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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.


With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.


When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.


Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.


This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.


This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.


When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).


With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.


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Saturday, Jul 26, 2008

It’s incredible when you think of it, but Jet Li’s first Hollywood film (as a villain in Lethal Weapon IV) was a mere 10 years ago. That’s right, back in 1998, few outside the Hong Kong action film fanbase knew the amazing talents of this life long kung fu expert. Certainly his work in the Once Upon a Time in China films made a major impact, but it took DVD and the digital format to really serve those epics the way they deserved. Indeed, Li’s rise from cult to commodity, geek glory to A-list action man, is nothing short of amazing.


And with said ascent we Westerners are finally being treated to the many unknown movies in his resume. Thanks to Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their definitive Dragon Dynasty label, his 1993 tour de force Tai Chi Master is now available. Featuring several major players in the genre both in front of and behind the camera, we get a clear example of why Li is the superstar he is today.


As young boys among the Shaolin, Jun Bao and Tien Bo were almost inseparable - that is, when they weren’t trying to outdo each other in the martial arts arena. A mistake sees them banned from the temple, and set out into the world. Soon, Tien Bo has fallen under the corrupting influence of the local eunuch governor, while Jun Bao works with a Robin Hood like insurrection taking back the excessive taxes and shakedown protection monies manipulated out of the population. In a grab for power, Tien Bo promises to stop the rebellion.


He tricks his friends into an attempted assassination. Only Jun Bao and broken woman Sui Lin make it out alive. Vowing to end the reign of terror instigated by his childhood friend, our hero takes up the sacred teachings of Chi, and learns the invaluable fighting lessons of its skill set. Naturally, a showdown between Jun Bao and Tien Bo will prove who is indeed the master, and whose been a servant to secular whims for far too long.


Tai Chi Master is one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time. This is no exaggeration. When you combine the stellar talents of a prime Li (30 years old and ready to rock), an amazing Michelle Yeoh, a ballsy turn by Chin Siu Ho, and nonstop action amazement from a directing God Yuen Wo Ping, this is the kind of kung fu spectacle that turns the novice into a fan and the knowledgeable into something akin to rabid. The basic plot serves as a model cinematic clothesline, perfect for the filmmaker to hang his patented wire fighting stunt scenes on. Even better, each one builds in skill level and execution, leading to a series of third act showdowns which close the story in absolutely epic fashion.


Unlike other examples of the genre, which focus almost exclusively on honor and duty, tradition and the trappings of society, Tai Chi Master is more concerned about the philosophical underpinnings of the title art form. Here, Jun Bao and Tien Bo are exiled for violating the monastery’s strict codes. But before they leave, their master explains how this is a blessing in disguise. Without understanding how their skill set plays within the parameters of the real world - and in turn, how the pair will respond when temptation and teachings clash - they will never truly gain wisdom. All throughout the first third of the narrative, our neophytes are tested over and over.


Part of the joy in this majestic battle royale is in how the characters react. Chin Siu Ho has the hardest role to fulfill, since we have to watch him turn from ambitious to evil in a very short period of time. Of course, the script gives him some truly horrendous crimes to commit, yet we have to buy the personal motivation and find empathy. Ho helps us do so. Similarly, Ms. Yeoh is hardly a weak willed woman, especially within these settings. But Tai Chi Master throws her for a loop early on, when an ex-husband shows up with his new horrible harpy wife. After another classic confront, Siu Lin drowns her sorrows in massive vats of wine. It’s spellbinding to see the actress in anything other than superhero mode.


The biggest surprise, however, is Jet Li’s effervescent, almost tragicomic performance as Jun Bao. There is lots of clowning and confused physical shtick in his humor-laced routine, but the overall façade he presents is one of dismay, betrayal, and anger. He even gets to play inebriated and insane (while recuperating from an attack). While he maintains the same stature and grace throughout, his is a troubled man, tormented by a true lack of understanding. Once he gets into the montage-style Tai Chi material, complete with voiceover lessons and artful fighting illustrations, we sense the champion coming to the fore. His last battle with Tien Bo seals the deal…and the movie.


Lacking some of the insight we’ve come to expect from the DVD series, the bonus features presented are more praise-oriented than production dense. Brett Ratner and Elvis Mitchell are on hand to give Jet li, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wo Ping their due, while another featurette focuses on the location for the shoot. The only star we hear from is Tien Bo - Chin Siu Ho. Looking surprisingly young, he discusses his own martial arts past and what it was like working with the various icons present. Wrapping everything up is another excellent commentary from Bey Logan. Desperate to fill in the blanks located at places like Wikipedia and IMDb, he delivers a detailed, dense, discussion of both the players and the pitfalls in making this kind of action ‘opera’. It’s an intriguing listen. 


With its lightening swordplay, flawless fisticuffs, slapstick style physical stunts, and well-choreographed genius, Tai Chi Master instantly takes its place among the many noted genre classics. It contains timeless performances from all involved while staying true to the recognizable approaches that keep fans flocking to this area of entertainment. Even better, this is the perfect introductory film for anyone wondering why, in today’s clime of CGI inspired bravado and outsized visuals, the basic body movements associated with the martial arts remain compelling. It’s much more than the violence. It’s the names responsible for the mayhem that are equally important. And Tai Chi Master has an amazing collection of talent behind it.


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Friday, Jul 25, 2008

Some films commit the cardinal cinematic sin of being too smart for their own good. They smugly announce their importance, challenging you to hate them if only to expose your own lack of understanding. The recent remake of Funny Games is a good example of this ideal. If you loved it, you got what writer/director Michael Haneke was selling. If you didn’t, you stand as a poseur, pretending to love film without seeing the Paloving way in which you salivate over big screen violence. Right. There is a little of this out of touch arrogance running through Neil Marshall’s ‘80s movie mash-up Doomsday. In the mind of the man responsible for Dog Soldiers and The Descent, if you’re not hip to his homage heavy update of the ‘80s post-apocalyptic thriller, then you just haven’t spent enough dateless nights in front of a VCR.


When the Reaper virus wipes out most of Scotland, the British government quarantines the North Country. Within months, the remaining population dies off, the disease’s communicable state requiring a massive wall and martial law. Thirty years late, the plague returns to the heart of London. Desperate to halt another pandemic, officials turn to Cabinet Minister Canaris and Chief of Police Nelson. One holds the key to a cure. The other has an officer who can infiltrate the hot zone and find the whereabouts of Dr. Kane, the only man who may have the answers. Of course, the region is now its own warzone, apparently immune survivors traveling in packs, creating their own craven rules along the way. But if anyone can accomplish the mission, it’s Eden Sinclair and her ragtag group of well-armed mercenaries.


As part of the Unrated DVD release from Universal, Doomsday‘s director sits down with several cast members to discuss the making of the movie, and from the 28 Days Later inspired opening to the Escape from New York styled set-up, the group make it clear that this film was as much a cinematic statement of terror trivia as an actual attempt to make some serious science fiction. The name dropping is rampant, with Mad Max (in all three of his incarnations), Aliens, and even the legend of King Arthur getting a referential shout-out. In fact, if one reads between the lines, they can garner a fairly accurate review from the ravings. Apparently, even the individuals behind the film recognize how redundant Doomsday is, going so far as to point out the far better examples it rips off in order to achieve its throwback tedium.


Part of the problem here is scope. Even when he destroyed the UK with nubile, naked space vampires, Tobe Hooper made sure to remind everyone that his Lifeforce Armageddon had bigger picture implications. But Marshall, who works better in enclosed scenarios (see: the cave carnivores of his all gal Descent), can’t take his vision global. Heck, he barely delivers Glasgow. There are sequences where Sinclair and her group of military clad clichés come across a deserted cityscape covered in foliage and debris. Yet because of the way it is shot (at night, under a bright blue moon) and the angles Marshall chooses, its looks like the most mediocre of old school matt paintings. Even worse, when we wind up in what appears to be a future shock version of Medieval Times (the restaurant chain, not the era), the castle keep seems solid only when the director stays within its location walls.

Sloppy CGI and incomprehensible scripting are not the only issues plaguing Doomsday. Marshall makes it very clear in his digital conversation that one of the many elements he tried to bring to the material was a thwarting of expectations. And if he meant that his villains would be more pathetic than powerful, that his heroine would whine as much as a pre-weaned pup, that the army would be lousy at the two things they supposedly excel at (infiltration and the skilled use of armaments), or that his government officials would be obvious and outrageous in their corruption and subterfuge, then he’d be right. Indeed, all of these failures fill out Doomsday‘s many minutes, and no amount of added violence or bloodshed (hence the cover art come-on “Unrated”) can fix them. When tossed in with what is, in essence, an adventure without a real sense of purpose - no President to save, no gas supply to protect - any inherent thrills simply disappear.


This doesn’t mean that Doomsday is a visual disaster - at least not all the time. The rest of the DVD is fleshed out with features that argue for the meticulous detail in the production design (check out the tattoos) and the budget busting goals Marshall attempted. A lot of work went into this movie, and like the old adage proudly proclaims, all of it is up on the screen. Yet it doesn’t explain why all this pomp leads to so little entertainment circumstance. Sure, if you enjoy the basic b-movie, easily amused by the sometimes absurdist premises and solid schlock execution, you might get some kicks here. But Doomsday still begs the question - why borrow from something better, especially when you have no desire (or ability) to improve on it.


Of course, filmmakers like Brian DePalma and John Carpenter would argue with such an assessment, especially since they’ve borrowed liberally from past and present masters (Hitchcock, Argento) and yet managed to make the material their own. Neil Marshall can’t make the same claim with Doomsday, no matter how many cult classics he throws into the scattered storyline. Sometimes, a bad idea is just that, no matter what inspired you to come up with it. Arguing for its mediocrity by citing better original sources seems…arrogant. Then again, that’s how the ‘smarter than you’ style of cinema defends itself. Somewhere, someone is laughing at this criticism’s inability to sync up with what this dystopian dirge has to offer. One peek behind this genre emperor’s dressing room door doesn’t reveal a lack of clothes, just someone who worships the designer yet has no idea how to wear them.


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Friday, Jul 25, 2008

It was only a matter of time before this started to happen. BoingBoing linked to this National Post article about psychologists who have identified a new syndrome in which sufferers believe they are the star of a reality TV show—that they are under constant surveillance and the people they know are actually actors and so on. They have dubbed it the Truman Show Delusion.


While traditionalists insist that this delusion offers nothing new—it is no different from, say, a deranged man who believes that the CIA has planted a microchip in his tooth—the Gold brothers argue otherwise. “It’s really a question of the extent of the delusion,” said Joel Gold, 39, who has been on staff at New York’s Bellevue Hospital Center for eight years. “The delusions we typically treat are narrow: There is Capgras Delusion, where someone will think his family has been replaced by doubles. Or the Fregoli Delusion, where someone believes that one person is persecuting him: a doctor, mailman, butcher. The Truman Show Delusion, though, involves the entire world.”


The doctors who named the syndrome link it to social networking and YouTube-level self-publicity.


Ian Gold, who holds a Canada Research Chair in philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University, added that there are unprecedented cultural triggers that might explain the phenomenon: the pressure of living in a large, connected community can bring out the unstable side of more vulnerable people.
“The wish for fame is a form of grandiosity, and the fear of threats such as surveillance can bring about paranoia,” said the Montrealbased Dr. Gold, 46, who specializes in delusion.
“New media is opening up vast social spaces that might be interacting with psychological processes.”


That last sentence in many ways sums up the point I was trying to make in several dozen posts about social networking. Perhaps because the way technological innovations are publicized, we have a tendency to assume they are tools, passively waiting there for us to employ them to improve our lives. But they obviously begin to reshape us in light of their possibilities, and in that dialectic much can go awry.


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Friday, Jul 25, 2008
Wendy Ho -Bitch, I Stole Your Purse

I first heard the homemade stylings of Ms. Ho in a song with the chorus “cocaine makes my pussy pucker, mother fucker”.  I have a weakness for this kind of reform school girl hoetry.  I know its kitsch, I fully understand that it’s quality is non-existent, though it’s certainly enjoyable as a joke and as a dark expression of our repressed desires to see Ho Heroines beating up rich bitches for their expensive accessories.  There comes a time to relax your critical faculties and enjoy a novelty act that, unlike a lot of mainstream pop, at least has novelty on its side. 


But the reason I really enjoy this kind of d.i.y. profanity is that is shows how much conservatism there is in the uniformly dull and dreary world of hip hop crime and sexuality.  Even the misogyny is boring, with the women stuffed in to clothes that look like punishments gyrating in front of expensive toys.  I guess the point of misogyny is not the desiring of women, but their potential easy, coerced accessibility.  Again, boring.  This is not to suggest that misogyny is bad because it’s not entertaining, just that people like Wendy Ho and other outsiders like the queer hip hop community have far more verbally expressive persona.  I think this sexual reserve in a lot of straight men rapping (What the hell does hittin’ it entail?) displays a lack of imagination when it comes to fucking coupled with a puritanical fear of the pussy.  Get on this, people, and unpack your adjectives.


Tagged as: wendy ho
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