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by Bill Gibron

5 Jun 2008

It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end.

Poor Po. He has a dream that, as a panda, he will probably never fulfill. Longing to imitate his heroes, the five masters of the main martial art styles (tiger, monkey, crane, mantis, and snake), he hopes to be a kung fu icon himself. Sadly, he seems stuck following in his father’s noodle vending footsteps. Then the Jade Temple announces the choosing of the newest Dragon Master, and Po is excited. He wants to see who gets the honor. In a bizarre turn of events, elder Oogway selects….our amiable overweight bear. This infuriates Shifu, teacher of the five masters. He must now prepare this pudgy ‘loser’ for the ultimate challenge - long exiled panther Tai Lung has escaped from prison, and is headed for a showdown with the newest handpicked hero.

If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.

Indeed, Kung Fu Panda is a feast for the fanboy as well as the eyes. Immerse yourself long enough in these films and you start to see patterns - folklore forged into a viable entertainment. The Shaws, more than any other studio, followed these formulas to the letter. While no one expects authenticity from what is, by all accounts, a kiddie film, Panda provides enough archetypes to stand solidly alongside the category’s very best. Even better, it delves deep into the varying kung fu formats, allowing the characters named after certain fighting styles to effortlessly illustrate said forms. This means monkey boxes the way a student of said discipline would. The same applies to all the others, creating a real sense of respect and recognizability within the differing skill sets.

Of course, there are jokes for the wee ones as well. Lots of Kung Fu Panda‘s humor is of the physical shtick/fat guy variety. Po falls down a lot, and his girth causes him problems all along the way. There are gags about food, eating, and our hero’s uncontrollable appetite. When he’s not gorging on snacks, he’s falling down long flights of stairs. The standard issue crudities are also available (a blow to the crotch offers the exclamation “My tenders!”) with, luckily, none of the random pop culture referencing. Indeed, one of the best things about this movie is its desire to avoid type to traverse its own eclectic territory.

Speaking of the talent involved, all the voice work done on behalf of Kung Fu Panda is excellent. Jack Black does little more than channel his own chaotic yet huggable personality, and it works wonderfully. He’s very endearing as the portly Po. Equally amazing is Dustin Hoffman, refusing to fall into some manner of caricature. Instead, he makes Master Shifu appear real and authentic. Of the five main fighters, Angelina Jolie gets the most screen time as Tigress, though her character is quite irresponsible at times. Jackie Chan may be barely recognizable as Monkey (as is Seth Rogen as the miniature Mantis), but David Cross does a great job as Crane. His slightly sarcastic delivery plays perfectly to the post-adolescent crowd.

Yet the most memorable thing about Kung Fu Panda is its sumptuous look. It’s the main reason why the Shaws would gladly call it there own. There is a lavish quality to the illustrations, a real artistic aura that grows richer and more refined as the film moves along. The landscapes are breathtaking, the fights lightning quick without being too busy. Obsorne and Stevenson even deliver a memorable melee of their own, as when Po and Shifu fight, chopsticks in hand, over a plate of dumplings. It’s the kind of brawny ballet the genre is known for, and why Kung Fu Panda fits within it perfectly.

Certainly there is little drama in whether Po will defeat the evil Tai Lung, and the message about finding the truth outside the obvious is unsatisfactory in its blatancy. Yet Black and company are having so much fun, refusing to fall into self-parody or spoof, that we instantly forgive these minor flaws. In fact, by the time of the final send off, we happily celebrate the entire storyline. Kung Fu Panda is probably the biggest surprise of this already above-average Summer season. CGI loves to cannibalize itself in ways that undermine the inherent joy in the artform. This is the kind of film that completely reinvigorates your faith in the format.

by Rob Horning

5 Jun 2008

In the 1960s, Alain Robbe-Grillet was a proponent of the New Novel, whose purpose seems to have been to dispense with plot and characters, forcing readers to sift through a pile of description in search of what might be the writer’s guiding purpose. A collection of Robbe-Grillet’s essays, For a New Novel sheds less light than you would think on what he was up to, but I found it very interesting to read in conjunction with Rob Walker’s book about contemporary marketing techniques, which are avant-garde in their own way, ignoring traditional limits and taking on unexpected forms and dispensing with its expected purpose of delivering an unambiguous sales pitch. It’s no accident that Robbe-Grillet’s most famous film, Last Year at Marienbad, has been a continual source inspiration to luxury marketers since it was released in 1961. It is hyperstylized but sufficiently empty, so that one can invest whatever significance one wants into the unresolvable situations depicted. It’s a perfect approach for marketing goods like perfume—conjure an aura akin to that which perfume is supposed to have, but make it indeterminate and “mysterious.” The film is an encyclopedia of techniques for destroying the sense of time, place, contingency, and logic—all things that marketing seeks to undermine in order to exert its illogical, free-associational form of persuasion that relies on consumers to connect the dots. The nature of the marketing is adaptable enough to inspire and then absorb a wide variety of wishes projected by consumers. Effective marketing coaxes us into doing the work of persuading ourselves. The goods have a chance of becoming placebos, that work because we believe.

This passage from Robbe-Grillet’s “Time and Description” is about avant-garde fiction and film, but it seems like it applies strikingly well to any number of the “murketing” campaigns underway, or even to the nature of contemporary advertising itself:

Now, if temporality gratifies expectation, instantaneity disappoints it; just as spacial discontinuity dissolves the trap of the anecdote. These descriptions whose movement destroys all confidence in the things described, these heroes without naturalness as without identity, this present which constantly invents itself, as though in the course of the very writing, which repeats, doubles, modifies, denies itself, without ever accumulating in order to constitute a past—hence a “story”, a “history” in the traditional sense of the word—all this can only invite the reader (or the spectator) to another mode of participation than the one to which he was accustomed. If he is sometimes led to condemn the works of his time, that is, those which most directly address him, if he even complains of being deliberately abandoned, held off, disdained by the authors, this is solely because he persists in seeking a kind of communication which has long ceases to be the one which is proposed to him.
For far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work—and the world—and thus to learn to invent his own life.

That strikes me as marketing’s broader sales mission: draw consumers in, entice them to fantasize and narrate themselves into a slightly refreshed existence through a vicarious participation in the indeterminate fragments of experience the marketers supply—and of course through purchasing the goods associated with the whole process, which come to seem like the catalyst for all that creativity.

by Terry Sawyer

5 Jun 2008

Is this an Irish Spring commercial? When I first heard “Hitten”, I assumed that the singer was someone older for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s relatively stripped of symbolic artifice, something that seems odd for people so young.  It’s very straightforwardly about love, life, indecision, not even packed under the camoflauge of a narrative. I remember college writing workshops where writing something that required deciphering was far more important than writing something meaningful. “Hitten” sounds middle-aged and angsty especially in its complicated understandings that sometimes independence, self-control and freedom come with their own soul crushing unintended consequences. Maybe it just sounds middle aged because I relate to it, which could make this just another day in criticism as persuading other people that your projections are their projections. I am, you are, he is,  we are Sasha Frere Jones as they say.

But the video is practically the essence of youthful nevercare flair, albeit in a far more refreshing non-American context. Can anyone imagine their U.S. equivalent-in-age sporting such a lack of “style”. There is no sexualized persona, no tween tigress angel-whore dichotomy, just some young women in loose, fitting comfortable clothes and little make up jumping around in front of the camera. Of course this au natural nudity is itself something can be meticulously postured, but shot-for-shot, it seems like a fairly unstaged celebration of a certain kind of innocent play, too young for cynicism, too old not to be partially tongue-in-cheek “playing” the kid with hopscotch, jump ropes and silly dancing. This is almost wholesome, like an indie-cred ready Hannah Montana before Annie Liebowitz turned her into Southern Gothic object of incest and ephebophilia.  It certainly cracks a can of sunchine through my initial impression of the song, rendering its desolation obsolete in giddy brightness.

by Rob Horning

5 Jun 2008

When you read the New York Times Styles Section, you get what’s coming to you. I learned this lesson yet again when I encountered this gem of a story. The headline sums it up well: “It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich.” It’s about how the supermegawealthy are concerned about becoming merely megawealthy, and it is worth remembering when someone wants to discount Veblenesque approaches to understanding social behavior.

Is the conspicuous consumption and invidious comparison animating this article supposed to make us feel better or worse about being among the anonymous middle? And is it endemic to that strata discussed or simply manufactured through selective anecdote for the purposes of the article, which has other ideological fish to fry. After all, promulgating the notion that conspicuous consumption is a pervasive preoccupation makes good business sense for the fashion pages.

by Bill Gibron

5 Jun 2008

It’s Thursday, and that means someone, somewhere, in the great big world of film criticism, is sitting on pins and deadline-breaking needles. It’s the one word that strikes fear into the heart of any respectable journalist. Deadline! In the old days, beat pounders would drum up sources, track down leads, build their clever and sometimes incendiary copy, and manage that last minute factual additions/subtractions, all before the boss bellowed for the presses. In the realm of film criticism, this meant that a newspaper or magazine scribe sat in a screening, developed his or her opinion, and put it down in black and white for cultural posterity to enjoy (or ignore).

Nowadays, thanks to a little thing we like to the call the Internet, deadlines no longer really matter. Granted, there are websites who pride themselves on a sense of editorial ethos and strive to keep fresh content available in a judicious and dependable manner. But in the blogsphere, a domain undaunted by the needs of standard publishing, information is metered out in a constant stream. There is no longer a need to offer up traditional availability. Whenever you think of something, or have an event/effort worth discussing, all that’s required is the time to post and a way to do so. And in the overly protective realm of movie marketing, studios are well aware of this.

At first, it was easy to handle the online community. It was more or less a case of “out of sight, out of consideration.” With print media making up the vast majority of those needing access to upcoming films, a wise representative simply didn’t invite the web writer to their press opportunities. Sure, the industrious ‘net critic would figure out how to attend a public showing or “word of mouth” advance, grabbing a free ticket and enjoying the experience as part of the rabble. But for the most part, if they weren’t a card-carrying member of the so-called ‘legitimate’ leg of the Fourth Estate, they were ignored.

Of course, money changes everything, and with financial considerations always key in any corporate dynamic, big businesses looking to cut costs did as many school districts do - they kept sports and other high end profit margins and slashed the arts. At present, a day doesn’t go by where a major newspaper or periodical doesn’t announce “buyouts” and layoffs. And many in the accountant’s sites are part of the film/TV/theater arena. Some will argue that it’s simply a matter of dollars and sense/cents. Others will point to the marginalized status of the critic (a discussion for another day) and simply sit back and count their savings.

Naturally, as a direct result of such belt-tightening, the online scribe has stepped up in import. Smart studios, recognizing completely free publicity when they see it, have started catering to the blogger and the webmaster. But without the principles that print sought so hard to protect, the inevitable backlash has begun. You see, most of us writing online do so for places that stress a sense of publishing ‘morals’. From checking facts to sustaining “style guides”, we mimic those who came before. But there are others more interested in scoops than scope, and so the long established rules get bent for the benefit of one, not all. And the studios have started to strike back.

Originally, a Thursday Night Screening was indicative of one thing - a piece of crap. A movie a company had little or no faith in would be offered up the day before it opened as a courtesy to the critic, but there were no expectations. Studios didn’t anticipate a review - at least not during the film’s first week run - and they understood that any take on their acknowledged bomb would be bad. It was a wink and a nod between professionals, a way of keeping the media happy while colluding to maintain the easily persuaded public’s gullibility to pay for junk. Sure, there were times when a proposed stinker actually became a sleeper, but for the most part, waiting until Thursday was just as bad as not screening a film at all.

All that changed, however, with the new ‘meta media’. With websters able to attend those last minute showings, the conspiratorial kibosh was countermanded. Remember, most studio previews today are open, public presentations in connection with radio station promotions, newsprint ad campaigns, and other pre-buzz marketing ploys. Embargoes mean nothing to someone not purposefully invited to follow them (meaning, not forced to comply with the old ways of the traditional media) and soon, Thursday evening reviews were available, whether Hollywood liked them or not. Extrapolate that backward, and we have the current system in place with sites like Ain’t It Cool News and Dark Horizons offering “first looks” at films that may not be opening for months.

Tinsel Town was, understandably, in a tizzy. The online community was already considered a pariah, with even the legitimate web critic cobbled together with the blogger and the news-groupies. Secretly, A-lists and B-lists were drawn up, and in a very sneaky manner, print personnel found themselves invited to clandestine screenings while the Internet was lied to, or just ignored. No matter their status as a member of a professional organization like the OFCS, they were kept out of the loop. Of course, that led to an even bigger counterattack by those on the ‘Net. Spies purposely tried to crash these confabs, defying bans and other restrictions to get the word out to their so-called readers.

Today, a kind of truce has been brokered. Studios understand the power of online publishing - and with it, the advertising possibilities - and with the death of print, they see no way of avoiding us former undesirables. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up. Not at all. Most marketers assume that human endurance guarantees a Thursday night screening will not equal a Thursday night review. So they continue to keep their marginal movies in such a state. Yet, oddly enough, some even drag out their big time blockbusters in such an unmanageable manner.

Take Disney, for example. Over the last few months, every one of their major releases - from The Game Plan and National Treasure 2 to this Summer’s Prince Caspian and the upcoming Wall*E - have been, or will be, screened on Thursday ONLY. That means that everyone from yours truly to the longstanding scribe for the Creative Loafing either sees the movie the night before, or not at all. Now, in the case of the first three films mentioned, such a strategy may seem like standard operating procedure. Those flailing fluffballs aren’t going to be around come awards time. But in the case of Pixar’s latest, early word has it pegged as a potential masterpiece.

Remember, none of this applies to the major markets. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, etc. will all have Wall*E press days, with the House of Mouse courting favor with the long established critics. A few newbies will fall into the mix, but for the most part, it will be Uncle Walt’s way, and not the information superhighway. Smaller media outlets - like Tampa - will be treated to a ‘like it or lump it’ public sneak, and that’s it. The reps have even warned us; get there early or there may not be a seat. One could argue that Disney is just responding to the notion that audiences no longer listen to critics, that their supposedly learned opinion is passé and unimportant. But to avoid potentially GOOD publicity for your film (just look at Ratatouille) seems counterproductive.

And you know there are writers who take every opportunity to strike back at such strategies. Locally, one of our more important papers ran a piece about Disney’s embargo on reviews of last year’s Oscar winning rat restaurateur. It wasn’t a review, just a mention that as much as he liked/disliked the movie, he couldn’t write about it until after his deadline. ZAP - he has now been blackballed. It’s been a year, and he has yet to receive another screening invite from the studio…and he’s a print journalist, someone the studios still cater to.

Of course, the movie makes the argument. No one is decrying the ‘night before’ acknowledgement of Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or James Wan’s Death Sentence, and some, like those involved in the Saw franchise, simply avoid a screening all together, knowing they can’t win against a community prejudiced against horror. But as the online realm slowly consumes the long standing traditions of its fish-wrap predecessors, studios seem set on making everyone’s life as untenable as possible.

This means that, in a couple of weeks, I will be anxiously awaiting my chance to see the latest CGI epic about an amiable automaton interacting with a similarly styled alien species - and then come home and try to come up with something salient to say as quickly as possible. No matter how good, or groan-inducing it turns out to be, readers do turn to sites like PopMatters to gauge their interest in what, at this time of year, is a weekly onslaught of popcorn product. As long as they feel it maintains some manner of commercial control, studios seem willing to wait until the night before to unleash their latest offering. It threatens to become more and more common. Unfortunately, it seems antithetical to what either side is trying to accomplish.

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Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

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"What a time they had, Charlie and Rosie. They'll never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren. And what a time we had at Double Take discussing the spiritual and romantic journey of the African Queen.

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