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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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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


The War in Iraq is destined to leave yet another battle-weary scar on a nation finally recuperating from the one it received three decades before. Both sides can argue their rosy Red pros and basic Blue cons, but when all is said and done, all conflict is about people, not positions. They are the ones who pay the price, not the politicians. So what does it say about Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, his post-Crash comeuppance to everyone who thought his 2005 racial roundelay didn’t deserve the Oscar, that our brave fighting men are actually the bad guys here. Not unsympathetic bureaucrats, career minded Congressmen, or bomb building extremists, but the boys and girls wearing the stars and stripes. Granted, this laconic whodunit is based on actual events, but one still has to wonder if this is the right story to tell, given the current climate in the country.


When he goes AWOL after returning home from Iraq, the parents of Private Mike Deerfield get a fateful phone call. Father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military policeman himself, immediately heads over to his boy’s base to see if he can aid the investigation. However, his worst nightmares are realized when a badly burned, and crudely cut up, body is found along a deserted roadside. It is his son, the obvious victim of foul play. Promising his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that he will get to the bottom of the crime, Hank contacts local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Unappreciated by the male members of the bureau, and battling against stonewalling Army brass, she initially gives up on the case. But when inconsistent statements and some illegally obtained video footage suggest something far more sinister, she decides to help Hank. Together they will try and figure out why Mike became the target of such a senseless slaughter.


Wearing its holier than thou attitude on its blood-soaked sleeves, In the Valley of Elah is the most underhanded, backdoor anti-war film ever attempted. It takes a standard murder mystery, wraps it up in a torn and tattered flag, and flies the entire narrative upside down and a little lower than half mast. As a thriller, it’s a swing on a country porch. As a diatribe, it’s like listening to a well-intentioned teen explain politics. There is literally nothing wrong with Haggis’ approach, or his appreciation of the toll the Iraq War is taking on everyone involved – family, friends, and those in the line of fire. And he does make his characters complex enough to sustain such a subtle, slowpoke storytelling stratagem. But by the end of its overlong running time, when the final loose thread has been neatly knitted back into place, one can’t help but think that there was a better way to make this material work. Sometimes, a scream is preferable to a whisper.


Yet Haggis is content to keep his voice down. There are moments when this movie appears to be barely moving, when our director is purposefully stalling for significance. For example, when Tommy Lee Jones checks into a local motel, we witness his entire bed making routine. Similarly, we catch almost all of his character’s morning hygiene ritual, with an accidental shaving cut accentuated for future plotpoint portents. Indeed, a great deal of In the Valley of Elah wastes time laying cinematic booby traps. The aforementioned facial laceration will end up bleeding on a list of heretofore unknown subjects, while an inappropriate racial epithet will turn into an invitation for background information. Haggis wants to hide his symbolism as much as celebrate it, and with the cinematography’s dour, faded color scheme and vague visual palette, he creates the perfect vista for such an approach. Unfortunately, this film is so restrained that it frequently feels inert.


Granted, one doesn’t come into a tale like this expecting the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but Haggis’s halting style can be very aggravating at times. At one point, Sarandon phones Jones to tell him that a package from their dead son has just arrived. Immediately, he warns her not to open it, and after a brief back and forth she acquiesces. But then the subject is never mentioned again, with almost an hour going by before the envelope makes a last minute reappearance. As a dramatic device, it may have some significance, but we are smack dab in the middle of a murder investigation – a crime that may have some connection to the soldiers Mike served with. And you’re NOT going to investigate a mysterious parcel sent from the front lines which, perhaps, holds a key to solving the case? Right, that makes perfect sense.


Haggis’s politics are also problematic here. Thematically, In the Valley of Elah ascribes to the theory that war turns the innocent into bloodthirsty butchers, and in the case of the Iraq conflict, it has the potential to turn the best and brightest into unstable, antisocial psychopaths. There are several senseless sequences of foreboding offered, as when a scared military wife warns the police that her husband has started acting weird (he goes berserk and drowns the family dog). Yet instead of taking it seriously, the other officers in the station make goofy animal noises as Charlize Theron tries to comfort her. The whole chauvinistic take on the lawmen of Tennessee is equally odd, since the justification being forwarded is that, as ex-military men, it’s part of their noble nature. Indeed, time and time again, Haggis argues that everybody’s favorite iconic Uncle is really the Son of Sam. In his world, being all you can be means eventually turning into Ted Bundy.


If one thing saves this overly stoic statement, it’s the overall level of proficiency in the performances. Jones, Theron, and Sarandon all own Oscars, and they legitimately deserve said accolades. While he’s nothing more than a hospital corner’s curmudgeon at the beginning, Hank Deerfield is modified nicely over the course of the narrative, thanks in part to Jones’ desire to dimensionalize this despondent dad. Sarandon gets two excellent scenes (a morgue visit, and a late night phone call) and she makes the most of them. Oddly enough, Theron’s efforts may be the most intriguing. Dressed down, but never out (it’s hard to make this classic beauty look bad, unless you’re stopping off at the special effects tent), she comes across as jaded and unstrung, a woman waking everyday to a series of traumas that have as much to do with her career as crime. Her single-motherhood is hyped to no real end, but the connection with her kid makes for some intriguing and enlightening nuance.


Yet it’s these types of tangents that ultimately derail In the Valley of Elah. It seems like, every time a clue is unearthed, it requires a lengthy rationale and off topic backstory to certify it. Papa Deerfield swipes his son’s cellphone from the barracks, and within its damaged memory is a series of cryptic video clips. Of course, we get to witness almost all of these overlong ‘flashbacks’ in technologically deficient detail. As the picture pixelates, jumping and jerking to mimic handheld, in battle ‘realism’, we wait for the denouement. Sadly, Haggis hampers his own vindications by employing such a strange, scattered approach. Yet each video has an explanation, and we are constantly thrown off the case itself, to explore these occasionally unnecessary facets. It’s like the title analogy (Jones tells Theron’s little boy the story of David and Goliath): we are supposed to see the allusion between small town cop and the big, bad US military, but because the movie avoids such bravado confrontation, the link appears hallow.


Maybe the message will save In the Valley of Elah. Polls indicate that most Americans are sick of Iraq and its jumbled, no-endgame policies. As such, Haggis plays right into their worst, most horrifying fears. He shows an army incapable of achieving its objective while excusing the off-base criminality of its soldiers as simply “blowing off steam”. The grunts themselves are strip club settled and pimply, like hyperactive kids in an oversized candy store. When we learn what happened, both at home and abroad, we’re not shocked as much as saddened. The US has always suspected that its ‘unnecessary’ wars lead to unseen post-traumatic consequences. As a filmmaker, that’s all Haggis has to offer. Relying on it may be politically, or philosophically right, but it doesn’t necessarily serve a murder mystery thriller. Perhaps that’s why In the Valley of Elah seems so subdued. When questioning the heroism (not the heart) of the men who serve our nation, it’s best to speak softly. You don’t want to rile the resolved.


 


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