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

 
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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


While we like to consider ourselves clued in, culturally speaking, it is fairly obvious that most of us spend our lives in sheltered consideration of the unique “underworlds” around us. For example, before comics became an edifying talking point, few people recognized the growing ‘funny book’ constituency. Competitive high school speech and debate has grown from insignificant extracurricular activity to one of the top three considerations used by colleges to determine admissions. From ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee to schools for teaching Klingon, there is an entire subterranean subculture out there, divided along particular parameters and existing within its own set of strictures and guidelines. All a documentarian has to do is break down the barriers. If he or she is lucky, they can then tap directly into the friendly fringe zeitgeist.


This is exactly what happened to Seth Gordon. When he discovered that old school arcade games – read: the pre-console titles that swept the adolescent demo back in the early ‘80s – had their own regulatory commission in charge of awarding high scores and certifying player status, he was immediately intrigued. When he stumbled across the story of Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), an ex-Boeing employee turned school teacher who was battling to secure his status as reigning Donkey Kong champion, he found the catalyst to dig deeper into the dynamic. The result is the marvelous, masterful King of Kong, a film that illustrates one of the universal maximums inherent in competition: for every winner there is a disgruntled loser, and even the friendliest levels of rivalry will be tainted by issues of cheating, cronyism, and unbridled ego.


For those of us long out of the fun zone loop, Gordon sets up the situation. Back in the earliest phase of the Me Decade, just as games like Pac Man and Asteroids were capturing the public consciousness, Life Magazine gathered together a collection of the reigning title champions for a photo op. Among them was Billy Mitchell, a long haired hero with an amazingly high score on Donkey Kong. For decades, the record stood, becoming a bragging right for its holder and, in some ways, a significant section of his overall personal make-up. When we meet Billy in his post-millennial phase, he’s a maxim spouting restaurateur pushing his own brand of hot sauce via a slick, self-styled self-promotion philosophy. He’s an energetic example of a go-getter made good, a man who never backs down from a challenge, be it in life, or on a classic joystick machine.


That is, until Steve Wiebe comes along. Your typical hard luck story, this flummoxed family man is watching his entire life slowly slip away. Jobless, and purposeless, he decides to tackle the Donkey Kong record as a means of outside the box therapy. Perhaps, if he can beat the high score, he can reclaim a direction in life. Before long, Wiebe achieves his aims, and submits the results to the Twin Galaxies organization, an entity started decades before to authenticate video game achievement. Thus begins the battle, as the validity of the score is challenged, and Wiebe learns of the backstabbing, rules violating infighting among the various Galaxy members. Even his own association with a disgruntled nemesis of the organization throws the entire process into question. Before long, Mitchell is made to put up or shut up. His response is remarkable, to say the least.


Whether via luck, fate, or the innate ability to unearth the natural narrative in a situation, Gordon stepped into one of the most hilarious, haunting human dramas to ever be associated with an arcade game. The King of Kong does a sly job of establishing its heroes and villains, painting both Mitchell and Wiebe as admirable and, in some ways, painfully pathetic. We admire and despise them throughout the course of events, wondering how either adult can place so much importance on what is, in essence, a hollow achievement. The obsessive playing of these machines, with their repetitive actions and rote memorization, is not a question of talent as much as will. Both of our main ‘characters’ complain of a lack of respect, but the proof is in the activity, not the public’s perspective. 


Luckily, the ins and outs of Donkey Kong are breezed over to get to the real meat of this story. When Wiebe destroys Mitchell’s record outright, leaving no doubt as to who now warrants respect, the many individuals surrounding Twin Galaxies and their overall lack of transparency and established ethics is just mind blowing. About the only people who come out unscathed are Walter Day, Galaxies’ New Age leader who tries his best to maintain order inside what is, basically, the chaos of individual hubris, and his “record authenticator” Robert Mruczek, who speaks of inscrutable principles and a life spent sitting in front of his TV, screening VHS tapes to verify scores. Everyone else has an obvious agenda, a reason for wanting to keep what they have while striving to be considered fair and friendly. Yet no matter how hard they try to seem just and reasonable, we see through the facade.


Naturally, all this interpersonal angst builds to one of those classic showdowns where, in front of a filmmaker’s camera and away from all the backstage wheeling and dealing, a true determination can be made. In The King of Kong, it happens twice, and the results both times are astonishing. Avoiding spoilers, Wiebe is made to prove his mantle in person. What happens illustrates his desire to reclaim his reputation, as well as other player’s manipulation of the system. When Guinness gets involved, agreeing to use Twin Galaxies’ scores as the benchmark for their book of records, the stakes are raised significantly. And as usual, it brings out the best, and the absolute worst, in human nature - and the accompanying corruptible characteristics.


One of the most astounding aspects of The King of Kong is not the outcome, but the access. There are times when Gordon captures a situation and it is so startling in its naked criticism that you wonder how the participant involved allowed its inclusion. Mitchell gets many of these eye opening moments, and one can’t help but think he was aware of how his reactions would make him appear. It’s either a case of self-assured superiority, or blinkered brazenness. Wiebe walks a fine line as well, especially when his long suffering wife expresses her clueless connection to everything going on in sobbing disbelief. While some of the outside machinations are indeed bizarre (Galaxies’ “officials” arrive, uninvited, at Wiebe’s home and harass his family) and indicative of the perceived stakes of these fanatics, it’s the individual dynamic that speaks the loudest in this stellar documentary.


Which brings us back to the topic of subject matter. The King of Kong is proof that you don’t need Earth shattering events of cosmic import to create a compelling film. Instead, as Gordon proves time and time again, playing bystander to individual’s everyday lives can offer an entire oeuvre’s worth of possibilities. There are dozens of untold stories in this surprisingly effective film, threads that could easily be developed into their own astounding statements (Day’s desire to be a musician, Mitchell’s amazingly devoted parents). But thanks to the perfect blend given the storyline, the careful incorporation of just enough to win us over, The King of Kong doesn’t feel fractured. Instead, it’s flawless. It’s not just proof that fact is more compelling than fiction – it’s an acknowledgement that, buried beneath the standard social fabric is a wealth of untapped material just waiting to be discovered. Audiences will be glad that this director went digging.



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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007


When lists are made of the important post-modern movies, Jaws usually gets its due. It’s heralded for its breakout blockbuster novelty, and illustrative of the Tinsel Town transformation from art into artifice. Fans point to its endearing entertainment value and scholars compliment its wise decision to marginalize the monster – in this case, a wonky and unwieldy mechanical shark – for the sake of some solid suspense. But beyond the commercial and the critical, few have noted its cultural significance. While Star Wars and Halloween get all the obsessive, geek glory, Stephen Spielberg’s expert exercise in flawless filmmaking is the popular kid who can’t catch a break when it comes to lasting social and industry significance – until now.


The Shark is Still Working says it all. It’s a double edged announcement, a title reference back to a seminal statement made during Jaws’ tenuous production. It’s also the name of Erik Hollander’s near definitive documentary on the film. A masterful companion piece to the various supplements surrounding the perfect popcorn hit, it’s the smart and insightful sugar coating on three decades of fascinating fish stories. Unlike DVD extras which give us details into every aspect of the production, or a generalized historical overview, what this filmmaker wants to accomplish is something far more esoteric. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of Jaws creation, Hollander hopes to reveal how a simple silver screen adaptation of a bestselling novel became a lynchpin for a greater artistic appreciation.


Now actively seeking a distribution deal, the story behind The Shark is Still Working is divided into two halves – The Impact and The Legacy. Each section states its purpose with amiability and authority, using interviews with all living participants (including Spielberg and his quintessential cast) and testimonials from talent (Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth) who view Jaws as instrumental in inspiring their passion for film. Interspersed amongst all the accolades and explanations, we meet the devoted, the long time lovers of the movie and its many merchandised variants. Using a first ever Jaws Fest Convention on Martha’s Vineyard as a central staging conceit, Hollander walks us through the initial discussions, the day to day travails, and the lasting import of what many originally feared would be a well meaning fiasco.


The first thing The Shark is Still Working reminds us of is Stephen Spielberg’s then novice status. Throughout the introductory material, meant to give context for those not born during the director’s neophyte reputation, we witness how chutzpah, matched with blind studio faith, fostered a motion picture masterpiece. The iconic filmmaker speaks frankly about his fears and his production nightmares, stating in open terms how the lessons he learned while making Jaws influence him to this day, and occasionally find him waking in a nightmarish cold sweat. Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider second the apprehension, wondering aloud how a ‘kid’ in his mid ‘20s with limited feature film experience could conceivable make a movie filmed in and around the open ocean. It’s the preparation for a series of war stories, but oddly enough, Hollander barely skirts the history.


Instead, he gives us the basics – the shark worked/didn’t work, a three month shoot gets extended to seven, Spielberg escapes to LA while second unit work finishes the film – and then it’s off to the rhetorical races. We learn how the mechanical monster and its notoriously inconsistent functionality were visualized, how Robert Shaw used his own inherent writing skills to polish the famed “Indianapolis” speech, and how a fake head and the editor’s own pool became a celebrated shock moment onscreen. Beyond the hourly battles against tide, weather, exhaustion, incompetence, and filmic fate, Hollander also explores the industry impact. No one thought the film would eventually redefine the business model, though initial test screenings suggested a modest return. Watching the project move from disaster in the making to cultural benchmark is part of The Shark is Still Working’s archeological fun.


Those of us lucky enough to be teenagers when the movie hit screens in 1975 can attest to this section of the film. From the Time Magazine cover story and numerous tie-in publications, to the numerous lampoon references, to the main movie poster, with its oversized beast about to devour an oblivious, skinny dipping female, Jaws went from book to social staple so quickly that to call it a phenomenon would be a massive understatement. Before his pal George Lucas came along to cement the status of big screen spectacle as the next wave in the artform’s advancement, this funky fish story was a clamorous cause celeb. Via montages and displays, anecdote, and actual news reports, Hollander highlights the initial impact, arguing that a kind of symbolic synchronicity between audience and artist was occurring.


As if to emphasize this bond, Carl Gottlieb’s tell all onset diary The Jaws Log is discussed at length. Considered by present filmmakers like Singer and Smith as a kind of movie insider’s Bible, we see how a quick tie-in tome suddenly stands as a constructive confessional for anyone interested in discovering just how difficult it can be to helm a Hollywood production. We are then introduced to other industry insiders like Greg Nicotero (F/X god) and John Williams (soundtrack composer extraordinaire) and listen as they list the ways – both directly and indirectly – that this movie made their careers. To see such influence being acknowledged and defended is heartwarming, especially after all the hand wringing and kvetching over the lack of logistical prowess. But then The Shark is Still Working takes it all a step further. And it’s at this point where Hollander’s point goes from salient to insurmountable. 


At Jaws Fest 2005, thousands of fans descend on the Martha’s Vineyard locations, each one bearing the amiable alms of a lifetime devoted to the film. Many sport tattoos and other celebratory body art, while a few have taken their fascination to the borders of fanaticism. We meet a man who makes a hobby out of imitating Robert Shaw’s salty sea captain character Quint, and witness as he lives out a life long dream – recreating the now infamous “chalkboard” scene from the film on the actual movie backdrop. It’s a sequence that comes dangerously close to idol insanity. Equally intriguing are the collectors, the people who’ve made it their goal to gather as much of the Jaws memorabilia available as possible. For some, a plastic cup or knock off t-shirt is not enough. For these dedicated individuals, years creating their own detailed models or lavish oil canvases remains the only way they can fully connect to Spielberg’s creation.


As sequels are discussed (and dismissed) and child actors chuckle about their place in history (there’s a monumental convention moment when the various Brody progeny from the films are reunited), the sphere of influence exacted by this film is finally understood. While it may not have a regressive recreationist society surrounding its narrative, people dressing up like Hooper and Chief Brody and reenacting their classic confrontations like a certain set of Jedi wannabes, Jaws is still cinematically significant. It stands as an important moment in motion picture history, the time when directors were finally acknowledged as the true guiding spirits of aesthetic truth. It may have been a bumpy road getting their, but as long as Spielberg was functioning, a cranky fake shark was not a big concern. The fact that, three decades later, it manages to still “work” magnificently is all that matters. 



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Monday, Sep 24, 2007


Suddenly, it’s a full blown fright night at your local B&M. Now, you’d think that manufacturers and distributors would wait until the actual arrival of October before larding the shelves with as much scary movie product as possible. But just like various department and discount stores who drag out their seasonal promotions months before the actual holiday arrives (Wal-Mart’s even doing Christmas right now, if you can believe it), the DVD companies are already crying “werewolf”. This week alone, there are literally hundreds of horror hopefuls - new direct to disc offerings battling just now making it to the medium ‘classics’ for your hard earned supernatural scratch. Certainly there are some non-genre titles peeking through the fog of fear, but with only 35 days until the ghosts and ghouls rule the roost, there’s no time like the present to pick up a few dread based delights, including SE&L’s special pick for 25 September:


A Half Dozen from Dario


While the lack of more obscure Argento titles on DVD is disheartening (Four Flies on Gray Velvet remains MIA some three decades after its blink and you missed it US release), Blue Underground is maintaining the macabre maestros digital presence by rereleasing several of his more seminal works. They include a brand new version of The Stendhal Syndrome, a revamped Cat O’Nine Tails, a revisit of Opera and another version of the Italian terror titan’s masterwork, Suspiria. When you add in the producer-only efforts Demons and Demons 2, you’ve got an excellent start to your Argento collection. Far more important to the genre of foreign horror than many will give him credit for, his recent efforts (The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock? ) have been pretty hit or miss. But with the Toronto Film Festival still buzzing over his latest installment in the Three Mother’s Trilogy (entitled The Mother of Tears), it’s time for a recognized renaissance. And we can thank the Big Blue U for getting the accolades rolling.

Other Titles of Interest


Black Book


Paul Verhoven returns to his Dutch roots to tell the story of a female singer during World War II who is forced into sexual servitude to survive. A Jew, young Rachel agrees to seduce a Gestapo agent in order to save a resistance leader’s son. Naturally, possible betrayal is around every corner. Praised for its personal take on the European occupation by the Nazis, it proved that there was still some art left in this director’s arch approach.

Bug


For a long time, William Friedkin was considered a has-been. With his rich cinematic history well behind him - including the French Connection and The Exorcist – and two decades of underperforming efforts (Jade, Rules of Engagement) ruining his reputation, critics didn’t expect much from this adaptation of Tracy Letts powerful play. Oddly enough, Friedkin defied the odds and elevated the material to a whole new level. It’s a terrifying, telling experience.

Eat My Dust


The history behind this inventive car chase cock-up is just as entertaining as the film itself. When Ron Howard was looking to leave behind his child star status and take up residence behind the camera, producer ‘ordinaire’ Roger Corman cut him a deal. Appear in this Charles Griffith action effort, and he could direct the follow-up. The future Oscar winner jumped at the opportunity.  The resulting pair of vehicular mayhem masterworks helped define the ‘70s for New World Pictures.


Knocked Up


It’s one of the few classic comedies to come out of the otherwise atrocious post-millennial movie dynamic. Judd Apatow, using all the clout gained from producing hits like Talladega Nights and creating a phenomenon like The 40 Year Old Virgin to orchestrate this brilliant deconstruction of human biology. As daring as it is demented, with the profound frequently clashing with the profane, it marks the point when onscreen humor went from horridly ironic back to just plain hilarious.

Next


Nicholas Cage steps back into sloppy sci-fi mode with this tale of a talentless magician who can see two minutes into the future. Naturally, the government wants to corral him to help with an impending terrorist attack. Of course, conspiracy theories and various cabals abound, and our hapless hero must navigate a series of double crosses and interpersonal pitfalls to save the day…sort of. Another reason why Philip K. Dick still can’t rest in peace.


And Now for Something Completely Different
A Triptych of Elvira Entertainment


Everyone’s favorite chesty horror host is back with another six films (two per DVD) from her Movie Macabre vaults. This time around, we get Maneater of Hydra paired with The House that Screamed, Blue Sunshine and Monstroid, and everyone’s favorite oversized turtle, Gamera with They Came from Beyond Space. Of course, the real selling point here is not the nauseating transfers of prevalent grad-Z schlock. No, it’s star Cassandra Peterson and her undeniably provocative bustline, a visual saving grace for the show’s otherwise cornball comedy. While many will argue over the sanctity of cinema, believing that all movies, no matter how bad, deserve respect instead of ridicule, there’s no denying the innate pleasures of seeing motion picture mung torn apart for the sake of some silliness. While Mystery Science Theater 3000 elevated it to an artform, Elvira laid the goofing groundwork. With these newest offerings, here’s hoping the new reality TV series based on finding an up to date replacement for the aging Goth icon does her legitimate legacy right.

 


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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007

The special two disc Collector’s Edition of Knocked Up will be offered by Universal DVD on 25, September. For more details on this release, click here


Let’s just label it slacktire and get it over with, okay? Critics have been clamoring for months on how to describe Judd Apatow’s sense of humor, that big screen box office bonanza he derived out of an amalgamation of geekdom and irony, crudeness clouded in the thinnest veil of undeniable cleverness. It’s an aesthetic he’s developed over the years, from his earliest days as a stand-up comedian to a stint writing scripts for the formidable Larry Sanders Show. Humor was a strong part of the filmmaker’s early years, his family dynamic practically dredged in the punchline and the observational quirk. That it took 16 years, several failed projects, a collection of subpar starting points (Heavyweights, Celtic Pride), and two beloved TV series (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) to become an “overnight sensation” is not the real story, however. How he single handedly reinvented the flatlining joke genre is perhaps the most important story of the post-millennial movie business.


You see, for a long time, Hollywood knew how to make people laugh. It was part and parcel of the burgeoning artform. Toward the beginning, slapstick ruled the day, and certified geniuses like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin setting the original burlesque benchmarks. The Marx Brothers expanded off the no sound notions and into the realm of intellectualized mania, leaving the furthering of physical fun to those masters of mayhem, the Three Stooges. Between the screwball and the sophisticated, the cartoonish and the classical, comedy was never considered a mistaken happenstance or a purely improve-driven idea. Scripts were carefully crafted, with performance strengths and weaknesses worked into and out of the narratives. But by the ‘60s, when TV taught a nation there were other ways to laugh, Tinsel Town got sloppy. For every Mel Brooks there was a beach movie, for every endearing slice of Brit Wit, there was a sloppy sex farce substituting the risqué for the rib tickling.


By the time the ‘80s had rung the category out of all its varying possibilities, individuals interested in making people snicker had to seek out another way of working. Some turned to the grotesque, amplifying the trash art created decades before by individuals like Andy Warhol and John Waters into an adolescent revamp of the Garbage Pail Kids. Others decided that the bluer the ballsier, and overloaded their plots with as much pointless cursing and retrograde repugnance as possible. While some could manage the combination expertly (Trey Parker and Matt Stone are a perfect example), others could barely manage a single successful movie out of the maximum (we’re looking at you, Farrelly Brothers). As the ‘90s slipped away, it was clear that comedy was headed for a fall. Films were no longer being manufactured to reach a universal level of wit. Instead, subjects were micromanaged down to a specific spoof demographic. Comedians known for their appeal to particular audiences were given multi-picture deals, based more on their MySpace buzz than their actual talent.



So when Apatow stepped in to produce the 2004 Will Ferrell hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, it was a wise warning shot to the coasting cinematic category. Crude, rude, screwed, and borderline lewd (it was cleaned up for a PG-13 release), it offered a preview of the type of movie this maverick would soon pursue, though he only functioned as an official overseer. No, it wasn’t until the surprise sleeper hit of 2005, The 40 Year Old Virgin that Apatow’s name was connected clearly with something he created. It was the first true example of ‘slacktire’ – a cleverness carved out of decades of filmic obsession, human nerdiness, and the overriding need for interpersonal connection. Like the obsessive venturing out of his basement for the first time, and witnessing a world that didn’t keep all its toys in Mylar cases to maintain mint condition, Virgin showed that Apatow had the makings of a striking Tinsel Town titan. All he needed was the right celluloid synchronicity to bring it all together. 


Such a project arrived with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Reteaming with Ferrell, Apatow proved to the mainstream movie fan that he could successfully circumvent expectations (who would have thought that a NASCAR comedy would be so clever) while keeping his funny bone firmly on the pulse of what makes people smile. Capitalizing on his newfound credibility – and the outrageous success of his films on DVD – the fledgling filmmaker prepared for his biggest project to date. It would be the culmination of many previous efforts, a look at family and friendship accented by pop culture cut downs and true dweeb determination. It would reflect an aging of his Freaks and Geeks personas while still maintaining a slick stoner stance. It would talk like people talk, think like people think, argue like people argue, and, doubt like people doubt.


Knocked Up became that undeniable masterpiece, a movie that gets better, and more insightful, with every subsequent viewing. What starts off like a grunge rock remake of Revenge of the Nerds quickly converts into an effortless examination of impulse, overcompensation, and acceptance. It gave long time marrieds food for mid life crisis consideration and Gen-X’ers an excuse to play videogames for another 15 years. Unlike most Hollywood films that focus on biology as a salve for what ails you (as in Parenthood or She’s Having a Baby), Apatow finally told paternity like it is – a scary, life changing cock-up that has the potential to make you the happiest human on Earth as it systematically unravels your dreams, your hopes, your hobbies, and your individual foibles. Instead of acting as a peacemaker, babies will blow your sh*t apart, if you’re not careful.


For those unfamiliar with the plot, E! Entertainment Television personality Alison Scott (a sensational and very believable Katherine Heigl) has an alcohol fueled one night stand with Internet porn providing wannabe Ben Stone (Seth Rogen, never better). A few weeks later, a baby is on the way, and the couple must decide what they are going to do. Alison’s snobby sister Debbie (Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann, very good here) wants her to kick Ben to the curb. But brother-in-law Pete (a flawless Paul Rudd) thinks she should give the goof a chance. At first, they try to make it work. Alison hides her condition from her bosses while Ben tries desperately to grow up and mature. They fall in love. They break up. Debbie and Pete have problems. Things are quickly patched up before disintegrating again. In the end, Alison and Ben decide to simply accept each other, though the oncoming responsibility of a child could still throw all that into jeopardy. 


Even in its new, expanded form (the DVD release from Universal is labeled “extended and unrated”) Knocked Up is a Tootsie for our times, a smart, subversive comedy that meshes different forms of wit to create a singular source of hilarity. It’s a combination of the practical and the profane, the character driven and the crazy. It has more heart than any standard romcom ridiculousness and goes places your normal motion picture matchmaking would never attempt. Fleshing out his constantly coupling foursome with an amazing array of supporting and cameo casting choices, Apatow never lets his movie meander. It stays constantly focused, drawing even the most oddball remarks and riffs (the bead competition, the various personal hygiene quips) into a devastating study of what it takes to be human. Unlike other comedies of its type, Knocked Up is out to expand and dimensionalize its personas, careful to give even the most obscure references a concrete connection to reality.

It’s the very essence of slacktire. It’s the knowing of how to make a pot smoking stooge both dorky and deep. Rogen’s Ben is a very decent guy, a slightly pudgy joker who simply wants someone to listen to him. Alison is also a less than perfect specimen, though her high cheek bones, blond bombshell bubbliness, and statuesque figure may suggest otherwise. It’s to Apatow’s credit that he finds a way to reconfigure these social archetypes. People who think this couple would never copulate, let alone hook up in the long term, are obviously voicing their own underlying issues. The reasons behind Ben and Alison becoming a couple are clearly up on the screen for anyone and everyone to see. He’s funny, caring, and clever. She’s open, honest, and highly emotional. Together they form a bond, not just out of fear, but via the recognition of each other’s inherent goodness.


Apatow contrasts this approach with Debbie and Pete - and in a very minor way, with hirsute homie Martin and his delightfully dense girlfriend, Jodi. In them, we see a couple settled, a pair play acting at what Ben and Alison are striving so hard to find. It’s not really love, and it’s not really companionship. It’s more or less a truce, a place where one time individuals who still long for their good fun glory days can interact and coexist without killing each other. Martin and Jodi share a love of getting loaded. Debbie does what every long suffering housewife does – she nags her already henpecked husband until, as she says in one of Knocked Up’s best speeches, she breaks his spirit. Exhausted, and with no other line of defense, he acquiesces and then she changes him some more. It’s insights like this that make this movie more than just a series of sex jokes.


Yet the openness about body parts and their various functions are also a key to this film’s stunning success (it is something that also makes the Apatow-produced Superbad stand out). Adults don’t hint about genitalia and human reproduction. They talk frankly and fully about their biological needs and the reaction to same. Unlike current comedies that feel an adolescent friendly rating somehow produces both decisive wit and insightful discussion, this writer/director is a Hard R man. He’s Kevin Smith concocting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , John Hughes with a copy of Jokes for the John instead of the Preppy Handbook by his laptop. It’s a rare cinematic bird that can take the normative and the noxious and combine them in a way to make each acceptable. It’s an even bigger anomaly to mine territory tired out from years of retarded revisits and make it fresh, innovative, and capable of resonating with a jaded and jaundiced viewership. Yet that’s exactly what Apatow does. 


What the new two disc DVD release of Knocked Up essentially illustrates is how much of a gamble making a big screen comedy really is. Slacktire comes at a significant price – a legitimate work ethic that very few filmmakers want to attempt. As part of the package, we are treated to almost an hour of deleted and/or extended scenes, and in most cases, the reasons for their removal are obvious. A few make Ben into an angry, overbearing ogre. Some show Alison as a desperate, disconnected bitch. There are moments of uncomfortable conversation between our hero and his horndog roommates, and a ripe reproach of Brokeback Mountain by scene stealer Jonah Hill. Still, the inclusion of any or all of this material would have modified Knocked Up’s overall tone. Instead of a carefully controlled combination of motives, we’d have pissed off people saying inappropriate things to each other for over two hours.


On the other hand, it’s clear that the right attitude from the cast, the crew, and the individuals footing the bill is important for a comedy’s success. All throughout the numerous bonus features found on the two disc DVD release, we see savvy behind the scenes material that extend the jokes in the film while fulfilling a kind of amusing meta reality on the entire production process. One of the best examples of this is something called “Finding Ben Stone”. In this clearly fake EPK, Apatow discusses the different actors brought in to play the loveable loser lead. Such known names as Orlando Bloom and James Franco are featured, and the recreations from the movie are absolutely wonderful. Similarly skillful are Apatow’s own “production diaries” serious takes on how hard it was to make the movie. From snippets of songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (who contributed to the soundtrack) to an overview on dealing with prima donna Asian gynecologists and real life strippers, it’s clear that the old adage remains true. Drama may be hard, but comedy appears impossible.



That’s why Apatow’s emergence and the creation of slacktire are so important. Once you can successfully create a calling card, a way of making your efforts stand out from all the derivative dreck out there, you’re more than halfway toward timelessness. Everything else is funny business fate – your actors, your timing, your apparent competition. As Superbad would show three months later, audiences remain anxious for anything associated with this man, and in the coming months, a music industry mockery entitled Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and something known as The Pineapple Express will indicate whether Apatow has staying power, or stands as a hit making machine that finally ran out of gas. Hollywood is hoping otherwise, of course. They have the man on tow for at least a dozen different productions, working with everyone from former roommate Adam Sandler to Steve Carell, the ‘virgin’ who put them both on the map.


So let’s just declare his genius and be done with it – and concocting a catchphrase is only half the battle. When we look back at the later part of the so-called ‘naughts’ we will remember certain cinematic statements: the creation (and quick death) or ‘gorno’, otherwise known as torture porn: the rise of CGI inspired spectacle ala 300; Bourne’s rebirth of the spy thriller, and the startling success of big budget trilogies. And then we will look at what Judd Apatow did for the motion picture comedy, how he saved an entire creative category from its own artistic and aesthetic bankruptcy, and we will smile. While some of his work may fall into obscurity, and other efforts pale in comic comparison, Knocked Up will stand as one of the decade’s best. It truly represents the diversity inherent in Apatow’s approach. It’s slacktire at its finest.


 


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Sunday, Sep 23, 2007


When East meets West in cuisine, they call it fusion. When they collide cinematically, it could easily be labeled con-fusion. When a fan approaches a Hong Kong action epic, they don’t expect an overemphasis on plot, a lot of confused character double dealing, and a visit from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Nor are they looking for ex-Hollywood A-list desperate for a paycheck. No, they hear the premise of a particular Asian stunt spectacle and assume its time for the spirit of John Woo to infect yet another franchise. And when you add in the now mandatory international angle (for financial and marketing reasons), the results can be inconsistent at best. For director Danny Lee, the combination cast, along with the overly complicated narrative, should have spelled motion picture disaster. But thanks to his skill behind the lens, his epic police procedural Dragon Heat becomes an imminently watchable bullet ballet.


Offered under the Weinstein Company and Genius Entertainment’s continuing Dragon Dynasty series, this 2005 effort (originally labeled Dragon Squad), is a multimedia movie functioning under some very peculiar plot parameters. When we first meet our band of good guys – a ragtag collective of cops including a sharpshooter, a sniper, and an undercover expert, among others – they are preparing to present evidence against drug running mobster Panther Duen. On the way to court, their convoy is ambushed and the criminal is eventually kidnapped. At first, everyone thinks it’s a well planed rescue. But soon, the truth is revealed. Another group of bad guys, including a disgruntled South Korean General and a sinister Columbian mercenary, are out to make the Duen Brothers pay for double crossing them. With the help of police chauffer (and ex-Commandant) Kong Long, the novice police agents intend to get to the bottom of this case and dispose of all the felons once and for all.


Clearly created to showcase a meshing of old school heroism with new jack bravado, Dragon Heat has its moments of stellar symbolism. When martial arts master Sammo Hung (as the aforementioned driver) goes mano y mano with Jun-ho Heo (as the disgruntled military man) in a close combat sequence, its pure archaeological adrenaline. Our pulse quickens just knowing that we’re about the see a true screen legend open up a can of whoop ass with nothing more than his fists. Similarly, Maggie Q has an excellent cemetery shoot out with her good guy equivalent, and the trading of carefully aimed gunfire among the grave markers is certainly suspenseful. But Lee also allows his purpose to undermine his young ones. They appear strategically inept, impulsive to a fatal fault, and marksmen in name only. During a setpiece factory alley firefight, with apparently plentiful ammunition, no one is capable of hitting a criminal, let alone the broad side of a building. Yet we’re supposed to buy these noble newcomers as the next “wave” in justice. It’s an odd juxtaposition that frequently fails to engage.


Still, Lee is enough of a craftsman to help us forget the kids and their incomplete acumen. The narrative relies on context and flashback to fill in the missing interpersonal blanks, and just when we think we’ve learned all we can about our players, we get subplot scenes involving lost loves, paralyzed brothers, and fame-hungry supervisors. Edited into the film in a manner that makes a quick and considered impact, Lee does go a tad overboard at the end, offering repeats of these montages just before the plot ordered face-offs occur. Still, for a potential viewer raised on video games and other forms of multifaceted media, it makes for a visually arresting and appealing ideal. In fact, Dragon Heat often acts like a metamorphosis between the staged spectacle of previous Hong Kong crime cinema and a new, more naturalized motion picture approach.


There are some stylistic choices that will undermine your enjoyment, especially in light of how Lee handles their happenstance. Every gun battle in Dragon Heat is a borderline irritating exercise in ammunitus interruptus. In order to lengthen said action scenes, our director makes these heroes and villains all pomp and very little precision. During a single volley of gunfire, we can see thousands of rounds exchanged, but very few come close to hitting their mark. Indeed, even when a scope shows a body part clearly in the crosshairs, the round rarely arrives as planned. This is especially disquieting during the finale. Our leads have all been talking semi-smack for at least 20 minutes or so, pumping themselves up to take on these fiends who are clearly more aggressive than they will ever be. They even get Sammo’s sage character to agree to a blade on blade rematch. But as our kung fu god is slicing and dicing with a machete, these literal young guns are proving, yet again, their lack of rudimentary trigger pulling skills.


It also doesn’t help that our supposedly formidable force frequently sulk like Kenny when he learns that Gamera is not coming out to play. Their dour, disappointed personalities often remind one of brats being scolded, not seasoned cops looking to take a bite out of crime. Part of this is Lee’s fault. Aside from a silly sequence where our agents show off their questionable talents at a pub’s shooting gallery, we never see them successfully complete a mission. They always miss by a hair, or underestimate their opponents or their strategies, leading to another dressing down by their superiors. In fact, we are told on more than one occasion that these visiting lawmen (and women) are not really wanted. They’re sheepishly given a role here because they hold the evidence to convict the local drug kingpin. But once that villain meets a rather grizzly fate, it’s fairly clear their “expertise” is a marginalized commodity at best.


Still, Dragon Heat delivers enough suspense and old world moralizing to make the trip well worth while. The inclusion of an international cast definitely gives the film a unique edge, especially when cult favorites like Michael Biehn pop up to show us how it’s done. As part of the ample added content provided by the DVD, we learn of the money men’s desire for a ‘name’ cast, some Western flair, and a native angle that spanned demographical and media interests. From the commentary track by producer/Hong Kong film historian Bey Logan to the music video like Making-Of featurette, there is a clear, calculated approach to this project which explains a lot of its appeal – and a great deal of its entertainment apprehension. Call it a “too many cooks” conceit, or intrusion by people who have no business determining aesthetic, but the “everything to everyone” designs are apparent all throughout this otherwise exceptional effort.


Flaws and all, Dragon Heat is definitely worth paying attention to. It seems to indicate the future of Asian action while commenting directly on the expectations of and exceptions to the standard genre archetypes. It’s more a movie of individual moments than all out epic of excitement, and the futuristic metropolitan backdrop delivers a beneficial, big city appeal. While it would have been nice to see more hand to hand combat vs. all the non-stop firefighting, the final result is something even the most jaded slo-mo shoot out lover could embrace. In some ways, Dragon Heat expertly mirrors the guerilla style of battle exploding all across the post-millennial urban landscape. While duty and honor are still important, quick reflexes and a brazen determination are far more valuable. This is one fusion film that actually works – in spite of itself.


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