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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.


Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom - Carrie-Ann Moss - has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.


Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.


Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.


When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.


To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.


Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.



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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


When fans and admirers inside pop culture think of Jackie Chan, the image is usually the same. In a clever combination of Buster Keaton and butt kicking, lighthearted hero and slightly goofy good guy, we find a noble defender capable of some consistently comic-tinged slapstick action. It’s a carefully controlled persona, one perpetrated by skillfully selected scripts and a film façade that uses humor to brace some serious –and quite dangerous – stunt work. It’s a reputation built on real life risk (Chan is the new Evel Knievel of self-imposed bodily harm) and the torturous demands of his Hong Kong cinema roots. Together, it forges an intriguing dynamic, a joyful juxtaposition of bravery with bumbling, the sly reduction of risk by linking the hazard to the demented delights of old fashioned physical comedy. It’s made Chan famous and fabulously wealthy.


And yet it may surprise fans that one of the most successful films of their favorite martial arts jester was also one of his most serious and solidly suspenseful. Based on the real life case of a kidnapped billionaire, and one cop’s unstoppable determination to find the fiends responsible, Crime Story stands as a unique effort in the Chan canon. Tapping into the then trendy mob war mania that was sweeping Hong Kong cinema (thanks in part to John Woo’s massively influential The Killer and Hard Boiled), this tough as nails thriller finds our usually likable hero suffering through some bad law enforcement mojo. A rich real estate magnet with some questionable business practices is snatched by a secret organization made up of fellow entrepreneurs, criminal types, and a lone rogue policeman. Their goal – tap into his massive wealth as a means of righting wrongs within their own poor professional lot. It is up to Chan’s steely eyed inspector to piece together the clues and solve the case.


Crime Story has a notorious history, one touched on ever so slightly by the new Special Edition DVD release from Dragon Dynasty. Chan was a significant superstar in his native land when the script was offered to him, and initially, he seemed intrigued by playing a character that was emotionally wrought, psychologically scarred, and frequently undermined by his own skewed sense of justice. The narrative was to be as much a metaphysical journey as a standard action workout, with firefights substituting for most of Chan’s signature body byplay. Though he tries not to sound too bitter, director Kirk Wong cites the creative differences between himself and his star (on an enclosed commentary), and such a divide is no real revelation. Pressured by the studios to hurry up his output and very careful to maintain his commercially viable persona, Chan wrangled the camera away from the veteran filmmaker. Yet for all the actor’s interference, Wong’s dark imprint remains.


Indeed, the first thing you notice about Crime Story is how familiar it all feels. We in the West have had only limited exposure to the amazing output of China’s genre-jumping populist cinema, and in that regard, much of the movie feels like one of the archetypal efforts that we’re more or less accustomed to. Smoky, ersatz jazz plays in the background and defiantly ‘80s neon lights flicker behind the action. Wong’s lens arcs and sweeps around scenes, avoiding the slow motion bullet ballet of his fellow stylists. He stages stand-offs in typical chaos supporting set-ups, but then also allows his actors to use the space to amplify the anarchy. During the last act battle between one man army Chan and a cast of corrupt hoods, the apartment block setting is literally blown apart in one of the most spectacular stunts seen on film. Yet Wong keeps our concentration on the character, the interwoven stories of Chan, the corrupt cop, and the off screen victim all working to elevate the angst. 


Equally intriguing is the one element Chan fought hardest to remove from the film. Crime Story was supposed to be a serious psychological study on how the increased violence in Hong Kong (and the surrounding sanctuary provided by places like Taiwan and the Mainland) drove one stalwart policeman to basically break down. There was to have been long passages where a therapist delves into the cop’s complicated psyche, trying to decipher if the mandate to kill (as part of his job) was destroying him inside. Naturally, our good-natured, comedy oriented star wanted none of this, and he was tireless in his efforts to remove it from the script. So it’s safe to say that Crime Story is just the slightest shadow of its former self. But Thanks to Wong’s way with the storyline, we still feel the emotional pull of the material, and dread the outcome of this intricate game of cat and mouse.


Fans may feel a bit cheated by the lack of signature stuntwork here, but it’s not all pistols and posturing. During the finale, Crime Story makes up for its lack of aggressive acrobatics by going balls out on one amazing setpiece after another. The minute Chan steps on the boat to find the important clues to link the case to his fellow cop, the movie is relentless. This amazing actor falls from ferocious heights, jumps off walls with a gymnast’s grace, runs through fire and surrounding explosions, and even does some of his well-loved prop pantomime. Sure, the initial car chase is nothing so special, relying more on strategizing than standard vehicular mayhem, and when Chan chases a suspect through a Taiwanese strip joint, the level of invention is not up to his usual showboating. Yet the tense nature of the narrative, meshed with the memorable performance from our lead (who cares if serious doesn’t sell tickets, he is wonderfully effective here) turn Crime Story into a genuine genre gem.


Representing the 17th title brought to DVD by Dragon Dynasty, the added elements offered to supplement this film are what make this disc so special. As stated before, Wong is upfront and personable, describing how Jet Li was linked to the film. The death of the star’s manager at the hands of the actual Triad caused him to balk. The director also talks about the real life policeman who provided the backdrop for the story. Wong recalls how the cop responded to the numerous phone calls for advice (he wasn’t getting paid, which sort of ticked him off) and how the script was constantly being rewritten during production. It’s a sentiment supported by writer Teddy Chen, who is also interviewed here. In addition, we see a few deleted scenes which tend to support the original intent of the film. Aside from the excellent technical specifications, what makes packages like this essential is the desire to add context and other complementary elements. It helps us understand both the movie and the men who made it even more.


Such perspective is important when viewing Crime Story. You’re typical Chan fan who only knows him as the joking, genial lantern of manic martial artistry will probably wince at the concentration on story over stunts. Few will find their happy hero so winning, especially when he continues to let his loyalty to the force let a corrupt cop off the hook – even at the end. There will the obvious comparisons to Woo, the unfavorable critical assessments in view of the much lighter, and much more popular, Police Story films. But whenever an established name challenges the standards that made him or her a star, the initial uproar is deafening. Luckily, when it dies down, we are left with the movie itself – and in that capacity, Crime Story is a classic.


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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


Where and when, exactly, did Neil Gaiman earn all this geek love credentials? It’s safe to say that, outside the insular realm of select comic book purists (a mighty force, for sure), his name barely garners a blip among mainstream media hawks. Yet his has always been a presence burbling around the pop culture surface – a well received British miniseries here, a couple of sold scripts to Hollywood there. Granted, there is no denying the impact of his Sandman series among graphic novel enthusiasts, and the remainder of his writings (prose, pen and ink, etc.) have only increased his formidable fanbase. Still, when did he become the oft-cited ‘next big thing’, and why would any studio risk their potential summer blockbuster dollars on a basically unproven act. Unfortunately, there’s no clear response from the late in the season release, Stardust.


As a flawed fractured fairy tale, this only average film sputters when it should soar. It saves up its best material for the final act confrontation between good and evil, and then never once doubts the outcome. As fantasy, it’s flimsy, simply regurgitating ideas and elements from past familiar fables. This would be fine if Gaiman, via screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, had anything novel or quirky to add to the genre. But instead, he’s more serious than satiric, dishing out ‘dead clever’ conceits like they’re sweets at an orphanage. We’re supposed to grin at the ghostly visages of the King’s dead sons, each still wearing the manner of their demise. When the fabled three witches discover a new source of their much coveted immortality, we’re supposed to giggle at their glamour gal antics. From a scene stealing sequence of gay pirating (more on this in a moment) to a token take on honor and valor, Stardust wants you to leave happy, ever after. In this case, we’re only mildly amused.


It all starts with a stunted hero, the head over heels in obsession Tristan (Charlie Cox), who determines that he will bring a recent fallen star back to the object of his affection – in this case, the Renaissance fair version of a Hilton sister. When he makes it over “THE WALL” – the ancestral dividing line between his world and the kingdom of Stormhold (don’t ask) – he discovers that the celestial body has transformed into a maiden, the ineffectually ephemeral Yvaine (Claire Danes). Also interested in this newly arrived entity are the three witches Mormo, Empusa, and head heavy, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer). By eating her heart, they can live forever. In addition, the remaining sons of the King (Peter O’Toole) are after a rare gem that will guide the next heir to the throne. Turns out, Yvaine has that too. So it’s an ersatz-epic journey across picturesque Scottish landscapes to save the ‘luminary’, find the stone, and keep the wicked wenches at bay.


With its A-list cast and big budget support, there’s no real reason for Stardust to slump so. After all, if you can’t make Michelle Pfieffer in full craggy cackle mode resonate as pure evil, or a coy Claire Danes radiate with ethereal beauty, there is something wrong with your vision. Part of the problem is obviously Gaiman. He’s cribbing from William Goldman (The Princess Bride) and some lesser sword and sorcery efforts (Stardust frequently feels like Krull combined with the worst elements of George Lucas’ labored Willow) to brace his otherwise stiff English lip. And to think – director Matthew Vaughn (responsible for the heralded Brit crime flick Layer Cake) actually turned down a chance to helm X-Men: The Last Stand to make this movie. True, that eventual Brett Ratner washout wasn’t the greatest example of the super hero genre, but it was far more effective at what it was trying to accomplish than this worn out whimsy.


Vaughn does swing for the rafters, hoping to earn some crowd pleasing points by featuring former Method mob man Robert DeNiro as the gayest buccaneer in the profitable lightning procurement trade. Putting on a macho façade for his typical tough guy crew, he secretly fancies hairdressing, tea parties, and his closet full of fancy dresses. Whether he’s swishing or swashbuckling (and sometimes, both), Scorsese’s go to guy is a sly setpiece stunt, a way of taking the audience’s mind off the previous hour of meandering Magic: The Blathering. He goes over like gangbusters, and it’s within these winning moments that we see the movie Stardust could have been. Mixing genres and tones is never a solid foundation for a film, and it requires a director of deft designs to find the mystical interconnections to make it all gel flawlessly. Vaughn is not quite in that vaunted league. He still thinks swordplay should be shot with one eye on the editing room, the other on the action.


Once De Niro disappears, Stardust cruises on his glorified gimmickry for quite a while. We get the standard “will they kiss” romantic rehash, the transformation of our lead from dork to debonair (thanks to his prissy pirate pal), and a couple of massive logic leaps (it takes Pfieffer’s witch 75 minutes to find our heroes, yet only one jump cut to immediately return to her castle?). During the aforementioned finale, something metaphysically surreal and outside the film occurs. When a special power makes its last act presence known, the viewer’s mind begins asking a simple question – why didn’t they do that before. Like clockwork, the movie steps up and anticipates this charge, delivering an explanation before moving on. Maybe Vaughn thought that was clever. Maybe it’s a jaundice critical eye looking carefully for all the plot holes. Yet it indicates the kind of slapdash feel that Stardust is steeped in. Unlike other, better examples of the fantasy film, the narrative feels more or less made up on the spot.


And this is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in any work of “once upon a time.” In most instances, an audience either buys into the premise or they don’t. They follow your invented logic and brand new legends or they’re lost, never to willingly return to the shores of this daydream nation. With other examples in the entertainment arena – Neverwhere, the Henson Company’s clever Mirrormask – it’s clear that Gaiman will be a fixture in film for sometime to come. Yet it’s his future productions that will most likely leave an imprint. Stardust, however, makes the major mistake of substituting weakness for the wistful. There are parts of this film that actually try to fly. The vast majority though is grounded in a level of labored levity that never provides the wings - or the wherewithal – to get airborne.



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Friday, Aug 10, 2007


It’s a tough week for the homebound film fan. Unless you can get out and hit a Cineplex, or find the opportunity to enjoy an out of the way arthouse offering, the choices churned up buy the pay cable channels are “challenging”, to put it mildly. Two are clearly not worth your time, and another follows the familiar strains of the “go team” genre to a “T”. As a matter of fact, you could probably use your experience within this particular entertainment dynamic and just fudge to your friends about how this ‘football as faith healer’ work turns out. Indeed, some will look at SE&L’s selection, quite ‘controversial’ to say the least, and believe we’ve slipped a few aesthetic cogs. While horror is frequently marginalized as the bottom feeder of the film arena, many consider what Eli ‘wrought’ to be degradation at its most decadent. Of course, you can always wander down the page and pick out something suggested from the Indie or Outsider section. In any case, there should be something to reward your entertainment intentions comes 11 August, beginning with:


Premiere Pick
Hostel


Eli Roth took a lot of grief for delivering what many consider the opening volley in a new, sick cinematic genre – torture porn. But his ‘gorno’ leanings aside, this film remains one of nu-horror’s defining moments. Disregard its ugly American undercurrent, its obvious swipes at male-pattern sexism, and the notion of Eastern Europe as an enclave of ‘anything for a buck’ opportunists, but this benchmark movie will, in the future, stand as something significant. It works as both satire and scarefest, walking effortlessly between its bravado and body parts. Some will accuse the filmmaker of lowering the level of motion picture macabre, but such a staunch criticism is missing the point. Hostel functions as the opening salvo in the latest example of post post-modern genre tweaking. It may not always be pleasant to look at, but it’s obviously unable to be dismissed outright. Otherwise, why would we still be talking about it so long after its release? Time will only add to its tripwire tension. (11 August, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Man of the Year


Robin Williams tries desperately to reinvigorate his failing serious satire status by once again teaming with his Good Morning, Vietnam co-hort, Barry Levinson. The results, however, are far from ribtickling. Indeed, most critics were caught off guard by the movie’s second act switch into political conspiracy theorizing, more or less vacating the “Everyman as President” plot. This is definitely not Dave, nor is it a return to form for the fading funnyman. (11 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


If Hostel represents the future of fright (at least, during this recent renaissance), then this horrid, unnecessary prequel to the otherwise decent Michael Bay produced remake begins the death knell. Nauseating in its desire to undermine one of the more important franchises in all of horror, we wind up with an origin story that focuses more on R. Lee Emery’s “Sheriff” Hoyt than how the iconic Leatherface got his groove on.  (11 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Gridiron Gang


What former wunderkind Phil Joanou is doing helming this formulaic sports film is a mystery only mainstream Hollywood could solve. Granted, he does the moments of athleticism exceptionally well, but the rest of this pointless feel good fodder is just the same old clichés collected and metered out in the standard stereotypical way. Props also go to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for his excellent turn as a parole officer hoping football will straighten out his juvenile charges. He overcomes what should have overwhelmed. (11 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Gosord Park


While he was noted for jumping around genres, Robert Altman and the British drawing room whodunit seemed like the absolute oddest of cinematic pairings. Known for his complicated, interconnected takes on modern life (usually set within an unusual or telling situational backdrop), the twee aspects of such a film should have flown directly into the face of the antsy artist. But leave it to the man behind such brilliant, baffling works as 3 Women and Short Cuts to find the familiar humanism inside all the misplaced manners. With the fireworks generated by his A-list cast (no matter the project, Altman always worked with the best) and his attention to narrative detail, he lifted the standard murder mystery to shockingly sublime heights. As his definitive post-millennial effort, Gosford Park remains a delightful tangent for an otherwise very modern moviemaker. Aficionados of the auteur – and anyone else who likes quality cinema – should definitely check it out.  (15 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Acacia


Korea continues to differentiate itself from the typical J-Horror histrionics (the Japanese do prefer their spirits and superstitions) with efforts like this – a 2003 creepfest that focuses on a childless family and the unusual child they adopt. Things seem desperate for the Kim family, until little Mi-sook comes into their life. At first, he’s fine. Then the couple discovers that they are finally going to have a child of their own. Guess who doesn’t take the news all that well. (12 August, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle


For some reason, Alan Rudolph can’t break into the mainstream. His movies have always been viewed with a mostly favorable eye by critics, but audiences are turned off by his insular, obtuse take on cinema. A perfect example is this otherwise excellent look at the famous writer and her snide cohorts of the notorious Algonquin Round Table. It’s the perfect subject for a witty, biting comedy, and Rudolph gathered a primo cast. Audiences still ignored it. (12 August, IFC, 6:45PM EST)

C.R.A.Z.Y.


It’s a standard family drama with a unique allegorical twist. It’s a tired take on interpersonal relationships dolled up with unnecessary quirk. It’s energetic. It’s exasperating. It’s a 2005 Canadian effort that many have praised passionately, while others have dismissed as whimsy gone wonky. Thanks to the programmers at Sundance, you can make up your own mind. Will you come away a convert, or will you sit and stare in startled disbelief over how anything this hamfisted became so celebrated? (12 August, Sundance Channel, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Dreamchild


Before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, Dennis Potter was famous for creating one of British television’s considered classics – 1986’s masterpiece The Singing Detective. But the year before, he developed a fantasy biography of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (also known to literary fans worldwide as Lewis Carroll), incorporating the fall out for the real life Alice with some sour, almost sinister views of the world beyond the rabbit hole and outside the looking glass. The intention was to infer as much as explain, using the religious figure’s too familiar obsession with the pre-pubescent child as a metaphor for the meaning inside of Wonderland’s surreal situations. When juxtaposed together – scenes of young Alice interacting with Dodgson, an older woman begrudgingly celebrating the infamous tome, animatronic character from the classic looking shabby and sounding seedy – we wind up with an intriguing interpretation of both the book and the man who made it. (15 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

Additional Choices
Price Night


It’s the Summer Under the Stars (or something like that) over at TCM, and in celebration of one of films foremost macabre maestros, the network will uncork a collection of Vincent Price standards. Highlights include The Tingler, The Last Man on Earth, and The Masque of the Red Death. While a few of the featured titles will test even the most ardent fan, the actor remains the golden standard of b-movie schlock. A marathon not to be missed. (10 August, Turner Classic Movies, 11AM – 6AM EST)

Don’t Knock the Rock


Parents in the ‘50s had it all figured out. Their kids were turning into juvenile delinquents not as an act of rebellion or white flight restlessness, but because of that demonic music known as rock and roll. Hollywood tapped into the medium’s notoriety by releasing talent-heavy quickies which used the boss new sound as the foundation for standard morality tales. This one features DJ Alan Freed and the proto-punk Bill Haley and the Comets. (14 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Aliens


James Cameron really had his work cut out for him when he landed the gig to follow-up Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial “haunted house in space” saga. His artistic decision was a brilliant one – instead of going for more fright, he’d make a John Wayne war movie and set it on a planet overrun by a plague of the title characters. The results are one of the ‘80s best films, a whiz bang actioner that’s visionary and vibrant. (15 August, ActionMax, 5:40PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007


Chris Tucker is smart as Hell. Don’t believe it? Well, can you name another actor earning $25 million for doing the same thing he’s done for the last nine years – the EXACT same thing, mind you. In 1998, the African American comic moved from minor supporting roles in films like Jackie Brown and Dead Presidents to a starring stint alongside then hot Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan. The movie, Rush Hour, directed by novice filmmaker Brett Ratner, went on to be a massive hit, spawning a sequel and a whole new career for the newly minted megastar. After Rush Hour 2 did similar boffo box office, Tucker’s professional path was clear: do nothing; wait around until the audience demands another dose of Detective James Carter; maximize the upfront money. It didn’t matter if Rush Hour 3 was a derivative take on the previous cross culture buddy pic. It would be time, once again, to give the people what they want.


And you know what – he’s worth it. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Rush Hour 3 is junk – witless, uncomplicated, consisting of disposable vignettes of vaudeville like burlesque followed by borderline racist returns to the days of Mantan Moreland. That last analogy is rather appropriate – Tucker’s Carter isn’t a clever or confident police officer. He’s a prop, sent into each and every scene as a low brow Greek chorus waiting to make with the urban smart-ass spiel. Instead of bugging his eyes and mangling the language like those outrageous and despicable portrayals of minorities past, he’s a post-modern pawn screaming his shrill one-liners about Michael Jackson and booty with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s not an actor – he’s the Corbin-screeching character from The Fifth Element refitted with some styling clothes and a hip-hop swagger. And the audience just eats it up.


If there is any rationale for his outsized payday, it’s the fact that Tucker knows his demo. He’s not playing to suburbia, or the critics who seem to find nothing but fault in his donkey bray bravado. No, he’s directly connected to the hardworking, hope-driven people who, after paying their carefully controlled disposable income, merely want to sit back and have a good time. When he channels James Brown via the King of Pop during an opening setpiece underscored by Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, it’s not meant to have narrative or aesthetic significance. It’s a stand-up shout out to the people paying to see him. Similarly, he gets another onscreen song and dance when he tries to save a suspected informant by crooning Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You”. Tucker knows these crowdpleasing vanity fairs leave the fanbase reeling. This means that Rush Hour 3 as a thriller or other cinematic genre has to do very little to get by.


For those interested in the backdrop to all this buffoonery, Tucker and Chan reteam when an Asian ambassador to the World Criminal Court (???) is gunned down by an assassin. Turns out this hitman is working for the Triad, whose goal is to protect the identity of someone or something called the ‘Shao Shin’. All leads point toward France, and so our slightly ditzy duo is off to Paris to procure the mysterious item. There, they meet a sadistic police chief (a weird cameo from Roman Polanski), an American-hating cabby, and the standard array of misplaced Hong Kong killers. After a few dust-ups and a completely gratuitous car chase, our heroes end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they must take on gun totting hoods, rescue the kidnapped daughter of the now hospitalized diplomat, and find an efficient way of tying all the loose ends together from their sloppy, shoestring plot.


Now, some will sneer and say that us ‘haters’ shouldn’t be so dismissive. After all, this is just some mindless fun fostered by a couple of likable screen gems. That being said, success breeds imitation, and if the studios ever figure out how to create another martial arts/mismatched personality pariah like this (watch out, Jet Li), we could find ourselves back in 1986. Indeed, much of Rush Hour 3 feels like a throwback to the days when lazy scriptwriters cooked up half-assed premises so that otherwise talented men and women could walk away with an easy paycheck and a bit of bankability on their resume. While the post-millennial versions are really no better (the Ocean’s films, for one), this trending back to the days of Gordon Gecko only works when you have something novel (Live Free or Die Hard) or naughty (Superbad) to say. 


Besides, the inherent value in this long delayed tre-quel could be summed up by the proverbial statement, ‘absence (in this case, from the Cineplex) makes the heart grow fonder’. Since Tucker chooses to stay outside the cultural fray until one of these immaculate paydays come along, he gets the benefit of perspective and popularity. Had he been making movie after movie, honing his craft and redefining his skills, his fans would be angry with such a treading water workout. But since they’ve had to wait nearly a decade to see their favorite funnyman act the fool, they’re willing to leave the lack of context at the turnstile. It’s the same, more or less, with Chan. After the mediocre combo of Shanghai Knights and The Medallion, he went back to Asia and continued his A-list career. Rush Hour 3 his first Hollywood film since the incredibly lax Around the World in 80 Days remake from 2004.


Even more disconcerting, the man has gotten OLD. Gone are the days when the genial Asian action hero looked like a bewildered little boy. The last decade seems to have dragged the majority of vitality out of his persona, replacing it with a quiet resolve that, if exploited properly, could lead to a late in life resurrection as a character actor. Yet people want to see him stunt it up, and time has apparently mandated the need for the heretofore verboten double. It’s obvious during the opening act car chase through LA (especially when “Chan” is crossing a busy freeway), and as part of the last act fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There is no begrudging the 53 year old a little help – he’s been a more than impressive daredevil for far too long. But it doesn’t bode well that Chan is in the last phase of his signature stage. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.


So, in what appears to be a case of either studio shrewdness or luck-induced synchronicity, New Line seems to be striking while the iron is as hot as its going to get. Besides, since they are fully aware of the film’s inherent silliness (it could be subtitled Abbot and Costello-san Meet the Chinese Mafia) and lack of sophistication, they are banking on the frequently potent paradigm known as “the lowest common denominator” to see them through. Success will not be based on the wit – after all, do audiences still find old white ladies talking jive and oily loser lotharios funny? – nor will it be founded on the hackneyed whodunit - see if you can’t guess the secret bad guy before the initial credits are complete. No, Rush Hour 3 will earn its scratch on the carefully controlled commerciality of Chris Tucker. Just don’t be surprised when, eight years and $30 million dollars from now, he comes crawling out of the woodwork for another anemic encore. It’s apparently all he, and this franchise, seem good at.


 


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