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by tjmHolden

28 Sep 2008



By now you have all heard that Paul Newman has passed. And, me being too busy or stupified to log a comment am just getting around to paying homage. Since, most of what has already been said—about Newman’s philanthropy, his beauty, his grace, his humility, his political ethos, his sly, understated acting craft—has been said well enough, I don’t need to dwell on that. For those of you looking for more about any of this, The New York Times obit  well summarizes his life, and a capsule recap of his key films was posted a day or so ago on the PM site. Those are fine starts if you thirst to know more about the man that was.

But now Mr. Newman is gone and that means, like all passings in our peripatetic world, we experience a dual loss: deprived of one less human voice, while being reminded once more of our inexorable evanescence.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008

When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.

After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.

On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.

Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.

But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.

As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.

While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.

by Rob Horning

28 Sep 2008

A few weeks ago, a NYT Magazine article prompted me to speculate about the implications of microblogging, but I thought I should at the same time, try to use Twitter in earnest and see what it was really like. At first, I had a really hard time writing anything. I had a strong inclination to lie, basically because I didn’t want to be frank about whatever it was that I was doing. Then it struck me to not mention what I was doing but instead transcribe random half-baked thoughts I may have had and use the space constraint Twitter imposes to transform them into gnomic, oracular pronouncements. This was sort of fun for a few days, and I started to get a sense of what might prompt someone to Twitter obsessively. I started to take my half-assed asides seriously. For the day or two that I was into it, I started living my life in search of snappy sentences, and this seemed like a life being lived poetically for about 24 hours, and then it just seemed totally contrived. But before that, I began to believe that I owed a report on my important thoughts to the world, that it was imperative that I share. I had this notion that people were out there eager to have bite-size pieces of my mind, and I was anxious to be consumed this way, as if my ideas were like those little Halloween candy bars. In other words, Twitter started to stoke my egomania (even more than mere blogging already does).

It may be that I don’t have a robust enough online network, or enough online-offline confluence to make Twitter work as anything other than a chance for me to try to make pithy, oblique observations. I’m not, for example, going to Twitter my whereabouts in the hopes that someone will find me in the real world, and I am not going to Twitter some personal dilemma I’m confronted with and expect someone out there to suggest solutions. And I am not interested in reading anyone else’s Twitters. I have too many blog posts to catch up with as it is, and yes, I know they are short and easily consumable, but it just seemed pointless. I would only be interested in the ones that were cryptic, and then these would take time to decipher that I could be spending reading up on, say, the bailout follies instead.

But the main reason I quit twittering is because it made me feel like a phony; I found myself trying to think of clever ways to describe what I was “doing.” Being honest seemed beside the point, and the more I twittered the less representative my posts were of who I actually think I am, and I started to think that some new dangerous personality I could become was starting to manifest. I didn’t want to get stuck there.

Anyway, I was reminded of this by this recent study about social networking and narcissism, which found “Narcissism predicted (a) higher levels of social activity in the online community and (b) more self-promoting content in several aspects of the social networking Web pages.” The main upshot is that one might be able to indentify narcissists through their online profiles. As one account of the study describes it:

Some researchers in the past have found that personal Web pages are more popular among narcissists, but Campbell said there’s no evidence that Facebook users are more narcissistic than others.
“Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions,” Campbell said. “It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships – for self promotion with an emphasis on quantity of over quality.”
Still, he points out that because narcissists tend to have more contacts on Facebook, any given Facebook user is likely to have an online friend population with a higher proportion of narcissists than in the real world. Right now it’s too early to predict if or how the norms of online self-promotion will change, Campbell said, since the study of social networking sites is still in its infancy.

I wonder, though, if maintaining online profiles doesn’t foment narcissism. If narcissism is a matter of privileging quantity over quality, then online networks—which are mainly a means of processing friendships more efficiently and with less spontaneity and more command-and-control through personal press releases on profile pages— would seem to provide fertile ground for narcissism to bloom. They encourage us to regard the pseudo-reciprocity of frequent updating for the actual commitments of friendship. This seems like the slippery slope to full-blown self-centeredness, in which sharing oneself seems an acceptable substitution for the ability to listen.

By providing the illusion of a world out there waiting for you to upload new photos and provide an urgent update about what you are doing right this instant, it certainly prompts self-aggrandizement. When I was Twittering, the imagined audience prompted me to post when I had nothing to share and encouraged me to invent something. And sometimes I log on to Facebook and feel jealous of all this activity logged there that my “friends” have been engaged in. I wonder if I just started dumping stuff into my Facebook page, it will make me feel more important, more connected, more interesting. I think that making a broadcast makes me register in some indelible way on the universe, and I suddenly have the moment of illusory control over my own fame, my own significance—and it seems so easy. Just cough up a clever line, or post an ambiguous photo, and just like that, I have (in my own mind, imagining the minds of others) intriguing.

Social networks and microblogging allow us to always have a stage on which to perform our personality successfully, and the allure of making that performance instead of engaging life more directly becomes pretty powerful—spending time thinking about what to Twittter instead of actually doing things that one might report about.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008

Beware of Big Brother…blah, blah, blah. You can’t pick up a publication nowadays, or listen to any number of broadcast pundits, and not hear about how the Bush Administration is violating rights and the privilege of privacy for the sake of some metaphoric act of patriotism. Granted, the Constitution may indeed be jeopardized in the name of non-provable levels of safety (call it the “tiger rock” syndrome), but Americans are more than willing to buy into the scheme to avoid another 9/11. This fuels Hollywood’s already perverse sense of paranoia, as it has since Nixon went Watergate-boarding. Disturbia director D. J. Caruso has tapped into such technological fear mongering with his latest big screen suspense thriller, Eagle Eye. While not perfect, if you ignore a major plot twist and/or hole along the way, you’re sure to have an edge of your seat good time.

On the day that he buries his twin brother, Jerry Shaw suddenly finds himself engulfed in a world of trouble. His grubby Chicago apartment is suddenly overrun with terrorism paraphernalia - weapons, instruction manuals, and bomb making materials - and from his cellphone, a mysterious female voice tells him to flee. Before long, Jerry is in FBI custody, with Agent Thomas Morgan on his case. Joined by Air Force investigator Zoe Perez, the officials hope to stop this potential disaster before it occurs.

In the meantime, single mother Rachel Holloman is informed that her son, traveling to Washington DC on a school band trip, is in danger. Unless she agrees to help the mysterious female voice on the other end of the line, she’ll lose everything. Turns out, Jerry is her proposed partner in potential crime. The pair become pawns in what appears to be a deadly assault on the United States. These reluctant radicals have to follow the instructions of their unseen tormentor, or die trying. Of course, the source of the threats might just be someone - or something - inside the government itself.

Bristling along on one amazing narrative convolution after another, and fueled by fascinating gung ho performances from everyone involved, Eagle Eye is a jovial serving of cinematic junk food. It’s frightfully filling without being intellectually challenging, and appears put together by professionals who know a thing or two about maintaining an audience’s interest. For those looking for mandatory movie references, this is nothing more than Wargames, Enemy of the State, North by Northwest and another famous ‘odyssey’ all rolled into one. To reveal the name of the last cinematic masterpiece riffed on would spoil the secret to the film’s villainy. Suffice it to say that any motion picture from the last four decades, especially ones dealing with spying, science gone sinister, and massive governmental conspiracies, finds a hokey, hackneyed home here. Some just overstay their welcome, becoming the storyline’s sole raison d’etra.

As with his homage to Rear Window, director Caruso casts messageboard separator Shia LeBeouf as his everyman, and for someone so hated by a good percentage of geek nation, the actor is very good here. He’s not required to do much - a great deal of this movie is mechanics and manipulations to a deadly denouement - but in the quieter scenes, he shows subtly and nuance. This is not quite the grown-up role the pseudo-star needs - Jerry is still carved out of post-millennial slacker shortcuts - but as the innocent mark turned reluctant hero, he holds things together quite well. Michelle Monaghan is another issue all together. Her overwrought mother is horribly underwritten, complaining about her bastard ex-husband and her lousy paralegal’s paycheck…and that’s about it.

Thankfully, costars Billy Bob Thorton and Rosario Dawson pick up the slack. He’s a manic FBI agent not sure which side of Jerry’s story he believes. She’s the Air Force attaché who uncovers a key piece of evidence explaining the forces behind the threat. One has to say that, if you buy the premise and the antagonist involved, Eagle Eye takes on a sly, almost mischievous sense of social commentary. Positioned directly in the War on Terror times we live in, the film’s obvious jabs at the current White House and the incomplete intelligence that led us to invasion offer waves of wiseass recognition. If anything, Caruso appears to be anarchic in his advocacy. His position gives “We the People” a whole new meaning.

On the small screen, the frenetic action scenes and hand-held hysterics would clearly get lost. The editing typically takes a mashed up moment and amplifies it unnecessarily. But blown up 70mm on an IMAX screen, Eagle Eye becomes a crackerjack nailbiter. The car chases have a real logic and flow, and the foot races reveal both clever choreography and a true sense of space. Chicago looks luminous during the various aerial shots, and when CG takes over to establish the “omnipresence” of the Federal bureaus, the graphics look great. Like Beowulf inside the 3D domain, Eagle Eye needs to be experienced in the larger theatrical format. The detail in the image helps make up for some of the tried and true tricks the director uses to create breakneck cinematic chaos.

Even with its occasional lapses into illogical miscalculation (like the ability to control elements like electrical lines???), Eagle Eye is a great, goofball thrill. It’s the kind of film you can get lost in, forgetting the fallacies streaming across your subconscious as you sit back and savor another sequence of veiled threat and vehicular mayhem. Certainly, the story is not meant to mean more than the basics of the genre, and any references to masters past remain securely on the side of the alluded to auteurs. But D. J. Caruso and Shia LeBeouf prove a potent combination, especially in the realm of easy to swallow suspense films. If you go in expecting The Conversation meshed with a sideways Manchurian Candidate, you’ll be easily underwhelmed. But not every entertainment needs to engage the brain to guarantee success. Check your head at the ticket counter and you’ll enjoy this wickedly wild ride - especially in IMAX.

by Kirstie Shanley

28 Sep 2008

Between bursts of spontaneous dancing and iconic poses, James’ frontman Tim Booth has the charisma and charm to make any set enjoyable. (He’s also the only lead singer I know that can pull off an outfit consisting of a suit jacket and pajama bottoms.) Along with his soaring vocals and spirited camaraderie, Booth is also able to inspire a fully adoring audience.

Playing a sold out show in support of their new album, Hey Ma, James could have very easily crafted a setlist from recent material. Instead, the band chose a well-rounded set of songs with a handful of favorites that only served to increase the audience fervor. Coming to the foot of the stage during “Out to Get You”, Booth let the many hands hold his legs and feet while he sang as if only to a few of us.

The band, which first formed in Manchester, England, in the early ‘80s, received standing ovations for many of their hits including, “Say Something”, “Sit Down”, “Top of the World”, and “Sometimes”. The only missing songs were the stellar tracks found on the brilliant Brian Eno produced Millioniares, which may have been left out due to the album’s unavailability in the States when it was released in 1999.

While James, as a band, deserves all the acclaim it gets, it’s clear that Tim Booth, who has an innate ability to balance pop songs with soft intimate lullabies, is the star of the show. Adept at creating choruses that people appear to instantly remember, he’s also a master at touching the very heart of the matters he speaks of. The audience members made this show a shared experience, singing along to many of the songs without any prompting. It was as if it was impossible not to sing along, even when the lyrics might sound sappy to an outsider as with fan favorite “Sometimes”. As Tim Booth sings, “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul,” you can’t help but feel the sense of how heartfelt his words are. It seems that when Tim Booth sings something, it just ends up feeling right.


//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

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