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by Bill Gibron

24 Sep 2007

Suddenly, it’s a full blown fright night at your local B&M. Now, you’d think that manufacturers and distributors would wait until the actual arrival of October before larding the shelves with as much scary movie product as possible. But just like various department and discount stores who drag out their seasonal promotions months before the actual holiday arrives (Wal-Mart’s even doing Christmas right now, if you can believe it), the DVD companies are already crying “werewolf”. This week alone, there are literally hundreds of horror hopefuls - new direct to disc offerings battling just now making it to the medium ‘classics’ for your hard earned supernatural scratch. Certainly there are some non-genre titles peeking through the fog of fear, but with only 35 days until the ghosts and ghouls rule the roost, there’s no time like the present to pick up a few dread based delights, including SE&L’s special pick for 25 September:

A Half Dozen from Dario

While the lack of more obscure Argento titles on DVD is disheartening (Four Flies on Gray Velvet remains MIA some three decades after its blink and you missed it US release), Blue Underground is maintaining the macabre maestros digital presence by rereleasing several of his more seminal works. They include a brand new version of The Stendhal Syndrome, a revamped Cat O’Nine Tails, a revisit of Opera and another version of the Italian terror titan’s masterwork, Suspiria. When you add in the producer-only efforts Demons and Demons 2, you’ve got an excellent start to your Argento collection. Far more important to the genre of foreign horror than many will give him credit for, his recent efforts (The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock? ) have been pretty hit or miss. But with the Toronto Film Festival still buzzing over his latest installment in the Three Mother’s Trilogy (entitled The Mother of Tears), it’s time for a recognized renaissance. And we can thank the Big Blue U for getting the accolades rolling.

Other Titles of Interest

Black Book

Paul Verhoven returns to his Dutch roots to tell the story of a female singer during World War II who is forced into sexual servitude to survive. A Jew, young Rachel agrees to seduce a Gestapo agent in order to save a resistance leader’s son. Naturally, possible betrayal is around every corner. Praised for its personal take on the European occupation by the Nazis, it proved that there was still some art left in this director’s arch approach.


For a long time, William Friedkin was considered a has-been. With his rich cinematic history well behind him - including the French Connection and The Exorcist – and two decades of underperforming efforts (Jade, Rules of Engagement) ruining his reputation, critics didn’t expect much from this adaptation of Tracy Letts powerful play. Oddly enough, Friedkin defied the odds and elevated the material to a whole new level. It’s a terrifying, telling experience.

Eat My Dust

The history behind this inventive car chase cock-up is just as entertaining as the film itself. When Ron Howard was looking to leave behind his child star status and take up residence behind the camera, producer ‘ordinaire’ Roger Corman cut him a deal. Appear in this Charles Griffith action effort, and he could direct the follow-up. The future Oscar winner jumped at the opportunity.  The resulting pair of vehicular mayhem masterworks helped define the ‘70s for New World Pictures.

Knocked Up

It’s one of the few classic comedies to come out of the otherwise atrocious post-millennial movie dynamic. Judd Apatow, using all the clout gained from producing hits like Talladega Nights and creating a phenomenon like The 40 Year Old Virgin to orchestrate this brilliant deconstruction of human biology. As daring as it is demented, with the profound frequently clashing with the profane, it marks the point when onscreen humor went from horridly ironic back to just plain hilarious.


Nicholas Cage steps back into sloppy sci-fi mode with this tale of a talentless magician who can see two minutes into the future. Naturally, the government wants to corral him to help with an impending terrorist attack. Of course, conspiracy theories and various cabals abound, and our hapless hero must navigate a series of double crosses and interpersonal pitfalls to save the day…sort of. Another reason why Philip K. Dick still can’t rest in peace.

And Now for Something Completely Different
A Triptych of Elvira Entertainment

Everyone’s favorite chesty horror host is back with another six films (two per DVD) from her Movie Macabre vaults. This time around, we get Maneater of Hydra paired with The House that Screamed, Blue Sunshine and Monstroid, and everyone’s favorite oversized turtle, Gamera with They Came from Beyond Space. Of course, the real selling point here is not the nauseating transfers of prevalent grad-Z schlock. No, it’s star Cassandra Peterson and her undeniably provocative bustline, a visual saving grace for the show’s otherwise cornball comedy. While many will argue over the sanctity of cinema, believing that all movies, no matter how bad, deserve respect instead of ridicule, there’s no denying the innate pleasures of seeing motion picture mung torn apart for the sake of some silliness. While Mystery Science Theater 3000 elevated it to an artform, Elvira laid the goofing groundwork. With these newest offerings, here’s hoping the new reality TV series based on finding an up to date replacement for the aging Goth icon does her legitimate legacy right.


by Deanne Sole

24 Sep 2007

A reviewer once wrote of Les Murray that he had published no juvenilia. The same can be said of Christina Stead. Her first books, Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Salzburg Tales, both published in 1934, were massy, thick with the same ferocious, perceptive, satirical personality she showed in her stories until the day she died nearly five decades later. Born in Sydney, she left Australia at 26 and spent the next 45 years travelling between Europe and the United States. Her husband William Blake, or Blech (was the latter, preferred the former), was Marxist and American; she met him during her first week in London. The last part of For Love Alone is a fictionalised account of their courtship.

Stead was inimitable. She had her own way of taking a theme and growing scenes around it, an organic process in which each incident rises up into a suggestive monument, not a punchline but a cumulative climax, as waves surge and die. Stead’s voice is always moving. It’s a difficult voice to categorise—she’s both a fabulist, inventing stories that are something like folk tales (easiest to see this in Salzburg Tales), and a social realist wallowing in the dirt. There is a fairytale ritual quality to the exchange near the end of The Man Who Loved Children when Henny’s son discovers that she has burgled his money box, but the scene itself seems true to life. “Mother will put the money back.” “Will you, will you?” “Yes dear: yes dear.” Henny is described in other parts of the book as a witch, her room a cave of magic. 

Referring to her own writing, Stead, whose father was a naturalist, said that she saw it as a naturalist’s process, examining the behaviour of people instead of animals or fish. In her books, the weak and poor do not inherit the earth. Instead they get dominated by stronger characters in the way that a large animal shoves a smaller one out of the herd or eats it. She is censorious, however, as good naturalists are not supposed to be. There is something of Flannery O’Connor in the pitiless, godlike view that opens her characters out for us to see, exposing them as hypocrites or ninnies. But no matter how scornful she becomes, her prose is always vivacious, never meanly stingy; her monsters are properly monstrous—there is something of D.H. Lawrence in her as well, something of The Virgin and the Gypsy‘s terrible, toadlike grandmother in her characterisations. You could even mention Rabelais and point to her love of lists, fat accumulations of objects or impressions.

Here she is in The People with the Dogs:

“Here, Third Avenue up to 18th Street is still the Old Bowery, with small rented bedrooms and apartments like ratholes, cheap overnight hotels, flophouses, ginmills, fish places, bowling alleys, instant shoe repairers, moneylenders, secondhand clothing stores, struggling cleaning and tailors’ places, barber schools, cellars where some old man or woman sells flowers and ice in summer, coal in winter, dance academies up crumbling stairs, accordion and saxophone schools, and such businesses as are carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building.”

Her lists can bloom into a kind of mythic impressionism. From the same book:

“The storms of rain passed on the other side, escalading the farther bluff. Scarcely had they passed but vapours rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke, rose out of the new wet earth and shaggy heads of trees and clots of water, rags of steam, began to tear themselves out of the woods and vacillating, tried to get up again in the moving air.”

This is language that writhes and breathes, expands, and also stifles; it creates a world and stuffs it full. (The reviewer at Time missed the mark when they wrote that “Stead’s prose is as hard and cold as a cake of ice.” It was the author’s lack of obvious sympathy for her characters they were responding to, not the prose itself.) She can sound like one of her own huge characters, making universes, issuing nicknames, invoking legends. In real life she was a flirt but also shy, shyer than her husband, a banker and writer whose books have not survived. By the time she died she had a reputation for cantankerous pronouncements, the most notorious ones stating her dislike of feminism, startling in a woman whose books fumed so furiously over women trapped by the social mores of marriage and peer expectation. But not so startling in a person who likes to flirt.

She was in a trap of her own. Travelling with Blake from country to country, she set her books on three different continents, remarked on the society of each, and consequently became famous in none of them. “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness,” wrote Angela Carter, but Stead can never be entirely claimed. She was not a Great Australian Writer because most of her books weren’t set in Australia, not a Great English Writer (although Carter called Cotter’s England a great novel about England), not a Great American Writer (yet American overviews of her career are always likely to tell us how evident it is from her books that she loved New York), not a Great Marxist Writer (she sympathised openly with the movement and commerce is a constant theme, yet neither the noble worker nor the Marxist character is immune to her criticism), not a Great Feminist Writer (although the majority of critical assessments of her work have probably been written by feminists). In the end she is nothing but a Great: expansive, world-gobbling, oceanlike.

Further Reading:

Nine essays in the 2003 Christina Stead centenary issue of the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

Hazel Rowley, who wrote a well-regarded biography of Stead, is interviewed on New York Public Radio.

A Real Inferno: the life of Christina Stead, an article from The New Criterion, written by Brooke Allen.

The night of which no one speaks: Christina Stead’s art as struggle, an essay by Susan Lever.


by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2007

Let’s just label it slacktire and get it over with, okay? Critics have been clamoring for months on how to describe Judd Apatow’s sense of humor, that big screen box office bonanza he derived out of an amalgamation of geekdom and irony, crudeness clouded in the thinnest veil of undeniable cleverness. It’s an aesthetic he’s developed over the years, from his earliest days as a stand-up comedian to a stint writing scripts for the formidable Larry Sanders Show. Humor was a strong part of the filmmaker’s early years, his family dynamic practically dredged in the punchline and the observational quirk. That it took 16 years, several failed projects, a collection of subpar starting points (Heavyweights, Celtic Pride), and two beloved TV series (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) to become an “overnight sensation” is not the real story, however. How he single handedly reinvented the flatlining joke genre is perhaps the most important story of the post-millennial movie business.

You see, for a long time, Hollywood knew how to make people laugh. It was part and parcel of the burgeoning artform. Toward the beginning, slapstick ruled the day, and certified geniuses like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin setting the original burlesque benchmarks. The Marx Brothers expanded off the no sound notions and into the realm of intellectualized mania, leaving the furthering of physical fun to those masters of mayhem, the Three Stooges. Between the screwball and the sophisticated, the cartoonish and the classical, comedy was never considered a mistaken happenstance or a purely improve-driven idea. Scripts were carefully crafted, with performance strengths and weaknesses worked into and out of the narratives. But by the ‘60s, when TV taught a nation there were other ways to laugh, Tinsel Town got sloppy. For every Mel Brooks there was a beach movie, for every endearing slice of Brit Wit, there was a sloppy sex farce substituting the risqué for the rib tickling.

By the time the ‘80s had rung the category out of all its varying possibilities, individuals interested in making people snicker had to seek out another way of working. Some turned to the grotesque, amplifying the trash art created decades before by individuals like Andy Warhol and John Waters into an adolescent revamp of the Garbage Pail Kids. Others decided that the bluer the ballsier, and overloaded their plots with as much pointless cursing and retrograde repugnance as possible. While some could manage the combination expertly (Trey Parker and Matt Stone are a perfect example), others could barely manage a single successful movie out of the maximum (we’re looking at you, Farrelly Brothers). As the ‘90s slipped away, it was clear that comedy was headed for a fall. Films were no longer being manufactured to reach a universal level of wit. Instead, subjects were micromanaged down to a specific spoof demographic. Comedians known for their appeal to particular audiences were given multi-picture deals, based more on their MySpace buzz than their actual talent.

So when Apatow stepped in to produce the 2004 Will Ferrell hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, it was a wise warning shot to the coasting cinematic category. Crude, rude, screwed, and borderline lewd (it was cleaned up for a PG-13 release), it offered a preview of the type of movie this maverick would soon pursue, though he only functioned as an official overseer. No, it wasn’t until the surprise sleeper hit of 2005, The 40 Year Old Virgin that Apatow’s name was connected clearly with something he created. It was the first true example of ‘slacktire’ – a cleverness carved out of decades of filmic obsession, human nerdiness, and the overriding need for interpersonal connection. Like the obsessive venturing out of his basement for the first time, and witnessing a world that didn’t keep all its toys in Mylar cases to maintain mint condition, Virgin showed that Apatow had the makings of a striking Tinsel Town titan. All he needed was the right celluloid synchronicity to bring it all together. 

Such a project arrived with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Reteaming with Ferrell, Apatow proved to the mainstream movie fan that he could successfully circumvent expectations (who would have thought that a NASCAR comedy would be so clever) while keeping his funny bone firmly on the pulse of what makes people smile. Capitalizing on his newfound credibility – and the outrageous success of his films on DVD – the fledgling filmmaker prepared for his biggest project to date. It would be the culmination of many previous efforts, a look at family and friendship accented by pop culture cut downs and true dweeb determination. It would reflect an aging of his Freaks and Geeks personas while still maintaining a slick stoner stance. It would talk like people talk, think like people think, argue like people argue, and, doubt like people doubt.

Knocked Up became that undeniable masterpiece, a movie that gets better, and more insightful, with every subsequent viewing. What starts off like a grunge rock remake of Revenge of the Nerds quickly converts into an effortless examination of impulse, overcompensation, and acceptance. It gave long time marrieds food for mid life crisis consideration and Gen-X’ers an excuse to play videogames for another 15 years. Unlike most Hollywood films that focus on biology as a salve for what ails you (as in Parenthood or She’s Having a Baby), Apatow finally told paternity like it is – a scary, life changing cock-up that has the potential to make you the happiest human on Earth as it systematically unravels your dreams, your hopes, your hobbies, and your individual foibles. Instead of acting as a peacemaker, babies will blow your sh*t apart, if you’re not careful.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, E! Entertainment Television personality Alison Scott (a sensational and very believable Katherine Heigl) has an alcohol fueled one night stand with Internet porn providing wannabe Ben Stone (Seth Rogen, never better). A few weeks later, a baby is on the way, and the couple must decide what they are going to do. Alison’s snobby sister Debbie (Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann, very good here) wants her to kick Ben to the curb. But brother-in-law Pete (a flawless Paul Rudd) thinks she should give the goof a chance. At first, they try to make it work. Alison hides her condition from her bosses while Ben tries desperately to grow up and mature. They fall in love. They break up. Debbie and Pete have problems. Things are quickly patched up before disintegrating again. In the end, Alison and Ben decide to simply accept each other, though the oncoming responsibility of a child could still throw all that into jeopardy. 

Even in its new, expanded form (the DVD release from Universal is labeled “extended and unrated”) Knocked Up is a Tootsie for our times, a smart, subversive comedy that meshes different forms of wit to create a singular source of hilarity. It’s a combination of the practical and the profane, the character driven and the crazy. It has more heart than any standard romcom ridiculousness and goes places your normal motion picture matchmaking would never attempt. Fleshing out his constantly coupling foursome with an amazing array of supporting and cameo casting choices, Apatow never lets his movie meander. It stays constantly focused, drawing even the most oddball remarks and riffs (the bead competition, the various personal hygiene quips) into a devastating study of what it takes to be human. Unlike other comedies of its type, Knocked Up is out to expand and dimensionalize its personas, careful to give even the most obscure references a concrete connection to reality.

It’s the very essence of slacktire. It’s the knowing of how to make a pot smoking stooge both dorky and deep. Rogen’s Ben is a very decent guy, a slightly pudgy joker who simply wants someone to listen to him. Alison is also a less than perfect specimen, though her high cheek bones, blond bombshell bubbliness, and statuesque figure may suggest otherwise. It’s to Apatow’s credit that he finds a way to reconfigure these social archetypes. People who think this couple would never copulate, let alone hook up in the long term, are obviously voicing their own underlying issues. The reasons behind Ben and Alison becoming a couple are clearly up on the screen for anyone and everyone to see. He’s funny, caring, and clever. She’s open, honest, and highly emotional. Together they form a bond, not just out of fear, but via the recognition of each other’s inherent goodness.

Apatow contrasts this approach with Debbie and Pete - and in a very minor way, with hirsute homie Martin and his delightfully dense girlfriend, Jodi. In them, we see a couple settled, a pair play acting at what Ben and Alison are striving so hard to find. It’s not really love, and it’s not really companionship. It’s more or less a truce, a place where one time individuals who still long for their good fun glory days can interact and coexist without killing each other. Martin and Jodi share a love of getting loaded. Debbie does what every long suffering housewife does – she nags her already henpecked husband until, as she says in one of Knocked Up’s best speeches, she breaks his spirit. Exhausted, and with no other line of defense, he acquiesces and then she changes him some more. It’s insights like this that make this movie more than just a series of sex jokes.

Yet the openness about body parts and their various functions are also a key to this film’s stunning success (it is something that also makes the Apatow-produced Superbad stand out). Adults don’t hint about genitalia and human reproduction. They talk frankly and fully about their biological needs and the reaction to same. Unlike current comedies that feel an adolescent friendly rating somehow produces both decisive wit and insightful discussion, this writer/director is a Hard R man. He’s Kevin Smith concocting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , John Hughes with a copy of Jokes for the John instead of the Preppy Handbook by his laptop. It’s a rare cinematic bird that can take the normative and the noxious and combine them in a way to make each acceptable. It’s an even bigger anomaly to mine territory tired out from years of retarded revisits and make it fresh, innovative, and capable of resonating with a jaded and jaundiced viewership. Yet that’s exactly what Apatow does. 

What the new two disc DVD release of Knocked Up essentially illustrates is how much of a gamble making a big screen comedy really is. Slacktire comes at a significant price – a legitimate work ethic that very few filmmakers want to attempt. As part of the package, we are treated to almost an hour of deleted and/or extended scenes, and in most cases, the reasons for their removal are obvious. A few make Ben into an angry, overbearing ogre. Some show Alison as a desperate, disconnected bitch. There are moments of uncomfortable conversation between our hero and his horndog roommates, and a ripe reproach of Brokeback Mountain by scene stealer Jonah Hill. Still, the inclusion of any or all of this material would have modified Knocked Up’s overall tone. Instead of a carefully controlled combination of motives, we’d have pissed off people saying inappropriate things to each other for over two hours.

On the other hand, it’s clear that the right attitude from the cast, the crew, and the individuals footing the bill is important for a comedy’s success. All throughout the numerous bonus features found on the two disc DVD release, we see savvy behind the scenes material that extend the jokes in the film while fulfilling a kind of amusing meta reality on the entire production process. One of the best examples of this is something called “Finding Ben Stone”. In this clearly fake EPK, Apatow discusses the different actors brought in to play the loveable loser lead. Such known names as Orlando Bloom and James Franco are featured, and the recreations from the movie are absolutely wonderful. Similarly skillful are Apatow’s own “production diaries” serious takes on how hard it was to make the movie. From snippets of songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (who contributed to the soundtrack) to an overview on dealing with prima donna Asian gynecologists and real life strippers, it’s clear that the old adage remains true. Drama may be hard, but comedy appears impossible.

That’s why Apatow’s emergence and the creation of slacktire are so important. Once you can successfully create a calling card, a way of making your efforts stand out from all the derivative dreck out there, you’re more than halfway toward timelessness. Everything else is funny business fate – your actors, your timing, your apparent competition. As Superbad would show three months later, audiences remain anxious for anything associated with this man, and in the coming months, a music industry mockery entitled Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and something known as The Pineapple Express will indicate whether Apatow has staying power, or stands as a hit making machine that finally ran out of gas. Hollywood is hoping otherwise, of course. They have the man on tow for at least a dozen different productions, working with everyone from former roommate Adam Sandler to Steve Carell, the ‘virgin’ who put them both on the map.

So let’s just declare his genius and be done with it – and concocting a catchphrase is only half the battle. When we look back at the later part of the so-called ‘naughts’ we will remember certain cinematic statements: the creation (and quick death) or ‘gorno’, otherwise known as torture porn: the rise of CGI inspired spectacle ala 300; Bourne’s rebirth of the spy thriller, and the startling success of big budget trilogies. And then we will look at what Judd Apatow did for the motion picture comedy, how he saved an entire creative category from its own artistic and aesthetic bankruptcy, and we will smile. While some of his work may fall into obscurity, and other efforts pale in comic comparison, Knocked Up will stand as one of the decade’s best. It truly represents the diversity inherent in Apatow’s approach. It’s slacktire at its finest.


by Rob Horning

23 Sep 2007

Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has been doing a lot of press for his memoir, The Age of Turbulence, which was released on Monday, and he seems determined to say a lot of things that will get him attention. In practice, that apparently means distancing himself from the Republican establishment that built him and making many comments that clash with their accepted talking points. Just as he made him self serviceable when Bush first came into office, speaking out in favor of his unnecessary tax cuts (as Paul Krugman details here), perhaps Greenspan, sensing the coming change in the political wind, now wants to preserve his reputation for being relevant by throwing some sops to Democrats, who are likely to dominate the Washington establishment in coming years. If he has their approval, and he continues to be frequently cited in public discourse and continues to show the power to affect markets with his utterances, he can keep on procuring the lucrative speaking fees he’s apparently earning on the lecture and conference circuit. Hence, Greenspan has basically suggested lately in his memoir and in interviews that the Iraq war is about oil, not democracy or terrorism; deficits do matter; Bush’s fiscal policy is responsible; the Republican led 2004 Congress deserved to lose for its fiscal irresponsibility, which bordered on corruption in its abuse of power; and Clinton was a good custodian of the federal purse, nothing like the tax-and-spend stereotype that Democrats are tarred with. And consistent with a goal of remaining relevant, Greenspan doesn’t admit to having done anything wrong in holding rates low and inflating asset bubbles—the excess liquidity, he argues, was not a matter of central bank policy but instead a consequence of globalization and the spread of capitalism throughout the world, introducing newly productive workers who work for cheap and contributing to what Benanke, his successor, would call a savings glut. For good measure, in a FT interview he adds that bubbles are just an inevitable and unfortunate consequence of human nature: “I am coming to the conclusion that bubbles are inevitable,” he says. “Human beings cannot avoid them . . . They cannot learn.”

But of all his repositioning moves recently, this one, from the same FT piece, where he questions the current profit/wage split, was the most striking:

The world he is describing looks like a global market nirvana – with one very odd feature: profits are much higher than they should be in a world of ever-intensifying global competition.
He says: “We know in an accounting sense what is causing it” – the share of worker compensation in national income in the US and some other developed countries is unusually low by historical standards – “but we don’t know in an economic sense what the processes are.”
In the long run, he says “real compensation tends to parallel real productivity, and we have seen that for generations, but not now. It has veered off course for reasons I am not clear about.”
It is striking that he does not, as many do, blame China. He agrees that companies should not be able to price above their marginal cost, as many apparently can today. “They should not be able to,” he says. “And the issue here is that there are restrictions that they are not identifying that enable them.” He adds: “The competition should be moving in.”
Mr Greenspan says “I did and still do” expect some normalisation of profit and wage shares. But asked whether the high profit share remains a puzzle to him, he says: “Yes, it does.” In his book, he worries that if wages for the average US worker do not start to rise more quickly political support for free markets may be undermined.

It’s pretty startling to see the friend of investment bankers, the namesake of the notorious Greenspan put that protects big financial risk takers from facing consequences, wondering why wage earners aren’t getting more of their share. That last comment verges on an endorsement of a populist uprising, a return to union power, and the kind of labor-friendly economics John Edwards seems to be campaigning on. You can interpret that last comment to suggest what left-leaning economists tend to say all the time: The whole capitalist system is threatened by income inequality, because the injustice of inequality reveals the imbalances between labor and capital that undermine the economy’s supposed rational fundamentals. The power distortions lead to externalities, rent-seeking, perverse incentives and other phenomena that make a market economy veer from its ideal, textbook elegance, where ever party gets what they wants and what they deserve at a price that can be nothing other than fair. Eventually, there is no redress to the imbalances other than political intervention, and if Greenspan is right—and if his anti-Republican pronouncements are further evidence of his sense of shifting political winds—than we can expect that intervention to come soon. When the redistribution of profits fails to happen naturally—as it inevitably does—the political cycle (from right to left) must kick in to correct the business cycle (from capital to labor). This preserves the sanctity of both and forestalls the kind of revolution that would put an end to all such cycles (and most of what we recognize as economic freedom as well).

by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2007

When East meets West in cuisine, they call it fusion. When they collide cinematically, it could easily be labeled con-fusion. When a fan approaches a Hong Kong action epic, they don’t expect an overemphasis on plot, a lot of confused character double dealing, and a visit from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Nor are they looking for ex-Hollywood A-list desperate for a paycheck. No, they hear the premise of a particular Asian stunt spectacle and assume its time for the spirit of John Woo to infect yet another franchise. And when you add in the now mandatory international angle (for financial and marketing reasons), the results can be inconsistent at best. For director Danny Lee, the combination cast, along with the overly complicated narrative, should have spelled motion picture disaster. But thanks to his skill behind the lens, his epic police procedural Dragon Heat becomes an imminently watchable bullet ballet.

Offered under the Weinstein Company and Genius Entertainment’s continuing Dragon Dynasty series, this 2005 effort (originally labeled Dragon Squad), is a multimedia movie functioning under some very peculiar plot parameters. When we first meet our band of good guys – a ragtag collective of cops including a sharpshooter, a sniper, and an undercover expert, among others – they are preparing to present evidence against drug running mobster Panther Duen. On the way to court, their convoy is ambushed and the criminal is eventually kidnapped. At first, everyone thinks it’s a well planed rescue. But soon, the truth is revealed. Another group of bad guys, including a disgruntled South Korean General and a sinister Columbian mercenary, are out to make the Duen Brothers pay for double crossing them. With the help of police chauffer (and ex-Commandant) Kong Long, the novice police agents intend to get to the bottom of this case and dispose of all the felons once and for all.

Clearly created to showcase a meshing of old school heroism with new jack bravado, Dragon Heat has its moments of stellar symbolism. When martial arts master Sammo Hung (as the aforementioned driver) goes mano y mano with Jun-ho Heo (as the disgruntled military man) in a close combat sequence, its pure archaeological adrenaline. Our pulse quickens just knowing that we’re about the see a true screen legend open up a can of whoop ass with nothing more than his fists. Similarly, Maggie Q has an excellent cemetery shoot out with her good guy equivalent, and the trading of carefully aimed gunfire among the grave markers is certainly suspenseful. But Lee also allows his purpose to undermine his young ones. They appear strategically inept, impulsive to a fatal fault, and marksmen in name only. During a setpiece factory alley firefight, with apparently plentiful ammunition, no one is capable of hitting a criminal, let alone the broad side of a building. Yet we’re supposed to buy these noble newcomers as the next “wave” in justice. It’s an odd juxtaposition that frequently fails to engage.

Still, Lee is enough of a craftsman to help us forget the kids and their incomplete acumen. The narrative relies on context and flashback to fill in the missing interpersonal blanks, and just when we think we’ve learned all we can about our players, we get subplot scenes involving lost loves, paralyzed brothers, and fame-hungry supervisors. Edited into the film in a manner that makes a quick and considered impact, Lee does go a tad overboard at the end, offering repeats of these montages just before the plot ordered face-offs occur. Still, for a potential viewer raised on video games and other forms of multifaceted media, it makes for a visually arresting and appealing ideal. In fact, Dragon Heat often acts like a metamorphosis between the staged spectacle of previous Hong Kong crime cinema and a new, more naturalized motion picture approach.

There are some stylistic choices that will undermine your enjoyment, especially in light of how Lee handles their happenstance. Every gun battle in Dragon Heat is a borderline irritating exercise in ammunitus interruptus. In order to lengthen said action scenes, our director makes these heroes and villains all pomp and very little precision. During a single volley of gunfire, we can see thousands of rounds exchanged, but very few come close to hitting their mark. Indeed, even when a scope shows a body part clearly in the crosshairs, the round rarely arrives as planned. This is especially disquieting during the finale. Our leads have all been talking semi-smack for at least 20 minutes or so, pumping themselves up to take on these fiends who are clearly more aggressive than they will ever be. They even get Sammo’s sage character to agree to a blade on blade rematch. But as our kung fu god is slicing and dicing with a machete, these literal young guns are proving, yet again, their lack of rudimentary trigger pulling skills.

It also doesn’t help that our supposedly formidable force frequently sulk like Kenny when he learns that Gamera is not coming out to play. Their dour, disappointed personalities often remind one of brats being scolded, not seasoned cops looking to take a bite out of crime. Part of this is Lee’s fault. Aside from a silly sequence where our agents show off their questionable talents at a pub’s shooting gallery, we never see them successfully complete a mission. They always miss by a hair, or underestimate their opponents or their strategies, leading to another dressing down by their superiors. In fact, we are told on more than one occasion that these visiting lawmen (and women) are not really wanted. They’re sheepishly given a role here because they hold the evidence to convict the local drug kingpin. But once that villain meets a rather grizzly fate, it’s fairly clear their “expertise” is a marginalized commodity at best.

Still, Dragon Heat delivers enough suspense and old world moralizing to make the trip well worth while. The inclusion of an international cast definitely gives the film a unique edge, especially when cult favorites like Michael Biehn pop up to show us how it’s done. As part of the ample added content provided by the DVD, we learn of the money men’s desire for a ‘name’ cast, some Western flair, and a native angle that spanned demographical and media interests. From the commentary track by producer/Hong Kong film historian Bey Logan to the music video like Making-Of featurette, there is a clear, calculated approach to this project which explains a lot of its appeal – and a great deal of its entertainment apprehension. Call it a “too many cooks” conceit, or intrusion by people who have no business determining aesthetic, but the “everything to everyone” designs are apparent all throughout this otherwise exceptional effort.

Flaws and all, Dragon Heat is definitely worth paying attention to. It seems to indicate the future of Asian action while commenting directly on the expectations of and exceptions to the standard genre archetypes. It’s more a movie of individual moments than all out epic of excitement, and the futuristic metropolitan backdrop delivers a beneficial, big city appeal. While it would have been nice to see more hand to hand combat vs. all the non-stop firefighting, the final result is something even the most jaded slo-mo shoot out lover could embrace. In some ways, Dragon Heat expertly mirrors the guerilla style of battle exploding all across the post-millennial urban landscape. While duty and honor are still important, quick reflexes and a brazen determination are far more valuable. This is one fusion film that actually works – in spite of itself.

//Mixed media

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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