professional wrestler Tina Armstrong takes on a boatload of pirates aiming to shanghai her yacht. At the same time, master thief Christie Allen is questioned by the Hong Kong police over some missing bank money. All four eventually find themselves invited to the D.O.A. (Dead or Alive) Competition, hosted by reclusive and eccentric businessman Donovan. The set up is simple – a single elimination tournament where the loser is sent home, and the eventual winner winds up with $10 million. With Helena, the daughter of the invitational’s original founder present, and a collection of competitors from around the globe, everything is in place for another compelling contest – not that this is Donovan’s real intent…not by a long shot. 


The first thing you notice about D.O.A. is Yuen’s decision to tweak the color palette. This is a pastel and primary battle royale, an assortment of tints and hues manipulated and manufactured to skirt the boundless border between believability and full fledged fantasy. All the water present is a crystalline blue, matching the azure elegance of the endless sky. Grass is greener than finely polished jade, and sunsets radiant a deep, dynamic orange. Clearly, this director is trying to emulate the millions of possibilities inherent in a complex computer program, but such a strategy also underlies D.O.A. ’s sense of seriousness. Since it is larger than life, the rules of reality really don’t apply, and that goes for every other facet of this film – its set design, its face offs, and its concept of characterization.


The main actresses here are all amazingly capable, with recent Emmy winner Jamie Pressly full of piss and vinegar as a desperate to prove herself grappler, and Sin City’s Devon Aoki as a sword wielding ninja doll. Equally impressive are Prison Break’s Holly Valance as a bodacious burglar and Shark’s Sarah Douglas as the untested Helena. All the gals get a little F/X help to realize their many moves (there is wire fu, real life martial arts, and a smattering of CGI to make it all come to life), but in general, they are very believable as smart, smokin’ hot extreme fighters. Yuen does go a little overboard on the slo-mo shots of torsos and tushies, but this is clearly in connection to the movie’s target audience. Guys like brawling, but they really LOVE a little T&A on the side.


As for the movie’s men, none make much of an impression, although Eric Roberts salt and pepper feathered look gives him a 10 years younger make-over. His performance is pitched somewhere between Christopher Walken and an actual psychotic beach bum. It’s pure Method madness at its most unhinged. As the dorky geek who gives the narrative its nutty professorship, Reba’s Steve Howey is feeb lite. Try as he might, he appears more anxious to pound brewskis than hack code. Other members of the male persuasion are either unimportant, or irritating (especially Brian White as a motor mouthed moron named Zack whose pin head is festooned with a sad spike of green hair). Still, none of these individual failings really matter. Yuen knows that action films rarely rely on compelling, complex personalities to make their point. Instead, it’s all about the fireworks, and D.O.A. delivers a couple dozen Fourth of July’s worth.


Indeed, this is a movie that cuts to the adrenaline pumped production number every couple of minutes, letting dialogue barely sink in before another example of hand to hand Hellsapoppin’ arrives. The choreography and filmmaking during these sequences are just stunning. Yuen obviously knows how to balance the needs of the purist with current pop culture dynamics. He tosses together quick cutting, amazing mise-en-scene, explosion compositions, and just a tinge of movie magic to turn a couple of pretty people beating the snot out of each other into some manner of metaphysical meltdown. It makes one wonder how long he can keep up such a satisfying pace. The answer is 80 plus minutes, apparently. From Princess Kasumi’s escape for the last act face off between good and evil, D.O.A. never settles down. It’s just one amazing stunt statement after another.


There will be complaints that the plot makes no sense – not the contest, but the undercover bio-engineering that’s going on behind the scenes – and some will argue that, no matter their prowess, Yuen and the producers are exploiting attractiveness and sexuality for the sake of some elusive commercial conceit (the film did not do well at the box office, that is, when it could find its way there after its 2006 making). Fans of the games were glad to see the obvious references, as well as the sneaky segment where our heroines forget about fighting and play a friendly game of beach volleyball (wink). The added content on the DVD itself sheds little light on the film’s numerous issues. We get a decent Behind the Scenes featurette, but it mostly focuses on the fighting onscreen, not during post-production. The lack of further context speaks volumes about the studio’s overall faith in this film.


And that’s a shame. If marketed correctly, embracing its genial junk food frenzy instead of trying to overcompensate for it, D.O.A. could have been a sleeper hit. It had the perfect focus group strategizing, and with a little help from the female sect (who would definitely appreciate these gals’ knuckle crunching self determination), this eventual flop could have been viewed as a lot of fun. Instead, it is criticized for everything its not, and castigated for concepts it barely embraces. When it comes right down to it, Corey Yuen has indeed delivered a kind of kung fu interpretation of a Penthouse Forum letter, but there is more than just softcore slumming here. Even if you wouldn’t be caught ‘dead or alive’ watching such a film, you should give D.O.A. a try. It’s nothing more than a big, dopey delight.


 


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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007

When I was younger I believed that dreams came true
Now I wonder
Cause I have seen more of dark skies than blue
Now I wonder


Chris Isaak, I Wonder



I’m not as grey a guy as ol’ Chris, quoted above. But still, traveling around this great globe of our’n gives pause. In so many ways, it sets a man (and probably a woman) to a-wonderin’.


One thing that I wonder as I wander is this: what if life wasn’t about order?


I know, our bodies – to select but one immediately available counterexample – are self-contained packages. Bundles of nerves, integrated compilations of sinew, carefully crafted architecture of bone. There are highly complex chemical processes that all follow logics which are deducible and predictable employing the highly-honed methods of science. Physics explains some of how it all holds together; bio-chemistry perfectly accounts for others. Medical and psychological and sometimes even sociological theories make fine sense and are occasionally sustainable. They all offer evidence (if not proof) of fundamental order.



Or do they? I wonder . . .


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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007

For anyone who cares about and wants to support jazz and avant music in New York (and elsewhere as their work reverberates outward many times), here’s a great way to support their efforts.  The Vision Festival organization just released this announcement:


“The Matching Grant Campaign has been coming along very nicely.  We are almost There!  Please Please Help us to reach our $17,000 goal!  This is a 2-to-1 Matching Grant, which means that we will receive an additional $34,000 for a Grand Total of $51,000.  This is an Arts for Art effort to get our own space to present New York’s Creative Music.  The space, to be centrally located in downtown Manhattan, will house an ongoing music venue, as well as recording and rehearsal studios.  We have identified a possible location - which I will let you know about once we are a bit further along.  So things are Very Exciting. 


For information about all that we are doing, please check out our beautiful website – It also has lots of photos from this year’s festival.”


Having seen their festival over the last several years, I can vouch for what a worthy cause this is.


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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


Family films may have finally found their saving grace – and her name is Amanda Bynes. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features. With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. It’s her first foray into quasi-adult fare, and it will gauge how much staying power she truly has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based ever so slightly on the famed fairytale (the film’s title should provide the necessary hint) and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and expands it beyond its tacky TV movie boundaries. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins passed on this project. Still, the simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Greek life lunacy. It’s all very Revenge of the Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, but in a current cultural shift that actually embraces the dork dynamic, the last act standoff is more heartfelt than hilarious.


No, the majority of the comedy comes from Bynes’ ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the varied Vortex’s resident rejects reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. But our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous terrain with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of sudden experience. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook. It’s indeed a rare cinematic condition.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar stance. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. She is primed for a finale fall. As the rightly named Tyler Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven ‘dorks’, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s fair to compare Sydney White favorably to the college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. Granted, a few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative frequently follows traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


What we have here then is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


As a result, Sydney White is one of those fascinating films that taunt your aesthetic while it simultaneously delights your fun zone. It doesn’t strive for deep meaning, or tempt fate by fully falling into the updated Brothers Grimm mode (the Snow White storyline is barely recognizable most of the time). Instead, it provides proof that Amanda Bynes will be the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the Summer musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


 


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