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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007

You’re gonna hear a lot of talk in the next few days about The Simpsons Movie - and not all of it will focus on the film itself. Some of it will center on Fox’s failed strategy to keep the movie away from critics, and the clandestine, last minute appeals that saw the press finally viewing the finished product the night before it officially opened. Others will question the legitimacy of an effort that flaunts the fact that, as an audience, you are paying for the privilege of seeing something that the boob tube provides for free. Heck, Homer even makes a joke about it. There will be a few who frown on the lax language issue, their favorite family using the mildest of profanities to express some of their concerns. And a couple may complain about the abomination which is animated genitalia.

Well, you can tell all these wannabe experts and misguided moral watchdogs to eat your ever lovin’ shorts. After 18 years on the air and nearly 400 amazing episodes, The Simpsons Movie delivers the entertainment equivalent of a 90 minute greatest hits package. Jam packed with jokes, insider references, unique cameos and characters, and just a smidgen of sentiment and heart, this is the kind of stone cold genius creation old school fans have been longing for and demanding since around Season Four. Indeed, the most striking thing about this luminous bit of social satire is how fully realized and completely linear it is. Most episodes of the series, especially in the last few years, are tangential, vignette oriented, and elliptical. A weird event will trigger another oddball happenstance before the whole things blows back and up in Homer’s fat face. Here, we begin with a basic storyline, and the jokes grow organically and effortlessly from its finely honed foundation.

It all begins with that current crisis du jour – our volatile environment. In typical surreal Simpsons fashion, Homer adopts a pig. When he can’t figure out what to do with his new pet’s “leavings” (to quote wife Marge), he decides to dump an entire silo full of feces in local Lake Springfield. Coincidentally, daughter Lisa has been protesting the continued polluting of this body of water (with the help of her new Irish boy buddy Colin), and the town has placed a moratorium on further befouling, afraid of a horrible natural disaster. Of course, our favorite bald buffoon doesn’t listen to them, and soon, things are at a crisis point. The EPA – under the direction of Chairman Russ Cargill (a hilarious Albert Brooks) and President Schwarzenegger – finally comes up with a plan. It will dome the town, trapping everyone inside forever. Then when things get too bad, they’ll bomb the city. In the meantime, Springfield has driven the Simpsons away, and they begin life anew in Alaska. Yet, even with all the hard feelings, the family can’t resist the urge to return and help save their threatened town.

And just to keep things frisky, there are a couple of clever subplots involving Barts’ growing affection for the Flanders, Grandpa’s religious hissy fit, and Homer’s interaction with the native Inuit peoples of America’s 49th State. Yet instead of distracting us from the main plotline, these asides help us appreciate the level of intelligence and wit the show’s creators carry over into the film. They even add in a very touching moment where Marge speaks from her heart. To any fan of the wonderful voice acting the cast produces on a weekly basis, this heart-rendering reading by Julie Kavner will all but unhinge you. It’s very, very powerful. The rest of the actors are also uniformly excellent, managing to make us care about the outcome of certain situations that, within a cinematic fantasy paradigm aimed directly at the PG-13 demographic, are more or less predetermined from the start. In fact, the script (credited to 15 of the show’s most inspired scribes) does a great job of poking fun at the whole doomsday action adventure genre.

It wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the goofy asides and borderline crude cracks, and leave it to the brains behind the scenes to keep things as imbecilic as possible. Homer doesn’t suddenly grow smarter, or stumble onto the truth after several sincere conversations. Instead, he remains regressive and childlike, amiably screwing things up with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s a sidesplitting joy to behold. Similarly, both Bart and Lisa are toned down here, each one getting a solid sequence of their own before giving in to the needs of the narrative. There will be a decided outcry from fringe favoring fans about the lack of extended scenes of Apu, Krusty, Principal Skinner, Mrs. Crabapple, and many others. Indeed, aside from Kent Brockman and the brazen bumpkin Cletus, the rest of Springfield’s citizenry are reduced to perfectly honed cameos – introduced and exploited as needed and necessary. The family members are the real focus.

Are there things here that don’t work? Not really. Hans Zimmer’s score barely stands out above the comedic din, his mundane music cues doing very little until the final confrontation with fate. Similarly, the animation takes a bit of getting used to at first. Fans familiar with Futurama will instantly appreciate the combination of 3D CGI and standard pen an ink cartooning. But it’s still odd to see the Simpsons home swallowed up, Poltergeist style, or a massive deep focus mob containing possibly every character ever conceived for the show. And of course, the continuity police will be up in arms over how Marge and Homer’s marriage has, once again, been reimagined into a familiar formal setting (they eloped, as all true Simpsons savants remember). Yet none of this really matters. In fact, any quibbles over content or approach are incredibly minor when compared to how effortlessly this movie delivers its many, many delights.

On par with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the way in which a beloved TV series can be broadened and deepened by the cinematic experience, The Simpsons Movie is a major triumph – and that’s saying a lot considering its stance as a creative enterprise overflowing with consistent genius. The direction (by David Silverman) has a decided artistic bent, several shots announcing their compositional and framing freshness with major impact (this happens frequently during the last act). The Inuit dream sequence is especially impressive, riffing on symbolic ideas fans will remember from past character interactions with the cosmic. Perhaps the best thing this fine film does however is treat its audience with intelligence and respect. It doesn’t try to cheapen our yellow-tinged icons by making them into a sloppy, saccharine example of kid vid corniness. All The Simpsons Movie emotion is earned honestly, and all its humor is unforced and very, very funny.

So let them all talk. It may not be a return to the glory days of phenomenon formation, when the series finally found the courage to take the show outside the boundaries of your typical animated TV experience, but The Simpsons Movie argues that there’s plenty of life left in this clever collection of characters. Whether Fox decides to keep renewing the series, or simply allowing film to fill in the future blanks, one thing is certain – The Simpsons remain one of the classic comic creations ever. Their big screen debut may have taken over a decade to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. Here’s hoping one family member’s statement over the closing credits comes to fruition - the sooner, the better.

(PS: Make sure you stay until the very end – the writers have some extra rib-ticklers as a reward for those who don’t just jump up and leave.)


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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007

I used to live in Paris. Years ago. Most of it – the language, the rhythms, the ways of doing and thinking, the tastes, and sounds, and smells—now are a part of eroded memory. In clutching for them, to my horror, they have become like so much sand crumbling between my desperate fingertips. Glorious castles dissolving on an idyllic spume-blown shoreline.

I turn the corner and expect to find this;

. . . not that .

Or, more often, not expecting these images:.

But rather those:

The endless discoveries have been exciting, stimulating, tiring; occasionally disheartening. We’ll, the thing about life is that it is both revelatory and disappointing, often in equal measure, if not at one and the same moment!

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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007

Although the upcoming election is far away, the candidates have been campaigning fiercely. It seems as if there is always another debate to help the American public decide between the many candidates. Recently, on July 23, CNN held the “Youtube Debates,” where people recorded questions to ask the candidates. Currently it has only been held for the Democrats, but Monday, September 17, the “Youtube Debates” will be held for the Republicans.

Recap of the debate

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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007
by John Booth

I’ll miss the Weekly World News.

I hadn’t bought a copy in years, so I’ll shoulder my share of the blame for its coming demise, but only if you admit that even if you never shelled out the cash to buy a copy or sheepishly thumbed through it in the checkout lane, you wanted to know, on some level, what was behind those pulpy covers.

I was surprised to learn this week that the Weekly World News only dated back to 1979, but it makes sense that the paper was at its height while I was growing up in the 1980s. 



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Wednesday, Jul 25, 2007

When one thinks of martial arts, and specifically movies centering around the ancient skill set, the graceful and powerful moves of the actors remain primary in one’s mind. Indeed, as the years have only increased the profile and proficiency of these films, the intricacy of the movement and the visual opulence achieved through same have elevated the genre to a Zen-like zenith. But fans often forget that there’s more to cool kung fu fighting than roundhouse kicks and the touch of death. Indeed, weaponry is as important to a combatant as his or her own discipline. Yet we rarely get to see our champions defined solely by such a talent. Unless you look at period pieces where feudal times demand more swordplay than side sandal action, it stays all swipes and blocks. Thanks to two new DVDs from Magnolia Home Entertainment, however, we can witness a more diverse version of Asian action daring do. In Dynamite Warrior, a well meaning vigilante uses rockets, gunpowder and other forms of explosives to destroy a local despot. In Yo Yo Girl Cop, a favorite Japanese heroine is reinvented, her trusty armored child’s toy ready to wreak some excellent post-modern havoc.

When he was a young monk, Jone Bang Fai saw his family killed by a water buffalo rustler named Sing. Ever since that fateful night, he’s sworn to seek out the criminal and kill him. Fast forward a few years and local Lord Waeng has frittered away his money on a collection of steam-driven tractors. He wants peasants to abandon their beasts of burden and buy his pricey technological marvel. When they refuse, he hires a ruthless band of thieves lead by a crazed cannibal giant to force the issue. A grown Jone, on the other hand, has been doing his own bit of ‘stealing’. He takes herds of missing livestock and returns them to the poor villagers. When Waeng discovers this, he wants the rural Robin Hood stopped. When he learns that Sing plans on reporting his deal with the criminals to government authorities, he also wants the mythic mobster destroyed. When all discover that Sing is blessed with magical powers, it seems like a lost cause. But then Waeng comes up with a plan. He will discover Sing’s weakness (thanks to an old ‘demonic’ friend) and send Jone after him. If the secret won’t stopped him, maybe the hero’s many rockets and bombs will. Seems Jone has mastered the art of gunpowder, and it will take all his skills as a Dynamite Warrior to stop Sing, Waeng, and the evil wizard once and for all.

From its stellar opening sequence to its incredibly accomplished finale, Dynamite Warrior (the Westernized name for Kon fai bin or “Flying Man of Fire”) is a brilliant Thai take on the standard martial arts movie. Featuring a noble hero, a hissable villain, a populace put down and oppressed, and a modicum of magic (both white and black), the sensational saga of vengeance and honor sweeps you up in its epic ideals and never once lets you down. Thanks in part to the visual opulence offered by director Chalerm Wongpim and the imaginative staging of fight choreographer Somjai Junmoontree, what could be a collection of cardboard characters in search of some wire fu histrionics is at times goofy, grandiose and almost giddy in its sense of spectacle. Fans of full fisted, no nonsense kung fu fighting, the kind that’s almost balletic in style and explosive in its force, will probably find this Siamese bump and thump to be a little too tame for their liking. Indeed, most of the time, star Dan Chupong (from Born to Fight fame) is shown in slow motion, knees and elbows attacking an opponent’s shoulders and torso. Indeed, such sequences lack the movie musical feel most devotees seem to enjoy. But buried inside all the arch athletic prowess is a real story of ancient curses, pissed off demons, fey overlords, and one humongous (and hungry) paid assassin.

Wongpim obviously owes a debt to Kung Fu Hustle’s Stephen Chow, especially for how he mixes the cartoonish and the mystical into this narrative. When Jone Bang Fai is chased by two of Nai Hoi Sing’s henchman, one acting as a monkey, the other acting as a tiger, the direction accentuates their otherworldly abilities in brilliant fashion. Similarly, when Sing and his nemesis, the evil Black Wizard, begin their supernatural showdown, the pantomime punches and pratfalls that shouldn’t work actually do. Granted, there is some substandard CGI here, especially whenever our hero has to employ rockets to win the day, but there are also sequences of real resonance, as when we follow Jone Bang Fai during his explosive’s training. With pitch perfect performances that walk the always fine line between reasonable and ridiculous, and a plot that’s heavy on the alchemy and anarchy, Dynamite Warrior may seem like safe chop sockey lite, but it’s a wholesome and hearty trip nonetheless. It’s safe to say that audiences who wouldn’t normally find themselves perusing the martial arts section for a movie night’s viewing would be delighted to stumble across this excellent example of excess. After all, it isn’t everyday that your cinematic champion rides his own makeshift missile to save the day, or requires the menstrual blood of a virgin to aid in his success. It’s the little tweaks like these that make this movie so much fun.

When one of their secret agents dies in the middle of a crowded crosswalk from a bomb strapped to her body, the Japanese government becomes concerned that another terrorist attack is imminent. They’ve been following a website code named ‘Enola Gay’ (get it?), and have linked it to a local high school. Unfortunately, the case is going nowhere. They need someone to report from the inside. That’s where “K” comes in. Brought back to the East from the streets of New York, she’s blackmailed into assuming the identity of Yo Yo Girl Cop Saki Asamiya, and discovering the truth behind the anarchy inside Seisen Academy. She soon finds that an enigmatic Internet leader named Romeo has the student body preparing for a massive meeting – and one explosive self-destructive protest. And there seems to be a connection to a depressed girl named Tae and a snobby sect dominated by mean bitch Reika Akiyama. Of course, it could all be a smokescreen for something much bigger – and it’s up to our heroine, and her metallic toy – to save the day.

Imagine La Femme Nikita as a delinquent Japanese schoolgirl taken in to do the government’s undercover bidding and you’ve got the basic idea surrounding the immensely popular Sukeban Deka manga series. With a yo-yo as her weapon and a code name of Saki Asamiya, her job is to infiltrate those bastions of Asian bad behavior – the typical high school – and disclose the undesirable/criminal element within. For nearly three decades (with just a sort stint outside the public eye in the late ‘90s), this archetypal avenging character was a popular comic, anime, and film subject. Now, Yo Yo Girl Cop introduces the latest actress incarnation (Aya Matsuura) and hopes to jumpstart the series for a picky, post-millennial crowd. Directed by Battle Royale screenwriter (and sequel director) Kenta Fukasaku, this lively, lurid tale of an academy filled with suicide bombers and the enigmatic computer hacker who may be brainwashing them into an act of mass murder, is a merry mishmash of styles and cinematic references. When our heroine is being interrogated/bribed to partake in the secret project, there is a surreal Saw vibe to the situation and surroundings. Similarly, when Saki prepares to standoff against “Romeo” and his band of hired thugs, it’s like every Hollywood actioner you’ve ever seen given over to the Ginza.


Because of the history here, and the full blown mythological subtext the subject matter incorporates, newcomers to the Deka narrative may be lost at first. Unless you know the character, her first meeting with nasty rival Reika Akiyama will appear rather disconnected and strange. Similarly, only those familiar with the television adaptation of the material will understand the significance of Yuki Saito playing the mother. Still, this is not some kind of unfathomable franchise. J-Horror has introduced us to the clique-oriented nastiness of Eastern education, and the continuing fixation with Hong Kong crime films gives the stunt work a sense of balance and place. It’s odd, though, to see two attractive Japanese pop stars turned actresses going at each other with yo-yos, and the toys seem to be such ineffectual weapons (save for an example with retractable knife blades) that you wonder why they were chosen. Of course, symbolism and iconography has a lot to do with the visual decisions made – school girl innocence, represented by the uniform, technology run amuck as shown by the everpresent cellphones/laptops – yet the elements of friendship and loneliness remain universal. And with the terrorist angle bringing the stories right up to date, whatever old fashioned fantasy fodder these films provided seems distant and lost. An excellent example of breathing life into a creatively idle concept, Yo Yo Girl Cop is a certified cult phenomenon just waiting for international fans to find it. When they do, they won’t be disappointed. 

So you see, there is an element beyond fisticuffs when it comes to Asian action. Certainly, the skill and stamina required to forge a believable mano-y-mano match up with nothing more than your own physicality is worth celebrating and mythologizing. But just like the unusual individual who ends up the master of the Flying Guillotine, or the drunken old coot who turns out to be an expert at wielding a samurai sword with exquisite ability, a weapon remains a legitimate – and sometimes, legendary – foundation for fighting. Dynamite Warrior and Yo Yo Girl Cop are perfect illustrations of this kind of inventive kung fu fun. They stick to formulas founded on decades of good vs. evil combat, but tweak the particulars toward ideas outside the standard stuntman on stuntman showdown. As they broaden the horizons of the genre, they continuously harken back to the basics that made the cinematic category great in the first place. Meshing old with the new, classic with the creative, both movies argue for the effectiveness, and the energy, in the martial arts medium. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, films like these disprove that adage. No matter the tradition, these excellent releases make it all seem brand new.

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