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by Bill Gibron

29 Sep 2008


For now, a picture says it all:



Read our complete tribute to Paul Newman in tomorrow’s blog post.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008


Sometimes, we get so bogged down with titles here at SE&L that we can’t imagine ever getting through them all. Be it a summer weekend stuffed with possible blockbuster fare, or an awards season schedule that can frequently see as many as eight to ten screenings in a single work week, we do find ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed (isn’t that always the case). Still, in order to keep on top of the ever-changing media market, there will be times when we have to put in the extra effort, to go above and beyond a simple blurb banquet. Indeed, it appears it’s time for what will probably be a regular feature here at the PopMatters Film Blog - the Review-a-thon. 

Over the next few days, we’re going to suck it up, put on our critical thinking cap, and bang out a bunch of opinions. Between now and Sunday, we will tackle Michael Moore’s new documentary, visit a classic rock icon as he showcases a forgotten album, take on another Dragon Dynasty martial arts epic, and maybe even experience an unnecessary sequel or two - and this on top of the films in focus for this week (26 September). With no real schedule for when the latest installment of this endurance test will arrive, you’ll need to check back regularly to see if we indeed make it. The list is ambitious, and a tad unwieldy. Still, as a test of mental mantle, we believe we’re up to the task.

In no particular order, here are the cinematic obstacles that await us:

In Theaters - Nights in Rodanthe  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Eagle Eye (The IMAX Experience)  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Miracle at St. Anna  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Choke
Available Online - Slacker Uprising
On DVD - Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (1996)  (Now Available)
On DVD - War/Dance (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Pulse 2 (2008)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Plan 9 from Syracuse (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - The Rebel (2006)  (Now Available)

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008


When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.

After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.

On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.

Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.

But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.

As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.

While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008


Beware of Big Brother…blah, blah, blah. You can’t pick up a publication nowadays, or listen to any number of broadcast pundits, and not hear about how the Bush Administration is violating rights and the privilege of privacy for the sake of some metaphoric act of patriotism. Granted, the Constitution may indeed be jeopardized in the name of non-provable levels of safety (call it the “tiger rock” syndrome), but Americans are more than willing to buy into the scheme to avoid another 9/11. This fuels Hollywood’s already perverse sense of paranoia, as it has since Nixon went Watergate-boarding. Disturbia director D. J. Caruso has tapped into such technological fear mongering with his latest big screen suspense thriller, Eagle Eye. While not perfect, if you ignore a major plot twist and/or hole along the way, you’re sure to have an edge of your seat good time.

On the day that he buries his twin brother, Jerry Shaw suddenly finds himself engulfed in a world of trouble. His grubby Chicago apartment is suddenly overrun with terrorism paraphernalia - weapons, instruction manuals, and bomb making materials - and from his cellphone, a mysterious female voice tells him to flee. Before long, Jerry is in FBI custody, with Agent Thomas Morgan on his case. Joined by Air Force investigator Zoe Perez, the officials hope to stop this potential disaster before it occurs.

In the meantime, single mother Rachel Holloman is informed that her son, traveling to Washington DC on a school band trip, is in danger. Unless she agrees to help the mysterious female voice on the other end of the line, she’ll lose everything. Turns out, Jerry is her proposed partner in potential crime. The pair become pawns in what appears to be a deadly assault on the United States. These reluctant radicals have to follow the instructions of their unseen tormentor, or die trying. Of course, the source of the threats might just be someone - or something - inside the government itself.

Bristling along on one amazing narrative convolution after another, and fueled by fascinating gung ho performances from everyone involved, Eagle Eye is a jovial serving of cinematic junk food. It’s frightfully filling without being intellectually challenging, and appears put together by professionals who know a thing or two about maintaining an audience’s interest. For those looking for mandatory movie references, this is nothing more than Wargames, Enemy of the State, North by Northwest and another famous ‘odyssey’ all rolled into one. To reveal the name of the last cinematic masterpiece riffed on would spoil the secret to the film’s villainy. Suffice it to say that any motion picture from the last four decades, especially ones dealing with spying, science gone sinister, and massive governmental conspiracies, finds a hokey, hackneyed home here. Some just overstay their welcome, becoming the storyline’s sole raison d’etra.

As with his homage to Rear Window, director Caruso casts messageboard separator Shia LeBeouf as his everyman, and for someone so hated by a good percentage of geek nation, the actor is very good here. He’s not required to do much - a great deal of this movie is mechanics and manipulations to a deadly denouement - but in the quieter scenes, he shows subtly and nuance. This is not quite the grown-up role the pseudo-star needs - Jerry is still carved out of post-millennial slacker shortcuts - but as the innocent mark turned reluctant hero, he holds things together quite well. Michelle Monaghan is another issue all together. Her overwrought mother is horribly underwritten, complaining about her bastard ex-husband and her lousy paralegal’s paycheck…and that’s about it.

Thankfully, costars Billy Bob Thorton and Rosario Dawson pick up the slack. He’s a manic FBI agent not sure which side of Jerry’s story he believes. She’s the Air Force attaché who uncovers a key piece of evidence explaining the forces behind the threat. One has to say that, if you buy the premise and the antagonist involved, Eagle Eye takes on a sly, almost mischievous sense of social commentary. Positioned directly in the War on Terror times we live in, the film’s obvious jabs at the current White House and the incomplete intelligence that led us to invasion offer waves of wiseass recognition. If anything, Caruso appears to be anarchic in his advocacy. His position gives “We the People” a whole new meaning.

On the small screen, the frenetic action scenes and hand-held hysterics would clearly get lost. The editing typically takes a mashed up moment and amplifies it unnecessarily. But blown up 70mm on an IMAX screen, Eagle Eye becomes a crackerjack nailbiter. The car chases have a real logic and flow, and the foot races reveal both clever choreography and a true sense of space. Chicago looks luminous during the various aerial shots, and when CG takes over to establish the “omnipresence” of the Federal bureaus, the graphics look great. Like Beowulf inside the 3D domain, Eagle Eye needs to be experienced in the larger theatrical format. The detail in the image helps make up for some of the tried and true tricks the director uses to create breakneck cinematic chaos.

Even with its occasional lapses into illogical miscalculation (like the ability to control elements like electrical lines???), Eagle Eye is a great, goofball thrill. It’s the kind of film you can get lost in, forgetting the fallacies streaming across your subconscious as you sit back and savor another sequence of veiled threat and vehicular mayhem. Certainly, the story is not meant to mean more than the basics of the genre, and any references to masters past remain securely on the side of the alluded to auteurs. But D. J. Caruso and Shia LeBeouf prove a potent combination, especially in the realm of easy to swallow suspense films. If you go in expecting The Conversation meshed with a sideways Manchurian Candidate, you’ll be easily underwhelmed. But not every entertainment needs to engage the brain to guarantee success. Check your head at the ticket counter and you’ll enjoy this wickedly wild ride - especially in IMAX.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008


Unless our own troops are involved (or in rare cases, our vital national interest), Americans don’t really care about wars abroad. Whether its ancestral hatred, religious difference, or the standard struggle for power, if the effects don’t reach our shores, we offer only a passing interest. Of course, the minute crimes are committed in the name of such insurgence, we perk up. Add children to the mix and the basic biological uproar occurs. Yet in many African countries, old tribal disputes and ethnic unrest have a permanent place in history. That anything remotely normal occurs in this life during wartime is a miracle. That we in the West pay attention to it is even more improbable.

For years now, Uganda has been at war with rebel forces bent on seizing control, one tribe at a time. In the case of the Acholis in the Northern part of the country, the attacks have been particularly brutal. Children have witnessed the death of their parents, themselves barely escaping with their lives. Many wind up in the bush - tired, hungry, and afraid. Eventually, they become refugees and join the millions sequestered in government sponsored camps. At Patonga, we meet three impressive young people. Nancy watches over her siblings while her mother moves from location to location, looking for work. Dominic fancies himself a superstar musician. His skill at the xylophone covers up a deep, dark secret. And Beth is an indentured servant to her cruel and callous aunt. Like Cinderella without an invitation to the ball, her days AND nights are filled with mindless and menial chores.

But when it comes to singing, dancing, and playing traditional and Western songs, these children are very special indeed. The Patonga School has just won an invitation to the prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala, and in Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s fascinating War/Dance, a camera crew follows their meticulous preparations. Along with several dozen students of various ages, these teenagers spend countless hours training for the contest. During their brief downtime, they play, worry, dream, and try to forget the raging horrors all around them. Following their progress for three months, the filmmakers provide insight into the Acholi’s desperate situation. They also reveal how genocide and gang mentalities have caused widespread slaughter and the ever-present stench of human atrocity.

While it may sound scripted, each subject has an unsettling story to tell. Nancy outlines how her mother had to bury the vivisected body parts of her cruelly killed father. She also cuts a concerning figure as she stands in line with older, angrier exiles waiting for the UN to pass out their pathetic rations. Beth is so berated, so oppressed and ostracized that no one will help her pack when she prepares to compete. Of the three, Dominic remains the most optimistic and memorable. Briefly held as a prisoner/subscription soldier by the rebels, he tells of a brother’s bravery (which may have cost his life) and the day he was told to beat a farmer to death. In calm, considered tones, he confesses his crime. The Fines are not out to defend or condemn these kids. Instead, we are witness to a literal loss of innocence, youth snatched away by equally young men who play the “only following orders” card when confronted.

Indeed, one of War/Dance‘s best sequences is when Dominic heads to the local military base to question a captured insurgent. Defiant at first, but slowly opening up, the former “freedom fighter” takes the ‘done by directive’ stance. When challenged, he admits that what he did was wrong - with an explanation. Apparently, killing whole villages and kidnapping their children is a means of winning respect and gaining authority. The more hostages you have, in conjunction with the number of notches on your belt, brings a certain level of admiration within the rebel set. Luckily, the Fines don’t dawdle on this material. The prisoner could pontificate for days and we would still have a hard time fathoming his death and destruction explanations.

No, our story settles for the standard last act contest, with our outright underdogs (Patonga has never made it to the Nationals before, and the prejudice among people outside the North has practically guaranteed them a last place humiliation) taking on the city slicking favorites from years past. If it wasn’t caught on tape as it happened, you’d swear it was the contrivance of some Hollywood scriptwriter. With their coaches watching on, and the specious looks from the spectators foreshadowing a sense of doom, our team truly rises to the occasion. Though we don’t see the other schools in action, Patonga delivers in both its Western and Original Composition rounds. We even think that they might be able to pull off an upset. But when they totally destroy the defending champions during the Tribal Dance sequence (their choice - the Bwola), we’re convinced they will win.

The wrap up is as unpredictable as it is emotional. Before the trophies are handed out, the kids get a trip around Kampala, and to see their reactions to things like TVs, airplanes, and food stalls is astounding. For a brief, shining moment, they are children again, existing within the kind of idyllic, carefree childhood that everyone in the West takes for granted. By the time they return to the camp, conquering heroes or not, our perspective of the situation has shifted radically. War/Dance suggests that talent can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. All one has to do is receive vindication for their attempts, and a whole new outlook blossoms. As the credits roll, the Fines update us on all three kids. There are no last minute twists, no ‘should have seen its coming’ dates with destiny. Instead, we discover how important the competition really was. Beside the challenge, it changed these kids in profound ways.

There will be those who see the slick cinematography, the subjects staged like models making a very special Benetton ad, and cry foul. And when we see the Africa skyline shimmer with cobalt blue rainclouds, thunder and lightning acting as a Greek Chorus for what is to follow, the Fines could be accused of mild mannered manipulation. But when your story is as sound as this one, when the subjects have been through the kind of Hell described, a little coaching can be tolerated. After all, War/Dance couldn’t save these kids if they had to. This is the real world, one ruled by ridiculous tribal jealousies, the same petty power struggles, and the mass murder that tends to occur when the other two elements are present. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate what the film accomplishes. Maybe this will be the wake up call the West needs. Or maybe not.

War/Dance is distributed by Shine Global. Their official website is: www.shineglobal.org . The DVD can be purchased from this website.

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