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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008

Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim (is there ANYONE working in Hollywood who can truly stand toe to toe with the man responsible for so much masterful popcorn fare?), the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal.


Now he looks like garbage. The Happening, which hits theaters this weekend, is destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.


With a plot that’s premised on the end of the world, one would assume that Shyamalan’s vision of the Apocalypse would be a bit more - impressive? Having massive groups of people suddenly pause and play a fatal game of statues barely satisfies the genre mandates. We need to see social chaos, the breakdown of order, shock inducing spectacle, and the resulting death and destruction. Certainly we get some initial killings - the “virus” that attacks the Eastern seaboard of the US causes mass suicide - but aside from a sequence where a construction site becomes the place for a series of lemming-like leaps to the ground, all the throat cutting and wrist slashing seems anticlimactic and quite silly.


Even worse, Shyamalan goes with his ludicrous ideas and never once looks back. There are moments in this movie where characters are actually afraid of…wait for it…the wind. Not hurricane force gales mind you, or poison laden zephyrs. No, there is a calculated consensus on what is causing the “event” and so scientific theory (supported by Mark Walhberg’s high school teacher) maintains they make like scared rabbits whenever a light breeze blows by. In a narrative overloaded with seemingly unintentional laughs (our hero has a heart to heart with a plastic plant, The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” is channeled to prove someone’s “humanness”), Shyamalan saves the best/worst for last.


Betty Buckley, the brash Broadway diva who would be Patty LuPone if only she could muster up the same elephantine ego and sense of self, is a last act addition as a psychotic old lady loner who views the trio of survivors darkening her run down farmhouse door as nothing short of the Manson Family. She freaks out when they whisper behind her back (the subject of the conversation - how paranoid and peculiar she is) and ends up adding an American Gothic like gravitas to what is basically Food of the Gods for botanists. By the time our heroes head out into the open fields to face their hay fever styled fate, we are beside ourselves with laughter/spite. The tagged on ending in France only adds to our amuse/bemuse-ment.


Now, there are some who might suggest that this kind of material rarely succeeds. Trying to show how the standard human being buckles under pressure and predicates the destruction of its own existence en mass has forged some fine attempts (Stephen King’s Cell) and some abject failures (1985’s Warning Sign). Of course, you can extrapolate out the premise and come up with some clear cut classics. After all, everything from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Day Later is founded on the frightening prospect of people turning on each other - either for food or anger-inspired fun. True, The Happening is more about self-destruction, but there are still enough post-apocalyptic precepts involved in the story to suggest its placement within this category.


So within such a set up, why does The Happening stink so? Clearly, Shyamalan is one source of creative conjecture. We live in a hard-R macabre marketplace, so-called ‘torture porn’ teaching the fright fan that nothing satisfies like blood…and lots of it. Yet all the deaths in this movie are handled in an old fashioned, almost made-for-TV fashion. CSI offers visuals gorier than anything seen here (with the exception of a surreal man vs. lion showdown at the zoo). Even worse, Shyamalan forgets that threat is key to suspense. The characters must literally fear what will happen next - and we in turn must sympathize and identify with said sense of dread, less we disconnect from all the sequences of drawn out danger. The Happening, unfortunately, does none of this.


Oddly enough, this week also sees the release of the sensational indie effort The Signal. Unfairly slammed as being a rip-off of King’s aforementioned 2006 novel (anyone whose read the book and seen the film understand the glaring differences), this amazing movie, the work of three different directors, each one helming one act of the narrative, tells a tale of technology run amuck. When we first meet Mya, she is having an affair with Ben. He wants her to run away with him and escape her possessive husband. Typically, she can’t do that. So when she returns home to face his jealous accusations, it’s the standard post-modern kitchen sink dramatics - that is, until her spouse, Lewis, picks up a baseball bat and beats in the head of one of his friends. Soon, the whole city comes unglued, the citizenry randomly attacking and killing each other in extreme and very violent ways.


What we eventually learn is that a ‘signal’ buried inside all electronic appliances - TVs, phones, radios, etc. - is altering people’s brain chemistry. Tricking them into indulging in their worst, most primal desires, aggression and death rule the land. In the end, we follow Mya as she makes her way to a secret rendezvous, watch Ben as he tries to meet her, and see the cuckolded Lewis go on a rampage similar to such spree killing brethren as Jason Voorhees and Mike Myers. All the while, directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry mix enough humor and horror into the storyline to keep us laughing and leery, frequently at the same time. More importantly, they manage to out think and out imagine Shyamalan, someone noted for their thoughtfulness and inventiveness.


Indeed, The Signal slams The Happening down onto the ground and forces it to scream “Uncle”. Everything that Shyamalan gets wrong, Bruckner, Bush and Gentry absolutely excel at. Both movies take a similar narrative approach - tell a small story in such as way as to make it resonate within the larger scope of a Judgment Day dynamic. Each one uses a city setting to establish the terror, and then takes the concept inward. Each one features feuding couples (Walhberg and his woman - Zooey Deschanel - are having some minor marital strife) and both offer up innocent victims as fodder for mindless, murderous fiends.


So why does The Signal work whereas The Happening merely hobbles along? The answer starts in the realm of vision. Shyamalan may think he’s got a handle on his man vs. nature nuances, but to look at his film you’d never think the world was ending. It’s too bright and sunny, events occurring in open spaces with lots of light to illuminate the nonsense. It’s the reason the Buckley material stands out so. Even in a previous visit to an unoccupied home, our survivors appear dappled in well placed illumination. In Bruckner, Bush and Gentry’s world, everything turns tainted and dark. Hallways looks institutional and unkept, the streets of Atlanta (where the movie was made) as foreboding as any dystopian Hell.


Even better, our outsider filmmakers only had digital cameras and $50K to work with, so they had to be inventive in other areas. They use gallows humor and some surreal sequences of crackpot character interaction to soothe us over the rough spots. Shyamalan just manages to piss away over $57 million to make this future flop and everything about it feels redundant and forced. He’s not really doing anything different than what the makers of drive-in fare attempted back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Indeed, The Happening is one of those movies that goes a long, long, LONG way to achieve very, very little. At least The Signal sticks with its premise and doesn’t try to pontificate or change the dynamic into something akin to an environmentalist’s screed.


Yet it’s the notion of intent that probably best describes the reason for both film’s final assessment. Our trio, taken with the way in which humans act with their world wide wired habitat, never lets the populace off the hook. In The Signal, we are responsible for our technological addiction, and the fatal results of same. In The Happening, we appear as innocent victims to some incredibly cheesed off foliage. Clearly, based on how badly he bungles this film, M Night Shyamalan is not the next Spielberg. He’ll still work in today’s Hollywood, but whatever luster he had will be forever tarnished and severely tainted. Of course, he will probably consider himself a victim of a critical community incapable of containing its biased, jealousy based vitriol. In this case, the Fourth Estate is the least of his worries. Any audience member unlucky enough to see this movie may have their own Signal like reaction to what he has to offer.


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Tuesday, Jun 10, 2008

Introspection is key to an artist’s imagination. Reflecting life is one thing. Inspecting the inner existence is an equally important facet. In essence, it’s the ultimate expression of self, a sense of what makes a mind tick, a brain bubble, and a thought process percolate. In film, some of our greatest directors have made masterworks out of the creative core concept. Fellini gave us 8&1/2. Woody Allen offered Stardust Memories. David Lynch divined Mulholland Dr.  And now Giuseppe Andrews steps behind his wholly independent lens to give us a take on cinema, karma, movie history, and Hollywood phonies. Oddly enough, he draws a very interesting conclusion - It’s All Not So Tragic.


For film historian Greg Connor, things haven’t been going well. He’s had mental problems ever since the day he ruined his chance at being a DVD commentator. During the featurette for a favorite noir classic, he committed an unspeakable, unnatural act. Now his shrink is suggesting he take a small vacation to get away from it all. Running out of gas, Connor comes across a fallen crossing guard, a psychotic with a pick axe, a young lady named Distosia, who is studying to be part of a cult, one of his favorite soap stars, and a young man he once photographed in the nude. All of this leads to a kind of psychotic breakdown where Connor’s sexual dysfunction manifests itself in more and more bizarre ways. Eventually, there’s nothing left to do but dance and sing. Besides, life’s not too bad when you think about it.



Like a fever dream infected with rabies, or a Tinsel Town satire slathered in scatology, It’s All Not So Tragic takes some getting used to. Not in a bad way, mind you, but unlike previous offerings from America’s trailer park Godard, this narrative is so knotty it tends to cannibalize and consumer itself. What begins as a simple road trip, a chance for one messed up man to escape the demons that force him onto the couch and into the bottle, turns into a freak show Ferris Wheel, the next turn of the tale offering up increasingly disconnected delirium. Naturally, sex plays a major part in the plotline, but this time around its more violent and ‘self abusive’. The end result is a film that challenges the conventions created by Andrews and his anarchic mobile hominess. Instead, we witness one man’s tenuous grip on reality slowly draining down his pants’ leg and into the sewer.


Of course, there are obvious targets. Daytime dramas get skewered as our hero sits back and enjoys a shower-oriented scene from his favorite serial As the World Spins. The writing and realization of this sequence is so spot on it mandates its own movie. Similarly, Andrews’ regular Marybeth Spychalski shows up as a brainwashed religious cult chick, clamoring for the very Scientology like “Wolancoism” belief system. Her conversations with star Miles David Dougal are classic in their crackpot philosophizing. Elsewhere, DVDs get a slamdance stake through their bonus feature hearts, our lead longing to be legitimized by placement as part of the format’s added content. Even soap box racers (and those put in charge of maintaining traffic safety for said cardboard cars) get skewered. Andrews is amazing in this way. Just when you think he’s covered all the narrative possibilities, he finds more fodder for his unsettled cinema.



Not so clear is the motivation behind the last act montages. Since he loves music as much as film (his CDs are well worth picking up - they contain a wealth of equally eccentric sonic sensationalism), Andrews presents a series of songs interspersed with a clown satisfying himself with a vacuum cleaner and a collection of seemingly unconnected clips. But deep thinking reveals some clues. Early on, it appears that every time something sinister is about to happen to our hero, someone appears from out of the blue and blows the threat away with a handgun. Naturally, it seems nonsensical at first, until you apply the motion picture standard by which violence - and most specifically, gun violence - solves most problems. In that regard, Connor’s various packing saviors appear practically sane. The sudden dive into song and dance could clearly be a reflection of the old school Hollywood-ism that any depressive down time can be “cured” with a little celluloid whimsy. Here Andrews’ amazing muse provides the perfect antidote to the main character’s descent into debauchery and delusion.


While star Dougal redefines the concept of a tour de force, the rest of the writer/director’s standard company gets reduced to extended cameos. The venerable Vietnam Ron plays an unhinged stalker, while Sir George Bigfoot travels around with a suitcase full of cockroaches. Guitar wizard Ed stands in for the dome doc, while Walt Dongo plays a pissed off member of the Walancoism sect. Noticeably absent this time around are Karen Bo Baron (star of Andrews’ masterful Orzo) and that queen of the ancient art of the flapjack dance, Elaine Bongos. Their peculiarly endearing presence is always missed. Thankfully, our filmmaker finds ways to substitute and persevere.



That he continues to grow as an artist is no surprise - true talent finds a way to flourish, instead of stagnating and straining - but how this amazing auteur channels his creativity is what continues to make his movies so amazing. Giuseppe Andrews has an oeuvre now that far surpasses many who maintain a place in the hallowed halls of cinema’s standard bearers. For what he’s done in expanding the realm of homemade moviemaking, for providing a voice to the disenfranchised and the routinely marginalized, for locating brilliance where others would see idiosyncrasy, hopelessness, and despair, he becomes the most independent of true icons. He also remains the most staunchly original voice working along the fringes of the artform today. It’s All Not So Tragic continues to prove his place among the true creative champions.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
In a new feature here on SE&L, every Tuesday we will be bringing you breaking news from the world of film. From the newest trailers to the biggest deals, we'll breakdown the weekend box office and guide you toward some interesting titles new to DVD.

Universal Unveils Yet Another Inspirational Sports Film

According to the press release, The Express (coming 3 October) is “Based on the true story of college football hero Ernie Davis, the first African- American to win the Heisman Trophy. His fight for equality and respect forever changed the face of American sports, and his story continues to inspire new generations.”  The film will star Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown. Here are some early photos:






Weinsteins Wants You to Channel Your Inner Igor

In connection with their upcoming animated film, the Weinstein Company offers you the opportunity to put on your best “Igor” impression. Winners will have their voice added to the final film, expected sometime this fall. More information can be found here.






Disaster Movie gets a Pair of Teaser Posters
After consistently devaluing the big screen spoof with their increasingly sophomoric efforts, the writing/directing team of Jason Friedbeg and Aaron Seltzer are back with another parody. Oddly enough, they seem to be taking the genre right back to where it started - the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker classic Airplane!, which was, after all, a lampoon of disaster films.




Jumper to Become a Franchise - from IMDb
According to WENN and the Internet Movie Database, Actor Hayden Christensen is set to return to the developing Jumper franchise for a further two movies. The new DVD coming out today confirms the plans to create a trilogy for the solid sci-fi hit. According to the actor, “We’re talking about it. I know that they’re having those conversations, I hear about them. It was set up to become that - a trilogy - if it did well. And I think they’re happy with how it did so they want to make another one. But I don’t think they’re rushing to get into production.”




Sam Raimi Wants Spider-Man 4 - from IGN
Apparently, the stories about Raimi being less involved in the future of the Spider-man franchise were wrong, or maybe the director of the three previous popcorn smashes is indulging in a little wishful thinking. Whatever the case, you can read his thoughts about the fourth go round for the webslinger here.






MPAA Pulls Plug on Kevin Smith’s Porno Promo - from /Film
Just last week, we noted that the Clerks auteur had released a Red Band teaser for his upcoming comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Well, apparently Quick Stop Entertainment, Smith’s internet locale, didn’t get permission from the MPAA to “broadcast” such content across the web. The whole stink gets aired out over at SlashFilm.com.




My Fair Lady Getting a Remake - from Variety
From the official press release:
Considering the talent involved the first time around, it seems hard to imagine that anyone would seriously consider remaking this Oscar winning effort. Still, producers Cameron Mackintosh and Duncan Kenworthy are convinced they can “update” the material by adding more of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion to Alan Jay Lerner’s musical book. Initial reports had Keira Knightley and Daniel Day Lewis as the new Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, but with the There Will Be Blood star hopping projects for the big screen version of Nine, casting remains unclear. Read more here.




DiCaprio to Produce/Star in Atari Story - from THR.com
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Leonardo DiCaprio plans on bringing the story of ‘70/‘80s video game giant Atari to the big screen. Writers Brian Hecker and Craig Sherman hope the star will play Nolan Bushnell, engineering student and computer geek who went from fixing broken pinball machines to creating the company responsible for the first major arcade game - Pong. The rest of the story can be found here.





DVD releases of Note for 10 June
Be Kind Rewind
The Bucket List
Funny Games (2008)
Invisible Target - Read the SE&L Review Here
John Adams: The HBO Mini-Series
Jumper
The Other Boleyn Girl
Witless Protection


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 6 June

#1 - Kung Fun Panda: $59.8 million
#2 - You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: $40.3 million
#3 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $22.9 million
#4 - Sex and the City: $21.3 million
#5 - The Strangers: $9.2 million
#6 - Iron Man: $7.4 million
#7 - The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: $5.5 million
#8 - What Happens in Vegas: $3.4 million
#9 - Baby Mama: $2.2 million
#10 - Made of Honor: $2.0 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
The Incredible Hulk - Bruce Banner searches for a cure to his raging inner ‘demon’ while the Army plots to use his power as a weapon. With Edward Norton and Tim Roth. Rated PG-13
The Happening - A sudden, unseen epidemic causes innocent citizens to kill themselves in startling violent ways. It’s up to the survivors to figure out why. From M. Night Shyamalan. Rated R


Limited
Quid Pro Quo - With comparisons to David Cronenberg’s Crash, a young reporter, paralyzed after an accident, discovers a subculture of fetishists. Rated R
Baghead - a group of independent filmmakers head out into the woods to brainstorm a script. They are instead terrorized by a stranger in a bag. Rated R


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
In preparation for the franchise reboot starring Edward Norton, SE&L looks back at Ang Lee's 2003 version of the Big Green Meanie, a criminally marginalized movie that truly didn't deserve the critical or commercial drubbing it took at the time.

It’s true: you either “get” what Ang Lee did to the Hulk or you don’t. It’s not a “love it or hate” it kind of quandary. It’s much more of a “yes” or “no” proposition. If you are used to the Raimi ideal of comic book moviemaking or think that Bryan Singer got the X down to a simple science, then avoid this movie at all costs, and chalk up the big green monster man to yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to bring the graphic novel to life. But if it clicks for you, if you stick with it, buy into the premise and the way director Lee presents it, Hulk will stay with you for days after you’ve watched it. It will be the first superhero action film that actually says something profound about parental relationships, the untapped power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control.


The nature of the Hulk has always been described as the out of control id of Bruce Banner’s mild-mannered scientist nerd. The original origins for the character were steeped in repressed memories and parental abuse. Lee magnifies this concept, wanting to fully explore all aspects of it, to make the beast not only the representation of the human mind, but also the true physical interpretation of it. Most fans of fast action cartoon chaos claim Lee missed his chance to make the monster of all cartoon films. They lament how he instead focused all the fun into a dry, dreary drama revolving around Bruce Banner’s childhood and the genetic experimentation that physically mutated him and the emotional trauma that mentally manipulated him.


And still there were those who wept for that forgotten foe in the standard comic film canon, the arch villain, a Joker/Magneto/Green Goblin of equal energy and emergence. But in Lee’s marvel universe, there isn’t one. All the bad guy vibe lands on the shoulders of Bruce’s father, which means that we must deal with Banner the son/man first and Banner the CGI beast secondary. And for most fans of carefree eye candy blockbusters, individualized character studies and special effects fantasy just do not mix, nor should anyone try.


It’s the more human issues in Hulk (interesting how Lee chose to skip both the “Incredible” tag and the impersonal pronoun as well) that Lee wants to focus on. If the idea of massive back story and flashbacks o’plenty make your stomach seize, or if you really wish the actors would just shut up and fight/blow something up, this movie will not be a pleasant ride for you. Lee is striving for something deeper here, something more philosophical and universal. He wants to tap into that time-tested relationship between parent and child and work its intense Freudian fire into an inferno of pent-up rage. Hulk is meant to be a release of that rage, to show how failures on the part of our guardians result in destructive behavior.


This is not some subtle, cinematically created symbolism. This was the basis for another Lee’s - Stan Lee’s - desire in crafting the original character. The genius of the Hulk as an entity is that he is indeed us, fueled at the genetic level by trauma and terror and overblown into a destructive force that must be reckoned with. It’s intriguing to note how there is not a real revelatory arc to the Hulk’s development. At one moment, Bruce Banner is a normal human being. The next he is an outraged giant with an even larger, deadlier chip on his behemoth shoulders.


The transformation of the psychological into the physiological is at the heart of Hulk as a character and Hulk as a movie. The entire film is actually about our biological and emotional heritage, about how our bodily chemistry and interpersonal lineage, become the reason for who we are. Unlike the comic book version, this Hulk was a fiend just waiting to be forged. Daddy Banner’s experiments and the unfortunate ramifications are just a more modern, less meat-fisted way of handling the humongous’ foundation. In Stan Lee’s comic book world, Bruce is escaping an abusively alcoholic and murderous father. In Ang Lee’s world, David Banner is DNA destiny, the reason why Bruce is who he is at the molecular as well as the persona level.


This one-two punch makes the movie Hulk a far more complex, preordained brute. The notion of not being able to control one’s own providence is a fear that most offspring have, and Hulk blows it up into a big green overtly violent twisted mass of muscle without the ability to properly control itself; again, another part of the panic of growing up. True, we all aren’t worried about growing thirty feet in every direction and raging without rhyme or reason, but we do concern ourselves with the notion that our past controls our present and future and we are unable to keep it from happening.


This is, perhaps, why Hulk does not resonate with the standard blockbuster audience: the teenage boy. As the unbearable kings of the planet, they have yet to figure out how their past and their father figure (or lack thereof) has influenced their life. To them, Hulk should be about smashing and bashing. He should not be a reflection of a youth unfulfilled or a life filled with empty pain. So this is really the first adult action film, a movie that uses a unique cinematic style and obvious operatic tendencies to invoke more than tell its tale. Indeed, there is not a lot of mood swinging going on in this film. Lee gives us emotional archetypes versus real three-dimensional people.


Thankfully, all this deep-seeded child rearing rhetoric is couched in a wonderfully visual and abstractly arresting set of moviemaking ideals. There are those who find Ang Lee’s choices suspect and/or even irritating. He uses more split screen sequences than Brian De Palma has ever fantasized over and loves to overlap shots to give us multiple “every conceivable angle” opportunities. It helps to propel the narrative over the deeply bruised sequences of psyche in somersault and shows us that someone can literally take the structure of a comic book, apply it to the movies, and make it work.


As a CGI creation, the Hulk himself seems one shadow and character crafting computer map pass away from being the most amazing digital creation ever. It appears that, after the success of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated imagists at ILM just can’t quite figure out how to make something not look fake. While this may seem like an oxymoron, the completely green, oversized giant never once looks natural or “human” enough. He is overly detailed, all carefully placed ripples and dirt. We never get the full effect of the Hulk being flawed or part of his environment. Instead, we can see the environment conforming to him, with tanks and planes and houses becoming more “cartoon” like to fit in to what the Hulk has in mind.


No place is this more abundantly clear than in the much-discussed ‘Hulk Dogs’ sequence. While overall it’s a very well done action scene (what else would you expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the oversized mutts look Scooby-Doo awful. They don’t appear as genetically altered hounds; they’re animated cartoon monsters in puppy suits that look phony from the minute the binary spit flies from their flapping jowls. What many computer artists forget is that they are supposed to be rendering the unreal real, not crafting perfectly painted practicality. For all his accurate body movement and incredible facial gesturing, more times than not the Hulk just looks like a well-painted drawing.


Thankfully, the depth of symbolism and the sheer cinematic artistry of Ang Lee keep Hulk afloat. Yes, the movie is too long and the effects are not always special, but what this Lee does is prove the Stan Lee thesis of Marvel’s best comic creations. It was the elder Lee’s belief that the best entertainment came out of the personalities and storylines, not fancy ink sketches. Hollywood, in turn, definitely lives by the bright lights, pretty colors theory of superhero movies. Details just get in the way of the next attractive explosion or the fast food tie-in moment. Hulk is a good movie burdened by expectations it could never meet and limitations that couldn’t be overcome. It is an effective denouncement of the parent/child relationship, of the basic progeny’s fear that we will grow up under the direct influence of our parents, almost to the point of pinpoint replication.


Bruce Banner’s problem is that, if he indeed matures exactly like his father, there is truly no hope for mankind. In order to survive, he will have to come to terms with what he is, and how he can manage it - if ever. Actually, this critic predicts that ten years from now, Hulk will be viewed as way ahead of its time in grappling with subjects that something like X-Men only skims over or Spider-Man avoids altogether. With a push to give every bi-monthly name a cinematic incarnation of its own (and even the revisiting of some previous franchise presentations), Hulk is destined to get lost. But wipe the blockbuster mentality from your perception and view this film again. Perhaps you’ll see an excellent exploration of human nature wrapped inside a thick green shell.


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Sunday, Jun 8, 2008

Action films are forged out of some very tenuous threads, each one required to carry its own weight while intricately balancing the needs of the other ingredients. They can certainly be crafted after a formula, years of practice guaranteeing that once all the elements are in place, something viable will result. Those who try to stretch or even break the mold are destined to either fail, or fracture and reconstruct the cinematic blueprint, revising the standard for the next generation of artists to come. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being really, really good at what the basics already provide, and this would describe the Hong Kong thriller Invisible Target rather well;. Now out on DVD from Dragon Dynasty, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company, this film is not out to redefine the genre. Instead, it wants to perfect it, and does so magnificently.


After an armored car explosion robs Fong Yik Wei of his fiancé, the policeman becomes a broken man. Six months later, his unpredictable nature has made him a law enforcement disadvantage. It’s the same with Detective Chan Chun. He’s so caught up in capturing a gang of international mercenaries that he can’t see the connection to Wei’s situation. It takes a chance meeting with rookie officer Wai King Ho to bring the cases together. Looking for his missing brother, who went undercover years ago and never came back, this department newbie sees only one course of action - a by-the-book belief in the rules. But when the self-described Ronin Gang reveals that they have someone on the inside helping them out, our trio will stop at nothing to discover the turncoat, and stop leader Tien Yeng Seng in his quest for death, destruction, and millions in cash.


Like a primer on how to proficiently kick, punch, fire, slash, and in general blow stuff up, Invisible Target is one of the best bombastic macho man movies that Hollywood never made. It’s Die Hard with an Asian accent, The Departed taken back to its Infernal Affairs origins and draped in thousands of glass shards and bullet holes. Director Benny Chan, best known for working with Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan on later day vehicles such as Robin-B-Hood, Who Am I, and New Police Story, takes a page out of the Western gonzo guidebook and delivers the kind of electrifying mayhem that has defined the shoot ‘em up since Arnold was just a bodybuilder. We are introduced to the customary good/bad dynamic, have the archetypes peppered with competing motives, lash everything together with a few of the deadly sins, and send it all careening into crowded streets and highly populated locales.

Chan certainly knows his references. There are lashings of John Woo here, the kind of emotional underpinning crucial to the slo-mo masters thrill ride successes. Of course, when we see a last act stand off in a massive office building, innocents locked in with the villains for the ultimate standoff, it’s hard not to think of Chow-Yuen Fat kicking ass in Hard Boiled. Similarly, our Asian auteur channels the Paul Verhoeven school of window shattering. No fight is complete without panes being pulverized into hundreds of chaotic crystals. It’s so deliberate that a drinking game could come of it. When you add in the excellent chases, both on foot and via automobile, it is clear that we are witnessing a solid cinematic eye with an easy ability to keep our heart racing and our eyes glued to the screen.


The superb actors help out immensely. As our seasoned and soured officers, Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue are a couple of confident bastards. They play both sides of the law to their own ends, and come across as equally belligerent and highly vulnerable. Both must face demons bent on destroying their pursuit of justice, and each one handles said clash in a differing yet dramatic manner. It also helps that both men are adept in the major martial arts. It really aids in selling the numerous fight scenes. Similarly, Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) does a wonderful job with a rather thankless third wheel role. He’s the voice of naïve reason among the back biting and double crossing of the Hong Kong police force, and his last act redemption is a bit too maudlin for the material. It definitely works, but the feelings seem strained and unearned.


Perhaps the biggest revelation, especially for those of us unfamiliar with his entire career arc, is the twisted turn by Jacky Wu. Playing the most malevolent of mobsters, here is a man unafraid of killing and quite capable of any act to maintain his power and position. It’s important to note that Tien Yeng Seng’s gang has only one purpose - the mindless pursuit of money - and it is clear that they are capable of anything…ANYTHING...to get it. Invisible Target is the kind of movie where children are visibly threatened, unarmed men are mowed down in cold blood, and pain is inflicted randomly and without warrant. And it is Wu doing most of the dirty work. While he is surrounded by a barely distinguishable group of gangsters, it is clear who holds the reigns in this racket.


With the simple storyline and two hour plus running time, director Chan is allowed to mine both the sentimental and the stunt. Make no mistake, this is some brutal stuff. The second disc of this two DVD set offers many in the cast talking about their participation, and more often than not, the grueling action and physical preparation for the fight scenes dominate the discussion. Wu, Yue, and Tse seem particularly interested in dishing the dirt about long days in training and long nights knocking each other out. Even better, the bonus featurettes explain how some of the more dangerous bits were created and captured. There are times in this movie when actors tumble down buildings, jump across rooftops, run into passing cars, and escape optically oversized explosions. While there is some CG trickery involved, many actual man hours were used to achieve the engaging ends.


Indeed, if you don’t expect the latest redefinition of the action epic, Invisible Target will warm you in a wonderfully old school manner. It takes its time getting started, develops its situations and characters fully, and then never lets up once the pedal is put to the edge of your seat metal. There is enough visual spectacle present to satisfy even the most fastidious film fan, and Chan definitely knows his way around the Hong Kong locales. Sometimes, getting the basics 100% right is much better than merely trying to reinvent what’s tried and true. That’s clearly the case with this on ‘Target’ title.


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