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by Michael Buening

16 Dec 2007

People get forgotten for unforeseen reasons. Raymond Bernard was the star director of a fledgling French blockbuster industry that was smothered by shifting national circumstances. Criterion’s fourth edition of its Eclipse series, dedicated to the director, is a revealing glimpse at his aborted career and his curiously overlooked talent for precisely attuned epics, incorporating a wide variety of artistic and technological developments into populist narrative filmmaking. The uncertain economics of inter-war France couldn’t sustain Bernard’s large-scale films. As budgets were slashed small-scale poetic realism became more popular, a style he in some ways anticipated. But the die was cast and for decades after France’s film industry was largely defined economically and temperamentally by the modest and more personal. Bernard continued to work, but like his idol Griffith, his status was diminished, an observer on the sidelines of an industry that he helped create. Though his fate was undeserved we can at least take pleasure in these testaments to his faint prominence.

by Karen Zarker

16 Dec 2007

All three books would make a great gift set for any Simpsons fan, especially if they have a modicum of artistic talent. The Greetings postcard book appeals to the sophomoric humor we expect from the Homer level of things. Masterpiece Gallery blends Lisa’ sophistication with Bart’s bratty humor. The Handbook is the best of the lot: quite simply, how to draw all the Simpsons’ characters in all their many modes of comic being. Naturally, it’s funny, too.

by tjmHolden

16 Dec 2007

. . . your mama used to say
My boy is gonna grow up and be
Some kind of leader some day . . .

But you’re a legend in your own time
A hero in the footlights . . .

Carly Simon, Legend in Your Own Time

 


Do media influence us?

This is a question that has been debated for a couple of generations. It is one that, despite thousands of academic studies, directed at a variety of communication forms, has not yet been satisfactorily resolved.

Do media make us: more violent? More sexual? More prone to bend the truth? To seek out the gray in life? To disbelieve? To trust? To think in terms of permanence? Or evanescence?

Well, the jury is still out, as it has been since work on media effects began right after the second Great War. Yet, despite the inconclusive results, one thing that is certain (at least, if you ask me, based on my study and experience): media has been quite effective in getting in our heads, providing models of behavior, impelling us to respond by example under certain situations.

Such as?

Well, how about telling us what to do when we are being stalked by a crazed driver late at night on the open streets of our home towns?

 

by Jason Gross

16 Dec 2007

Yep, they’re trying to push this argument that copying CD’s and turning them into MP3 files on your computer is illegal in a court case right now.  Hopefully, the court will see the lack of wisdom in yet another ridiculous ploy by the RIAA to squeeze money out of consumers and wrestle control away from them.  That would mean that new computers which do this must be taken off the market and maybe recalls of every computer that does that now (i.e. most of them out there now, including yours) plus all software that does this, including iTunes, Napster (the legal one), Winamp and Windows Media Player.  Hope that sits well with Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Gateway et al who would then stand to lose millions of dollars if not more…

by Bill Gibron

15 Dec 2007

Every season, some film has to sacrifice itself for the greater good. Either it’s badly marketing, the release is poorly timed, or the concept just doesn’t connect with ticket buyers. Whatever the case, these misplaced movies are often left for dead, swept under the rug of retail for a quick turnaround DVD release. Some, on the other hand, are sleepers, quality efforts that could battle the bad luck that’s befallen them if only given a chance. In this case, the digital domain is a Godsend, allowing audiences who failed to find the film the first time around a second chance to discover its delights.

Thus we have the situation with the ping pong parody Balls of Fury. This little gem from August deserved better than the mediocre response it received both critically and commercially. Thanks to Universal and the current film format, it’s getting another shot at stardom. 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 sage 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 direction about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it 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 the 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. That’s why the new DVD is so wonderful. Packed with seven deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and two EPK style making-ofs, we are given a great amount of context for a film that’s begging for a little more backstory. 

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 conceivably not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.

 

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Unearthing the 'Charnel House'

// Moving Pixels

"This week we discuss Owl Creek Games's follow up to Sepulchre, the triptych of tales called The Charnel House Trilogy.

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