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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007

Oh that cheeky, out-spoken Brit… after bashing fellow pop stars, Sir Elton John is now turning his wrath on the Internet, claiming that it’s destroying the music business, which pretty much tows the line of the RIAA and the major labels.  You could easily write off his Luddite musings as bluster but maybe there IS something to it…


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007

For somewhat apocryphal reasons, we decided to order yak meat and have a Tibetan-themed Yakfest, with yak burgers, yak steaks, and yak kabobs. And it seemed appropriate to try to procure some Tibetan liquor, which was no easy task. They are not particularly known for their drinking, nor for their export industry. Chinese liquor of some sort seemed the next best thing, so Carolyn and I stopped at a liquor store in Elmhurst, Queens, to buy a few bottles of booze. The selection was fairly extensive, which made it difficult to choose. The labels, almost entirely in Chinese, don’t give you much to go by. What English there is tends to be cryptic. One bottle, which came in sickly salmon-colored cardboard box, had a label that read “Flavor: Strong.” We ended up choosing at random—well, not exactly random: price was a factor, and bottles from Taiwan were ruled out. Carolyn was drawn to the illustration on this bottle,


whereas the font on it appealed to me.



Whenever you see this particular font on a Chinese product (and you see it nowhere else, though some hipster would be wise to work out a way to get it onto T-shirts), you know you have chosen quality, melamine be damned. My initial research into Tibetan liquors led me to believe that they are typically made from sorghum and barley, so the two bottles we procured were distilled from these ingredients in varying proportions, along with wheat and pea. We went to pay for the bottles and the old Chinese woman behind the counter seemed surprised at what we were buying. “Ah,” she said. “You like Chinese?” I told her we were sort of experimenting, and asked how the beverage was typically consumed. The woman, who may or may not have understood what I was trying to ask, made some unscrewing gestures with her hands and said, “Just open and drink.”


At home, I tried to find out more information on the liquor we bought, but typing in the English transliterations on the bottles yielded nothing. But the details on this Wikipedia page about Baijiu, the liquor that seemed most similar to what we bought, were not auspicious: “To the Western palate, sauce fragrance baijiu can be quite challenging. It has solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note. It has been described as stinky tofu crossed with grappa.” Perhaps I’m less adventurous than most, but “barnyard aromas” are generally not something I seek in beverages, nor did the promise of solvent- and ammonia-like notes have me eager to drink.


Nevertheless, after some yak burgers, we tried some. In the glass the liquid seemed to emanate a haze like you see coming off gasoline pumps on a hot day, the air seemed thick and wavy around it. It smelled less of the barnyard then of a janitorial closet. We all agreed that it smelled like a Jolly Rancher crossed with some kind of nail-polish remover. Nonetheless, these savory aromas did not deter us from trying it, and I’ll admit that it certainly was “challenging” to my Western palate. None of us could take more than a sip or two of this stuff, but despite how little we had, it lingered with us all day long. It had the sweetness that I presume draws dogs to lick antifreeze puddles, but it burned going down, with an aftertaste redolent of turpentine. As it scorched its way down to our stomachs, we concluded that there was no way it couldn’t be toxic. It seemed to activate taste buds on the back of my tongue that had rarely been used before, and these atrophied nerves were unhappy about being awakened from their dormancy. It seemed unfathomable that anyone could drink this fluid for pleasure, that the reaction would not be a physiologically conditioned grimace of revulsion, an instinctual rejection of insurmountable vehemence that would prevent having anymore—as when you have food poisoning and your digestive system goes into lockdown.


To a certain degree, we want liquor to taste bad (“Flavor: Strong”) because this allows it to fulfill the function of allowing us to prove our courage. There’s a masochistic Fight Club quality to drinking sot like this, and a camaraderie that comes from surviving it. It seems a tonic for dulled senses, jaded sensibilities. Plus, the utter unconsumability made it seem as though we were imbibing something that would fundamentally readjust our perceptions, take us beyond the ordinary. The burning awfulness of Jiang xiang seems like a ritual of purification, or a kind of blood oath being sworn that is irreversible. You’d drink this on the day you decided to cut off all your hair and run away to Alaska or Kamchatka or Guangdong. So like any consumer product, Chinese booze evokes fantasies about the kind of person you become by using it, and that trait is even more pronounced the more exotic the product seems. The imagination is engaged more deeply; there are no preconceptions, really, to draw from the way the product is advertised or regarded by the mainstream. It allows consumers to becomes explorers in virgin territory. To westerners, the taste of Baijiu is the taste of tourism cleverly disguised as the taste of adventure.


But clearly, if you drink this rotgut regularly, you’ll become one of those lost souls you see on Hester Street, with ragged clothes and makeshift sandals made out of cardboard, sleeping under unfolded newspapers in a greasy alleyway among empty tins of salad oil and reeking dumpsters that teem with the smell of rotting vegetables, sitting out in the pouring rain on a fire escape in gray fluorescent light, swilling.


This is not the destiny I choose. Still, I haven’t thrown out the bottles; I’ll keep them around for dares and in case a time comes when I’ll feel a perverse need for punishment.




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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.


Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom - Carrie-Ann Moss - has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.


Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.


Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.


When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.


To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.


Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.



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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


When fans and admirers inside pop culture think of Jackie Chan, the image is usually the same. In a clever combination of Buster Keaton and butt kicking, lighthearted hero and slightly goofy good guy, we find a noble defender capable of some consistently comic-tinged slapstick action. It’s a carefully controlled persona, one perpetrated by skillfully selected scripts and a film façade that uses humor to brace some serious –and quite dangerous – stunt work. It’s a reputation built on real life risk (Chan is the new Evel Knievel of self-imposed bodily harm) and the torturous demands of his Hong Kong cinema roots. Together, it forges an intriguing dynamic, a joyful juxtaposition of bravery with bumbling, the sly reduction of risk by linking the hazard to the demented delights of old fashioned physical comedy. It’s made Chan famous and fabulously wealthy.


And yet it may surprise fans that one of the most successful films of their favorite martial arts jester was also one of his most serious and solidly suspenseful. Based on the real life case of a kidnapped billionaire, and one cop’s unstoppable determination to find the fiends responsible, Crime Story stands as a unique effort in the Chan canon. Tapping into the then trendy mob war mania that was sweeping Hong Kong cinema (thanks in part to John Woo’s massively influential The Killer and Hard Boiled), this tough as nails thriller finds our usually likable hero suffering through some bad law enforcement mojo. A rich real estate magnet with some questionable business practices is snatched by a secret organization made up of fellow entrepreneurs, criminal types, and a lone rogue policeman. Their goal – tap into his massive wealth as a means of righting wrongs within their own poor professional lot. It is up to Chan’s steely eyed inspector to piece together the clues and solve the case.


Crime Story has a notorious history, one touched on ever so slightly by the new Special Edition DVD release from Dragon Dynasty. Chan was a significant superstar in his native land when the script was offered to him, and initially, he seemed intrigued by playing a character that was emotionally wrought, psychologically scarred, and frequently undermined by his own skewed sense of justice. The narrative was to be as much a metaphysical journey as a standard action workout, with firefights substituting for most of Chan’s signature body byplay. Though he tries not to sound too bitter, director Kirk Wong cites the creative differences between himself and his star (on an enclosed commentary), and such a divide is no real revelation. Pressured by the studios to hurry up his output and very careful to maintain his commercially viable persona, Chan wrangled the camera away from the veteran filmmaker. Yet for all the actor’s interference, Wong’s dark imprint remains.


Indeed, the first thing you notice about Crime Story is how familiar it all feels. We in the West have had only limited exposure to the amazing output of China’s genre-jumping populist cinema, and in that regard, much of the movie feels like one of the archetypal efforts that we’re more or less accustomed to. Smoky, ersatz jazz plays in the background and defiantly ‘80s neon lights flicker behind the action. Wong’s lens arcs and sweeps around scenes, avoiding the slow motion bullet ballet of his fellow stylists. He stages stand-offs in typical chaos supporting set-ups, but then also allows his actors to use the space to amplify the anarchy. During the last act battle between one man army Chan and a cast of corrupt hoods, the apartment block setting is literally blown apart in one of the most spectacular stunts seen on film. Yet Wong keeps our concentration on the character, the interwoven stories of Chan, the corrupt cop, and the off screen victim all working to elevate the angst. 


Equally intriguing is the one element Chan fought hardest to remove from the film. Crime Story was supposed to be a serious psychological study on how the increased violence in Hong Kong (and the surrounding sanctuary provided by places like Taiwan and the Mainland) drove one stalwart policeman to basically break down. There was to have been long passages where a therapist delves into the cop’s complicated psyche, trying to decipher if the mandate to kill (as part of his job) was destroying him inside. Naturally, our good-natured, comedy oriented star wanted none of this, and he was tireless in his efforts to remove it from the script. So it’s safe to say that Crime Story is just the slightest shadow of its former self. But Thanks to Wong’s way with the storyline, we still feel the emotional pull of the material, and dread the outcome of this intricate game of cat and mouse.


Fans may feel a bit cheated by the lack of signature stuntwork here, but it’s not all pistols and posturing. During the finale, Crime Story makes up for its lack of aggressive acrobatics by going balls out on one amazing setpiece after another. The minute Chan steps on the boat to find the important clues to link the case to his fellow cop, the movie is relentless. This amazing actor falls from ferocious heights, jumps off walls with a gymnast’s grace, runs through fire and surrounding explosions, and even does some of his well-loved prop pantomime. Sure, the initial car chase is nothing so special, relying more on strategizing than standard vehicular mayhem, and when Chan chases a suspect through a Taiwanese strip joint, the level of invention is not up to his usual showboating. Yet the tense nature of the narrative, meshed with the memorable performance from our lead (who cares if serious doesn’t sell tickets, he is wonderfully effective here) turn Crime Story into a genuine genre gem.


Representing the 17th title brought to DVD by Dragon Dynasty, the added elements offered to supplement this film are what make this disc so special. As stated before, Wong is upfront and personable, describing how Jet Li was linked to the film. The death of the star’s manager at the hands of the actual Triad caused him to balk. The director also talks about the real life policeman who provided the backdrop for the story. Wong recalls how the cop responded to the numerous phone calls for advice (he wasn’t getting paid, which sort of ticked him off) and how the script was constantly being rewritten during production. It’s a sentiment supported by writer Teddy Chen, who is also interviewed here. In addition, we see a few deleted scenes which tend to support the original intent of the film. Aside from the excellent technical specifications, what makes packages like this essential is the desire to add context and other complementary elements. It helps us understand both the movie and the men who made it even more.


Such perspective is important when viewing Crime Story. You’re typical Chan fan who only knows him as the joking, genial lantern of manic martial artistry will probably wince at the concentration on story over stunts. Few will find their happy hero so winning, especially when he continues to let his loyalty to the force let a corrupt cop off the hook – even at the end. There will the obvious comparisons to Woo, the unfavorable critical assessments in view of the much lighter, and much more popular, Police Story films. But whenever an established name challenges the standards that made him or her a star, the initial uproar is deafening. Luckily, when it dies down, we are left with the movie itself – and in that capacity, Crime Story is a classic.


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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


Where and when, exactly, did Neil Gaiman earn all this geek love credentials? It’s safe to say that, outside the insular realm of select comic book purists (a mighty force, for sure), his name barely garners a blip among mainstream media hawks. Yet his has always been a presence burbling around the pop culture surface – a well received British miniseries here, a couple of sold scripts to Hollywood there. Granted, there is no denying the impact of his Sandman series among graphic novel enthusiasts, and the remainder of his writings (prose, pen and ink, etc.) have only increased his formidable fanbase. Still, when did he become the oft-cited ‘next big thing’, and why would any studio risk their potential summer blockbuster dollars on a basically unproven act. Unfortunately, there’s no clear response from the late in the season release, Stardust.


As a flawed fractured fairy tale, this only average film sputters when it should soar. It saves up its best material for the final act confrontation between good and evil, and then never once doubts the outcome. As fantasy, it’s flimsy, simply regurgitating ideas and elements from past familiar fables. This would be fine if Gaiman, via screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, had anything novel or quirky to add to the genre. But instead, he’s more serious than satiric, dishing out ‘dead clever’ conceits like they’re sweets at an orphanage. We’re supposed to grin at the ghostly visages of the King’s dead sons, each still wearing the manner of their demise. When the fabled three witches discover a new source of their much coveted immortality, we’re supposed to giggle at their glamour gal antics. From a scene stealing sequence of gay pirating (more on this in a moment) to a token take on honor and valor, Stardust wants you to leave happy, ever after. In this case, we’re only mildly amused.


It all starts with a stunted hero, the head over heels in obsession Tristan (Charlie Cox), who determines that he will bring a recent fallen star back to the object of his affection – in this case, the Renaissance fair version of a Hilton sister. When he makes it over “THE WALL” – the ancestral dividing line between his world and the kingdom of Stormhold (don’t ask) – he discovers that the celestial body has transformed into a maiden, the ineffectually ephemeral Yvaine (Claire Danes). Also interested in this newly arrived entity are the three witches Mormo, Empusa, and head heavy, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer). By eating her heart, they can live forever. In addition, the remaining sons of the King (Peter O’Toole) are after a rare gem that will guide the next heir to the throne. Turns out, Yvaine has that too. So it’s an ersatz-epic journey across picturesque Scottish landscapes to save the ‘luminary’, find the stone, and keep the wicked wenches at bay.


With its A-list cast and big budget support, there’s no real reason for Stardust to slump so. After all, if you can’t make Michelle Pfieffer in full craggy cackle mode resonate as pure evil, or a coy Claire Danes radiate with ethereal beauty, there is something wrong with your vision. Part of the problem is obviously Gaiman. He’s cribbing from William Goldman (The Princess Bride) and some lesser sword and sorcery efforts (Stardust frequently feels like Krull combined with the worst elements of George Lucas’ labored Willow) to brace his otherwise stiff English lip. And to think – director Matthew Vaughn (responsible for the heralded Brit crime flick Layer Cake) actually turned down a chance to helm X-Men: The Last Stand to make this movie. True, that eventual Brett Ratner washout wasn’t the greatest example of the super hero genre, but it was far more effective at what it was trying to accomplish than this worn out whimsy.


Vaughn does swing for the rafters, hoping to earn some crowd pleasing points by featuring former Method mob man Robert DeNiro as the gayest buccaneer in the profitable lightning procurement trade. Putting on a macho façade for his typical tough guy crew, he secretly fancies hairdressing, tea parties, and his closet full of fancy dresses. Whether he’s swishing or swashbuckling (and sometimes, both), Scorsese’s go to guy is a sly setpiece stunt, a way of taking the audience’s mind off the previous hour of meandering Magic: The Blathering. He goes over like gangbusters, and it’s within these winning moments that we see the movie Stardust could have been. Mixing genres and tones is never a solid foundation for a film, and it requires a director of deft designs to find the mystical interconnections to make it all gel flawlessly. Vaughn is not quite in that vaunted league. He still thinks swordplay should be shot with one eye on the editing room, the other on the action.


Once De Niro disappears, Stardust cruises on his glorified gimmickry for quite a while. We get the standard “will they kiss” romantic rehash, the transformation of our lead from dork to debonair (thanks to his prissy pirate pal), and a couple of massive logic leaps (it takes Pfieffer’s witch 75 minutes to find our heroes, yet only one jump cut to immediately return to her castle?). During the aforementioned finale, something metaphysically surreal and outside the film occurs. When a special power makes its last act presence known, the viewer’s mind begins asking a simple question – why didn’t they do that before. Like clockwork, the movie steps up and anticipates this charge, delivering an explanation before moving on. Maybe Vaughn thought that was clever. Maybe it’s a jaundice critical eye looking carefully for all the plot holes. Yet it indicates the kind of slapdash feel that Stardust is steeped in. Unlike other, better examples of the fantasy film, the narrative feels more or less made up on the spot.


And this is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in any work of “once upon a time.” In most instances, an audience either buys into the premise or they don’t. They follow your invented logic and brand new legends or they’re lost, never to willingly return to the shores of this daydream nation. With other examples in the entertainment arena – Neverwhere, the Henson Company’s clever Mirrormask – it’s clear that Gaiman will be a fixture in film for sometime to come. Yet it’s his future productions that will most likely leave an imprint. Stardust, however, makes the major mistake of substituting weakness for the wistful. There are parts of this film that actually try to fly. The vast majority though is grounded in a level of labored levity that never provides the wings - or the wherewithal – to get airborne.



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