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Saturday, Apr 21, 2007


According to the myth, the world is constantly under threat from Kaiju insurrection. These massive alien beasts with a proclivity for city stomping have waged their own private war among the urban sprawl of our fair planet for eons, and their legion is mighty and more than a little incensed. Kaiju (a shortening of the Japanese term “daikaiju,” or “monsters,” and the label given to Godzilla, Gamera, and countless other Tokyo titans) are broken up into factions, some good, some bad, others fighting for their own mercenary reasons. The groupings are:


Team Space Bug—monsters with nothing but evil on their minds. Such strange beings as Sky Deviler and Mota Naru are lead by Uchu Chu, a green insect baddie with mayhem on its creepy-crawly brain.


The Heroes—lead by the American Beetle, and featuring such levelheaded luminaries as the Silver Potato and Los Plantanos, these do-gooders defend the world against the hordes of hotheaded critters.


The Rogues—though they follow no one, these self-serving Kaiju love to scrap with their fellow fiends. Their ranks feature some of the most hideous and awful participants in the entire Kaiju universe, including Kung Fu Chicken Noodle, D. W. Cycloptopuss III, and Call-Me-Kevin.


Dr. Cube’s Posse—a human scientist with a mangled face, Dr. Cube (who covers his head with a box) uses technology to craft his ultimate wicked fighting force. Along with mindless zombies known as The Minions, he relies on such unstoppable fighters as Hell Monkey and garbage monster Gomi-Man to do his tainted bidding.


The Humans—Since all Kaiju “battels” are run by the Kaiju Regulatory Commission, a certain amount of human interaction must occur. The mysterious Commissioner sets up and controls all confronts, while Referee Jingi and ring announcer and Kaiju commentator Louden Noxious make sure each battel runs without a hitch.


When Kaiju tensions run high, the Commissioner stages public spectacles—“battels,” as they are called—and differences and vendettas are pseudo-solved in the arena. But Dr. Cube will not rest until he controls the world, and he plans on using the Kaiju and their Commission for his own megalomaniacal purposes.


Welcome to the Next Big Thing. Toss out your Pokémon. Set fire to your anime fan-subs. Ignore Vince McMahan and his WWE BFD and get with the right side of what’s hip and happening in entertainment. Though it’s incredibly disconcerting (for all the right reasons—more on this later) and could quickly outrun both its premise and its particulars, Kaiju Big Battel is one of the most amazing concepts you will ever experience. This is not just some publicity piece puffery or an attempt to garner favor with aficionados. While there are elements here that don’t work, and the occasional slip into amateurish aspects, this is still an impressive take on the increasing influence of Japanese and Asian culture into the Western geek world. Though Kaiju creators Rand and David Borden may not fully acknowledge their agenda—this is, after all, more or less wrestling taken to terrific and tacky extremes—they have hit upon a sensationally satiric idea, the melding of two dumb bumpkin ideas into a magical meditation on the fringes of fun.


As suggested before, one of the reasons why Kaiju Big Battel is so disarming is that it contains so much imagination and invention that you have to step back and collect your shattered low expectations. If someone were to tell you that a homemade concoction of crowd-pleasing spectacle that combines backyard wrestling, cardboard cityscapes, Godzilla/Gamera movie homage, and a knowing nod to the Japanese ability to mass market any and all crazy character fads would be both incisive and deeply satisfying, you’d swear they were high.


But the only buzz you’ll be feeling is the one of being in on the semi-ground floor as you get to witness Kaiju Big Battel before Spike TV or Comedy Central snags it and shuttles it directly into the crass consumer mindlessness of the mainstream. Without the connection to corporate realities, Studio Kaiju (the Bordens with lots of help) get to create their own reality, polishing their personal universe into a wholly original entity that supports its own rules, stretches its own time, and defines/defies its own logic.


From a purely aesthetic standpoint, what the Studio Kaiju guys get right instantaneously is the iconography of the entire J-Pop mindset. Combining a propaganda poster ideal with eye-catching graphic design, the Kaiju world is advertising gone insane and arcane. The monsters themselves blend perfectly into this stratagem. From their ridiculous design to their ludicrous list of special powers, each beast is just to the left of straightforward, easily imaginable as a Toho Studio player, but with enough peculiarity that we immediately get the joke. Using the Internet and the power of a wired fanbase to get their manic message across, Kaiju Big Battel has grown exponentially. While they will always be primarily known for the staged events—the “Battels,” if you will—the Kaiju company offers t-shirts, posters, souvenirs, - even DVDs.


A recent release entitled Kaiju Big Battel: Shocking Truth is basically an introduction to everything in and that happens behind the scenes in the rubber monster universe. It offers up a wonderful explanatory piece about the entire premise (“What is Kaiju”) before launching into what can best be described as a tabloid style exposé (“The Secrets of Dino Kang, Jr.‘s Cave”) peppered with commercials, an episode of a Mighty Morphing Power Rangers-like television show (“The Neo Teppen Show”), a video overview of one monster’s ascent/descent in the Kaiju ranks (“The Rise and Fall of Silver Potato”), and a final epic confrontation between Dr. Cube, American Beetle, and Team Space Bug (“The Swarm”). Intermixed are lampoons of famous films (Braveheart and Spartacus being the main ones), nods to Japanese television (the occasional incomprehensible product ad), and clips from Kaiju Battels. Indeed, if you are looking for more of the square circle action, then mosey on over to the DVD bonus material. There you will find actual full-length Kaiju events, which give you a much better idea of how this all plays in front of a crowd.


At nearly 73 minutes, the show within a show within a show design can run a little flat. Not every joke works and some of the gags are so insular that you really have to be a longtime Kaiju follower to understand the parameters of the prank. Still, the amount of creativity and vision here just can’t be dismissed. Unlike other similar scenarios—comics, webcasts, etc.—where ingenious people want to fashion their own fastidious world, Kaiju Big Battel leaves no gaps. A character dies? They get a shrine in the Kaiju graveyard. Need to know a Kaiju’s powers? There are occasional snippets during the presentation (as well as a big bonus feature on the DVD), which provide a complete comic bio of each fiend.


But most importantly, even inside foam rubber and felt, cardboard and crepe paper, we get personalities—cleverly crafted participants we can root for and rally against. When a homemade product has you instantly wanting to don a Dr. Cube t-shirt, or buy the brand new tie-in book, you know you’re hooked. Certainly, the salesmanship is effective. But without something to back up the packaging, you eventually feel flim-flammed. Happily, Kaiju Big Battel talks the talk…and walks the monster walk as well.


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Friday, Apr 20, 2007


A young man named Edgar is working on a “project” of sorts. Its exact identity is as confusing as his research process. His premise at least is definite—it involves couples and the four stages of love: initial meeting, physical passion, quarrels ending in separation, and reconciliation—but whether it will be a book, or cantata, or play, is never quite clear. He seeks guidance from his father, a famous art dealer, but the old man cannot seem to get beyond the basic arguments about art and history. He begins the process of “casting” his project by interviewing various people, both professional performers and everyday individuals, about their understanding of love: both the emotional (of the heart) and metaphysical (of the head).


He runs into a young woman on the street that he is sure he has met before. He wants to feature her in his project. She constantly avoids him. They do seem to get closer, but then he loses touch with her. Eventually she commits suicide and leaves him a few personal belongings, including a book that may be a hint as to when and where they met before. Apparently, two years earlier while researching a project on the French Resistance during World War II, Edgar met the young woman. In flashbacks, we see that she was the secretary for an old couple trying to sell their story to Steven Spielberg in Hollywood.


In Praise of Love is a work of staggering genius. It is also a self-indulgent exercise in mental masturbation. It’s a moving and visually stunning film of depth and soul. It is also a disjointed and meandering mess that can never quite get its valid points across clearly. It’s beautiful and it’s embarrassing, philosophical as well as rote and fundamentalist. While it is clearly not the greatest work of legendary French new wave genius Jean-Luc Godard (whose credits are too numerous and importance in film too great to attempt to explain in a single review), it does represent a return to form for the once formidable cinematic force of nature. Those unfamiliar with his work should seek out the many classics of his oeuvre post-haste (Breathless, Contempt, and Alphaville to name a few) to see why so many clamor about him.


But the uninitiated should perhaps steer clear of this arcane, artistic triumph that mixes the ethos of love with visually stunning imagery and a clear anti-American/Hollywood sentiment. This is just not a movie for the first timer. It’s not that Godard’s methods are totally inaccessible. Indeed, much of the film is painfully obvious. But just like tossing a neophyte into David Lynch’s Eraserhead unprepared, someone approaching In Praise of Love without at least some background in Godard’s method and ideology will feel lost and unimpressed. That is because for most of its running time, In Praise of Love functions as a jigsaw puzzle, an intricate combination of treatise, tease, and tone poem that uses the backdrop of Paris (Godard once again shooting in the city after a long absence) and its mostly shadowed inhabitants as pawns in an enormous examination of emotion. But the epiphanies are hidden in strange scene juxtapositions, missing scene sections, overlapping dialogue/narrative strings, and long dramatic pauses of pristine lushness.


As Godard is known for his experiments in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic art, a little overindulgence can be expected. But there are some aspects of In Praise of Love that will leave even those most seasoned convert rubbing their temples to reduce the irritating throb of confusion. One has to assume that the lack of a full English translation for the film is Godard’s intention (judging how much he hates Americans, it’s not much of an inference) and the resulting incompleteness leaves huge gaps in dialogue that a non-French speaking audience will never understand. It’s like the in-joke about immigrants talking about you behind your back as you stand in line at their convenience store. Godard obviously has punches to pull and he really yanks them back quite harshly.


He’s also not afraid to be vague and repetitious, using title cards and bits of music to re-emphasize issues over and over again (a series of cards that say—and this is a rough translation—“in consideration of…love” are flashed more often than the multiplication tables in a third grade math class) while failing to connect them to anything that remotely resembles what he wants to discuss. This manner of misdirection may just be the point, but it leaves a viewer feeling bitter and unaccompanied, as if they stumbled onto a play that they have neither the native tongue nor the necessary mental skills to understand. Idealistic rhetoric is bantered about in heavy-handed doses and those famous French hating allies from across the Atlantic take a definitely moralistic beating at the hands of the characters in this film. Steven Spielberg and, indirectly, his treatment of the Holocaust are leveled with one of the most mean spirited and spurious denouncements ever in a motion picture.


And yet, In Praise of Love is a sparkling diamond, a movie that contrasts crass commentary with the subtle black and white beauty (and eventually hyper-digital colorization) of France to make a universal point about love, life, history, and art. With a visual sense reminiscent of Woody Allen circa Manhattan and Stardust Memories, Godard’s Paris in In Praise of Love is a world of hazy lights and lazy shadows, of the ancient edifices being meshed with the technology of modern man to form a new version of the old architectural traditions. Just as the film champions history, this use of monochrome shows that pure art is best derived from simple, straightforward visual dramatics. When memories (or “archives” as they are title carded) are presented, they are seen in bright near-fluorescent digital video images that recall the paintings of the old masters combined with the unreality and incompleteness of recollection.


Godard wants it known that the opening exercise in shadow and light represents the real world, the indecipherable structure of meetings, greetings, lamentations, and pontifications. When we move into the times of yore, we become lost in the mind’s eye, an unreliable recorder of events that adds undue importance to the trivial and over-romanticizes the simplest things. Indeed, the main character’s search for “adulthood,” that missing sense of personal resonance between childhood and old age, can be seen as a battle between the eras, a war of the hues and the grays. While it can meander off into mean-spirited vitriolic attacks (which have some validity buried in their brutal truths) and be jagged for juxtaposition’s sake, In Praise of Love is still a brave, bold statement that will satisfy the cinematic urges as it completely confuses your linear logic leanings. Synapses may misfire, but they will do so in visual bliss.


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007


You’d never know that Spring was just around the corner – that lousy groundhog. Baseball has had several of its opening week games postponed or relocated due to snow, and a nasty Nor’easter tore through the upper half of the US, causing damage – and a few deaths – along the way. If the showers we’ve seen this April are any indication, May’s gonna be overgrown with floral facets. Perhaps we can all dry off with a weekend in front of the idiot box. There’s some fresh fare there, including a hilarious satire on a very strange subject, a dumb gearhead actioner, another failed drama from a former directorial god, and a wicked little indie effort. Toss in the typical outsider and non-Tinsel Town odds and ends and you’ve got plenty to keep you couch bound and (somewhat) happy. And before you know it, it will be time to complain about the heat. Let’s begin with the weekend of 21 April’s best bet: 


Premiere Pick
Thank You For Smoking


It’s a highly unorthodox premise - especially for a comedy. A cutthroat tobacco lobbyist – played by pseudo star Aaron Eckhart – spends his days shilling for cigarettes while trying to connect to his distant 12 year old son. Not your normal laugh riot. But it’s obvious that some small amount of funny business filmmaking rubbed off onto Jason Reitman from his famous father, Ivan. After a series of well received comic shorts, this first attempt at a feature was a clear critical success. While many will still have massive problems with the subject matter – after all, when was the last time anyone considered smoking to be socially acceptable, let alone worth joking about. But thanks to the wonderful source material (Christopher Buckley’s book remains highly regarded) and an inherent way with wit, Reitman’s debut marks the beginning of a potentially profitable stint behind the lens – both commercially and comically. (21 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


Same premise, same storyline, different locale. For this third go around in the FF franchise, our pissed off pre-adult heroes head to Japan, where drifting is all the rage. Apparently, this means kids destroy their brakes and alignment by purposefully fishtailing their back tires. Peachy! As an aside, beware of those earworm masters The Teriyaki Boys. Their hideous theme song plays throughout this derivative action pic. (21 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Find Me Guilty


Sidney Lumet wants to return to the courtroom drama with this movie about a mobster who decides to defend himself during an important trial. Sadly, he brings along a toupee sprouting Vin Diesel to play his lead. Things only grow more groan inducing from there. While many praised both the ‘Pacifier’ and his performance, this is no Verdict or Serpico. In fact, it’s barely worth comparing to Lumet’s other concrete credits. (21 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Edmund


Turn off the Tudors marathon for a moment and switch the dial over to this William H. Macy tour de force. Playing a man who finds his life unraveling over one long, intolerance filled night, Macy is magnificent, channeling all the rage and rejection of the title character. Even more amazing is who’s behind the camera. Casting fictional horror aside for the moment, Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon steps up to deliver his own look at NYC as Hell. (21 April, ShowTOO, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen


Thanks to DVD, and in some small ways, the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the documentary has finally come of age as viable commercial cinema. Even better, filmmakers are finding that even the most obscure subject can reap remarkable artistic benefits. Take this amazing movie about the seminal ‘80s post-proto punk band The Minutemen. Thanks to a wealth of astonishing performance footage, some rare group interviews and present day chat ups with the remaining members, we learn how three disaffected youths from San Pedro, California became an unmatched rock and roll force. With the death of leader D. Boon hanging over every frame (he died tragically in an auto accident in ‘85), there is a meaningful melancholia attached to discovering how powerful and potent this musical maelstrom once was. Thanks to director Tim Irwin, and the magic of the digital format, his story has been perfectly preserved for generations to discover and appreciate. (23 April, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Magnolia


For his follow-up to Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson forged this heartfelt homage to idol Robert Altman and his multifaceted masterpiece Short Cuts. Instead of channeling Raymond Chandler, however, PTA went biblical with his tale of several solemn individuals whose lives intersect in strange, almost spiritual ways. Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and similarly classic turns by Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Thomas regular John C. Reilly, this epic exploration of human emotion stands as one of the ‘90s great films. (21 April, IFC, 11PM EST)

Dancer in the Dark


The musical doesn’t seem like the best genre to fit within director Lars Von Trier’s Dogma ‘95 ideal, but somehow, the crazed Danish director makes it work. With Icelandic muse Bjork in the lead, this depression era drama about a foreign factory worker who thinks that America is all one big Hollywood movie mixes unbelievable hardship with sudden bursts of song. Some will find this film frustrating and obtuse. Others will simply appreciate Von Trier’s attempt to reinvent the filmic format. (23 April, IFC, 2:30PM EST)

Let’s Rock Again


With the passing of Joe Strummer from a heart attack in 2002 (he was just 50!) any hopes that the punk rock rebels The Clash would ever reunite were dashed forever. Thanks to documentarian Dick Rude, this one hour love letter to the fabled frontman catches up with his solo career, and the unbridled joy he had when performing. It’s just a shame he didn’t live to see the full impact of his legacy. Luckily, his music will remain with us forever. (26 April, Sundance, 10AM EST)

Outsider Option
Plan Nine from Outer Space/ Bride of the Monster


Ed Wood gets a bum rap these days. After years of perpetuating the myth that he is the worse director in the world (thank you very much, Medved brothers), DVD has really helped rehabilitate his status. After a double dose of Dr. Uwe Boll or a retrospective of Raja Gosnell’s crappy canon, our main man in angora looks like a flipping genius. Indeed, many mistake Wood’s wonky way with narrative and script as something to savage. But he’s so innocent in his incompetence, so fully ensconced in his errors that it comes across as visionary, not vile. Now, thanks to the random Rob Zombie-ing of TCM’s Underground, two of the masters amazing mess-terpieces are available for sampling. While Plan 9 is the more noted of the two, Bride of the Monster has its own calculated cool. Together, they tell a decidedly different story about who Ed Wood was, both as an artist and a misrepresented legend. (21 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Priest


Rife with scandal the moment it was released, this look at the hypocritical conceit that exists between religion and reality doesn’t follow the standard storyline. Instead of pedophilia, this movie mocks the traditional vow of celibacy, and how harmful it is to both individuals and their faith. The title character, a cleric torn between the Lord and his gay lover, illustrates all these points in passionate, perplexing form.  (23 April, Indieplex, 11:15PM EST)

Rope


It’s often considered one of Hitchcock’s failed experiments, a standard murder mystery made up of a series of four to ten minute “continuous takes”. Entire scenes were filmed without edits, meaning camera movement and angles had to be carefully choreographed around the acting of the cast. For this reason, many find the movie mannered and obvious. But if you can ignore the stylization, you’ll be rewarded with another of the Master of Suspense’s visionary wonders. (25 April, Retroplex, 6:35PM EST)

The Solid Gold Cadillac


Poor Judy Holiday. She was a classic city gal trading on her metropolitan moxie to bring a level of intelligence and strength to the basic dumb blond roles she was given. Sadly, her death from breast cancer at the age of 43 kept her legacy from fully developing. Still, the Tony and Oscar winning actress is very good in this corporate comedy, a typical late ‘50s laugher about bumbling big businessmen and the outrages of industry. What makes this a passion pit presentation is a real head scratcher. (26 April, Drive-In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2007

No other medium is more suited for magnifying physical beauty than the cinema. Women in particular are the darlings of this particular art form. Beautiful actresses are synonymous with the movies.  The majority of the industry’s glamour is linked to starlets, so much so that the entire Academy Awards Ceremony is more of a showcase for their poise and resplendent gowns than it is for the outstanding films and performances of that year. The enchantment of the medium is the enduring memory of images, and many are of beautiful faces: Audrey Hepburn’s pixie grin as she tilts her sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Greta Garbo’s stony, enigmatic face in the closing shot of Queen Christina, Grace Kelly smiling surreptitiously behind the steering wheel in To Catch a Thief


Indian cinema’s leading ladies are a bevy of Old World beauties. India’s rich, varied history - Dravidian, Persian, Vedic, Mughal - are all etched on their faces and bearing. While the Bollywood Sex Goddesses, voluptuous curves and saucer-shaped eyes, look like they’ve stepped out of an ancient temple carving, the Bollywood Beauties look like they’ve climbed out of a Rajput miniature painting: delicate, dewy-eyed, and demure.
They each impart a graceful forbearance to their acting, allowing the audience to linger on faces with admiration and to be awed by their talent.


Nargis is the grand dame of this lot, her entire presence and persona setting the precedence for all the other stars who followed her. Emerging as the leading actress of the ‘40s, just as Indian cinema was in its early stages, steadily growing into a commercial powerhouse, Nargis stood out like a pillar of loveliness against her formidable leading man, Raj Kapoor. She would star opposite other popular stars like Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt, but it was Kapoor with whom she would make the most movies and form the most lasting relationship. Their real-life story in some ways resembles the romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, a prodigious, absorbing working relationship that resulted in their best performances, but was restrained by the confines of society (Kapoor was married, and divorce in the ‘40s would have ruined him as a star).


Still, Nargis’s elegance and statuesque beauty made her an icon for hundreds of women. But in the late ‘50s, Nargis made a dramatic change in her screen persona by taking on the role of the beleagured village matriarch Durga in Mehboob Khan’s salt-of-the-earth epic, Mother India. Many critics questioned the casting: could Nargis, famous for playing sophisticated socialites, take on such an unsparing role? Nargis knew it was the role of a lifetime: part Scarlett O’Hara, part Stella Dallas, it was one of those fabled, charismatic strong women parts (like resilient frontier wife, or the chipper, but hardscrabble Homefront widow) coveted by actresses at that time. And she played Durga with such quivering intensity and passion that it elevated the movie to mythic status, with Nargis as the body and soul of a country coming into its own power after Independence.


Meena Kumari and Madhubala were both masterful in period roles. Their inwardness and tempered sensuality was a throwback to the vision of Mughal princesses, adorned in jewels, shrouded in veils. Kumari shone in tragic, suffering wife or mistress roles; she was one of the few Indian actresses who could register despair without making it look contrived or artificial. Her most memorable role, Pakeezah (“The Pure One”) has her playing, like Garbo in Camille, the misunderstood courtesan, striving for the love of a nobleman who is forbidden to marry her. Shortly after Pakeezah was completed, Kumari died due to a lifelong heart condition. In her most emotionally wrenching scenes, one can’t help but marvel at her acting, and feel a tinge of sadness at the pain, both mental and physical, she must have been experiencing throughout.


Madhubala graced the screen in a number of hit films in the ‘50s, but it was her role as the willful slave girl torn between the Indian Emperor, Akbar, and his son, heir to the throne, Salim, in K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam that made her a part of movie legend. No one song has been sung or copied as often as Madhubala’s rendition of “Pyaar Kiya To Darnaa Kya?” (“If you’ve fallen in love, what is there to fear?”), sung in defiance to the Emperor who challenged her love for his son. It was a bold, memorable part and all of India loved her for it.


Waheeda Rahman was the cerebral darling of the ‘60s. There was a fierce intelligence to her performances that echoes some of Jodie Foster’s brittle assertiveness and some of Nicole Kidman’s wary grace in her latter day performances (The Hours, The Human Stain). She is effective in Guru Dutt masterpieces, Kaagaz ke Phool and Chaudvin ka Chand as the love-interest aware of the dangers of self-indulgence and defying societal norms, and she dazzles more recently in Rang de Basanti (2006), as the mother seeking justice for her murdered son.


Sharmila Tagore is remembered now for being a ‘60s fashion plate, the Audrey Hepburn of Indian cinema. Indeed, Sharmila seemed to take many of her visual cues from Hepburn’s late ‘50s/early ‘60s roles, playing the demure pixie who entranced the graceful leading men of the era, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Shashi Kapoor. But Sharmila’s career is full of work in masterful art films from directors like Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair. From her first role at the age of 14, as the young bride in Ray’s The World of Apu to one of her most memorable recent roles, as the matriarch expelled from Uganda, who learns to accept her daughter’s independence and inter-racial romance in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.


Preity Zinta - the bubbly actress who according to popular myth was discovered by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) when she was coming to pick up a friend who auditioned for one his movies. Now one of Bollywood’s biggest movie stars, she incites bouts of mass hysteria among Punjabis whenever she passes through Heathrow Airport. There’s a Sandra Dee quality to her sprightliness and a bit of Bette Davis in her imperious beauty. For all her onscreen energy, few directors have been able to harness it toward a captivating performance. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”) and his marvelous, underrated, Lakshya (“The Calling”), and Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”) show Preity at her best, nonconformist, feisty, smart, witty and at the same time feminine: the modern Indian woman. More recently, Yash Chopra’s lavish Veer-Zaara shows acting Preity in Meena Kumari-mode, Old-World and elusive.


Who would have guessed what an international sensation Aishwarya Rai would be? The star of Gurinder Chada’s screwball Jane Austen spin-off, Bride and Prejudice, a member of the Grand Jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal comestics? She is the awe and envy of her peers, living proof that India has truly gone global. Starting off in pretty girlfriend parts in a string of forgettable films, Aishwarya’s raw talent, her brilliant dancing - fluid and expressive - her spirit, and her staggering good looks attracted directors who saw in her the embodiment of Old World India eroded by modernity.  Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast her in her most beloved parts in both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanaam (“Darling, You Stolen My Heart”) and Devdas. Playing traditional Indian women, clad in beautiful saris and jewels, who conceal the anguish and resentment at their confined roles, Aishwarya showed Indian audiences an aspect of women they had often overlooked. Her finest role, in Rituparno Ghose’s Choker Bali (“Sand in the Eye”) was a revelation; she gave us a portrait of a young widow in 1890s Calcutta damaged not by grief but by society’s prejudice, and how that prejudice transmogrifies her into a creature hell-bent on revenge and gratification. Only in her 30s, Aishwariya has many more chapters in her career ahead of her.


But remember, the stars in this segment are not here only because they’re beautiful. They’ve all risen above being judged by their appearance to be taken seriously as actresses. It would be clichéd to say their inner loveliness is what matters the most, but it is what makes these particular performers last in our memory. Long after their makeup and clothes have lost their trendiness, the quality of their performances will linger for us to enjoy and marvel.



Nargis, early ‘50s



Meena Kumari, Sahib bibi aur Ghulam, early ‘60s



Madhubala, Mughal-E-Azam, early ‘60s



Waheeda Rahman, Chaudvin ka Chand, ‘60s



Sharmila Tagore, An Evening in Paris, ‘60s



Preity Zinta, c. 2005



Aishwariya Rai, Choker Bali, c. 2003


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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007


Smokin’ Aces is a movie that desperately wants to be liked. Not by your typical mainstream moviegoer, however. No, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to his well received Narc is feverishly adamant about being adored by the frantic film geek contingent – the mélange of messageboard taste makers who determine their own individual aesthetic criteria by what Quentin Taratino determines is cool on his MySpace page. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the slightly introverted dork who walks around the high school cool kids bragging about his accomplishments and contacts. By faking and fronting, this movie hopes to grab their attention and earn an uneasy place in their crime genre lovin’ hearts.


It’s just too bad then that the director decides to win their praise by overplaying his obvious and rather obscure hand. Part of the problem is in the story itself. Smokin’ Aces (released on DVD by Universal on 17, April) rests its entire effectiveness on our desire to empathize with and/or outright despise its amoral center, a sleazy Las Vegas magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel. Brought to remarkable life by Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven, this miscreant mobster wannabe is ready to rat out the entire West Coast syndicate, and a substantial bounty has been placed on his head (and, oddly enough, his heart). Naturally, word gets out on the street that the successful assassin will earn themselves $1 million large, and before you know it, every noted nutcase with a comic book persona and a wealth of heavy artillery is headed towards Israel’s Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. Their goal? Pump this putz full of lead – and various other projectiles- before the Feds can speed him off to Witness Protection.


Thus begins the parade of peculiar cartoon characters and lean mean action movie archetypes. Carnahan is not out to manufacture realistic, three dimensional thugs. Instead, he decides that a heightened sense of stature, a caricature perhaps, would be the best way to envision his wild and wooly villains. This means we get ghetto gangbusters Georgia Sykes (a decent Alicia Keyes) and her slightly Sappho backup, Sharice. There’s also the slightly homosexual redneck retards The Tremor Brothers. Played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling, they’re like the Three Stooges on speed metal and too many episodes of Jackass. Toss in the torture expert Pasquale Acosta, the master of impersonation Lazlo Soot, and a trio of bewildered bounty hunters led by a seedy Ben Affleck, and you’ve got a considerable cast of crackpots.


On the side of good, Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta are fast talking FBI agents, their partnership so focused and single minded that they more or less finish each other’s thoughts. Their boss is Andy Garcia, a stuffed shirt hiding his bureaucratic bluster within an air of suave seriousness. There are ancillary people props as well, including a heard but not seen Alex Rocco, a Ritalin addicted brat who speaks like a rapper, and a collection of slight and sketchy human odds and ends. Everyone’s status as incomplete ideas wouldn’t be so bad if Carnahan had set them up inside one of those wonderfully impractical macho mania movie narratives. You know the kind – an impenetrable fortress, a series of video game like challenges to be met and overcome, the sense that defeat is just around the corner while victory is almost always assured. Had Smokin’ Aces been so intricate and innovation, the flat features of its cast would fit right in.


Instead, we find our attention wandering during many of the so-called set pieces. We watch Alicia Keyes’ Georgia and try to decipher how she started her life as a hired gun. As the Tremor Brothers grapple with each other and constantly fidget with their privates, we speculate on how these Deliverance style bumpkins became such in demand daredevil thugs. Even as round after round of ammunition is dumped into situations, when muzzles are flashing and sparks are spraying in eye and mind appealing slow motion, we never once feel connected to the chaos. That’s because Carnahan is merely pretending to play visionary. In truth, he’s just riffing on those filmic forefathers that created and confounded the formulas he’s fooling with, which makes the arm’s length ideal that much stronger.


This doesn’t mean that Smokin’ Aces is unwatchable. Hardly. There are specific scenes and individual moments that stand throughout as examples of the movie’s many facets – comedy, action, homage and spectacle – coming together in amazing statements of artistic clarity. When the backstory on Buddy Israel is offered, it’s many Las Vegas insider elements revealed, we feel the dizzy glitz of the city where any and all sins are meant to stay secret. Similarly, each hit man (or woman) gets a nice little illustration of their skills, and this helps to make Soto, the Tremors, and Acosta into viable evil. As the moral center of the story, Reynolds gets a couple of fantastic visual moments. One comes as he leaves the hotel, the attempt to protect Israel botched by a dozen intervening elements. As he walks into the daylight, the sun literally absorbs his outline, losing his fixture as a hero in a cloud of dazzling whiteness.


Reynolds’ second scene brings the film to a close, and after the half-baked denouement we get for all the gunplay, it’s a very dramatic and very necessary sequence. Yes, Smokin’ Aces wants to give us one of those gobsmacking, jaw-dropping twist endings, a conclusion that cancels out and changes everything we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, only the dimmest of cinematic sleuths would miss the obvious clues to the reveal, and though he intends it to be insightful, Carnahan’s finish just kind of lays there, doing very little to alter our perceptions. It’s like learning that there’s no Santa Claus, or that Dr. Pepper doesn’t contain prune juice. For all it’s attempted kinetic energy, Smokin’ Aces can’t help but resemble an urban legend that’s been left out in the public consciousness for far too long.


And the recently released DVD does little to alter that suggestion. Universal deserves credit for creating a technically sound (nice image and audio), fully supplemented package that draws us into the various facets of this film’s production. Two commentaries expertly illustrate the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the film. Carnahan and his editor Robert Frazen discuss the actual shaping of the storyline, mentioning scene by scene what was filmed and how it was tweaked in the cutting room. A second track with Carnahan and a few cast members (no one significant) is just an excuse to joke around and mock the other actors. The deleted and extended scenes clarify very little, while the “explosive alternate ending” advertised on the package is nothing more than gunshots substituting for nuance. The best material offered is a trio of backstage featurettes, all of which illustrate how determined and delighted Carnahan is to be working on this, his first major motion picture.


It’s a shame then that the results weren’t more magical. Smokin’ Aces stands somewhere between the creative crack attack of Crank, and the testosterone fueled freak out of the WWE’s The Marine. It’s not the highest octane thriller in the entire post-modern motion picture paradigm, but it sure doesn’t crackle and snap like it should. It could be a case of too many character kooks spoiling the body count broth, or a filmmaker so filled with ideas that he doesn’t know how to successfully streamline his approach. Whatever the case may be, you’ll enjoy the various overly aggressive face offs while wondering aloud just who in the heck these oddball people really are. While Buddy “Aces” Israel may be the center of a murderous maelstrom, pitting mobsters against maniacs, he remains the core enigma of an entertaining offering that just can’t fit in – not within the creative OR commercial cliques.


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