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Saturday, May 24, 2008


When you think of motion picture taboo busting, the glorious efforts of the exploitation era instantly come to mind. No other film genre took the time, and the risk, of bringing the most forbidden of film subjects to the silver screen. Oddly enough, the results of these cinematic impresarios did not go unnoticed around the world. Take 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The idea of kung fu lesbian prostitutes within an old world wuxia setting set tongues wagging when it was released in Hong Kong. The Shaw Brothers, infamous for pushing the envelopes within the martial arts movie, outdid themselves this time with a scandalous slice of sex, swordplay, and classic blood splattered slaughter.


When Ainu is kidnapped and brought to the brothel run by Madame Chun, she immediately becomes a problem. Belligerent and angry, she fights her captors and refuses to eat. Eventually, a mute jailer befriends her, and Ainu learns that she can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Soon, she wins Chun’s favor, and begins a systematic process of revenge on those who deflowered her when she first arrived. Killing the men one by one, she is pursued by police chief Ji, new to the area and unsure of how things work. Ainu knows she is protected by the local authorities, and brazenly admits to her crimes. Of course, once she’s finished with the former customers, it’s on to the individual who enslaved her in the first place.


It goes without saying that Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (a mouthful of a title - the original was simply the main character’s name, Ai Nu) is one of the most surreal kung fu epics ever, a literal bodice ripper that’s a potent butt kicker as well. Though the fight scenes are limited to a couple of spectacular set pieces, they really add an aura of mystery to what is, in general, a standard revenge flick. Our heroine is out to right the wrongs committed against her, and we couldn’t be happier. Star Lily Ho, perhaps best known for her early work with the Shaws, delivers a knockout performance. She’s both seductress and slayer, capable of working her way into your heart with a stare or a saber, whatever the case may be. Her action moves are flawless, arms swinging with an authority unmatched by even the most skilled male stars.

She is complemented effortlessly by Betty Pei Ti. Madame Chun is a complex character, a woman whose life in service of sex is marred by a hatred of men and a desire for power. Her lesbianism is more of a leaning than a lifestyle, a way of keeping the constant barrage of testosterone away from herself and her girls. She is more than capable of killing when she has to (she carries the classic body piercing ‘yin yang hands’), yet reserves such fatal flourishes for the very last moments of a conflict. As beautiful as Ho, perhaps even more so, Pei Ti is indeed a perfect counterpart to her costar. She’s just as rebellious as her potential lover, just not as outwardly or awkwardly so.


It’s no surprise then that the male leads of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan are rather thin. It’s bad enough that the Shaws were dealing with the unheard of subject of homosexuality, so the standard cads and cavaliers are present and accounted for. Even Yueh Hua’s police chief Ji is constantly emasculated by Chun and Ainu. He is seen as ineffectual and unable to handle the women’s cunning and conniving. Elsewhere, brutish scoundrels bid on bodies and flaunt their failing libidos. There is a lot of dangerous gender politics in this film, something that surely gave journeyman director Yuen Chor pause for concern.


Yet Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of the filmmaker’s best, a clever combination of faked Hollywood backdrops and sumptuous character costuming. Chor was new to the wuxia genre, having made his first such effort in 1970 (Cold Blade). It was said film that brought him to the attention of the Shaws. He fits perfectly within the Brothers’ brazen dynamic. He has a wonderful way with action, capturing the aerial elements with authenticity and flare. But he’s just as good with the intimate scenes, especially in a post-flogging embrace when Chun literally kisses Aiun’s wounds to make them ‘all better.’


Image’s DVD release of this long requested title captures the color saturated charms of the Shaw’s product in pristine picture reproduction. As they did with Killer Snakes, they retain the original aspect ratio and Mandarin soundtrack, providing excellent English subtitles for those of us from the West. The only bonus feature of value is a short documentary entitled “Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls”. While Lily Ho (who retired from film in 1974) and Betty Pei Ti (now a singer) are not present, a trio of recognizable names from the studio take time to discuss the impact Ainu’s lesbianism had on the Chinese community, as well as the reaction in the actresses’ native Taiwan. It’s an interesting addition to the oral history of the prominent production company.


It has been said that Clarence Fok Yiu-leung based his brilliant 1992 thriller Naked Killer on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, and it’s not hard to see the resemblance. Both movies use sexual desire and splatterific gore to tell a basic tale of pride and payback. Chor even remade the movie himself in 1984 with Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan. With its combination of erotica and violence, glamour and gall, nothing can beat the original. Had it not borne the Shaws recognizable label, grindhouse fans might swear this was a Harry Novak or Bob Cresse import. Indeed, exploitation loved to challenge convention while it served the salacious needs of its horndog audiences. Everything about this Hong Kong classic screams prurient and perverted - and devotees wouldn’t want it any other way.


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Thursday, May 22, 2008


The Summer onslaught continues, and for the weekend beginning 23 May, here are the films in focus:


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [rating: 8]


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS.

Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.
read full review…


For another view on the latest Indiana Jones film, read Chris Barsanti’s Short Take:
read full review… 


Postal [rating: 4]


Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better.

Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger. read full review…
 


War, Inc. [rating: 5]


The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is.


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.read full review…


 


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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.


Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.


After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.


It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.


But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.


The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.


Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.


It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself. 



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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger.


In the tacky town of Paradise, the Dude lives an awful life. His obese wife spends her days spouting epithets, her nights cheating on him. At his job, his boss is a dick and all around him the world if falling apart. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to join up with his cult leader relative, the drug addled sex fiend Uncle Dave. Together, they plan on robbing a local amusement park. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda cohorts are plotting the very same thing. Their eventual confrontation will result in massive bloodshed, lots of freshly killed corpses, and more than a few ethnic and intellectual slurs, just to keep things politically and personally tense.


Any movie that starts off with an extended riff on the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is either bucking the pro-PC trend, or as misguided as a Bush Administration missive. Yet Postal does indeed offer a pair of Islamic hijackers arguing over the number of virgins they’ll each receive when they meet their maker, followed unceremoniously with a World Trade Center view of the impending crash. If that kind of ‘irreverent’ shock value gag gives you giggling goosebumps, you’ll adore Postal. It plays directly into the most toilet bowl basics of the biggest arrested adolescence, making Mad Magazine (or perhaps, its lesser knockoffs like Crazy) look like the Harvard Lampoon by comparison. This is the kind of film that believes random farts are funny, that sees racial and social insensitivity as a proud papa selling point.


Leave it to the man who still thinks minor console titles from 10 years ago make viable source material to suddenly discover Farrelly like gross out humor. Postal positions itself as a raging political satire, supposedly arguing against the War on Terror, America’s fundamentalist religious views, the ticking time bomb status of white trash, and any other obvious target you can point to. But instead of eviscerating each and every one with the sharp knife of satire, Boll brings a blunt piece of movie metal and simply stabs blindly. One minute, a stateside Osama is having a big time policy pow-wow with buddy George Bush, the next, little kids are being picked off one by one, squibs sprouting bloody bullet holes in their Garanimals.


Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better. To call the film ballsy would be a slam at testicular fortitude. To call it crass would give insensitivity a stain it could never recover from. Yet there is a level of pot-smoke induced ludicrousness here, a ‘late night when there’s nothing else watchable on cable’ conceit that gives this film a sheen of semi-likability that’s hard to ignore. In the right frame of mind, this might actually seem - dare it be said - funny? All of us have guilty pleasures piled up in our inner movie warehouse, marginalized efforts like Ultraviolet, Brain Donors, or Lucky Stiff. It appears Postal is ‘gunning’ for acceptance into that often uncertain arena.


Typical of his current casting ideal, Boll overloads the frame with a number of recognizable, if not necessarily famous faces. Zack Ward, otherwise known as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, is our unnamed hero, the trailer trash everyman who ends up going the title temperament. He makes for an interesting lead, but not much else. On the other hand, confirmed funnyman Dave Foley is forced to rely on full frontal male nudity to earn his taboo-busting paycheck. His cult leader character is never, EVER funny….EVER! Various supporting players like J. K. Simmons, Verne Troyer, and Seymour Cassel wander aimlessly, their dialogue delivered in ‘hurry up and pay me’ spurts. Boll himself even shows up as the owner/operator of a German-themed concentration camp themed amusement park built with Nazi gold. Ha.


And speaking of the much maligned director, the good doctor is clearly having a blast belittling everything he can. Since he’s more or less capable of doing anything he wants (no studio controls his actions), he takes a haphazard Hellsapoppin’ approach to spoofing. Pacing is also a problem here, especially since Boll overloads the top half of the movie with mindless scatology. After a while, all the poo and pee jokes begin to sound (and stink) alike. The scattered violence will make gorehounds unhappy, since Postal appears to be dialing back the offal in favor of more idea-based grotesqueries. By the end, we’re desperate for some massive arterial spray. All we get is a minor vein draining allotment.


Still, Postal is bound to get messageboard tongues wagging. It will be the dividing line between Boll apologists and those who remain appalled by his oeuvre. It’s not the cinematic stool sampling of his previous creative canon, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the praise it’s been getting inside the online critical community. Somewhere between a cult conversation piece and an assault on one’s intelligence, Postal proves that some filmmakers are destined to remain forever locked in their already established reputations. To call this the best film Dr. Uwe Boll has ever made is faint praise indeed. Sadly, it may also be the truth. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.


The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.


In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.


Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.


Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.


Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.


Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.


Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 



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