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by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


Summer’s still sizzling away, and for the weekend beginning 16 May, here are the films in focus:

CJ7 [rating: 7]

CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course

Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom.  read full review…
 

Frontier(s) [rating: 7]

Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.

When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride. read full review…
 

Hats Off [rating: 5]

Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic.

There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested. .read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [rating: 5]

When will Hollywood learn that you can’t recapture the magic of a previous cinematic epic. If it was possible to capture lightning in a bottle over and over again, no franchise would fail. The sad fact remains that, for every Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter tale, there are a dozen Golden Compasses. The Chronicles of Narnia were reviled by J.R.R. Tolkein, the author arguing that C. S. Lewis’ faith-based fantasies were too enamored of their internal belief subtext to work as actual adventures. Mr. Hobbit had a helluva point. While the first film in the series, the likeable The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had the entire make believe mythos to deal with, the sullen sequel Prince Caspian just pours on the pointless war mongering. The Penvensie quartet is back in their former kingdom for the first time in a year. Sadly, 13 centuries have passed, and a despotic race of human Telmarines is in charge. They have all but destroyed the empire, and evil King Miraz has removed rightful heir Caspian from the throne. With everyone speaking in thick Spanish accents and relying on knowledge of the books to avoid narrative depth, we wind up with a series of long walks followed by sequences of slipshod CGI swordplay. While it’s not quite dull, it’s never the spectacle that returning director Andrew Adamson thinks it is. In the end, we find ourselves waiting for an entertainment epiphany that never comes. 

 

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested.

Though she always fancied herself a star, Mimi Weddell spent the first 60 years of her life as a wife, mother, and unexpected career gal. While never earning much money, she helped her beloved husband Dick through many a hard time. When he finally lost his job with RCA, it almost destroyed him. Yet Mimi was there, working two or three jobs, getting up at six and coming home at eleven, just to maintain the household. Of course, this didn’t leave much time for her daughter Sarah or son Tom. They were lucky to catch a moment with their mother before she collapsed to catch a few hours sleep.

When Dick finally died, Mimi decided to pursue her dream. She loved the theater and acting, and with perseverance and some unusual casting stock (there aren’t a lot of viable 70, 80, or 90 year olds out there), she soon landed small parts in film and television. She also became a sought after model, and in the process, a New York staple. Now, at 93, she looks back at her life and offers a simple philosophy - rise above it. Life isn’t supposed to be all happiness and fun. When problems come (and she’s faced a veritable mountain of them), she simply stands strong and tries to go beyond them. It’s just too bad that the movie of her life can’t do the same.

Sometimes, blame is easily laid at a film’s foundation. In the case of Hats Off, the critical culprit is Jyll Johnstone. Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic. Indeed, one of the key things we learn about the aging actress is that she’s not an eccentric by circumstance, but by choice. Her idiosyncrasies come from a concerted desire to be different, to stand out in a system that saw her as a nothing more than a gender stereotype. While hopelessly devoted to her husband (the only time we see Mimi tear up is when discussing Dick), she also needed to be her own person. So she developed a mindset, played by the standard social rules, and waited for her moment. 

That it came when she was 70, not 20, is nothing novel. In fact, the concept of the elderly doing unbelievable things has become a Baby Boomer cinematic subject du jour as of late. Luckily, Jonstone doesn’t treat Mimi like a too cute cuddly toy. We get to see her in all her cynical, snarky glory. From the time she rises in the morning to the moment she turns in for the night, our heroine acts like the most put upon person in all of entertainment. She tolerates every audition, reminiscing about jobs she landed and lost (we see clips from her few featured parts). She walks around her cramped apartment, showing off the many hats that define her late in life look (the better to hide her unruly hair).

But Hats Off misses the more absorbing moments. We learn that Mimi is a devotee of Elizabeth Arden, sometimes going to the exclusive NYC salon two or three times a week when she has the money. Yet aside from a tossed off anecdote (Sarah claims that, in response to the death of her dad, she was sent to said beauty parlor on the day he passed), we don’t learn the rationale or reason why. Similarly, both adult children still live with Mimi, though the explanation for such a set-up is specious and lacking vital familial information. Johnstone clearly believes that her star is more than capable of carrying the narrative. Unfortunately, the weight of such an aesthetic want is too great for this nonagenarian to manage.

As we watch her work out, tumbling through gymnastics and stumbling through dicey dance routines, we get hints of hospital visits and advancing physical frailty. With money troubles a constant, we also learn very little about how the clan makes ends meet. The directing would have us believe that the Weddells have always been impoverished, and if not outright poor, generally lacking in anything like disposable cash. Yet Mimi takes off to Florence in an unexpected last act dash, and the before credits title cards indicate that both Sarah and Tom are gainfully employed. There are several creative contradictions in Hats Off, statements starting off along one path only to double back and deaden the impact of previous pronouncements. Mimi may be the most compelling old lady in all of Manhattan. We wouldn’t know.

And in the end, that’s Hats Off biggest problem - a lack of knowledge. Audiences need to walk away from such films feeling something of an identification and a kinship with the subject. It’s an emotional bond that has to move beyond the superficial and the strained. While it’s never boring or lacking in intellectual color, this is one fact film that forgets to add in the “stranger than fiction” facet of the overall picture. As a result, we feel satisfied, but sadly underwhelmed. Mimi Weddell probably deserves better than this. Or maybe, this is all her story demanded. Either way, she makes for a strange subject.

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom. 

Dicky Chow and his father Ti live in a broken down building on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis. Everyday, Dad goes to work as a laborer. Recently widowed, he scrimps and saves to send his son to a fine finishing school. Sure, it means shopping at the local landfill for clothes, food, and necessities, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. Sadly, Dicky is not so inclined. The rich kids at school mock his lack of material goods, and one teacher in particular keeps the boy at ample arms length, finding him dirty and disgusting. When a particularly nasty little snob gets a CJ1 robotic dog as a gift, Dicky immediately wants one too. Sadly, his father can’t afford it. A trip to the dump however yields an odd green orb that may be from outer space. Dubbing it ‘CJ7’, he hopes his son will be impressed. The destitute man has no idea the changes that his discovery will bring.

CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course. Naturally, the nods are easily identified and tend to distract us from the bigger picture Chow is trying to paint. But if you grant the film its E.T. love, and move on to the more engaging class/kids dynamic, you’ll be rewarded with some sunny sci-fi silliness. Of course, there are other motion picture artifacts that Chow is freely filing through, references to the work of Charlie Chaplin, old school slapstick, and the Looney Tunes cartoons the Hong Kong icon loves so dearly. Luckily, a story like CJ7 can sustain such creative schizophrenia. Chow is too good as an actor and auteur to fumble things completely.

Still, the CGI creature at the top of this tale can venture into pop culture crassness now and then. There are moments when such oddball elements as the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rube Goldberg, crime film riffing, and ‘70s disco become part of the comic commentary. Seeing a little green blob “shake its booty” might seem like the height of post-millennial irony, but it comes across as unnecessary and pandering. When Chow allows the character to simply be itself, to stand as a symbol of possibility in an impoverished child’s life, everything gels together effortlessly. The minute it turns into a sloppy sight gag, we share in the need for regurgitation. Movies such as this remind us time and again of Steven Spielberg’s skill. It’s a rare talent that can turn a special effect into an emotional element. CJ7 can’t quite match its main inspiration.

Thankfully, Chow’s reliance on these other sources of inspiration serves him well. Dicky has a wonderful sequence where his newfound toy fulfills all of his wishes. It’s warm without going all gooey. Similarly, a moment when father and son share a ghoulish game of “squash the cockroaches” offers some gross out kiddie fun. An accident at Ti’s workplace has the kind of danger flecked physical comedy that Harold Lloyd and his pre-sound ilk did so well. Chow also has a special way with kids, making them come across as both cartoonish and completely believable. This is especially true of Dicky, who is actually essayed by a young girl. There is other gender bending going on as well, one elephantine young lady appearing to be a boy in bad drag (and a dubbed voice). Chow and the rest of his cast do a good job of balancing the needs of the narrative with the desire to add dimension to these individuals.

Not everything helps, however. The love story between Ti and a teacher is horribly underdeveloped, and the nonstop berating of boy by more mature man and adults will test even the most tolerant individual. Clearly, the Asians believe in the power of corporal punishment, and aren’t beyond slapping a child in the face once in a while. It’s moments like these that argue for CJ7‘s foreign film foundation. We have to accept certain elements of Hong Kong culture - the reliance on dignity and honor, the hard cut distinctions between the rich and the poor - in order to appreciate what Chow is championing. It may seem overdone to us, but we’re not necessarily the choir he is preaching to.

In the end, CJ7 is wise enough to carefully balance its many crazily contradictory aspects. It’s cheesy without being fetid, fun without overdosing on pure juvenile pandering. Those anticipating nothing but “phone home” histrionics will be pleasantly surprised at how this film skirts said expectations. However, those who hate the entire Shrek school of postdated cinematic humor will definitely have issues here. Chow can be forgiven for reverting back to his roots. He wasn’t always a member of the Jackie/Jet set. This kind of pie in the sky production argues for his overall talent and why many see his abilities as infinite. Whimsy can indeed work, as long as it’s handled with care. Chow mostly fulfills the genre’s tenuous needs. 

by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008


When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride.

The current political situation in France is horribly unstable. Young people, fed up with the conservative tone of the government, the institutional racism, and lack of opportunities, are rioting everywhere. During one of these fracases, Yasmin and her criminal brother Sami are trapped. With the help of other gang members Alex, Gilberte, and Farid, they get their fallen mate to the hospital and head out into the countryside. The plan? Make it across the border and into Amsterdam. Stopping off at an out of the way motel, they run into a group of nasty neo-Nazis. Ethnic hatred aside, the leader is looking for someone to help continue his family’s master race…and Yasmin might just fit the bill.

If Lionsgate, distributor of this After Dark Film Festival reject (originally part of the eight film overview, but pulled at the last minute to avoid MPAA hassles) was looking for an American title for this oddly named French film, there’s a couple of obvious suggestions. With its killers in a remote locale leanings, The Teutonic Chainsaw Massacre would make for a nice exploitation name. Or better yet, the secluded slaughterhouse posing as a hostel might suggest something like Motel Heil. Seig Psycho also comes to mind. Any one of these marketable monikers would come close to describing the sluice induced grotesqueries that make up this movie’s motives.

For those offended by blood and guts, Frontier(s) flaunts the very limits of both. While the opening sequences are rather sedate, once Gens gets going, it’s brutality and vivisection served up in heaping hack and slash helpings. Characters are carved up with sadistic regularity, and no one is exempt from the bountiful bloodletting. One individual winds up literally covered, head to toe, in arterial spray. It makes the critter claret bath Carrie White takes while at the prom seem calm by comparison. With its buzz-sawed body parts and exploding heads, this is one juicy jaunt.

There is also a fair amount of suspense here as well. Because it plays directly into the recent social strife dividing France (unrest settled mostly around class, immigrants, and race), the entire black/white - Caucasian/minority subtext suggests something much deeper. When our first two gang members stumble upon the out of the way inn, their ethnicity is enhanced by the Brunhilda nature of the lead villainess. Even better, the old school Hitler devotee is all Reich rants and ethnic cleanser. How this unusual dynamic plays out gives Gens plenty of room to maneuver. He drinks in the hatred and spits out sequences of unconscionable cruelty. 

Yet there are a couple of minor flaws here. One revolves around familiarity. If you remember that famed Southwestern splatter fest from the early ‘70s, you’ll be able to predict almost every one of Frontier(s) freak show plot points. There’s the carefree kids, the remote backdrop, the oversized killer, the crazed family, the second act escape, the eventual recapture, the final confrontation, and the “will she or won’t she” run for freedom. Certainly, Gens offers a couple of critical changes here and there (the Sawyers didn’t have mutant cannibal “children” crawling around their Texas homestead). Still, enough of this movie feels recognizable that tiny hints of disappointment pepper the grue.

And the acting is no great shakes either. Yasmin, more or less reduced to illogical ‘last girl’ status, is essayed by Karina Testa as a series of whines and pouts. Once it’s knives out, she substitutes shrieks for the latter. The rest of her crew is equally one note and indecipherable. They are reduced to playing types - scared novice, hard ass hero - before falling under the bad guys’ assault. Only our Nazis get any kind of characterization, and it’s more scripted than performed. The men are thuggish ideologues, concentration camp guard types without a prison populace to destroy. The head of household, on the other hand, is the kind of Final Solution apologist who appears frightening for what he stands for as well as his actions.

Since it all seems so obvious, so steeped in what previous masters of horror have handed out over the last four decades, Frontier(s) fails to appear fresh. It also cheats a bit, giving audiences ample false hope before finally fulfilling its payback parameters. But just like Ils, and Inside (as well as Haute Tension and a few other prime examples), it is clear that the current social clime in France is feeding fear in a big bad way. Most macabre scholars like to point to political uncertainty as a spawning ground for our most violent, repugnant terrors. Some even liken the rise in so-called ‘torture porn’ to the post-9/11 uncertainty in the world. Whether this is true or not, Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.

by Bill Gibron

14 May 2008


Dear Fellow Writer:

The time is now. It’s our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there’s no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we’re doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It’s time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.

As more and more fourth estaters are “bought out”, as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it’s time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It’s all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can’t see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it’s time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.

Let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It’s the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your ‘review’ as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It’s how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).

Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don’t take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.

Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we’re constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.

Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it’s easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it’s that we’re desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.

Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can’t stop the ‘anonymous’ audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain’t It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.

Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.

As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.

If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you’ve got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don’t pride yourself on being the ‘horror expert’ or the ‘foreign film champion’. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you’ll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn’t mean you can’t lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.

Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform’s greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it’s okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood’s past, or Europe’s Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you’re going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.

Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It’s not out of necessity. No, it’s more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it’s better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.

Unless you’re happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified ‘pro/con’ consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it’s time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won’t support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it’s better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they’re on. 

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