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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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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

After the big screen musical went the way of other motion picture dinosaurs (around the time of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz), critics started complaining that the only viable source of cinematic song and dance left was animated kid films. With Disney inserting tunes into everything they could, and fiscally minded mimics (Fox, Warner Brothers) following suit, the only place to find legitimate Broadway style show biz was in the soundtrack of cartoon cavalcade. Of course, the House of Mouse saved face, bringing in real life tunesmiths like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice to reinvent the genre. But now, a few decades removed, it seems like the fantasy format of characters vocalizing their inner feelings has, again, gone the way of the do-do. In fact, Pixar (Mickey’s latest production partner) has consistently avoided the crooning creature ideal. So where does that leave the pen and ink production? By the look of the selections in this second installment of SE&L”s Surround Sound, it appears the genre is tired and treading water. Two of the three highlighted choices this time represent the most routine – and in one case, shameless – substitute for actual artistic accomplishment available. And then once again, it’s the stellar CGI of one company’s amiable aesthetic that wins out over everyone else.


The Simpsons Movie [rating: 6]


By now, most fans know the sad and confusing fact that neither Danny Elfman (who concocted the series’ signature theme) nor Alf Clausen (the man behind the music for 17 years) are involved with the sonic situation in the new Simpsons Movie. Instead, that Tinsel Town tunesmith Hans Zimmer was pegged to provide an aural backdrop to the big screen adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. An Oscar winner (for The Lion King) and five time nominee, there is nothing inherently wrong with said choice. The German born composer has been on a summer blockbuster role as of late, having worked on the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code. But like asking an outsider to partake in a massive and extremely insular family reunion, Zimmer arrives unfamiliar with the ways of America’s favorite family. As a result, he turns in a decent, if derivative score that owes as much to the men he replaces as it does anything remotely original. It’s tough to get a handle on just what doesn’t work – especially in light of the music’s inherent quality and sparkle. But it’s clear that, without the context of the film around it and the specific sequences illustrating its tone, the auditory concepts here just don’t gel. Instead, they end up resembling disconnected sketches, ideas never coming together under a common theme or mood.


It’s clear that Elfman and Clausen were Zimmer’s main inspiration. Several of the tracks here - “Trapped Like Carrots”, “What’s an Epiphany?”, “Thank You Boob Lady” – are nothing more than extended symphonic tweaks tagged to variations on the main Simpsons’ theme. While the notes aren’t always in the exact same place, you can instantly recognize the series sassy trademark each and every time. In other instances, elements that Clausen excels at (stylistic mimicry, sonic stereotyping) are also attempted by Zimmer. Yet the results, like the ersatz spy jazz of “Release the Hounds” or the Busby Berkley gone batty of “Bart’s Doodle” have a less pointed, satiric quality. Still, there are moments of ambient excellence throughout – “You Doomed Us All…Again” is a massive musical statement that goes from delicate to demonstrative with perfect action/adventure vibe, as do “…Lead, Not to Read” and “World’s Fattest Fertilizer Salesman”. We also experience a weird kind of Aaron Copeland hoedown déjà vu during “Why Does Everything I Whip Leave Me?”, the track resembling that famous beef council commercial rewritten and inverted. The score can get syrupy at times, and when Zimmer is stuck for inspiration, her reverts back to Elfman, or a joke from the film (in this case, the overblown choral version of “Spider Pig”) to save the day.  Like any new writer or artist coming to The Simpsons, fitting in is half the battle. Zimmer more or less succeeds, but not without an awkward adjustment period.


Ratatouille [rating: 9]


Unlike the Simpons score, there is a solid synchronicity between Michael Giacchino and his remarkable work for Pixar’s latest animated pearl, Ratatouille. Almost every cue contained on this 24 track collection reminds one of the amazing adventures of the rat Remy and his desire to be a great Parisian chef. The composer – a long time JJ Abrams associate, having worked on Lost, Alias and Mission Impossible III – is no stranger to the animation/family film game. He helped Brad Bird’s other 3D masterwork, The Incredibles, roar to sonic life and put the aural polish to several Muppet titles. Here, Giacchino had quite a massive musical mountain to climb. Dealing with a modern France filtered through the city’s noted old world charm and aura, the score for Ratatouille needed to be instantly recognizable while incorporating as much of the cosmopolitan European flair the narrative needed as possible. It’s a balancing act that he manages brilliantly, turning this score into a reference heavy collection of waltzes, tangos, slow groove jazz, and ‘50s/’60s metropolitan cool motifs. When combined with the other odd inclusions – random Hawaiian guitar and harmonica –, the idiosyncratic ethnic choices (gypsy?), and the occasional callbacks to his own Mediterranean culture, Giancchino delivers a delightful aural stew, perfectly seasoned and ready to consume.


With some tracks lasting less than a minute, and others pushing close to ten, the Ratatouille score has a very traditional flavor and feel. There are snippets of big band swing and the typical sidetracks you’d find in a foreign set storyline. As this is France, wandering accordion and saccharine string trills are mandatory, and Giancchino doesn’t shy away from them. Yet he also tries to anthropomorphize the soundtrack, tossing in aural allusions to mice, a chaotic kitchen, or a robust city street. This is a composer who understands the inherent ingredient a good musical backdrop needs in order to stand on its own – a fully realized ‘personality’, one easily identifiable and separate from the movie itself. In addition, all throughout the collection of tracks – “Souped Up”, “Remy Drives a Linguini”, and “Kiss and Vinegar” for example – we find ourselves swept away into an ephemeral world where one’s imagination starts painting in the particulars.  Like the movie it supports, the Ratatouille soundtrack melds classic and contemporary ideas into something that should be routine and familiar – an animated movie – into a stunning work of art.


What’s Cooking? Songs Inspired by Disney’s/Pixar’s Ratatouille [rating: 4]


Leave it to the House of Mouse to find a way to dull this Pixar production’s decided twinkle. Presented as a collection of songs ‘inspired’ by the film, but really nothing more than an excuse to make more merchandising oriented cash, What’s Cooking? utilizes the theme of food as a way of tying together 12 mindlessly mundane tunes. Most are originals from composer/conductor Fred Mollin and his Blue Sea Band, while others are corny covers. Sounding like something you’d experience in one of Uncle Walt’s theme parks, the slick overproduced feel of this collection is kind of creepy. You can hear every over-earnest nod to minority music styles in this hodgepodge of jumping jive and swamp boogie slink. It’s supposed to be toe tapping and finger snapping, but it ends up soul sapping most of the time. Like the recipes included in the liner notes (for fabulously perfunctory dishes like “Oven-Baked French Fries” and “Eiffel Tower Cookie Sundaes”) this is broad, unimaginative pap barely capable of providing true aesthetic sustenance. While there may be a few fans out there who see this release as a way of extending their Ratatouille pleasure – or cynically, introducing their impressionable children to the world of musical diversity – there’s nothing here that demands attention or approval. This is the kind of listening experience available every morning as part of TLC’s family programming. All that’s missing are Raffi and someone dressed up like a monkey.


Complete with fake applause and crowd noise that will continue throughout the entire 36 minute running time, What’s Cooking? starts off with “Cheese Please”, a goofball jaunt that uses rhyming as its reason to exist. We are supposed to get a kick out of the various culinary quips, but the whole song smacks of a rejected Madison Avenue dairy jingle. Next is a classic track, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, and with its blaring horns and thumping bass, it’s a perfect illustration of what this compendium strives to be. For a while, the call and response nature of the tune is infectious. But soon, all the goodwill garnered by this anthology is destroyed by a doping rap remix/remake of the Gerardo hit (huh???) “Rico Suave”. Entitled “Taco Grande”, this soggy sonic satire makes you want to grab something and destroy your CD player. Even when followed by the safe and superficial beats of “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”, and “One Meatball”, the stench of such a sloppy selection lingers. Luckily, the classic clip of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (one of the oddest swing numbers ever) and the Louis Prima penned “Banana Split for My Baby” almost save the day. Without the original artists providing the performance however, the rescue is only half realized. Indeed, most of What’s Cooking? could be considered a semi-success. Of course, this also means that it’s mostly a failure as well.



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Monday, Jul 23, 2007


Hope you’ve been saving your money. Here’s praying that, during those weeks of downtime when SE&L couldn’t be bothered to mention the derivative DVD junk hitting your favorite B&M, you squirreled your available ducats away for a rainy entertainment day. The reason is simple – Hollywood is about to ‘make it rain’ at your favorite retailer, turning this Tuesday into a veritable nonstop spending spree. Among the seven titles mentioned below, other noteworthy offerings include The Host (South Korean monster movie), Raise the Red Lantern (reissue of Yimou Zhang epic), Les Enfants Terrible (the Meville masterwork) and Last Hurrah of Chivalry (one of two John Woo efforts). Indeed, finding a way to stretch that hard earned buck is going to take some serious consumer concentration (and consternation). Even the choices provided herein make 24 July a bank account draining day of digital infamy. At the very least, you have to pick up:


Zodiac


With David Fincher behind the lens and the most notorious unsolved serial killer case in California’s history in his sites, how could this film be bad? In fact, it wasn’t. It remains one of 2007’s best, a three part symphony of personal obsession, police procedural, and public pandemonium. After dispensing with the crimes early on, the man responsible for Se7en and Panic Room plays cat and mouse with the audience, daring them to decipher the seemingly clueless crimes along with the cops. We are also introduced to two sides of the same journalistic coin – a flamboyant beat reporter played brilliantly by Robert Downey, Jr. and a nerdy cartoonist with insight into the murderer. As essayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Graysmith (whose books formed the basis of the narrative) finds himself drawn to the investigation, and he almost loses himself in the process. A strong cinematic effort from a man noted for same, here’s hoping DVD revives this film’s fortunes. It didn’t thrive at the box office as it should have.

Other Titles of Interest


Hard Boiled


Of the two films that really cemented John Woo’s legacy among Western audiences (The Killer being the other), this tale of an undercover cop working with a no nonsense government agent to take down a ruthless mobster and his men is considered his best. Both balletic and brazen, showing violence as both glamorous and grotesque, it remains a definitive action thriller statement. This new Dragon Dynasty version should satisfy those longing for Criterion’s long OOP edition.

Ivan’s Childhood: The Criterion Collection


The debut film from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (who would later go on to helm Solaris), this straightforward story of a orphan boy who works as a messenger during the war is intriguing for the conflicting stances it takes. On one side, it seems to be aggressively anti-war. On the other, it’s clearly posited as pro-Soviet propaganda. No matter the meaning, Criterion cranks out another must-own foreign film classic.

The Monster Squad


Like those holy grail titles that keep messageboards and blog entries pumping for years, this coming of age horror comedy from the 1980s is finally finding its way onto the digital medium. Unforgettable only to those for whom this film was a vaunted VCR rite of passage, the story of a group of kids who interact with real life versions of classic Universal creatures has its moments. It’s more memory than memorable, however.

The Number 23


Jim Carrey gets all metaphysical on us as he essays the role of a morose public servant who becomes obsessed with a novel he swears is mimicking his life. Even worse, he discovers the Discordian ideology surrounding the title integer. Before we know it, Mr. Comedy is going bonkers and director Joel Schumacher is once again pushing the boundaries of believability. Some actually liked this mannered movie. Most didn’t.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Tom Tykwer, best known for his amazing international hit Run, Lola Run, goes the way of the period piece to present a captivating tale about a young perfumer’s apprentice. His obsession with finding the perfect feminine smell leads to death and destruction. Stanley Kubrick once considered the story unfilmable. That Tykwer succeeds at all – and he does – bodes well for this surreal cinematic experience.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Renaissance


If you married Blade Runner to Sin City, and then let their motion picture offspring inbreed with the aid of a computer, this fascinating animated film from France would probably be its bastard seed. Novel in its visual style, yet wholly derivative in its narrative, this thinly disguised film noir is more private dick lit than full blown speculative fiction. Some of the sequences seem lifted directly out of the Fritz Lang German Expressionism playbook (think Metropolis as a pen and ink parable). Others mimic Ridley Scott’s sci-fi whodunit right down to the formulaic plot beats. Still, the film feels fresh, and the desire by director Christian Volckman to literally avoid any and all shades of gray gives the design a stunningly stark quality. In one of the rare cases where the English dub betters the original French soundtrack, this is a film that’s light on character and heavy on creativity. Luckily, the overpowering optical splendor employed here helps to overcome some of the storyline weaknesses.

 


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Sunday, Jul 22, 2007


Finally, in five days, we’ll know. After 18 seasons, almost as many years, and over 400 fabulous episodes, fans and the curious alike will learn if The Simpsons can make the translation to the big screen. It’s been a long hard road for America’s favorite family, one that began back with a classic Christmas Special in 1989. Of course, true believers have followed the adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie since their inception as bumper material for Tracey Ullman’s variety/sketch show. Back then, Matt Groening was an underground cartoonist whose Life in Hell panel effort drew on the more acerbic, cynical side of humor. Indeed, no one really thought his brand of pop culture deconstruction would work. Now, two decades later, he’s built an empire that stands as one of the most popular – and profitable – in all of broadcast television.


Oddly enough, a movie version of the show has been brewing as far back as the third season. About that time, The Simpsons went from cult concern to full blown phenomenon, and Fox was anxious to do what networks do best – cash in. The creative team behind the show – Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon – was approached about a celluloid version, yet negotiations broke down almost immediately. The reason? The trio wanted the ability to develop a script, and yet reject any possible production if they felt the results would be no good. The studio balked, and that has been the basic reason why the familiar faces living on Evergreen Terrace have, until now, been a boob tube only enterprise. Aided by other minor issues – talent contracts, behind the scenes staff drama – the whole “play and pass” facet of the agreement kept The Simpsons Movie dormant.


Then a major announcement came in the Summer of 2006. Apparently, after years of speculation and numerous rumors surrounding possible storylines and release dates, a full fledged Simpsons film was finally in the works. The opening was set – 27 July, 2007 - and a teaser was offered, featuring Homer cluelessly wondering what he was supposed to do next. It got the devotees nice and worked up. As the newest version of the old employee’s water cooler – the Internet – went ballistic over casting (which guest stars, if any, would make an appearance) and potential plots (Marge and Homer spilt! Bart becomes a movie star!), the team behind the series started gathering together its crew. As the months moved along, the buzz built and died, each new version of the slick scattered trailer bringing new questions (what’s with all the nuclear warheads???) and quotables (Spider Pig…Spider Pig…) to the discussion.


And yet, amazingly enough, Fox has managed the unthinkable. Somehow, in a domain that loves to have its efforts leaked to maximize publicity and exaggerate hype, The Simpsons Movie’s main ingredient – the storyline – has yet to be revealed. Even J. K. Rowling couldn’t keep her pleaded for embargo in place until Harry Potter 7 hit bookstores on 21 July. Yet in the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, a first tidbit about the narrative has been exposed. According to the magazine, the plot revolves around Homer adopting a pig. Having a hard time dealing with the waste, he dumps the hog sewage in nearby Lake Springfield as a solution. The resulting natural disaster (???) threatens the town, and as a result, the entire planet. Thus – extrapolated out from the trailer – the whole town moves, the government gets involved in solving the pollution problem, and everyone learns a lesson about the environment and ecology. Maybe.


Whatever the case, it’s clear that, as a big screen project, The Simpsons Movie will be an opening weekend wonder. Everyone, from the faithful to the dejected, the still supporting to the long since forgotten will queue up to see what’s become of the yellow brood with the nonstop support of the entire encyclopedia of pop culture. One things for sure – they won’t have critics to guide them. Fox has taken the unfathomably cautious steps of having their sole press screenings either the Tuesday before release (therefore thwarting many print publication deadlines) or Thursday, one day before opening. This latter move was meant to keep the online community, capable of releasing their thoughts within hours of viewing, from supposedly spoiling the film. While some have questioned the marketing savvy of such a strategy, the studio feels it is being reasonable. It’s a battle – and a story - best saved for another day.


No, the focus here remains The Simpsons, and the question over whether a series some feel has ‘jumped the shark’ (to use an equally overdone phrase) can remain a viable cinematic experience. The war between the “rules” and “drools”, the “sucks” and “rocks” has raged on newsgroups and messageboards for years. Those who still adore the show have played apologist and acolyte, while others who felt the show lost its edge somewhere in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House have argued for its quick and painless cancellation. As animation tastes have varied from King of the Hill to Family Guy, South Park to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it’s clear the film has its work cut out for it. In fact, these latter two examples provide the perfect illustration of what can go right, and very wrong, when bringing an established TV toon to the cinema.


On the plus side is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. As part of their deal with Comedy Central and its subsidiary company Viacom (owner of Paramount), series savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone were required to come up with a big screen version of their corrupt kiddie cartoon – a nice little knock-off in the vein of Beavis and Butthead Do America, meant to maintain product placement while hopefully maximizing market share. Of course, what no one could have expected was the raging genius inside Parker and Stone’s twisted brains. They didn’t want to settle for something cold and familiar. They wanted to expand the South Park concept while bringing in familiar facets that viewers of the show would easily recognize. So what was meant as a minor effort, a way of bringing both the TV series and the film fanbase into a kind of symbolic synergy, ended up as one of the best, brightest, and ballsiest comedies of the last 20 years. From its free speech mantra to memorable musical numbers, the South Park film remains a pen and ink masterpiece.


And then there’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters. Now, it’s obvious to anyone whose ever seen this strangely surreal Adult Swim offering (part of the Cartoon Network’s overnight programming) that ATHF is an acquired taste – kind of like caviar dipped in depilatory cream. The show features a talking mensch milkshake, a science oriented order of French fries, and a childlike wad of meat. Supposedly set up for fighting crime and solving mysteries, the Aqua Teen team really does little except argue and abuse each other. They’re like the Three Stooges on donkey tranquilizers or a middle schoolers imagination on a Ritalin and Slurpee bender. Each 10 minute installment is jammed packed with non-sequitors, inside jokes, running gags, and crude characterization, and no matter how funny these episodes can be, expanding them by eight into a standard mainstream movie running time seemed antithetical to what the series stood for. It’s a short attention span show.


Yet that’s exactly what Aqua Teen did. Thanks to a failed street beat publicity campaign that had the citizens of Boston seeing Al-Qaeda instead of animated characters, and a critical response that was less than impressed, the movie blew in and out of theaters in less than two weeks. Instead of expanding the name brand value beyond its limited late night demographic, the failure of the film proved that not every cartoon cavalcade can make the jump to celluloid. While The Simpsons is light years away from Aqua Teen in reputation and recognition, there is still that unhappy faction who would probably be happy if the movie failed to live up to its lofty, laugh riot ambitions. In fact, it’s safe to say that as many people are pulling for Groening and the gang to succeed as are hoping they crash and burn like the series ruining bastards that they are.


From what we know (and that’s still very little) there are signs that point to both possibilities. Many of the people involved in the show’s heralded past – Brooks, Al Jean, John Schwartzwelder, etc – are back to work on the film. Reports have them going over gags dozens of times to make sure they are polished and potent. In addition, the flat look of TV animation has been replaced by a combination of CGI (for big effects set pieces) and more meticulous and detailed drawing. This gives the characters a new found fullness that many find pleasing. Finally, the previews themselves have been hilarious, a collection of classic jokes with very few of the head scratching asides recent years have offered. Working against it, of course, is the impenetrable veil of secrecy, something that suggests less than excellent results. Tie that into the lack of advanced press screenings (at least ones not limiting a journalist’s ability to report) and the flop sweat appears to be flowing.


In addition, there’s the whole 90 minute time frame. In standard Simpsons terms, that’s the equivalent of four episodes tied together. Even the funniest film made by meticulous comedic craftsman can’t sustain a consistent level of humor for an hour and a half. From recent examples like Knocked Up to past classics like Blazing Saddles, only the most rarefied cinematic satires (the original Producers, for example) can maintain the merriment for the long haul. Granted, South Park managed, but that seems to be the exception that still bends the rule. No, The Simpsons faces having to fill time it never needed to worry about before. Some have even speculated that the film took 18 years to be realized because the writers were hording material during each and every production run. After all this time, they finally had enough quality material to make a movie.


Of course, we’ll have to wait until 27 July to find out. There will be no torrent posted on the web waiting to be downloaded and bootlegged ala SiCKO, and only the most ardent, workaholic critic will have a review ready to post prior to the first legitimate tickets being sold (for our part, SE&L is shooting for Friday at Noon to post its thoughts). If it flies, it could mean more films in a franchise that could go on indefinitely. If it fails, there’s still the TV series, renewed up and through 2008 (and more than likely, even further) to fall back on. Of course, neither outcome will stop the debate. In fact, The Simpsons Movie may even start its own tangential attacks (“they should stick with films”, “the movie ruined the small screen series”). Fox isn’t letting us in on the answer until the moment the credits finally roll. After 18 years, a few more days of waiting doesn’t seem so bad after all. 


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Saturday, Jul 21, 2007


The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years – especially when it comes to special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and maneuvered frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion, or real live lizards festooned with fake fins were utilized amongst miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of film imagineers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of otherworldly terror. Jurassic Park more or less proved that such a strategy could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it’s nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms assisted by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it’s a wonderful reminder of the genre’s potential and effectiveness.


After the Han River is polluted by a premeditated chemical spill (thank you very much, United States!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul, South Korea. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy freeloader who helps his dad run a local snack stand. In an instant, the slacker’s daughter Hyun-seo is taken, and the rest of the family – including an ex-social activist and a beloved female athlete - are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the “host” for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is in place. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must find her before the Americans use something called “Agent Yellow” to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon’s path.


It’s the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not inside Hollywood’s focus group fancying mandates, The Host (new to DVD from Mangnolia Home Entertainment) tends to avoid most of the genre’s obvious pitfalls. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical studio blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon ‘beast on the loose’ B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of Seoul’s gleaming post-modern metropolis backdrop, we end up with something unique. While the action/adventure aspects of The Host may seem familiar, it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.


The first is the level of sentiment employed to enhance the storyline. It is manipulation at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like a chunky skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain is exaggerated and majestic. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence to increase its comic value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.


All of this is purposefully designed on the director’s part. In a genial and informative commentary included on the DVD, Bong explains that he wanted to intentionally thwart convention, to show the beast early on, to make the family fragile and dysfunctional, to emphasize the heart and not the horror. To him, the genre is already submerged in stereotypical concepts and run of the mill approaches. That is why The Host seems so fresh and invigorating. Unlike other recent examples of this kind of movie – mostly found late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel - this is a fright fest more interested in the spaces in between the spectacle than the set pieces themselves. Almost from the first frames, you can see an entirely different cultural mindset at work.


Indeed, the differences can be night and day staggering at times. The police are portrayed as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic. To make matters worse, they appear capable of action only when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of brash, international thugs. They roll over the Koreans, giving orders while simultaneously hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. And Bong bobbles things a bit as well. Some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual popcorn movie action showdown (like Gang-Du’s sister, the Olympic medalist…in archery…wink, wink). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.


Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely side-splitting at times. Like the best Bollywood cinema which has no problem incorporating cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, it uses spoof, slapstick, some pointed political commentary, and a lot of sunny schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of Japan’s Godzilla films can be. On the other hand, this is not a scary film. Not at all. Sure, we experience some minor dread during the rescue sequences, but Bong is too upfront with his fright ideals to trick us into terror. This is also not an action packed epic. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. According to the DVD’s bonus material, this is exactly the way the director wanted it.


All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign filmmakers are taking Western cinema and deconstructing it point by motion picture point. First, the Chinese literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay eventually giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned eeriness of ghosts and spirits with the now evaporating J-horror craze. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.


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