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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

The political reaction to the recent credit crisis has been in some ways predictable: Democrats (like Barney Frank in this FT editorial) have called for more regulation of rapacious, predatory lending markets that thrive on the ignorance or irrationality of their victims, while conservatives defend the ability of markets to sort out their own problems without government intervention or “nannying.” We wouldn’t want to hamper the innovation of financiers with regulatory impediments. That stance gets trickier, though, when it comes to what they argue the Fed should do. Wall Street types tend to cheer for a rate cut because it stimulates growth, which they are positioned to capitalize on. But the intellectually consistent—the ecnono-conservatives—want to see the Fed, like lawmakers, do nothing (not cut the federal funds rate, that is), thereby letting those who got themselves into trouble with reckless borrowing or financing be punished. This, the argument goes, will prevent moral hazard—the danger of lending recklessly because one is confident that the Fed will bail them out of any real trouble with a rate cut, the same way wearing a seat belt is presumed by some to make one a more reckless driver. Fed watcher James Grant, in a NYT editorial on Sunday, got into this:


What could account for the weakness of our credit markets? Why does the Fed feel the need to intervene at the drop of a market? The reasons have to do with an idea set firmly in place in the 1930s and expanded at every crisis up to the present. This is the notion that, while the risks inherent in the business of lending and borrowing should be finally borne by the public, the profits of that line of work should mainly accrue to the lenders and borrowers.


Nanny conservatives (as economist Dean Baker has styled them)—the bad-faith free marketeers who want profit without risk—expect government bailouts for poorly judged risks taken with ridiculous leverage but then fret and fulminate over “wasting” money on “handouts” to the poor. So it’s nice to see some commentators stick to their guns, even to the point of arguing that a recession might do the U.S. some good, as the Economist does in its most recent issue.


The economic and social costs of recession are painful: unemployment, lower wages and profits, and bankruptcy. These cannot be dismissed lightly. But there are also some purported benefits. Some economists believe that recessions are a necessary feature of economic growth. Joseph Schumpeter argued that recessions are a process of creative destruction in which inefficient firms are weeded out. Only by allowing the “winds of creative destruction” to blow freely could capital be released from dying firms to new industries.


This logic would seem to be even more persuasive with regard to the current problems in the credit market, which are a matter not of misallocated capital but mostly what might be considered phantom capital—paper assets generated by the loose money regime that has prevailed for the past half decade. What better than to blow away the profits investment banks secured without verifying the value of the underlying assets backing their loans—assets that vanished with the subprime borrower’s ability to make payments on a rejiggered ARM loan. Unfortunately these nonexistent assets were crafted (then aggregated and leveraged and collateralized and so on) from the toil of overstretched borrowers who seemed to have little idea of what they were getting into. Anecdotal reports suggest that many marginal mortgage borrowers were assured about the plausibility of their being able to make their payments by lenders who probably barely believed what they were saying. If the Fed bails out the financial sector with rate cuts, little of that benefit will trickle down to the borrowers already foreclosed upon, though the lenders will have already moved on to another round of victims, with fresh new cheap interest rates to tout.


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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

It’s that time again for another Wes Anderson dark comedy. Wes Anderson directed Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic, and produced The Squid and the Whale. With another star-filled cast, Anderson’s new comedy set in India, The Darjeeling Limited, will be released September 29th.



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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

We’re so attuned to the immediate quality of the media and the high adrenalin of the big stories—the explosion about to happen, the man-made tragedies and natural disasters—that it goes almost unnoticed that the Internet has been capturing the sweet scrapbook quality of an article clipped and slipped between the pages of a book, because it made someone smile.


New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik wrote in “Paris to the Moon,” the book he wrote after spending the last five years of the last century in Paris as the New Yorker’s correspondent there: “If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger.”


My favourite form of journalism is the comic-sentimental essay in the form of community news, which has been practiced brilliantly at the New Yorker, from James Thurber from the magazine’s beginnings in the 1920’s, through to Adam Gopnik. In this week’s edition Adam Gopnik writes on community food projects:


Twelve-thirty on a beautiful summer day, and the chicken committee of the City Chicken Project is meeting at the Garden of Happiness, in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx. The chicken committee is devoted to the proliferation of egg-laying chickens in the outer boroughs, giving hens to people and having them raise the birds in community gardens and eat and even sell the eggs (“passing on the gift,” as this is called in the project), and thereby gain experience of chicken, eggs, and community—or fowl, food, and fellowship, as one of the more alliterative-minded organizers has said.


The invention of the New York Times permalink has allowed us to create scrapbooks, to clip articles from newspapers and magazines, and over a cup of coffee on a slow day, when looking idly for something to read, they can be casually flipped through. It may seem like a flippant, time wasting activity, but with APEC starting in Sydney this weekend, and the security measures written about in the Sydney Morning Herald starting to read like an episode of the 1960’s television spy-spoof Get Smart, it’s illuminating to re-read the original review of Dr. Strangelove, published in the New York Times in 1964, which now seems more like a documentary than satire.


Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across. And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I’ve heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I’ve seen by Charles Addams, and some of the stuff I’ve read in Mad magazine. For this brazenly jesting speculation of what might happen within the Pentagon and within the most responsible council of the President of the United States if some maniac Air Force general should suddenly order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is at the same time one of the cleverest and most incisive satiric thrusts at the awkwardness and folly of the military that has ever been on the screen. It opened yesterday at the Victoria and the Baronet.


Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman

Self Portrait with Lox and Bagel by Dayna Bateman


Dayna Bateman is someone who riffs on articles from newspapers, finding the poetry and charm and ephemeral sweetness in stories, condensing them on her blog—suttonhoo—and running them with her photographs, which she features on Flickr.


A recent example:


we were at
at high mass
on a summer Sunday
in Prague


sitting below
a large bishop
in a swingy skirt
bottomed off
with gold booties


thinking
his moves had
a sort of stripper
quality to them


Found in Justine Hardy’s “Guilt in the Golden City”
in the 25 August issue of the Financial Times.



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