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by Bill Gibron

22 Jun 2008

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.

As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point, a place to explore elements within our society that the comic couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address. In the main character of Wesley Gibson, the film finds a disgruntled everyman, an empty Google search drone who has done literally nothing with his life. As the perfect contemporary protagonist, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.

Toss in terrific performances by James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Thomas Kretschmann, a twisty plot that never gets too tangled in its own contrivances, and more insane, inventive action than a John Woo-ping Yuen fever dream, and you’ve got one of the most amazing movies of the Summer. Even better, it’s poised to dominate the more adult oriented end of the 27 June box office. While the kiddies are clamoring for more of Wall*E‘s robot allegory, teens and those prone to masterful machismo will be lining up to see gunshots curve, wound curing paraffin baths, and a certain actress’s tattooed backside. And if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.

Most of the success for this film rests rightfully on the shoulders of Bekmambetov. Among genre film fans, he’s best known for the vampire deconstruction of Night Watch and Day Watch. Named his country’s best young director in 1997, he clearly shares the sensibility of his Hong Kong based Asian brothers. Wanted is like The Killer with more car stunts, a baffling battle royale between forces that defy physics while simultaneously stoking audience appreciation. Bekmambetov clearly understands character and he takes time throughout the arc to stop and let layers of personality slowly expand and contract. By the end of the narrative, when weapons have replaced wisdom, we develop a real rooting interest in who lives and who dies.

In fact, what makes Wanted better than either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk is the abject joy that filmmaker Bekmambetov brings to the project. Jon Favreau used a no-nonsense approach to realizing Tony Stark and company, and Louis Leterrier applies a MTV style of calculated quick cuts to infer action and tension. But the fast-slow sensibility of the 47 year old Russian auteur serves his spectacle flawlessly. It’s the most exquisite match between visionary and vision since the Chicago born comic book geeks gave us Neo, Agent Smith, and a war for survival across virtual reality.

What seals the deal, of course, is the Chuck Palahniuk-esque sentiments running through the story. Wesley narrates some of the action, his acid tongue takedowns of those he works for and with enough to recall Edward Norton and his razor sharp social commentary. The main theme of Wanted explores the victor inside the seemingly anemic, the superstar stuck inside the cubicle klatch of a nameless corporate ogre. The notion of a nobody able to wield god-like powers over life and death more or less defines our current cultural climate, a place where the standard rules of success no longer seem to apply. Even better, the film throws such sad sack sentiments back at the viewer, confronting them at every level into answering that most probing of Generation Hexed questions - what have you done with your life.

Such a crowd-pleasing confrontation is destined to get film fetishists and messageboard mavericks in a lush, liquid lather, and of course, they’ll be chiming for more, more, more. Unfortunately, while there’s been talk of a sequel, anyone who has seen the film will argue that a follow-up will be kind of tough. Not impossible, but one guesses somewhat incapable, of filtering the same material into the current cocksure slam dunk - at least from a practical standpoint. And who knows, maybe the audiences won’t turn up. After all, there is blood and guts o’plenty, and the kind of violence glorification that gets nosy mothers and grass roots campaigners up and active. If Grand Theft Auto meets with a mountain of negative press the day of its release, this bullet through the brain bravado is guaranteed to get under someone’s skin.

Yet even if it fails to meet its box office goals (ala Fight Club) and has to find a clear cult fanbase on DVD/Blu-ray (as with The Matrix), Wanted will remain a bright spot in a season soured by limp comedies, clammy kid fare, and a regressive reliance on things that were popular five years ago. Granted, 1999 is a mere decade past, but at least this film mines some of that year’s more meaningful entries. Whenever anyone successfully imitates efforts from the past - John Carpenter channeling Alfred Hitchcock for his brilliant B-movie Halloween, Woody Allen working through the entire Bergman/Fellini oeuvre - the results are telling…and usually terrific. Wanted is poised to be the next big thing, and it has a couple of previous honorees to that crown to thank for it.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jun 2008

When faced with death, few would argue against the prospect of more life. Sure, there are ethical considerations over ‘quality vs. quantity’, and no one really understands what it means to live forever, but immortality (and the implications it offers) has long captured the human imagination. As an alternative to non-existence, it seems like a foregone conclusion. Natural curiosity keeps us wondering what lies ahead, and the prospect of discovering - or actually living through - it drives many. After all, isn’t everlasting life the main tenet of all religion? Yet no one ever really considers what being immortal would really mean. It’s a concept explored by Asian filmmaker Higuchinsky in his fascinating featurette, Long Dream.

In an ominous Tokyo hospital, Dr. Kuroda Shuusuke treats patients with all manner of ailments. He appears to specialize in brain tumors, both benign and terminal. He also handles strange sleep disorders. When his associate, Dr. Yamauchi, comes across a young woman accosted by another patient, Kuroda reveals the strange case of Mukoda Tetsurou. Months before, the young man came in, complaining of something called “long dreams”. Instead of the normal night visions, his horrific REM-induced hallucinations lasting days, sometimes months. Soon, Mukoda is dreaming for YEARS. While trying to discover the secret of why this is happening, Dr. Kuroda must live with the guilt of another patient he couldn’t cure - a young woman named Kana continues to haunt his own waking fears.

Like an old school Outer Limits episode given a surreal Japanese twist, Long Dream (new to DVD from Facets Video) never excuses its made for TV frontiers. In fact, director Higuchinsky, best known for his surreal horror film Uzumaiki, embraces the medium in such a way that he makes even the story’s singular hospital setting work expertly. Everything about Long Dream is controlled and compact. There’s nary a wasted shot or underdeveloped moment. Taking the Junji Ito manga and translating it into a series of amazing movie images, the single named filmmaker finds the proper balance between dread and the deranged. There are moments here that resonate with real visual power. At other times, Higuchinsky is clearly playing with the audiences preconceptions.

Stories centering on dreams typically deal with the clash between fantasy and reality, how we view our world on a day to day basis bedeviled by our nightly visits into subconscious situations. In Long Dream, Higuchinsky highlights one of Ito’s more compelling ideas - that such scenarios could be a doorway to immortality. As the typical eight hours passes, as the subjected person rests, centuries could be playing out in their brain. Such intriguing concepts as evolution, progress, and the basic biological effect on the human enduring such shifts become Long Dream‘s central conceit. But there is also an element of sadness involved, a depressive notion that such an otherworldly opportunity may not be the boon our mind’s eye makes it out to be. Indeed, Mukoda’s deadened manner suggests that, even as he lives for eons in his mind, his true existence is being cut painfully short.

Of course, Higuchinsky does most of his deep thinking via images. Some are obvious (hundreds of CG clocks indicating Mukoda’s complaint) while others push the boundaries of believability (the “monsters” resulting from the title ailment). If you look too close, you may question the zipper-backed believability of some of the material. Similarly, the Kana subplot gets little true explanation. The last act denouement sells the purpose, and the acting by Horiuchi Masami helps fill in some of the blanks. But in order to have us believe in the reason for Dr. Kuroda’s seemingly unethical behavior, we need something stronger than a set of meaningless montages. Of course, this could also be part of Higuchinsky’s strategy. Without a feature length running time (Long Dream is only 54 minutes long), he has to infer some of his more substantive narrative.

Oddly enough, even with the complaints, it works. One of the reasons we stick with this material is that, thanks to Ito’s idea, Long Dream can’t help but fascinate. Dreams are our private realm, a world we visit that no one else can connect to. Sure, we share similar themes and pictures, but the actual experience is totally individual and unique. It’s a subject that many involved in the production address during the DVD bonus features. Both Ito and Higuchinsky comment on the spirit world, our connection to it, and the uneasy truce between the two planes. They also stress the horror elements in such an idea, proposing that people, faced with a certain style of “immortality” would be more frightened than if confronted by ghosts.

When viewed as both an exercise in style and an illustration of substance, Long Dream definitely delivers. It meticulously manages its material without going too far over into indecipherability, and even when things turn odd, Higuchinsky attempts to tie it all together. That he succeeds more times than he fails explains why, even at less than an hour, this film feels fully realized. Sure, some will not forgive the cartoonish appearance of the “evolved” versions of Kuroda’s creatures, and the “twist” at the end may not fully satisfy, but then again, this is more than just a surrealistic shocker. The individuals behind this movie want to challenge the preconception that death is the end and life at any expense is worth living. Long Dream seems to suggest that, in some cases, the exact opposite is true.

by Jason Gross

22 Jun 2008

I know I’m a few weeks behind with some of my postings but that’s what happens when you have so many items you want to discuss in a blog and so li’l time…Anyway, I want newspapers to save themselves too but this Slate piece is just insane fiction.  The idea of Wal-Mart trying to help newspapers from going under is ridiculous because 1) Wal-Mart only cares about Wal-Mart, 2) they make rules that benefit only themselves, to the detriment of other industries (not to mention their employees who lack medical insurance), 3) they relish being a monopoly, 4) they have no compulsion about driving other stores out of business, 5) they’re probably happy that they can save on their advertising budget with less papers around.

A much saner alternative appears in this Seattle Times interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark where he proposes that he would OK to have links to newspapers from CL.  And there’s more reasonable hope to be found here where Google, a growing megalith, is actually proposing to help papers.

Addenda: now is looking to get into the act by partnering with several newspapers.

by Bill Gibron

21 Jun 2008

Sometimes, comedy is as much about the messenger as it is the message. Case in point: Adam Carolla. The stand-up/performer, responsible for such contrasting fare as Loveline (the radio and TV relationships show he co-hosted with Dr. Drew Pinsky from 1995 until 2005), the chauvinistic romp The Man Show, and Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, is one of those odd, ‘love him or hate him’ entities. His smug, pseudo-frat boy shtick can grow horribly tiresome, and yet his quick sarcastic wit can reduce the most ridiculous circumstance down to a targeted one liner. So a feel good sports satire starring the man as an aging boxer grabbing one last shot at glory stands little chance of succeeding, except in small snippets, right? Wrong. The Hammer is actually one of the funniest films that the still sagging laugh-a-thon genre has to offer.

For Jerry Ferro, turning 40 is just another day on the calendar. His girlfriend still complains about his lack of ambition, his Nicaraguan best friend Ozzy remains naively optimistic about America as a land of opportunity, and his boss still hates his guts. Luckily, he can go to the local gym and work off his frustrations. As a former teen pugilist, Jerry enjoys the fight game. He even teaches a few classes to keep sharp. When he knocks out a cocky competitor during a sparing match, he earns the respect of a noted Olympic trainer. Soon, he has signed up to compete in the regional tryouts, with a shot at making the 2008 games in Beijing. And thanks to a budding relationship with public defender Lindsay Pratt, things are looking up on the interpersonal front as well.

Built out of character, not crudity, and wonderfully uplifting without being maudlin or pat, The Hammer (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is actually quite accomplished. Considering its independent production paradigm and low budget limitations, it is a funny and fresh take on material that’s as old as cinema itself. The tale of a washed up loser finding redemption in one more tour of competitive duty is not new - just ask Wallace Berry, Sylvester Stallone, or John Voight. It plays into everyone’s desire for a second chance, the possibility of being true to their own nature, and the universal wish fulfillment that comes with winning. Carolla’s character is a decent guy dealt cards he can never play. By using boxing as a way back, he has a chance at finally re-stacking the deck in his favor.

A storyline like this is prone to cliché, but Carolla - who came up with the idea and worked closely with Kevin Hench on the script - avoids all but the most mandatory of chestnuts. We have a crusty old trainer that’s seen it all, contrasted by the girlfriend without a lick of faith in her man. There’s the idealistic young lawyer who puts her clients in front of her career, and the foreign best buddy whose broken English expressions hold a world of cockeyed wisdom. Between the black boxer with a stubborn, nu-jack attitude, to the last act discovery and betrayal, The Hammer could easily be a solid studio era potboiler. Toss in an A-list actor (or equally forgotten face) and you’d have that classic combination of underdog tale and five hanky tearjerker.

Except…The Hammer doesn’t want to be so obvious. That is why casting Carolla is crucial to the film’s success - and the difficulty in marketing it. As a celebrity, he gives off a vibe of being crude and confrontational. Many have gotten the mistaken impression that he’s one step away from Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass joking, or Howard Stern without the outward adolescent obsessions with sex. Carolla, however, is a far more complicated comedian. He mines both the intellectual and the illiterate for his wit, a sly satiric commentator rather than a simple set-up and punch line jokester. Yet thanks to the limited settings he’s been seen in, audiences still think of him as abrasive and obnoxious.

It’s an underserved reputation that makes the first few minutes of The Hammer rather disorienting. When faced with a jerk-off boss, we anticipate the moment where Carolla will dig into his bag of ironclad insults and lay into the butthead with verve. As his soon to be ex-girlfriend is dressing him down, undermining everything that makes him human (let alone a man) we anticipate Jerry’s epithet-laden screed. And we wait. Soon, we learn what makes this movie so winning. Unlike other so-called comedies which let a stand-up simply walk into frame and start regurgitating their act, The Hammer gives us realistic, recognizable characters. That Jerry is genuinely funny is just one of his endearing attributes. He’s also troubled, lost, vulnerable, and sickeningly loyal.

There is one scene in particular which shows how well Carolla and Hench balance their approach (with a little help from solid direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld). Jerry wants to take lawyer Lindsay on a date. She suggests an afternoon at LA’s goofy La Brea Tar Pits. After he gets over the fact that it’s not a nighttime get together, his string of snappy comebacks while at the historic site are marvelous. Not only is it important for the supposed humor of the piece, but it shows Jerry to be the loveable loser, a man whose hound dog expression hides a winning inner warmth. All throughout The Hammer, the interaction of individuals builds the laughs, not some high concept cop-out or a descent into the scatological.

Perhaps that’s why the DVD commentary track featuring Carolla and Hench is so enlightening. Arguing over how the film received an “R” rating from the MPAA (instead of a much more deserving PG-13), the pair proceed to dissect the script, commenting on how true they are to the “sweet science” as well as arguments over levels of humor and how far outside the boundaries of taste to go. Some of this also shows up in the deleted scenes, Carolla clearly being allowed to run wild, only to have Herman-Wurmfeld reel him in during editing. In fact, what much of the bonus material here indicates is that the age old adages about comedy centering on timing and tenacity remain very true indeed.

Because it refrains from pushing the ordinary aside for the outlandish, because Carolla’s normal (or at the very least, notorious) persona has been modified to fit this material, The Hammer is heartfelt and hilarious. Yet, when faced with how to advertise this movie to the many who already know the man, what can a studio do? If you play up his piggish party boy image, you risk reducing the film to something it truly isn’t. On the other hand, if you tell the truth, reflecting the story’s good natured, journeyman jocularity, you risk dismissing the demographic immediately drawn to the man’s beers and babes cockiness. Frankly, The Hammer can’t win either way, which is rather sad. This genial comedy should be a strapping sleeper success. Instead, it may wind up forgotten, as washed up as the characters at its core. And as with the man at the center of the film itself, it deserves better.

by Erik Gundel

21 Jun 2008

Electronica can be a cold beast. The sputters and clicks of a hard drive at work (think Autechre) certainly stimulate the brain, but personally, I rarely get the pure rush of endorphins that a perfect pop song generates. That is what makes Max Tundra’s (born Ben Jacobs) work all the more miraculous: he works in the idiom of electronic music (he has released two albums on Warp), yet his music sounds like that of a child discovering every sound and genre known to man. Mastered By Guy at the Exchange is Aphex Twin waking up on the sunny side of the bed, and “Lysine” is the afternoon trip to the beach. Over skipping percussion and a catchy analog synth line, Ben’s sister Becky Jacobs intones:

I isolate amino acids sometimes
I bottle them and sell them when the sun shines
Cold sores erupt if you don’t keep lysine levels healthy
A tingle on your lip, should come and see me

A helpful and humorous warning, no? Then the Steely Dan bridge comes in and all hell breaks loose [I’m glad Popmatters has given me the opportunity to write sentences like that]. The percussion explodes into so many pieces that I’ve spent the last six years trying to piece it together, and I enjoy it every single time. So much work must have gone into every second of the song, yet it is transcendentally fun. The wait for the next Tundra album has been long, but it is promised some time later this year. My musical blood sugar level is getting low.

//Mixed media

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

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