Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Jennifer Lopez is the new Barbra Streisand. No, old Butta Babs can still act and sing rings around this entertainment wannabe. No, where J-Lo matches the Oscar winning diva is in the oversized ego department. Rumors of her self-importance have long been legendary, but no reported hubris can match the outright narcissism of El Cantante, the overwrought biopic of New York salsa king Hector Lavoe. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, a movie centering on a charismatic yet troubled Puerto Rican vocalist who helped bring Latin music to the mainstream, has somehow turned into a vanity project for the questionable talents of the ersatz artist formerly known as ‘Bennifer’. Instead of concentrating on what made Lavoe an icon amongst his people, what we end up with is a Hispanic Taming of the Shrew where the title humanizing never occurs. In fact, a better name for this movie would have been Sid and Nancita.


In one of the most awkward narrative devices possible, we meet the former Mrs. Lavoe, a firebrand biz-nitch named Puchi, during a supposed 2002 interview. She is there to tell her side of the story, about how she met a meek little talent named Hector Perez and guided him through the jaded jungles of the music industry to create a crossover superstar. Jumping around in time and from personal perspective to perspective, we learn that Hector lost his mother when he was five, and started singing to give ‘voice to his pain’, or so his father said. Lured to New York like his dead beat, drug dealing brother, the future phenomenon meets the booty dancing hot stuff one night at a club. Before you know it, the two are inseparable, smoking cigarettes and screaming at each other in Spanish. Lavoe hooks up with another popular performer, they take Manhattan by storm, and then decide fame is too much fun. So Lavoe lets his wife ruin his life, he turns to heroin, and eventually dies of AIDs.


That’s a lot of ground to cover, and director Leon Ichaso can’t handle it all. To be fair, it’s a task no filmmaker could manage. To understand the importance of Lavoe and the music he made, you have to focus on his life story, the history of Hispanic music in America, the growing tide of Latino pride in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘deal with the devil’ intricacies of the era’s music industry, and the psychological lure of drugs and self-destructive behavior. And then you have to add that bitter banshee on wheels, Puchi. Given the fact that Ms. Lopez and her third husband, Mr. Anthony, are in the leads, we assume more time will be spent with the couple. But Ichaso doesn’t know how to deal with them, and that’s when a certain female pop poseur takes over. The camera constantly focuses on J-Lo. When Lavoe is hurting, we get HER reactions. When Lavoe is singing, we see HER response. When Lavoe is strung out on drugs, we are awarded HER emotional unease. While it seems surreal, Hector Lavoe is actually a stranger in his own life story.


And that’s really too bad, cause if we learn anything from this lumbering biography it’s that Marc Anthony can sure carry a tune. In fact, if you find clips of Lavoe on the Web, you’ll swear the man playing him has a much better set of pipes. Selling every song with passion and power (even though Ichaso stoops to subtitling the lyrics, as if his actor’s interpretation is not enough), this is one chart topper who can actually deliver the goods. He may be rather lightweight in the dramatic moments, but we merely chalk it up to the character’s offstage persona. Sadly, El Cantante reduces Lavoe to a series of suicidal standards – addicted to dope, unhappy in life, confined in marriage – and yet when Anthony stands up to sing another song, we forgive him his collection of clichés.


Ms. Lopez, on the other hand, has no such safety net. She just goes out there on a ludicrous limb each and every time, delivering her domineering dialogue like someone crowned her queen of the she-devils. There is not a single redeeming aspect to her overdone, manipulative ‘mamacita’. In one scene, where Anthony’s Lavoe simply wants to watch his son dance, Jenny from the Block does everything she can to drive him to distraction. When he picks up the present his kid gave him and throws it to the floor, we forget the implied sentimental value of the item, and hope a shard or two lodged in Puchi’s voice-box. In many ways, she’s the Puerto Rican version of Norbit’s Rasputia – loud, crude, vindictive, and absolutely irredeemable. While the script and direction definitely drag El Cantante down, the portrait of Puchi in this film – true or false – places the final perfectly groomed and polished nails in the movie’s creative coffin.


There are other things that don’t work here, either. Throughout the first half of the film, the shady dealings of the managers and record labels behind Lavoe are hinted at and alluded to. Naturally, nothing comes of this. Similarly, the singer is described as being irresponsible, failing to show up to gigs and giving less than his all come show time. Yet every concert sequence is electrifyingly flawless, the crooner captivating his insanely loyal crowd. Even his nervous breakdown occurs off camera. Puchi discusses it, we see a brief scene of a zoned out Anthony, and then the couple is cooing over a backdrop of the Big Apple, relieved that everything is all right again. No Snake Pit freak out. No straight jacket screeching for this quickly cured basket case. In some ways, a docudrama with Lavoe’s story told via interviews, with Anthony recreating his presence on stage, would have worked a heck of a lot better than this Punch and Judy joke. If we wanted to see spouse’s spar with each other, we’d simply turn on Lifetime – or Dateline NBC.


It is clear that fans of this man and his music will have very little problem with the way they are portrayed in El Cantante. Lavoe comes across as a stained saint, and his presence on stage and in front of a microphone is solid. That just leaves Puchi as scapegoat for all the sorrow in his life – and isn’t it odd that Jennifer Lopez is left holding this particular bag. Maybe this is some kind of karmic payback for all the rotten things she’s rumored to have done over the last few years. From fiancés left in her wake,to full blown diva tantrums over insignificant petty issues, she’s singlehandedly destroyed any legitimacy she had as an artist. While one can blame the tabloids all they want, the proof of her unbridled hubris is plastered all over every frame of El Cantante. We were supposed to learn about how an earnest immigrant singer overcame obstacles to redefine salsa for the ‘70s. Instead, we discover that Jennifer Lopez is one out of control ogre – and that Marc Anthony will have a solid career, with or without her.



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Friday, Aug 3, 2007


It’s been a tough week for film fans. We lost Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, French film star Michel Serrault (Albin in La Cages aux Folles), and make-up artist William Tuttle (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Young Frankenstein). It seemed like, for a while there, every time you opened your browser and clicked on your standard Internet news page, another famous face had left us. All loss is hard, but when it comes to the passing of our cinematic stalwarts, the forced filmic perspective is especially brutal. Who, if anyone, will be stepping in to take the place of such exalted names – and if there is no one waiting in the wings, why not? Could it be that Hollywood is so busy making a buck that they can’t be bothered by art anymore? That’s possible. It could also be that we aren’t looking in the right places. There are plenty of magnificent moviemakers out there, but unless they manage some sort of commercial appeal, they get left out of the cultural mix. Maybe the premium pay cable channel offerings for 04 August will shed some light on the subject. There’s at least one amazing movie in the bunch, something that could very easily stand the test of aesthetic time:


Premiere Pick
The Prestige


Yes, it does appear that SE&L will pimp this brilliant Chris Nolan film every chance it gets, but the reason for such shilling is simple – this is one of the best movies of the last ten years. Complicated, lush, and teaming with emotional heft, this story of competing magicians and the mistake that would forever connect their lives works as a thriller, a perfect period piece, a classic whodunit, and a clever combination of eye and mind candy. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have never been better, and Nolan’s eye for detail and definition turn even the most minor moments into something significant and epic. With all its terrific twists and turns, it’s intricate character work, and brilliant basis in the weird world of magic and illusions, we wind up with something that resonates well beyond its limits as legitimate entertainment. What we have here is a masterpiece, and it’s a stunning sight to behold. (04 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Last Kiss


When Garden State arrives in theaters way back in 2004, pundits were predicting that star Zach Braff (who also wrote and directed) would wind up a genial generational guiding light. Fast forward two years and this sloppy anti-rom com has more or less robbed him of his aesthetic cred. Playing an indecisive dolt who can’t choose between his giving fiancé and a gal he used to grope in college, we wind up witnessing slacker ennui at its most aggravating. (04 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Marine


Glorified guilty pleasure alert! WWE wrestler John Sena stars as a stoic military man who makes a mistake, and finds himself all pumped up with no place to go. Luckily, his wife gets kidnapped by some escaping criminals, so all that lethal government sponsored training doesn’t go to waste. The result is a minimum of exposition and a lot of explosions. It’s not a great film, but is sure beats a Saturday night alone – sort of. (04 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


An Inconvenient Truth


Al Gore may not have won the electoral war, but he sure is making more significant global changes than the rube the Red States put in office. This Oscar winning warning about the legitimate threat from climate change challenges the conventional wisdom about nature’s resilience while offering practical solutions to save our environment. No wonder it became an indie doc phenomenon. The voting public may be persuadable, but they’re not dumb. (03 August, Showtime, 5PM EST)

Indie Pick
Half Nelson


The story sounds slightly sensational – well meaning inner city teacher reaches out and connects with his underprivileged students by day, goes home and smoke crack like an addict at night. Yet Ryan Fleck reached ridiculously splendid heights with just such a premise. Thanks in no small part to the award winning work of another same named star – the unbelievably brilliant Ryan Gosling – the outsider auteur found a happy, hopeful medium between outrageous and original. While many praised the star for his solid, skillful turn, a great deal of attention focused on Shareeka Epps, playing the inner city kid who stumbles upon her instructor’s dirty little secret. The two share a bond that’s both believable and breathtaking, making the movie more than just an examination of social status, race relations, and dire personal problems. In fact, what Fleck does better than most in his particular position is find the humanity inside the horror. If you haven’t already seen it, now’s the time to do so. (04 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


The Coen Brothers surprised everyone, including their tuned-in fanbase, when they answered the slick pot smoke swagger of The Big Lebowski with this period piece take on Homer’s Odyssey. Even more unusual, they loaded up the soundtrack with classic country and bluegrass tunes, acting like a Greek chorus for all the shinbone alley shenanigans going on. The result was the boys’ biggest mainstream hit, and a Grammy winning soundtrack album to boot. (05 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance


Oldboy gets all the glory. Lady Vengeance gets all the geeks. But this first installment in Chan-wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy set the standards by which both its sequels function. While the narrative falls outside the mob war mandates of the standard Asian action flick, this diligent director does such a great job with his scripts that we don’t miss the mafia. In fact, Park’s proposal that all humans have an inherent need for justice speaks louder than any slow-motion gunplay. (06 August, Sundance Channel, 2:45AM EST)

Employee of the Month


Don’t get nervous – SE&L hasn’t lost its mind and decided to champion that horrible Dane Cook/Jessica Simpson comedy from last year. No, this 2004 effort focuses on an unlucky bank employee who loses his job, his fiancé, and his car all in one horrible day. Believe it or not, the following morning things only get worse. Hated by most critics when it hit theaters in a limited release, the small screen may be the place to enjoy this unusual tale. (08 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Berserk/ Trog


Ah – the sad fate of the fading Golden Era Hollywood superstar. Indeed, what are your options when the studios won’t hire you, the public no longer cares, and the lovely lifestyle you’ve been used to for the last 40 years comes back to bite you in the budget. Well, if you’re Joan Crawford, you buck the fudge up, drop the pretense of pride, and take any scritp that happens to come your way. Thus we have the fading fortunes of her otherwise legendary career – to genre jokes of undeniable goofball pleasures. The first film focuses on a circus “cursed” by a determined slasher. The second features the world’s least convincing caveman making nice with the star’s pseudo-scientist. Had TCM’s Underground included both Straight Jacket and I Saw What You Did, we’d have a quadrilogy of quirkiness that would be hard to beat. Instead, just sit back and enjoy this daffy duo. (03 August, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Hellraiser: Deader


It’s hard to figure out what’s more shocking – the fact that this is the seventh installment in the Clive Barker series, or that there remains an audience eager for this many versions of Pinhead and Company’s ‘pain is pleasure’ paradigm. Having long since dispensed with the Lament Configuration in favor of narratives that briefly touch on the Cenobites before going off on their own genre tangents, this promises to be excruciating – and not in a good way. (05 August, SciFi Channel, 3AM EST)

Deadly Snake vs. Kung Fu Killer


Okay, we admit it. We know next to NOTHING about this 1977 martial arts movie, but – come on! – check out that title! How can you not love something that celebrates its chop socky schlock value so? As a matter of fact, the actual translation of the original Chinese title (Tin loh daai poh ng hang chan) is Deadly SNAIL vs. Kung Fu Killer. It could be a load of derivative dung for all we know. Thanks to the tag, who cares? (02 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 7PM EST)

Mad Love


Another noted mix-up here at SE&L Central. We thought we’d be celebrating the delirious Peter Lorre vehicle from 1935 about a mad scientist who substitutes the hands of a gifted pianist with those of a serial killer. Instead, we get Drew Barrymore going insane, and her good natured doormat bohunk Chris O’Donnell desperate to save her. Sigh. Oh well, they say this movie has its moments. We’ll have to take their word for it.  (09 August, Indieplex, 7:20PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

The Summer of 2007 has been tough on the tre-quel: that seemingly final chapter in a studio mandated trilogy or continuing franchise. So far, we’ve had the excellent Pirates pic, the so-so Spider-man saga, and the dreadful stench of the latest Shrek mess. Yet if one is looking for a clear winner in the three-peat paradigm, it would be that latest attempt to reclaim his part by the amnesiac government assassin, Jason Bourne. As portrayed with Cold War cruelness by a breathtaking Matt Damon, the latest installment in the Robert Ludlum inspired series picks up six weeks after the event in the preceding chapter. Also back are the team behind Supremacy’s success—screenwriter Tony Gilroy and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass. But the maintenance of creative continuity is only one of the newly named Bourne Ultimatum’s saving graces. As with any last acts, the inevitable clash between mystery solved and said truth’s significance offers a sizeable challenge. Here, it creates a compelling and clever espionage thriller.


With his girlfriend dead and his memory intermittent, our aggressive anti-hero is still trying to figure out who he is, and why the government trained him to kill. While following up leads in Moscow, Bourne learns of a reporter who is threatening to blow the lid off some special ops project code named “Blackbriar”. Desperate to discover what he’s found—and more importantly—the source that gave him all this classified information, Bourne heads to London and contacts the journalist. Unfortunately, the CIA, lead by devious department head Noah Vosen, wants the same data. While agent Pamela Landy continues to help the troubled operative, higher ups in the bureau want both Bourne and the journalist silenced—forever. Bourne eventually finds himself in Spain, seeking a man who once supervised the entire Blackbriar project. There, he runs into another old friend, agent Nicky Parsons, who helps him track his target to Tangiers. Of course, there are hired killers everywhere, and Bourne narrowly escapes with his life. All paths lead right back to the US, and as his memory returns, so does his resolve to expose the agency’s wrongdoing once and for all.


It seems like a complicated cat and mouse exercise, but the great thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that all the spy vs. spy intrigue is carefully controlled and eagerly explained. Greengrass knows that modern audiences, not used to thinking during their action packed stunt setpieces, need this kind of material spoon fed to them. So every once in a while, he lets his wildly erratic handheld camera settle down for a few seconds, so that important pieces of the puzzle can be fitted together. Since some have complained that the director’s ‘from the gut’ approach to cinematography can lead to a nauseating case of shaken camera syndrome, not only do these sequences aid the exposition, but they also help the queasiness pass. There is a wildly evocative ‘you are there’ approach to Greengrass’s style, and some will find it disorienting. But when you have sequences as strong as these, the artistic quirks can be forgiven.


Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum lives and dies by its car chases and fisticuffs, and it has to be said that some of the best examples in the genre exist in this electrifying film. It is especially true of a second act situation in which Bourne follows an assassin targeting gal pal Nicky Parsons. As he leaps from rooftop to rooftop and through many a Moroccan citizen’s window, we anticipate an amazing standoff once the significant players meet. But Greengrass does away with all the glorified machismo grandstanding and simply lets two professional killers do what they do best. Like the mano-y-mano magnificence of the extended brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live, Bourne beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of a dark, mysterious murderer, skin smacking and flesh pounding with such unmitigated ferocity the audience can practically feel each blow.


Even better is the last act car chase between Bourne, the CIA and his ally Landy. As he makes the Feds look foolish, our ‘hero’ wheels a selection of vehicles through Manhattan. Careening past—and sometimes off—buildings while squealing around corners with hairpin histrionics, it’s the kind of vehicular mayhem that’s more or less missing from your typical popcorn romp. The reason is simple—Greengrass doesn’t cheat. Instead of using CGI autos to achieve his ends, he smashes real ones up, Blues Brothers style, errant parts and unpredictable chaos creating that much more of an adrenalin rush. Yet even when not trying to take on the entire collection of black ops agents (as in the opening slink through Waterloo Station), The Bourne Ultimatum understands suspense. It’s not just that we care for these characters—it’s that Greengrass follows of golden oldie formula of metering out just enough information to keep us guessing. And once our brain is engaged, the rest of our knotted nervous system is sure to follow.


Of course, none of this would work without characters and performers who can make you believe that the random images generated by a computer monitor actually mean something in the grand scheme of national security. Behind the boards, David Strathairn is undeniably nasty as the patsy pushing buttons for the big boys in the Cabinet, while Joan Allen delivers a dynamic turn as the whistleblower waiting for the goods to give her resolve. While she’s suffered from some miscasting in the past (The Omen remake) Julie Stiles is actually very good here, playing the kind of Barbie bargaining chip one would easily see the CIA recruiting for her espionage eye candy value. As Simon Ross, the reporter holding the key to Bourne’s ultimate identity, Paddy Considine has a hound dog face that just screams extended tour of duty. Though he’s not on screen for very long, his nervous need to confirm the facts make him an instant audience guide.


And then there’s Damon. As an actor, this iron-jawed good guy has always seemed one role away from finally coming into his own. Even as part of the stellar cast in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed, he tends to have a frat boy weightlessness that’s hard to overcome. But here, turning down the volume and amplifying his noted physicality, he comes across as commanding, dominating, and most importantly, deadly. You believe his Bourne is a ticking timebomb of brainwashed brutality and remorseless destruction. While he tells Stiles’ Parker that he’s haunted by the face of everyone he’s ever killed, this is a machine managing to continue on its highly lethal path with relative ease. Without an individual who can sell us on such terrifying tenacity, these movies would fall apart (imagine his buddy Ben Affleck here—hmm…). But thanks to Damon, it steamrolls over the shakier bits to deliver boffo blood and guts.


While by no means the end of the Bourne narrative (fans of the novels know this all too well), what The Bourne Ultimatum actually represents is the final phase in both Paul Greengrass and his maturing stars’ ascension into the box office big time. By consistently delivering the goods in a genre that hasn’t been relevant since Reagan regaled the Russians to “tear down this wall”, they’ve outdone a certain Mr. Bond while proving that, with the right material and the right talent behind and in front of the camera, even the hoariest old cinematic clichés can be revived and enlivened. While he may not have had the insurmountable mandate of making pirates culturally relevant again (somewhere in cinema heaven, Gore Verbinski’s table is on infinite reserve), Greengrass got this right. After all, in 2007 spies seem better suited for spoofing. Yet The Bourne Ultimatum simply does what it does best—defy convention while embracing its best bits. The result is one of the summer’s surest efforts. 



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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s been heartbreaking to read the tributes to fallen idols Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni this week. These true titans of cinematic excellence have earned every celebratory word, every gushing career-spanning elegy. But even more depressing than their deaths is the growing sense of irrelevancy expressed by a number of online critics, bloggers, and the usual self-appointed jacked-in know-it-alls. While most acknowledge the contribution made by these important artists, the post-millennial conclusion is that both men remain footnotes, not founding figures, in the overall develop of the medium. In essence, their dispute goes a little something like this: “Yeah, their passing is important – but just wait until George Lucas goes! Now there’s a blow to cinema!” Groan.


It’s clear that time outside the limelight, either in self-imposed exile (Bergman) or advancing illness (Antonioni) have left both filmmakers clinging to their classical status. After all, in this short attention span society where information is processed and poured over the populace in streams of syrupy insignificance, two decades without a noteworthy motion picture product becomes a couple of lost lifetimes. And in the case of the Swedish cynic and the Italian idealist, they are so ingrained in the time of their triumphs (the ‘50s through the ‘70s) that many of their most ardent fans are well past middle age – meaning outside the zone of nu-media (read: Internet) meaningfulness. Thus the amicable accolades, the kind word or two before moving on to obsess over the latest design for the Iron Man suit.


In the world of web journalism, it is clear that the audience dictates the direction. Write something salient about the Polish New Wave movement and its influence on Eastern Bloc cinema (and policy) and you can practically hear the readership shutting off their browsers. Call Sacha Baron Cohen a talentless hack and watch the comments fly! Unlike the print medium, propagated on the notion of providing news of universal import, the Internet flourishes on the niche. In fact, the main drawing point during the technology’s earliest days was the discovery of like minded people who enjoyed – and in some cases, were consumed – by the same things as you. Usually limited to incredibly minor or cult entities, the water cooler wonders of such an international coffee klatch remains one of the main reasons we’ve become slaves to the router.


But over the 15 years since dial-ups went digital, fanaticism has replaced free thinking, the “I’m right/you’re wrong” dichotomy substituting for serious analytical consideration. Call it the “because I say so” benchmark, but the reason that Bergman and Antonioni are suffering in their posthumous significance is that the proposed pundits who set the cultural agenda have determined that they no longer matter. While their contributions to moviemaking can be recognized, there are others – at least in their limited experience minds – who are more noteworthy. It’s all part of a paradigm shift that suggests that old school scholarship be abandoned for the will of a more populist opinion. Indeed, if every country’s considered auteur needs to be recognized upon passing, there’d be no room on your favorite review site for a discussion of the Watchmen casting.


Now, there is a somewhat valid point buried deep within such a poisoned position. For a long time, Hollywood and the West set the motion picture schema. They determined what was relevant, and tried as hard as possible to ignore fascinating foreign trends until the box office warned of certain business suicide by doing so. Bergman was making movies for almost a decade before he became a bleak street master. Antonioni was trying to mesh the neo-realist with his bourgeois roots before Blow-Up created his cool cause celeb. Without the ivory tower trendsetters who plucked these skilled symbols of artistic globalism out of the morass of meaningless world cinema, they may have been nothing more than names on a film snob’s roster of consequence.


So it was up to critics to raise the cry, to seek out these elusive efforts in their cosmopolitan concealment (read: the out of the way art house), and convince the unwashed that these moviemakers mattered. They had to create the yardstick so that everyone else would recognize the true measure of their specialness. In a funny way, it’s the same thing that happened – in the negative - to Ed Wood. It was the Medveds – Harry and Michael – who used some anecdotal evidence about the horridness of Plan 9 from Outer Space (remember, this was before the ready availability of VHS proof) to declare the director the celluloid equivalent of a mortal sin. In the case of Bergman and Antonioni, the high minded analyzers of entertainment deemed them important and/or trendy and/or significant, so it must have been, and so far continues to be, true.


It’s only natural then that the outsider looking for a convenient way to publish their thoughts on an unheralded Japanese auteur, or disregarded British craftsman, would grab onto the Internet and use it for all its worth. And for the most part, their resilience has been a godsend. Most mainstream critics have scoffed at genres like horror and action, yet the web monkeys have uncovered and supported the status of incredible talents like Takashi Miike, John Woo, Guillermo Del Toro, and Tom Tykwer. They latched onto unknown offerings like District B13, Man Bites Dog, and Brotherhood of the Wolf, giving them a prominence that no American marketing machine could (or wanted to) create. And let’s not forget anime. While it initially made strides in this country during the ‘80s, the Internet has so solidified the demographic (and opened up the otherwise limited product possibilities) that there are now entire cable networks devoted to the cartoon category. 


Of course, such a scattered sensibility does lead to a lack of consensus – perhaps the most important component in the overall deliberation regarding timelessness. In essence, if you can divide the opinion on a particular filmmaker – say, Steven Spielberg – in enough ways, reducing him or her to a series of stereotypes and past production artifacts, you can start the process of mass marginalization. And once you’ve started down that path, the slippery slope to unimportance isn’t far behind. It is even easier with someone like Bergman or Antonioni, filmmakers who haven’t made a movie in many years and are, therefore, stuck in a telling time warp of era-appropriate appreciation. Let’s label this The Jazz Singer syndrome – no one can argue the 1927 movie’s importance as a technological hallmark (the coming of sound). But as a movie? Bah!


That’s what’s happening all over the culture nowadays. In some cases, its just jealousy mixed with the foul stench of shoddy self-realization (or in other words, just a bunch of losers bitching). But as the old guard folds, as newspapers drop their long-tenured critics and go with a wire-based set of analytical standards, the Web more or less wins. After all, while all the print people were patting themselves on the back and basking in the buffet at the latest studio junket, the ‘Net heads were back at home, watching movies, scouring rental and retail shelves, and putting in the footwork that a Kael took decades in a theater to acquire. They may lack the mental acumen to put their collection of cinematic tidbits into a proper theoretical or cohesive perspective, but they’ve been on the court playing day in and day out while the supposed Fourth Estate all-stars were sipping the studio’s Kool-Aid.


This merely makes them different, not definitive, however. A website devoted to the greatness that is Gymkata is not the same thing as another celebrating the work of Melville or Chabrol. Determining that the works of someone like Nakata Hideo deserve as much recognition as the oeuvre of Wes Craven does not put both filmmakers on the same level playing field. While the Internet may seem infinite, and your thoughts expressed on same set in temporal concrete, just remember this – six years ago, Richard Kelly and his Donnie Darko were the definitive darlings of the IPS crowd. His slacker sci-fi became such a circuit board cult that it received all manner of media exposure. Now, a little less than a decade into his career, he can’t get arrested. His most recent effort – the one year in the waiting waste Southland Tales – will finally get a release date this coming November. But the buzz has been so toxic that its failure is not only assured, it’s more or less predestined.


So dismiss names like Bergman and Antonioni at your own peril, messageboard surfing film geeks. Continue to glean through the lists of underappreciated names and write your rants about unfairly disregarded movies. Nominate your new masters and foam like fools over their inability to fulfill their projected promise. There’s a reason cinema mourns men like the ones grieved for this week – their imprint may not be modern, but it sure as Hell is meaningful. Not every Italian filmmaker deserved Antonioni’s stature, and Sweden could count the number of name motion picture icons on a single one of their national gloved hand. These men were important because, in the seven decades since they started in movies, their names correspond to unequivocally superior work. They didn’t need DSL cheerleaders to root for them. Their efforts spoke for themselves – and in truth, that’s all the relevancy they require. 


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s fascinating how quickly he ascended to superstar filmmaker status. It’s also intriguing how, by coming to Hollywood, his cinematic fortunes faded. At one time, he was the “it” director, a full blown visionary turning the dull as dishwater crime/action film into a luminous illustration of amazing motion picture pyro-techniques. Now, John Woo has returned to China to make his latest movie, an adventure centered on the Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of Ancient China. Such period piecing may seem odd to those who only know him as a meticulous choreographer of onscreen gunplay, but the truth is that the 61 year old had a varied career in many movie genres before taking up the heroic bloodshed cause. From Hong Kong martial arts to oddly romantic comedies, he was never really defined by the subjects he considered – until he amplified the artistry in ammunition. Now, he’s been branded a manufacturer of machismo, when he’s actually far more diverse than that.


Proof of this definable dichotomy arrives in the form of the latest releases (numbers 15 and 16) in the ongoing Dragon Dynasty series. Spanning two decades in his career, and covering both his days delivering definite kung fu fighting (1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry) and the last word in balls out bullet time (the 1992 masterwork Hard Boiled), these new DVDs suggest the start of a reconciliation of Woo’s overall oeuvre. Indeed, the last 15 years have so defined the man (thanks in large part to his trials in Tinsel Town), that many will be amazed that he even made movies prior to 1986’s A Better Tomorrow. And yet the signature approach that would come to be copied and mocked is there – in every swashbuckling swordfight, in every vow of undying friendship, in every muzzle to muzzle standoff. While the category may have changed, Woo stayed stalwart. It’s the reason he’s still so well regarded today.


Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

On the day of his wedding, Kao’s entire family is wiped out in an act of revenge by former associate Pai. The killer’s goal – to reclaim the estate he believes he was swindled out of. Desperate to reclaim his honor and get his own retribution, the dispossessed dandy looks to hire the best swords in China to act as his seconds. Initially, he has his eye on Chang, a former fighter with the enigmatic name ‘The Magic Sword’. Unfortunately, no matter the offer, our former champion will not come out of retirement. Kao next targets paid assassin Tsing, an executioner easily swayed by alcohol and money. Through a series of setbacks and subplots, Chang must fight another maniacal mercenary named Pray. Realizing his skills are important, and after Kao’s martial arts teacher is killed by Pai’s men, the one time legend agrees to take on the vile villain. Tsing comes along for the sport of the slaughter – or does he? In this ruthless world where men can be bought and bartered for like slaves, and women are only considered when they accept cash for their favors, it will take a Last Hurrah for Chivalry to determine the fate of all involved – antagonist, protagonist and opportunist.


Loaded with mind blowing swordplay and lots of signature John Woo touches, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is either the best feudal Chinese soap opera ever concocted, or a chance for a then journeyman director to make a name for himself inside the martial arts genre. At first, we’re not sure if the dynamic auteur we’ve come to know and worship is working behind the lens. The opening moments of this movie play out like dozens of derivative ancient Asia melodramas – characters clash, honor is destroyed, restoration of same becomes the primary concern. As would-be heroes are defined and soon-to-be villains unveiled, we wait for the trademark tweaks, the filmic flourishes (slow motion, non-erotic male bonding, balletic violence) that have come to compartmentalize the Hong Kong action king. It does take a while to arrive, and before we reach it, we are treated to other elements that one doesn’t expect from the man behind the hyper-stylized crime caper. Before the flashy fisticuffs arrives, Woo gives us slices of slapstick comedy, creative character development (including an assassin defined by his blatant abuse of alcohol) and some minor bodice ripping romance. Such facets really fill out Last Hurrah for Chivalry, deepening the potential dynamic between the players and making their eventual interaction – and fatalistic saber dances – that much more meaningful.


Indeed, once our hero Chang takes on the self-assured Pray in a one on one battle for weapon wielding bragging rights, the filmmaker famous for his many cinematic stunts comes shining through. We get the brilliant back and forth between opponents, swords swinging in drama-intensifying languid lunges. Then, when our unintentional duo takes on Pai, having to first circumvent his entire staff of hired guns, idiosyncratic killers (the sleeping Wizard is a particular hoot) and fireball blazing finale, it’s like we’re watching The Killer transported back to ancient times. In fact, there’s a great deal of splatterific bloodshed here, with bodies being pierced and torsos being sliced in tasty torrents of arterial spray. The two on one take down of Pai is particularly violent, as is the finale where a certain supposed nobleman shows his true colors and becomes a limb lopping ‘demon’. Some may feel the story too stereotypical, repeating themes and specific character types from other Wu Xia Pian entries, but thanks to Woo’s desire to bend the rules and bring on the grue, we’ve got an artful action adventure that’s as suspenseful as it is spectacular. Indeed, you will care about the fate of our two fast friends as the storyline winds down. Their final feat of virtue satisfies as it saddens.


Hard Boiled (1992)

Hong Kong is suffering through an unbelievable string of bloody mass killings, most associated with Triad activity and the selling of illegal arms. On the side of the criminals is Uncle Hoi, an old school mobster who treats his henchmen and hitmen like family. On the fringes fighting his way in is Johnny Wong, a flashy amoral shark who wants the lucrative gun running racket all to himself. He hopes to accomplish this task by having noted Hoi goon Tony turn on his father-like employer. Little do they know, but this smooth assassin is actually an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate and dismantle the operation from the inside. In addition to this down low lawman is the jazz-loving, unlucky in love time bomb named Tequila. A far too dedicated policeman, this obsessed officer won’t stop until he discovers Wong’s whereabouts, including his cache of arms, and puts a stop to his entire operation once and for all. Naturally, he winds up needing Tony’s help, and the two form an unlikely alliance to destroy the demented criminal once and for all. While one of our heroes may be in too deep to remember what side he’s on, the other is clearly bucking for payback. After all, he’s Hard Boiled, all the way.


Hard Boiled is about as close to genius as an action film can get. When John Woo bid farewell to the entire Hong Kong crime epic (otherwise known as the “Blood Opera”), he did so in a manner that both solidified the genre’s status as cinematic gold, and challenged any and all future filmmakers to do better. Obviously, they have yet to meet such a test, since this undeniable masterpiece of mayhem and machismo stands as, perhaps, the greatest gonzo gun battle bonanza ever made. Anyone who doubted Woo’s unbridled artistry, who thought he was nothing more than a shattered glass and squib loving savant repeating the same well choreographed stunts over and over again must have failed to see his growing acumen behind the lens. From its terrific opening in a typical Chinese teahouse, to a last act blazing ammo spectacle that takes place in a fully functioning hospital (complete with a nursery stocked with infants), this is the work of a man who completely comprehends the needs of his narrative. Whether it’s a random ‘70s freeze frame, the use of some outdated ‘80s synth pop, a sequence of slinky cool jazz, or moments of heart to heart histrionics between masters (mob boss/superintendent) and subordinates (hitmen/cops), Hard Boiled percolates with enough pulp potency to make dozens of derivative crime capers blush in abject embarrassment.

This is definitely cinema as a culmination, since Woo is rehashing themes he explored in the Better Tomorrow films as well as in The Killer. But since he had glorified the underworld in his previous efforts, he wanted to make one for “the good guys”, and thus we have this twisted buddy picture in which two valiant officers working different sides of the street conspire to take down a Don who has apparently seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice, considering his wardrobe. There’s a lot of talk about honor and face, vengeance denied and restrictive rules busted wide open. Though Chow-Yun Fat is the rogue element here, playing a policeman who won’t rest until a gun running ring is stopped, its Tony Leung who constantly captures our eye. We know Fat is a badass, but Leung is all over the map, from conscientious hitman to misguided psycho, and many layers in between. As a hero, Chow chews gum and kicks butt. As an almost anti-hero, Tony is terrific, keeping us guessing over his loyalties until almost the very end. Like Sam Raimi before him, Woo gets the decided (dis)honor of being so imitated and copied that his original vision can appear practically clichéd. But when you experience the real deal, the kinetic kick is overpowering. Hard Boiled is not only a great genre effort, it’s a great movie, period. Anyone who wants to argue that better be loaded for bear and ready to rumble.


In the case of both films, Dragon Dynasty does such an amazing job with the digital presentation and image transfer. Both movies show some signs of age, but that’s obviously a source situation, not the fault of some remastering engineer. Indeed, fans wondering if Hard Boiled’s print is preferable to the long OOP Criterion version, the answer is a secure “Yes”. It has never looked this clean and clear, (even though some sites have argued over aspect ratio issues). And since Last Hurrah is a real unknown quantity, its offering is an optical revelation. Both DVDs deliver stellar added content, including commentaries, interviews and production documentaries. They illustrate how hard it was to achieve Woo’s uber-violent designs, and how tirelessly he worked with his actors to achieve both realism and a sense of resplendence. As more of his older movies are released, it is possible this master of the Hong Kong crime film will develop a more well-rounded reputation. But if all he had to rely on were these two films, Woo would have nothing to worry about. Both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hard Boiled represent to the best of the best.


 


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