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by Bill Gibron

22 Apr 2008


Poor Patrick Smash was born with a problem: a gas problem. You see, he has two stomachs, and his overactive digestion produces an excess amount of colon blow. From the time he was an infant to his current pre-teen years, Patrick has been one incredibly farty fiend. He farts day and night. He farts in school. He farts in private. And it’s caused him nothing but trouble. His father leaves the family because of it. The bullies pick on him over his continuous crack coughs. Even the teachers dismiss the needy child on account of his active ass. But when our sad little lad meets up with science geek Alan A. Allen, the two become best friends for life.

Unfortunately, their camaraderie is challenged when the U.S. government whisks Alan off to help with a space station malfunction. Hoping to locate his pal, Patrick joins up with an opera singer who wants to use the boy’s butthole as a means of obtaining vocal heights (don’t ask). When that ends badly, our poot prodigy winds up in the hands of Uncle Sam as well. Turns out, his tushy produces the perfect rocket fuel to send Alan’s specially designed rocket into the stratosphere. Even better, Patrick will be able to live out his lifelong dream - he has always wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad his Thunderpants kept getting in the way. Now, for once, they won’t.

Thunderpants is a one-joke movie that decides to abandon said gag about 20 minutes in for some routine Roald Dahl-like misadventures. When focused on the farting - yes, this film is really just an extended barking spider spoof with half-baked kid-lit fantasies thrown in for unequal measure—the movie mostly works. But once it decides to warm to the whimsy, everything falls apart. Granted, the humor is coarse, and forced through a decidedly British concept of comedy, meaning there’s lots of personal embarrassment and exaggerated freakishness to be found. This is the kind of film that wants audiences to laugh at oversized bullies cold-cocking the decidedly dorky heroes, to celebrate the inhuman stench coming out of a little boy’s bottom, and cheer as he uses his multifaceted flatulence to show up his enemies and win the day.

Such a concept is not without its charms. When handled correctly, the air biscuit can be a beautiful thing. Its combination of sound and sour substance has been known to leave many a listener doubled over in uncontrollable snickering. It’s the pre-schoolers’ first foray into funny business, an art form to adolescents, an adult’s primary form of non-erotic bonding, and the elderly’s personal entertainment element for the grandkids. But here, writer/director Peter Hewitt (working with co-writer Phil Hughes) decides to do away with the butt trumpet early on, focusing instead on a bizarre opera singer subplot, and then the movie’s main mission, using poor Patrick Smash’s overactive alimentary canal as a means of saving some space shuttle astronauts. With Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint along as uber-nerd Alan A. Allen, we’re stuck with not one but three storylines that basically don’t work.

Let’s take them one at a time, shall we. First, there is Patrick Smash’s personal predicament. Granted, it’s pretty hysterical when an infant version of our hero basically blasts away for 10 minutes straight. From the moment he’s born to the second his father leaves, tired of putting up with the nonstop sphincter popping, Hewitt has us in toilet-humor titters. But like many English fantasies, things turn dark rather quickly. Mom starts pounding the sauce, and the school tormenters go to outrageous extremes to undermine Patrick. After a while - the aforementioned 20 minutes - Thunderpants is no longer funny. It’s sad, dour, and kind of cruel.

Even when Patrick discovers Alan (a boy who can tolerate his toots because of a defective nose), their friendship is fragile and very desperate. It makes us wonder what will happen next - and then the singer storyline kicks in. Embodied by U.K. luminary Simon Callow, this oversized vocal egotist employs Patrick to hit the high notes in an impossible aria, the goal being international acclaim and the title of world’s number-one tenor. Naturally, it makes no sense, as does our lead’s ability to fart like a singing voice (where’s La Petomane when you need him?). But things really go out of whack when Patrick is charged with murder - huh? - and ends up on trial. The courtroom material is not clever, and wastes the sizable talents of Brit wit Stephen Fry. Before we know it, however, the U.S. government is stepping in, and Patrick is off to lend his anal gas to the Red, White, and Blue.

It’s the transition over to action man mode than really fails Thunderpants. We discover that Alan has been working on an engine which mimics Patrick’s two-stomach situation, but thanks to some bumbling adults (the research staff of this NASA-like agency is all brainiac kids), the system has failed. So Mr. Russet Gusset must sit in a toilet-like booster seat on the space shuttle and literally “blast” the rocket into orbit. This is all taken with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, mind you. Ned Beatty plays the God-fearing director of the agency, his occasionally inappropriate remarks (“this boy’s a fruit,” “this boy’s a tool”) explained away as misconstrued religious musings. He’s matched in shame by Paul Giamatti, skinnier than we’ve seen him in a while (the film is five years old, after all) and doing the straight-laced secret agent bit to the 40th degree.

Of course, everything is warm and fuzzy - and apparently quite odiferous - in the end, with our hated human oddities the celebrated saviors of the day, and everyone who ever wronged them gathered up for a pre-credit grab at a piece of the pair’s fame. The unsuccessful melding of the sentimental with the slapstick, the sincere with the scatological makes Thunderpants nearly impossible to enjoy. In fact, it’s so mannered in its presentation (Patrick overuses certain supposedly clever catchphrases over and over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine kids being the least bit interested - at least, after the ass-gas blasting takes a bum burp backseat.

by Bill Gibron

21 Apr 2008


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.

It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan - or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store - and wife - were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.

Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (new to DVD from Image Entertainment and THINKFilm) is kinetic. It is dynamite laced with electricity, a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre - the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.

This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy - a strip mall jewelry store - all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.

Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.

Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.

The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.

And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term - “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” - everyone agrees with the categorization.

It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 

 

by Bill Gibron

20 Apr 2008


Darren Lynn Bousman is a man possessed. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is putting the final touches on his latest film, the man behind the Saw franchise’s successful sequels wants to get a message out. “Everyone talks about being sick of what’s out there - sick of the sequels. Sick of the PG-13 Japanese horror remakes,” he says. “They want originality. They want something different.”  Enter his newest project - Repo: The Genetic Opera. A futuristic tale centering on designer organ transplants, post-apocalyptic corruption, and live on stage vivisection, the director is excited, and wary of his revamped rock show. “It’s been a hard thing - It’s been the biggest struggle of my life getting this movie made,” Bousman adds. From talking to the talented 29-year-old, it has also been his lifelong dream.

As a kid in Kansas, making horror movies was never his ambition. “Growing up, I came from a theater background”, he offers. “It was a classic story - I was a dork in high school, I really didn’t fit in anywhere.” As with most creative types, the stage set him free. “I got involved in theater,” he admits, “and everything changed.” After taking part in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Bousman’s was bitten - and his new goal was clear. “It was the first kind of experience into something creative - it was amazing and it changed my life…because I became addicted to the music.” Indeed, the notion that emotions and psychological underpinning could be expressed via song struck him as a vital and important epiphany.

“I think the thing about musicals is…if you look at music and what it does to you…or what it does to a society…it is the thing that it is crucial to our life.” He goes on to clarify, “Whether we’re working out and listening to our IPod, whether we’re in a car listening to music, or we go to parties and music is the backdrop, music is an extremely important component.” The link to motion pictures soon became clear when he watched the film version of Superstar in preparation for the play. “Movies are also important like that. I mean, what do we do on the weekends? We go see the new movies that opened on Friday night. When we go on dates, we watch movies.”

The effect was personal and profound. “I was immediately in love”, he recalls, “I watched (Superstar) again and again, and again and again. It was like…I had never seen anything like it.” Thus began a fascination, a fetish if you will, with the genre. It’s a joy that has quickly gone from appeal to an outright obsession. “I collect musicals now”, he adds, the glee in his voice rather obvious. “I have some of the most obscure things, things people have never heard of. Musicals from foreign countries…it’s just amazing.” So when the chance came to move out to Hollywood and begin his career, Bousman only had one ambition in mind.

“I got into the entertainment business to direct a musical”, he admits. “I didn’t come out here to do Saw. I didn’t come out here to do horror films.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Somehow, a script he was attached to entitled The Desperate got noticed by the studios as being very similar to the surprise Sundance hit, and soon he was collaborating with co-creator Leigh Whannel on the second installment of the influential terror title. Yet even after two more movies, the concept of directing a musical continued to intrigue him. “Music has always been a driving force in my life” the director confesses, “When a musical is done correctly, when you combine movie’s visuals with the music, it triggers emotions that are not normally felt. Music has the power to make people cry, to get excited.”

Oddly enough, when it came time to adapt Repo: The Genetic Opera into a feature film (it was originally a stage play, and then a 10 minute short film that functioned as kind of a resume reel), his previous success had no influence on studio interest. “I knew we had a great script”, Bousman points out, “and I knew music was going to elevate it to a whole other level and it was my chance to pay homage to the movies that I loved - Superstar, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Forbidden Zone.” Sadly, few would listen. “My present reputation didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.” It sounds almost surreal when you consider the success of his three Saw installment. “Me making this movie was like coming in as a first time filmmaker,” he laments.  “Even today, it’s a constant battle to get this movie out there.”

In fact, with its unique premise and wall-to-wall singing (“That’s what it is - songs from beginning, middle to end” he explains), Bousman clearly anticipated some difficulty. “It’s not Saw. It’s not The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s kind of a hybrid of all of my favorite moments from movies, or all my favorite types of movies.” Yet not even festival previews have earned the film a potential release date. “We did an early, early screening of it from a workprint cut about two months ago”, he states. “Every review has been glowing, and I’m so lucky and so excited that we’re able to do that, yet even the good reviews aren’t helping my cause right now.”

Some of this can be chalked up to the narrative. Repo centers on a dystopic society where a disease has caused a global plague of organ failures. Enter Geneco, a biotech company that takes advantage of the awful situation to provide transplants - at a price. Of course, those who fail to pay end up as part of the Genetic Opera, a stage show where the final act is the repossession of the unpaid entrails. Yet Bousman understands the inherent “weirdness” of the project, and believes that, if marketed correctly, it could find its audience. He recognizes the problems, though. “The way I like to describe Repo,” he says, “Someone tells you ‘let’s go to a steak restaurant’, and then they take you in and give you sushi. People are immediately going to be upset. They’re going to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t steak’ and they’re going to hate it.”

“I think right now, the problem with this movie is that people are thinking of it as meat and potatoes. It’s not. It’s sushi.” He adds, “I think the problem they are having is that they have to think outside of this box before they see this movie. Viewers have to go in knowing its going to be sushi.” Bousman tried to address some of the concern through casting. This, however, caused its own issues. “I had names thrown at me like (Jon) Bon Jovi, and Harry Connick Jr. a lot of names that are safe. And I said, ‘of course, that’s who you want me to cast’.” But the director would not relent. “That’s what normal people would do,” he argued. “But that’s not this movie. This movie is outside the box. And the casting reflects that.”

As part of his eclectic group, Bousman hired Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Bill Mosley, Anthony Head, and Alexa Vega. While the names may seem random, there was a strict method to the filmmaker’s madness. “The movie is crazy,” he explains, “and I wanted to make sure the casting was crazy as well.” He also took the inherent fanbase from each actor into consideration, from the classical diva-dom of Brightman to the outright media whoring of Hilton. He recognized that horror geeks would flock to see Mosley, while Sorvino offered the mainstream crime drama crowd. There was also the Spy Kids contingent - via Vega and Head’s undeniable Buffy link. The results speak for themselves, as Bousman states. “The casting in my mind could not be any more perfect. Each one of them is amazing in their roles.”

And this was important to Repo‘s success. “This movie had to have real cred. It was a major battle that we fought, credibility.” In fact, the director understood both the upside, and the downside, of going with such an idiosyncratic company. “If Bon Jovi had been brought in, first off, his audience is a very specific audience. And they are not going to respond to this type of movie.” By offering up a wide-ranging selection of known names, Bousman believes he’s kept potential audiences clued in. “(Repo) is such a spectacle. The movie is so out there. I wanted to make it a spectacle to watch as well.”

The unusual look of the film also played directly into this ideal. “It’s a cross between ‘50s propaganda art and a really twisted, macabre fairy tale,” he admits, “I love it. It’s dark and depressing.” But in keeping in line with the disinformation approach, Bousman made sure to tap into the form’s underlying ridiculousness. “There’s something so macabre about propaganda’s message,” he notes. “What it’s promoting is horrific, and yet you have a smiling person with a thumbs up on it.”  Luckily, he found an old collaborator who agreed with this approach implicitly. “I wanted it to have a specific look. The DP (Director of Photography) - Joseph White - was amazing. He was the DP on one of my first short films and I was glad he could come back and do this.”

All of which feeds directly into Repo‘s into what Bousman views as the film’s undeniable relevance. “It’s very timely right now,” he points out. “I live in Los Angeles and when you walk down the street, no one looks like people anymore. They all look manufactured.” By applying the designer label pop culture crassness to people’s insides, as well as their outsides, the director feels his film offers a clear cautionary warning. “The whole thing is - people want perfection in the way they look. I do too,” he admits. “They are taking it to extremes now. No one wants to put in the work. And so Repo asks us to look at what we are doing to our bodies, manufacturing ourselves to meet some ridiculous standard.”

He points to a perfect illustration of this idea within the film itself. “Paris Hilton’s character is great. Her name is Amber Sweet and Amber is constantly undergoing some major plastic surgery procedure,” Bousman chuckles. “Every time we see her in the movie, she changes her appearance.” Again, the filmmaker is firm in his philosophy. “It’s about the absurdity of it all, and then what happens when we take it to the next level - manufacturing ourselves from the inside out,” he argues.  “What happens if and when we can replace our heart, our lungs, our kidneys, our spines. What if we can replace our eyes. That’s what it is. It’s happening right now. Every time you go outside and walk down Rodeo Drive, people are looking more and more absurd.”

Yet even with a surreal if saleable cast and a very contemporary set-up, Repo sits, awaiting a release. For his part, Bousman is confused by the delays, “It’s not what’s in theaters now,” he states, “Repo is that thing that everyone’s been craving. It’s ballsy. It’s risky. And it will never find an audience unless the studios are willing to embrace it as different.” By starting a new, amazingly dense website (Click Here), by getting out and giving interviews and making personal appearances, he hopes a grass roots effort can build up around the film, a calculated cult that will show the suits a need for wider distribution.

But there’s a catch. “You cannot compare it, it is physically impossible,” Bousman argues. “Again, this isn’t Saw. I dare you to compare it to another movie.” He also knows that “unique is not necessary marketable.“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done three sequels back to back to back.” He goes on to add: “And my next movie after this is a remake. This is my rebellion, my chance to do something completely different. If you give the audience something different, they will find it and they will embrace it. They are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They don’t want to be shoveled the same cookie cutter machine made movies.”

And thus, the current call out and passionate product pitches. Bousman, however, definitely realizes what he’s up against. “Repo‘s a hard pill to swallow. It takes a good fifteen minutes for you to understand. There is no talking. There is no spoken dialogue in this movie,” he explains. But he hopes that, by getting the word out, he can convince those in charge to give the film a chance. “My goal right now is to inform people of what the movie is, because you need to know what it is prior to going in and seeing it,” he points out. “The reason we did it was to start informing people about what the movie is they are going to see. You can’t go into this movie blind. It will fail.”

by Bill Gibron

19 Apr 2008


In the world of Hong Kong action films, fights are the fists of fury equivalent to sex scenes. The more accomplished the actors, the “hotter” the performance. In the case of Asian superstar Donnie Yen, his career has been one big collection of kung fu pop shots. However, nothing can prepare you for the hardcore thrills of watching this talented fighter take on The Matrix‘s magnificent Collin Chou in Flash Point. The duo take a standard revenge tale, and with the help of some magnificent mixed martial arts, deliver one of the most amazing confronts ever.

For Det. Sgt. Ma Jun, pre-China Hong Kong is a desperate den of iniquity. Especially troublesome are the Vietnamese gangs trying to control the import/export trade. Among the most notorious are three young brothers lead by the charismatic and deadly Tony. Luckily, the police have someone on the inside. Wilson works as the boys’ right hand hired goon, but when a sting goes wrong, he is revealed to be a traitor. Soon his life, and the life of his girlfriend are in danger. Even worse, Wilson must testify against one of them, and the threats are becoming deadly. It is up to Ma to use his own brand of street justice - and his amazing fighting skills - to bring down the villains once and for all.

At only 86 minutes, Flash Point (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Group, and their impressive Dragon Dynasty label) seems even shorter. That’s because Bio-Zombie/Kill Point director Yip Wai Yun takes this very simple story and strips it back even further. The complicated blurring of legal and moral lines of something like Hard Boiled are rinsed away in favor of the genre’s bare bones - good vs. evil, duty vs. honor. As our hero, Yen is out to get the bad guys…by whatever means necessary. Our criminals are craven, threatening everyone (and their closest relatives) that gets in their way. Once Wilson’s predicament is created, leading to all kinds of fear and retaliation, Yun goes into overdrive. The last 40 minutes are essentially an extended chase culminating with an amazingly brutal one-on-one.

Indeed, in one of those rare instances where a single scene supplants much of the movie that came before, Yen and costar Chou redefine the big screen brawl with their kinetic, intense display. Yun adds some additional spice by slowing the movements down, using his lens to capture punches that land solidly, kicks colliding into torsos with untold power. You really feel the contact here. Even though the various DVD extras explain how hard the scene was to choreograph and create, it still seems all too real. Indeed, on the second disc, Yen and Chou describe how physically grueling and demanding Flash Point was. Nothing was easy, and yet it looks intoxicatingly simply onscreen.

There were other issues involved in the making of this movie, creative controversies that we learn about via the always loquacious guest commentator Bey Logan. He contributes a conversation here with star Yen that really explains the realm of mixed martial arts (the movie reflects Asia’s newfound appreciation of the genre-busting style) and how Flash Point was originally meant as a legitimate sequel to Yun’s S.P.L. Considering the number of known fighters used in the film, it’s amazing this movie hasn’t been more widely championed among aficionados. In fact, after watching this incredible display, it’s not hard to see why MMA is so incredibly popular.

But there is also enough of the standard kung fu stereotypes to keep the purists happy. At the beginning, a scuffle at a driving range substitutes an unusual setting for the same old posturing, and when Wilson’s cover is blown, his escape is rather routine. Yen is clearly the star here, and he gets two major sequences - the finale, and an equally violent food stand free for all. Yet Flash Point also subverts some of our expectations. After subduing his victim, Ma literally beats him to death. A bomb meant for another character takes out an unexpected cast member. There is some incredibly visual flair employed along the way - the aforementioned explosion is rendered in a Fight Club like CGI detail - and it’s always refreshing to see a camera that follows the action, instead of dictating it.

In fact, the DVD makes it very clear that Yun and Yen collaborate very closely on their films. As a direct result, Flash Point is a total reflection of both men’s dynamic - a little flashy, a little old fashioned, and very much geared toward a serious attention to martial arts detail. There’s a small amount of egotism involved, Yen specifically believing in the superiority of his technique and training. Yet when you see the results, when you witness the jaw-dropping speed and skill shown, you don’t really question the arrogance.

While some may find the story slow to start and over before any real depth or personal insight has occurred. Ma can come across as a renegade, the kind of cop that American officials would have chastised, or canned, a long, long time ago. But thanks to the pure kung fu magnetism of the leads, and the way in which director Yun cuts directly to the chaos, Flash Point really delivers. It literally kicks (and punches) the tired Asian crime drama up a few fabulous notches. 

by Bill Gibron

18 Apr 2008


If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.

As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.

Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.

At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.

Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.

How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.

These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.

From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.

Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.

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