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by Bill Gibron

7 Sep 2008


In the world of innocuous comparisons, Jet Li will always be Gene Kelly to Jackie Chan’s Fred Astaire. The latter used his grace and tireless technique to add uniquely comic flare and characterization to his martial arts moves. The former, equally adept and expert, took a far more physical and staunch approach. Together with the late great Bruce Lee, they have done more for the Hong Kong action film than a production company filled with Shaw Brothers. Yet thanks to our previous narrow minded focus on our own interpretation of the genre, few US fans got to see these icons in their prime. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company, via their definitive Dragon Dynasty imprint, has been hoping to change all that. With their 31st (!) release, we get Li proving why he is one of the greatest movie stars ever. In this fantastic film, his truly is the Fist of Legend.

While studying in Japan, Chen Zhen learns that the master of his kung fu school has died during a challenge. Vowing to help rebuild its failing reputation, he leaves behind his gal pal Mitsuko and returns to Shanghai. It’s the mid-‘30s and the entire country is currently under Japanese invasion. Upon arriving, Zhen finds his fellow students defeated and depressed. Even worse, the new headmaster, Hou Ting-An, is failing to fulfill his late father’s mandates. Zhen takes on and defeats the Japanese sponsored training temple, raising the ire of General Fujita. He frames the Zhen for murder. Luckily, Mitsuko steps in to save the day. Prejudice against such interracial match-ups lead our hero and his fiancé to live in a cabin in the wilderness. As Ting-An tries to escape his responsibilities via a local prostitute, it will be up to Zhen to save the face of his former master and his great school once and for all.

It goes without saying that Fist of Legend is some manner of masterpiece. It features Li in one of his most compelling and iconic roles (it’s an update of the famous Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection from 1972) and shows why director Gordon Chan is considered a modern Hong Kong king. Utilizing all the standard storyline manipulations, from loss of dignity to a last act fight to the death, Legend lives up to its mythic title by taking these elements and molding them into something electrifying and emotional. The entire experience is as spellbinding as it is brilliantly bad-ass. Li has always been a wonderful fighter, and in this film he shows off every skill in his capacity. There is even a clever bit where he uses Western boxing techniques to throw his mystified opponent off guard. It’s yet another testament to the skilled stuntwork of the equally celebrated action God Woo-ping Yuen. His repute needs no further finesse. 

But there is more to this movie than kicks and counterattacks. The main theme running through Fist of Legend is the unflinching hatred between the invading Japanese and the victimized Chinese. The prejudice is so deep that when Li’s former female classmate Mitsuko shows up to offer her (false) testimony in Chen’s defense, she is rewarded with some unsettling, uncalled for bigotry. As one of the characters says later on in the film, everyone will accept the young headmaster’s whore mistress from the local brothel, but the woman who saved their true hero’s life gets relegated to an existence in exile. Not all the Japanese are evil, however. Fist does try to moderate the intolerance. During these scenes, Li’s subtler side shows through. Though he understands the anger and animosity, he chooses to see beyond the small-mindedness and social stigmas.

In fact, it’s hard to differentiate which is more powerful - the anti-Japanese sentiment (understandable considering the countries’ shared history) or the battles. Each grabs a hold of our attention and provides various levels of intrigue. Film historian Bey Logan, a fixture of these DVD presentations, states in the accompanying commentary that some of this kowtowing was clearly meant for Hong Kong audiences. Certain scenes got crowds up on their feet and cheering, especially toward the end where Li seems to singlehandedly push the invaders back to their tiny island nation with a single unselfish act. Logan also explains that the original Bruce Lee movie was so well loved that Li and Chan were concerned about adapting it. The more political approach soothed their understandable hesitance. As we watch this remarkable movie, we see that much of this narrative is layered in the art of populist myth making - both plotwise and for movie marketing. It certainly has a star capable of carrying such a stance.

As they do with almost all their releases, Dragon Dynasty delivers a content dense two disc package that should make purists proud while giving newcomers the context they need to simply enjoy. There are interviews with director Chan, kung fu “impresario” Chin Siu-ho, Japanese action hero Kurata Yasuaki (who plays the charismatic master of the competing school), and a sit down with American director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell regarding the film. Toss in some deleted scenes (always fun, considering the source), a screen fighting seminar at the Kuratra Action School, and a trailer gallery, and we have an excellent set of supplements that provide explanations as well as added entertainment value.

Yet even it pales in comparison to the rousing experience of seeing Fist of Legend for the first time. There is no greater joy for a film fan than learning the ‘when and where’ of how their favored hero earned their earmarked reputation. Here, Li is nothing short of human electricity, lighting up every scene he is in and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the powerful punches that force opponents across the room, to the sadder sequences where Chen mourns his fallen master, Fist of Legend overloads the screen with heart pounding - and breaking - radiance. It is perhaps one of the best martial arts movies ever - and just like the classic Hollywood hoofer he’s comparable to, Li does it all with athleticism, power, and an undeniable individual elegance. He truly is something superhuman.

by Bill Gibron

6 Sep 2008


The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.

Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.

The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.

As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.

There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.

Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).

Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.

by Bill Gibron

4 Sep 2008


It’s as precious as oil, and just as many wars have (and will) be fought over it. But unlike the battles braved by American soldiers to keep SUVs humming on US highways, these clashes come at the price of something far more precious - the basic necessities of life. According to one estimate, there are over 1.2 billion people on this planet without access to potable water. And of that number, the UN has targeted several million with direct emergency aid campaigns. So why is the situation only getting worse? Seems like the key word is ‘privatization’, and as Irene Salina shows in her fascinating documentary Flow, those contracted to solve the problem and financially benefiting from same have only added to the misery.

Focusing on a few foreign countries - Bolivia, South Africa, and India - and then moving to an unusual grass roots challenge in Michigan - Flow is your basic no-frills tell-all. It follows the premise that all humans have the “right” to water. Not to bottled water. Not to high priced, frequently unavailable water, but pure, clean, easy to obtain, and inexpensive drinking water. With the influx of foreign multinationals who have figured out a way to make massive profits out of empty infrastructure promises, Salina shows that it is typically the poorest people, without anyone to support their situation, that often find themselves paying exorbitant prices for dirty, unavailable resources.

There are many villains in this consistently one-sided commentary. Executives from major names like Suez and Vivendi defend their choices while we see how aimless and rather arrogant they are. A small village in South Africa must buy prepaid coupons to access their ration. But since many of them are uneducated, they must be taught the new system. The company’s answer? Appalling picture books with cartoons, all printed in English (not the native tongue, by the way). In India, a one man revolution has taken place, local farmers and villagers able to use ancient landscaping techniques to create their own renewable aquifers. Of course, once a contract is signed with a big name business, the ‘cease and desist’ threats begin.

The West is not left out of the blame game. We are ridiculed for our love of bottled beverages, taken to task for thinking what we are getting is somehow better than what comes out of the city tap. Of course, Flow fails to acknowledge that some states like Florida have such foul tasting and tainted municipal sources that a case of Zephryhills (now owned by Nestle) is better than relying on your local government. Still, it’s shocking to see people with perfectly viable reservoirs draining Dasani after Dasani thinking they are doing something wholesome and healthier. The situation escalates when a small town in Michigan battles a big name to save its own basin.

This one struggle goes to the heart of Flow‘s purpose. When Nestle loses its court case, told they cannot simply pump as much water out from under these citizens as they want, the lawyers wrangle a reprieve. Indeed, while the appeals process chugs along for the next few years, they still operate at near full capacity. It’s the same almost everywhere you go with the exception of Bolivia. There, riots and massive demonstrations force the leadership to kick out the private companies. If the people cared, says one frustrated organizer, there’d be many more victories like this.

In fact, one of the most startling aspects of Flow is its predictions about world water needs and shortages. We learn that there may be more oil in the ground than life giving liquid to go around, and at the rate we consume, the concept of privatization will be more or less a given. Salina suggests that the primary goal of these companies is control. Money may be an ancillary benefit, but if you have the power over basic necessities, you can certainly name your terms and demands. We can already see it happening in the India case. Instead of supporting people who’ve figure out a way around their drought plagued dilemma, (via rainwater runoff) the elected officials line their pockets and undermine their efforts.

All throughout Flow are talking heads supporting the policy positions offered and criticizing those who would argue free market and outright capitalism. Some make a lot of sense. Others have a tinge of post-‘60s psycho radicalism to them. This does not mean that their ideas are any less valid, but when dealing with something so large and so crucial to the survival of the planet, the more sensible usually supplant those driven to screeds. From an aesthetic standpoint, Salina also does a wonderful job of adding ambient elements to the scholarship. On the one hand, we see the standard images of free flowing rivers and streams. On the other, music modulates the foreboding, making the threat even more menacing.

Salina makes Flow function as a wake-up call to those who take such issues as an international given. After all, how many people who run the faucet as they brush their teeth, think that they are actually wasting the equivalent of a whole South African town’s weekly supply? When we pick up that bottle of Evian, do we really understand that in some South American countries people would kill for such a source? Indeed, one of the more moderate speakers believes that, just like during other times of crisis, an informed outside constituency will rise up to rectify what commerce and corruption has shattered. For that fact alone, Flow is an important film. That it states its many positions in a powerful and persuasive manner helps to limit some of the more tired rhetoric.

And still the war rages on, winner and losers racking up the casualties as a populace cries out for some manner of justice. While films such as this may not sway the conflict one way or the other, it will at least sum up the sides involved. More importantly, Flow feels like the truth. It doesn’t have the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock smugness or self satisfaction clouding its cause. Instead, it looks at a seismic situation and allows the facts to frighten everyone into attention. Here’s hoping that once the fear subsides, some substantive solutions can be discovered. If not, this is one mêlée where, if one side loses, everyone does.

by Bill Gibron

3 Sep 2008


It appears to come on suddenly, almost without warning. One minute you’re juggling a schedule to see if you can fit a few more screenings into a certain week, the next Hollywood forgets you exist and takes an extended preview hiatus. Too call it feast or famine would be an understatement, since after the lull, you’ll more than likely have access to more cinematic product than you can shake a celluloid stick at. Between Oscar screeners, ancillary awards hype (read: book, screenplays, soundtracks, promotional materials), and actual trips to the theater, Fall forces a critic into a state of solitary suspended animation. It’s just you, the studios, and an endless parade of motion pictures.

So why the dead zone? Why now? Why the lack of anything legitimate for the last two weeks? Some point to the industry’s notorious track record (load up Summer and Winter, screw off Fall and Spring) while others indicate a pro-festival format. Right now, between Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the last remnants of the old guard print media are schmoozing and cruising on company expense accounts, getting early looks at potential award winners and larding their bylines with interviews, insights, and occasionally insipid gossiping. As a result, the suits figure that few are in town to take apart their feeble failed popcorn fare. So they release these titles sans screening and wait for the season to start up mid-month.

Indeed, looking at the calendar in my office, there are approximately 12 screenings from 8 September to 15 September. Fourteen days. Twelve new films to consider. Some are being tagged right before their release date (be warned, fans of Pacino, DeNiro, and Righteous Kill). Others are being dragged out early, hoping to generate a little gold statue buzz. Such pre-prerelease presentations usually bode well for a movie. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, last year we saw Michael Clayton a full six weeks before it opened. On the other hand, Persepolis never arrived on our shores until AFTER it had won an Academy award, and even then there were review restrictions based on region and potential release.

Understand this - Tampa is the artistic armpit of the movie business. We are frequently forgotten when it comes to art house offerings while readily relegated to numerous screenings of the latest mainstream mung. In fact, you know a film must suck and suck mucho hard when Cigar City fails to get a sneak peek (I’m talking to you Babylon A.D. and Bangkok Dangerous). Heck, there was even a Disaster Movie offering the night before it opened. You’d figure that a city a mere 70 miles from Orlando (Eastern home of one Universal Studios and the House of Mouse) and 175 miles from Miama (South Beach, BABY! ) would warrant a tad more consideration. But unless we push for titles, or remind studio reps that we work here, several significant films would simply pass us by.

One of this Summer’s hot ticket releases was Man on Wire. Telling the story of daredevil and high wire performer Phillipe Petit’s 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers, the documentary has been getting stellar reviews and lots of positive press. But not in Tampa. There has never been a general screening of this film, and any critic who has reviewed it either got a deal from the distributor direct or saw it outside the area. Come the end of the year, when ‘Best Of’ lists are getting put together, many think Man on Wire will be right up there. Yet instead of using this downtime to play catch up with places outside the major metropolitan loop, it’s the clean slate calm before the storm.

Another example of locational prejudice, if you will, is City of Men. Last April, Tampa got an exclusive press showing of the Brazilian drama (a follow-up of sorts to the award winning City of God and based on the TV series of the same name). While many felt Paulo Morelli failed to capture the same South American spice that Fernando Meirelles brought to the original, it was still a highly touted release. After seeing the film, we critics were informed by the studio rep that we would have to wait until a regional release before we could review the film. As dates were set and then retracted, excuses provided and then pushed aside, we have yet to be given the go ahead to write up this title. When it finally hit DVD on 1 July, I thought about giving it a go. But since there was no longer a need to satisfy a screening obligation, I decided to lighten my workload, so to speak.

Some of my fellow scribes LOVE this time of year. It’s an excuse for a vacation, or to simply decompress from a Summer overflowing with empty entertainment value. But if you’re part of the nu-media, the ‘constantly-having-to-update-a-blog-or-post-new-content’ contingent, this lull is literary death. You have to scramble every day, digging through a backlog of material and off the radar releases in quasi-desperation to find something to scribble about. After the typical post-Labor Day wrap-up, SE&L went silent for a day. We frequently skip a post, believing that something we said previously warranted an extra bit of attention. But with no movies to talk about last week, and even less available now, it’s almost impossible to come up with a fresh or fun approach. Everything just feels - well, dead.

And the notion of four months filled with daily screenings doesn’t make the dearth seem any more acceptable. Indeed, as the calendar dates float by, one finds themselves wondering why THREE films have be scheduled for the 18th, or why some films are being shown at theaters 25 miles outside the city? Would it have been so hard to drag a print to the area for the last week of August/first of September? Granted, you didn’t want us to see Vin Diesel destroy yet another semi-solid sci-fi premise, but couldn’t that look at the new Mike Leigh comedy Happy-Go-Lucky have filled its spot? Who cares about the well named Disaster Movie? How about an earlier look at Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (which, by the way, is getting the standard Disney sneak - the night before it opens…Sheesh). 

Instead, we are stuck waiting - waiting for the press reps to decide whether The Women deserves our attention (the answer - HELL NO! ), or arguing with New York/LA publicists over whether or not they should send a screener DVD your way (“you write WHERE, again???”). Sure, it sounds like ungrateful bellyaching and anyone who has done this job for longer than six years laughs at the suggestion of a slowdown. But with something like the Internet which functions like an infinite source of information - and a seemingly equal number of individuals looking to get it and publish it - offline is off topic, and soon, out of touch. This may be the way things have worked for decades, but times tend to change. If the business model doesn’t alter its tendencies, this pause might end up a literal dead zone before long. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2008


In general, it will be known as the ‘Summer of the Bat’. Christopher Nolan brought the Caped Crusader back for another crime epic experience, and walked away with nearly a BILLION dollars worldwide as a result. At $500 million (and counting) The Dark Knight was clearly 2008’s big box office winner - and it was also the Superhero Season’s most critically acclaimed effort as well. Indeed, amidst all the Hulks and Hancocks, raging red demons and literal jet setting playboys, Hollywood stuck to the standard formulas - sort of. While there was the typical animated averageness, two clever cartoons pushed the boundaries of the artform. Names like Apatow and Argento strived to score audience appreciation, while the Wachowskis walked away with the award for most misunderstood movie of the year.

Of the 53 films SE&L sat through this summer – and we did miss a couple along the way (sorry American Teen, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, and The House Bunny) – finding 10 worthy of making the grade was actually fairly tough, especially this year. There were so many picks that practically begged to be mentioned. In general, the determination for inclusion in based on the ‘carry over’ syndrome. If a movie moved us, touched us, intrigued us, inspired us, entertained us, angered us, or surprised us in such a way that we ‘carried over’ that sentiment for days, sometimes weeks after seeing a film, it’s passed an important test.

A critic can view up to a dozen movies in a week, and differentiating between them all can sometimes be as simple (or better yet, simplistic) as a gut or kneejerk reaction. But when they remain in your mind, when you constantly find yourself replaying scenes and revisiting ideas that the storyline or characters inspired, it’s an omen that can’t be ignored. They function as mental place cards in a mind overflowing with performances, images, and words. So when SE&L began it’s basic backwards glancing, we remembered the experiences we had during these hot, humid days, and the ones still stationed in our brains got the call up.

For the 10 films selected here, more than a couple are going to cause an uproar. Populist opinion – something we tend to sidestep in favor of actual film analysis – has confirmed that our choices chaffs the average mainstream member of the audience in ways that demand unreasonable retribution. Granted, you may feel free to take umbrage with anything we champion or chide, but this is not some kind of last word consensus on creative spark or motion picture ingenuity. It’s just opinion, albeit one based on a perspective of decades, not mere years, and several thousand, not a couple dozen, film going experiences. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But to quote Monty Python, the automatic nay-saying of someone else’s point is not an argument.

In the meantime, here’s SE&L’s choices for the Best Films of the Summer of 2008:

#10 Mother of Tears
Fright fans have been waiting for this event for nearly three decades. After 1980’s Inferno introduced the concept of a continuing saga about the infamous Three Mothers, and the possibility of the ultimate horror trilogy, those who’ve followed Dario Argento’s career have wondered when he would finally deliver the last act of his terror triptych. Suspiria has long been considered a macabre masterpiece, the kind of unbridled moviemaking genius that ushered in copycats, great expectations and the possibility of even better things to come. The Italian auteur’s follow up was crucified, critics and audiences both startled by its dissimilarity to its source, as well as its purposeful sense of style over substance. Now comes Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, and again, Argento is defying convention to deliver another totally unique take on his previously forged black magic reality.

#9 Kung Fu Panda
If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda  would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.

#8 The Pineapple Express
For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.

#7 Tropic Thunder
Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. Still the movie mines enough outrageousness from its attacks on actor arrogance, studio stupidity, production snafus, and a few choice inappropriate targets. Even the moments that misfire have a satisfying self-referential quality - kind of like a satire of a slightly shoddy spoof.

#6 Wanted
Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With the release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.

#5 Iron Man
Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI. Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so ‘whiz bang wow’ that there’s no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it’s intentions proudly.

#4 Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.

#3 Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

#2 Speed Racer
Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

#1 The Dark Knight
Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. The split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.


**********

The Worst
And now, the bottom of the barrel, the cinematic scrapings that reek of lame scripts, poor direction, bad acting, ill-conceived conceptualizing, and all around motion picture mediocrity. While there are a few films missing from this list (like the latest shoddy spoof Disaster Movie…how prophetic), the ten titles here are representative of the filmic funk that soiled the Cineplex this season:

#10 Sex and the City: The Movie
A shrill celebration of materialism, sluttiness, and all around bad behavior. Feminists and confirmed ‘cougars’ should sue.

*****

#9 The Strangers
Two troubled lovers are terrorized by a trio of faceless killers. The lack of frights is only matched by lack of explanations or motives.

*****

#8 Meet Dave
Eddie Murphy plays a human sized starship (and its captain). A member of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wrote the script. Clearly, these comic world’s couldn’t collide.

*****

#7 Star Wars: The Clone Wars
George Lucas proves that he’s lost touch with everything that made his once formidable franchise famous. Even apologists had a hard time with this one.

*****

#6 Fly Me to the Moon 3D
Bugs stowaway on the historic Apollo mission. While the effects were interesting, the lack of any real entertainment value destroys the diversion.

*****

#5 Space Chimps
Another species, another trip into the cosmos. This time, simians battle an egomaniacal despot turning his citizens into statues via a fallen US satellite. Really.

*****

#4 The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor
This crime against popcorn entertainment committed one of the biggest cinematic sins ever - it wasted the talents of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh.


*****

#3 Babylon A.D.
A movie so bad, everyone except its star disowned it. This failed future shock is so uninvolving, even the characters seem lost in a cloud of unbelievable dystopian boredom.


*****

#1 The Happening
M. Night Shaymalan actually believes that this is one of the scariest movies ever made. Sadly, his delusion is more frightening than anything in this pissed off plants hokum.


*****

#1The Love Guru
Mike Myers successfully killed his career with this horrendously unfunny comedy. It was so bad that even the planned protests couldn’t attract curiosity seekers.

 

 

 

//Mixed media
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Measuring Success: The Unsatisfying Notion of "Good Endings" and "Bad Endings"

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"Sometimes stories need to end badly in order to be really good.

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