CFP: The Legacy of Radiohead's 'The Bends' 20 Years On [Deadlines: 29 Jan / 12 Feb]

 
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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


Don Cheadle’s time has finally arrived. While this may seem a bit contradictory, considering the number of years he has been producing good work, the truth remains that this award winning performer has always been on the very fringes of fame. Unlike other members of the growing and influential African American Hollywood community, Cheadle has concentrated most of his talent and time on smaller, independent fare. While he’ll show up in the occasional mainstream movie (Crash, the Oceans’ films), he tends to be more comfortable in low profile, outsider efforts. As a result, he never seems to get the universal acclaim he so desperately deserves. Consistently great in everything he does, he has yet to find the one role that will spark the superstar celebrity that his abilities triumphantly promise – until now. With Kasi Lemmon’s sensational Talk to Me, the man has finally found a legitimate breakout project.


Cheadle essays the role of real life hustler/Washington DC radio icon Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. After a stint in prison, he pursues an on-air DJ job from WOL’s uptight station manager Dewey Hughes (an unrecognizable Chiwetel Ejiofor). At first, neither Hughes nor the station’s owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) want anything to do with Petey. He’s loud, obnoxious, opinionated and far too ‘ghetto’ for their upscale ideals. But Hughes comes to see that there is a personality “of the people” in this motor-mouthed maverick, and eventually gives Petey his shot. After some momentary jitters – and a scathing attack on Berry Gordy – the ex-con becomes WOL’s marquee name. Audiences flood his music/talk show with calls, and Petey never lets them down. We follow Hughes and his new star through troubling times (the death of Dr. Martin Luther King) and unimaginable triumphs (TV shows, nightclub appearances). We soon learn however, that such success was not part of Petey’s plan. His frequent bouts with the bottle verify his tortured, tenuous soul.


As biopics go, Talk to Me is really nothing new. It takes a previously unknown personality of some major prominence (time is harsh to memorable individuals) and maneuvers through his story with an engaging combination of myth and reality. In the case of Petey Greene, Kasi Lemmon’s intriguing storyline avoids his stint in Korean and his discharge from the military on drug charges. It also passes over a great deal of his work as an activist for the United Planning Organization and ex-criminal support groups. It does gloss over his love life and fails to mention his four children. And yet, like any good motion picture, the director finds the proper spirit and vibe to make us forget the fudging. Indeed, no matter the factual flaws here, Talk to Me generates so much period appropriate juice and evocative energy that you can’t help but feel caught up in the events transpiring before your eyes. No matter the lack of meticulous authenticity, this is a marvelous cinematic statement.


And it all starts with Cheadle. Ever since Robert DeNiro introduced the notion of metaphysical mimicry as a means of playing a real life person – literal human alteration to capture a person’s actual presence as when he took on the role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull - actors have decided that the exterior (Monster, Ray) is more important then the interior. Wisely, our star doesn’t try to change his look to match that of Greene, and even as time passes by, Cheadle remains more or less the same. It’s as if Lemmons is asking us to accept the idea of Petey Greene more than the real man himself, and it’s a bold decision. It allows us to avoid all the make-up machinations that can come with such a cinematic stunt (even today, 26 years later, DeNiro’s ‘fat man’ LaMotta is jarring) while truly appreciating the individual within. Similarly, Ejiofor’s Hughes goes through only minor transformations in order to achieve his overall character arc – a man learning there is more to life than Johnny Carson and his Tonight Show style. Together they form the core of what is a very strong character-based piece.


But Lemmons deserves credit as well for creating a perfect ‘60s period feel without going overboard with the era appropriate iconography or symbols. Sure, the wardrobe and attitudes reflect the turbulent times well, and when asked to include some cultural benchmarks, the director chooses a few brave ones indeed. The entire section where the assassination of Dr. King morphs into an all night radio plea by Petey for calm is brilliant, since it includes not only the passion, but the principle behind the notorious DC riots. But then Lemmons goes one step further, and includes a conciliatory concert featuring James Brown to bring the anecdote full circle. Before the performance, Petey (as MC) arrives incredibly drunk and everyone fears he will make the already tight tensions erupt into chaos. Instead, Cheadle delivers a slamdunk monologue which wows both the gathered spectators and Hughes. It’s a perfect illustration of the times, the temperament, and the talent of our amazing main characters.


Lemmons is also excellent at getting the interpersonal element to crackle with vivid life. The scenes between Cheadle and Ejiofor are so kinetic you can see the energy surging between the actors, and whenever Petey and his main squeeze Vernell (played with flawless flirtatiousness by Taraji P. Henson) are on screen, they appear intimate without ever showing it sexually. Some will argue that, by avoiding his obvious faults, Lemmons misses some excellent opportunities for conflict and drama. Yet Talk to Me is the kind of film that argues against constantly requiring confrontations to create gravitas. Had the movie degenerated into a booze soaked Lost Weekend with Petey frequently undermining his career by withdrawing into a fifth, we’d grow weary of its depressive stance. Even worse, it would lessen the parallel rise of Hughes as his own man. Indeed, one of Lemmons’ most fascinating tricks is getting us to forget about the stuffed shirt radio exec, only to find ourselves intrigued when he comes into his own – as a man and as a messenger.


There are times when Talk to Me underperforms, however, buoyed by amazing soundtrack selections to keep it grooving along. Once we reach the sequences where Petey becomes a media star – doing stand-up, causing scandal on his own local TV show – we tend to find the film grasping for relevance. The onstage snippets frequently sound like Richard Pryor rip-offs while the few moments of bravado broadcasting are a tad repetitive. It all leads to a revelatory appearance on Hughes’ dream destination, The Tonight Show, and as well as she does at recreating the look and feel of the classic gabfest, Talk to Me’s script really fails to fully argue how important this moment really was – for either character. Instead, what eventually happens feels anticlimactic, as does the entire subplot involving Hughes and his hatred for his incarcerated brother.


Still, all minor misgivings aside, Talk to Me is a thoroughly enjoyable – and sometimes emotional – experience. It gives us insight into the importance of minority voices circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and presents Don Cheadle with the tour de force role that will probably earn him serious awards consideration come end of the year backtracking. There will be those who point out that this fine performer has more than his fair share of accolades, but there is something different about his turn here. Petey Greene was a man who, deep down, wasn’t concerned with being flamboyant or famous. He just wanted to be heard. What Cheadle shows us is how amazing it is to finally find an outlet for said voice…and how horrible it is when celebrity steps up and starts adding on demands. It’s the sad conclusion to what is, generally, an uplifting and soulful experience.



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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


In auteur/artist Werner Herzog’s world, there are only two major conflicts – man vs. nature, and man vs. his own nature. Such a philosophy encapsulates almost every kind of interaction one can imagine. It also sets up a pretty convenient thematic outline for his various cinematic concerns. Over the course of his amazing career – a 35 year journey that’s included documentaries and fictional features – the German maverick has spent every ounce of his potent creative energy exploring the relationship between humanity and its habitat, as well as the parallel problems of individuals battling their own inner demons. From monumental achievements like Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to lesser known efforts like Invincible and The Wild Blue Yonder, he’s uncovered the volatility and the healing spirit of nature, as well as its completely personal counterparts.


His latest film, Rescue Dawn, is a perfect illustration of this aesthetic corollary. At first, it seems odd that Herzog would fictionalize the story of Dieter Dengler, German ex-patriot and American fighter pilot shot down over Laos in 1965. After all, he featured the engaging POW’s story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet something about the subject drew the director back, and for years he tried valiantly to get the movie made. Even with Christian Bale attached, it took said actor’s success as Batman to get backers to fork over the funds. In combination with his own critical triumph (2005’s Grizzly Man), the director placed his cast in the middle of the Thailand wilderness and staged a straightforward story of war, duty and the will to live. Though this kind of film has been done dozens of times before, Herzog’s desire for authenticity, along with his unusual approach to the underlying politics of the era, drive Rescue Dawn far above other battle scar epics.


When we first meet Dengler, he’s joking with his buddies onboard a Vietnam-bound aircraft carrier. As lifesaving lessons in survival are spelled out in dull military training films, the proud pilot is just one of the boys, laughing and mocking the material presented. On his first mission (as part of the US government’s unauthorized and secret bombing campaign) Dengler is shot down. Almost immediately, he’s captured by local guerillas, who take him on an arduous journey through the jungle. After reaching a small village, he is turned over to some unidentified soldiers, who run a prison camp for the Communists deep in the wilderness. Upon arriving at his new ‘home’, Dengler meets a pair of fellow Americans – the tightly wound Duane (an excellent Steve Zahn) and the laidback and blitzed out paranoid Gene (a revelatory Jeremy Davis). Aside from some native sympathizers, and a group of angry guards, there is no one, and nothing, around for miles and miles.


Avoiding confusing context and anti-war preaching, Herzog allows us to follow along with Dengler as he gets to know the ropes. At night, the prisoners are locked into their huts via interlocking handcuffs and large wooden ankle stocks. During the day, the men are fed slop and forced to endure demeaning behavior at the hands of their desperate sentries. Unlike a movie like The Deer Hunter, where torture and cartoonish violence are used to illustrate the horrors of enemy incarceration, Rescue Dawn maintains its matter of fact approach. Characters discuss soiling themselves with apologetic frankness, and when confronted by the unhinged enemy, guns aimed directly at their dirty and diseased faces, our heroes don’t grandstand and puff their chests. Instead, they cower and cringe like any ordinary normal human being would. It’s clear that Herzog is redefining bravery here. As a matter of fact, he’s making a clear statement between histrionics and true heroism – false bravado vs. maintaining one’s safety…and sanity.


Almost from the moment he arrives, Dengler wants to plot an escape, and much of the film’s fascinating first act centers on getting his fellow captives to go along with the plan. It is here where Herzog’s choice of Bale as a lead is crucial. As he has proved in numerous films since his stellar debut in another war time epic, Steven Speilberg’s underappreciated Empire of the Sun, the actor currently known as the Caped Crusader is capable of multiple layers in his performances. In Dawn, he must be winning, deceptive, determined, scared, and one step ahead of everyone else, and Bale delivers. As a matter of fact, he turns Dengler into something almost surreal – an optimist surrounded by nothing but abject pessimism. It’s clear that this aspect of the story really stuck with Herzog, and why he decided to dramatize this adventure. In retrospect, Dengler’s escape can seem a little like burlesque bravery. When we actually witness it, we realize how difficult and complex it really was.


It’s the same with the inherent brutality in the tale. Dengler and his fellow prisoners were put through Hell, and while we never see all the sordid details, the actors wear their abuse like a badge of dire dishonor. Much has been made about Bale and Zahn’s turns, and in truth, both men are amazing. They balance realism with just enough added edge to get us involved in their plight. But the real revelation here is Jeremy Davis as Eugene from Eugene (Oregon, that is). Locked in his own Loonyville and never quite ready to relocate (if ever), his burnt out captive is the existential cousin of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Both men are functioning on fumes, and Davis (so bone thin it’s frightening) brings an additional level of unpleasantness to his part. Afraid of messing with the sordid status quo that he’d rat out his own friends, he’s a loose canon as walking skeleton, an unfathomable factor destined to destroy Dengler’s plan.


After the matter of fact material of life in captivity, Herzog makes the wise decision to spend an equally effective period of time on the eventual escape. It doesn’t ruin anything to know that Dengler does finally get away, and yet oddly enough, the breakout becomes the easy part. Indeed, some of Rescue Dawn’s most engrossing material is the aimless wandering through perilously overgrown jungle. Watching Dengler battle the underbrush with his machete, seeing Zahn’s swollen feet blister and peel, seeing the two men scavenge for any food or water they can find is far more harrowing than watching DeNiro and Walken play Russian Roulette with some clichéd Cambodian bad guys. One of Herzog’s genius strokes is that he presents the enemy as ambivalent – doing their job and yet not necessarily loving or hating it. Unlike other war films where the villain must be some kind of sadistic pervert, Rescue Dawn shows them for what they are – people.


It’s the same for our so-called champions. While Dengler does do things that warrant our awe and respect, Rescue Dawn wants to remind us that it’s not being done out of some noble belief in God or country. While our lead does love his adopted homeland, his motivation is more mercenary – he just wants to live to fly again. He’s not out to win the war in some microcosm of combat ala Rambo. He doesn’t need the verification of immorality on the side of the opponent to verify his actions. No, as with all of his films, Herzog saw in Dengler’s defiance of the odds the two hemispheres of his well considered worldview. On the one hand, Dieter Dengler needed to face the elements in order to guarantee his survival. But the most important confrontation came with who he was inside. The answer provides the foundation for one of 2007’s best motion picture efforts.


 


 


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Friday, Jul 27, 2007


With August right around the corner, summer seems to be winding down the way it began – not with a solid cinematic scream, but a minor motion picture whimper. The premium pay cable channels have done little to alleviate the dull, depressing malaise, playing a hopelessly outdated hit and miss game of blockbuster vs. disaster week in and week out. Sure, those disconnected from the rest of the post-modern multimedia machine will be happy just to have said lackluster first run features filling up their coaxial line. But with so many outlets for potential entertainment in the amusement arena, continuing to champion garbage does little to elevate one’s aesthetic position. And it’s a shame. Once pay TV was seen as the hope for home theater enthusiasts. Now it’s a bastion of bad byproduct mixed with the occasional filmic find. The final weekend in July is a perfect example of this ideal. The choices for the 28th do a good job of mirroring the overall options – for good, and definitely for bad:


Premiere Pick
Jet Li’s Fearless


Marketed as action star Jet Li’s last “martial arts” movie, the promoters of this firebrand period piece were actually fibbing, if only a bit. Li has no intention of giving up the well choreographed fighting moves that made him an international superstar. No, this fascinating look at Chinese Master Huo Yuanjia, the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation, will be the last ‘wushu’ effort the actor attempts. A subgenre of the standard kung fu category, this epic stands as a deeply personal and very powerful work by a man devoted to the subject’s teachings and philosophical perspective. Many have praised this film for its attention to detail, as well as its inclusion of as many different styles of human combat as possible. Thanks to the enigmatic efforts of Ronny Yu behind the camera, Li exemplifies the charisma and the athletic prowess that’s made him a legend. A must-see movie for fans of old school stunt work and pure visual opulence.  (27 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Inside Man


Spike Lee proves he can make mainstream movies just like the rest of Hollywood, resulting in a career rebirth – at least from a commercial standpoint. Featuring excellent performances from Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen, this is big budget, A-list thriller entertainment at its most fresh and ferocious. Along with his work on the amazing Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, 2006 stands as a banner year for the enigmatic director. (27 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Covenant


Where do one time famous filmmakers go when their careers fade into obsolesce and/or oblivion? Apparently, the answer is the hack teen horror genre. This is where you’ll find Renny Harlin, the man behind Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s hard to sink much lower than a movie about male witches, but this occult OC finds the onetime action king treading tenuous waters at best. (27 July, Starz, 9PM EST)


Mad Hot Ballroom


Little kids learning a mature mannerism – a guaranteed documentary crowdpleaser. In this case, we have a program that teaches underprivileged urchins in the toughest sections of New York City the social and disciplinary benefits of professional dancing. Of course, it all ends up centering on a competition to see who’s best, but the journey is more enjoyable – and enlightening - than the final showdown. (27 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Cry-Baby


After hitting critical – and commercial – paydirt with his ode to Baltimore circa the early ‘60s (the drop dead brilliant Hairspray), bad taste guru John Waters went back another decade to deliver this, a reimagined juvenile delinquency musical. With rising superstar Johnny Depp in tow, and a clever cast including Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrell, Rikki Lake, Patty Hearst, and notorious porn goddess Traci Lords, the devious director juxtaposed the bohemia brazenness of greaser chic with the uptight terrors of suburban conformity. Stylistic, electrifying, and filled with fabulous music, the film proved that Waters could work within the confines of Hollywood wholesomeness and still deliver an acerbic, witty satire. Now, like its pre-Peace generation counterpart, Broadway is adapting this stellar spoof for the stage. While it can never match the original, more money – and recognition – headed Waters way is an aesthetic plus, anyway you look at it. (31 July, Sundance Channel, 12:00AM EST)

Additional Choices
The Nomi Song


He was the most unusual figure floating around the edges of the New York post punk scene. Yet with his alien appearance and operatic vocals, Klaus Nomi was less a novelty and more an endearing eccentric. Part personal escape, part rock and roll performance art, his undeniable uniqueness meshed with a tragic personal trajectory makes for a monumental cinematic experience. (30 July, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

The Agronomist


Jonathan Demme’s career has always been filled with contradictions. For every serious Hollywood movie he makes – Beloved, Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs – he steps outside the system to direct deeply personal, highly topical documentaries. In the case of this intriguing tale, the filmmaker explains the life and tragic times of Haitian radio personality and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Few knew of this man in his lifetime. After seeing this devastating movie, even less will forget him.  (31 July, IFC, 7:25PM EST)

Quiet Cool


It’s amazing how time tempers even the most caustic opinions. Back in its day, this b-movie action film was considered an off title treat at best, a lame excuse for Tinsel Town thrills at worst. Fast forward twenty years, and it’s now a lost example of independent excellence. James Remar plays a cop who gets in too deep after agreeing to help an old flame. Not the greatest movie ever made, it’s still a fine example of genre experimentation.  (01 August, IFC, 7:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dr. Phibes Rises Again


After the shocking success of the 1971 original, star Vincent Price was asked to reprise the title role, a heavily scarred surgeon who, in the first film, sought revenge on the doctors he felt contributed to his wife’s death. Now, with some ancient Egyptian scrolls in tow (and a bigger budget to work with) the sequel ups the camp factor and tones down the supposed terror. The story is basically the same – Phibes is again wronged and wants payback on those who’ve harmed him. But with its wildly imaginative sets and sense of outsized outrageousness, what could have been an ongoing supernatural series ends up exhausting all its ideas at once. Still, one can’t escape the endearing delights of Price in his twilight prime, an actor so filled with good natured gravitas that he could make even the most mediocre material come alive. He proves it here, elevating a routine redux into something quite special.  (29, Drive-In Classics Canada, 10:15PM EST)

Additional Choices
A Bucket of Blood/The Terror


It’s a Roger Corman double feature as Dick Miller plays an artist who discovers the value of “life like” models, while Jack Nicholson gets creeped out at Boris Karloff’s eerie cliff side castle. Both movies are examples of the bottom line oriented producer at his most forward thinking and fun. And when you consider the talent he had both behind and in front of the camera, it’s clear why he’s a legitimate legend even today. (20 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Idolmaker


The ‘50s fascination with the talentless teen idol remains a powerful backdrop for a major motion picture, and yet few have found the creative calling to venture into said Svengali-like territory. In his first major motion picture, Taylor Hackford used the life of rock promoter Bob Marucci as the premise for a gripping tale of stardom unearned, and dreams dashed. It remains one of the best explorations of the era’s exploitation ever captured. (02 August, Indieplex, 6:55PM EST)

Headspace


There’s a clear conundrum awaiting audiences of this unusual horror hybrid. The critical community has been very kind to this tale of a young man whose ever increasing mental capacities begin making his life a literal living hell (complete with demons). Fans who’ve found the film based on said reviews have declared it a useless piece of inappropriately praised junk. Guess audiences at home, intrigued by the premise, will have to decide for themselves. (02 August, The Movie Channel, 1:20AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 



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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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