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by Bill Gibron

19 Jan 2008


As a rule, melodrama and martial arts don’t really mix. Sure, it seems like, every kung fu classic utilizes hyper-stylized heroism and ample Asian tradition to tag its subtext, but pure Hollywood hokum is never the best battle support. It just seems so silly for a champion, capable of the greatest feats of physical force ever seen by man, to play the schlub in a lover’s triangle or find himself manipulated and taken in by a faux femme fatale. Oddly enough, this is the recipe used by Hong Kong filmmaker Dennis Law for his 2006 fight club crime saga Fatal Contact. With up and coming star Jacky Wu Jing in the lead, and some astounding hand to hand combat at its core, this is the kind of flamboyant fisticuffs that genre devotees dig. Too bad the narrative keeps tripping over into potboiler country, applying a campy kitchen sink formula to an otherwise wonderful bit of brawling.

When we first meet Kong, he is a member of the Chinese Opera. His obvious skills attract the attention of gamblers who want to use him as part of their underground boxing ring. Initially reluctant, our hero has a change of heart when a young woman named Tin wanders into his life. Carrying a deep, dark secret and angry at her impoverished lot in life, she hears the amount of money the mobsters are offering and tries to convince Kong to join up. But it takes a public dressing down at a fancy restaurant before he finally concedes. Instantly successful, his undefeated ways get the attention of some very high rollers. They stage bigger and bigger contests with larger and larger purses. Eventually, Kong is taking on the reigning martial arts campaigns with millions of dollars changing hands. But when the stakes get too high, no one is safe - not Tin, not the former kung fu master known as Captain, and definitely not our stalwart warrior.

For all its hang wringing theatrics and convoluted plotting, Fatal Contact has some amazing fight scenes. They crackle with the kind of energy that only comes from professional martial artists performing at the top of their game. Set-up like chapters in an otherwise overwrought story, Jing manages to make each one different - especially when you add in the calculating bit where he begins to LIKE hurting people - and we sense it all building to a major climax. While the good vs. evil element is present, as well as the decent vs. the depraved, it’s hard to really figure out what the character of Kong gets out of all this. He definitely has feelings for Tin, but they are muffled by money. And while he worries about his position on the National Team, he ends up taking on some one of similar stature. And many of his bouts end up in the paper. Wouldn’t that undermine his position automatically?

But the biggest problem with Fatal Contact is the kept woman/prostitute subplot. We learn that Tin’s friend is a hypocritical harlot, the kind of ‘woe is me’ character used to influence audiences just as easily as she does rich men. Just as we’re about to see another sequence of man-on-man face smashing, along comes this dolled up drone and - ZAP - the energy and life is literally leeched out of the movie. It’s not that we don’t care about this sad woman’s lot in life. It truly is horrible that she believes her fate lies in serving abusive tycoons for cash. It’s just that it plays like nothing more than a narrative tangent meant to give depth to a basically simple story. The underground crime tale should take center stage. But director Law lets the sidelights subvert his intent.

There’s also a problem with the basic setup, something mandating a SPOILER warning. If you don’t want to know where the story goes, skip this paragraph and move on. During each fight, we learn that Kong is, more or less, invincible. Even the best combatants in his camp fall to the enemy (during wonderful “street fighter” style sequences). But not our semi-superhuman hero. He can take several nail gouges to the face and still kick ass. He is so good, so flawless in form and execution, that he can more or less call his own shots. And then, when the murderous urge overtakes him, he is like a comic book caricature, a Hong Kong Hulk that no one can defeat. So there is little suspense in each action scene, a knowledge that Kong will triumph even within the most outrageous odds.

With this new DVD from Genius Entertainment and The Weinstein Group’s Dragon Dynasty Collection, some of these stumbling blocks are acknowledged and addressed. Thanks to this two disc set, we learn about the volatile state of Asian cinema, the needs of the producers, and the waning interest from audiences. The full length audio commentary from Law and film scholar Bay Logan details the problems with bringing untried talent to the screen, the reason for added dramatics, and how this type of entertainment compares to the past glories of the genre. On the second DVD, we get interviews with the female stars, learning from them the need to draw a divergent viewership and the hardships of working in the industry. Even Jing explains the tenuous position of such spectacle.

And it’s sad, especially when you consider the status of this rising action hero. We want to understand more about Kong’s lot, about his National Team backstory and the reasons for his quiet gullibility. He’s an intriguing character, inherently interesting because of his physical agility and geniality. But when we see the sudden shift over into killer mode, when he gets that murderous glint in his eye and goes primal, the lack of context throws us off. We’re supposed to read it as instinctual. It comes across as insane. Because of the attention paid to factors swirling around our lead, we never learn enough about Kong to keep him center stage. It’s an issue that concerns Jing as well.

Through these conversations, we discover that all is not well in the once thriving Hong Kong arena, that Western conventions and other influences have taken the filmmaking in directions that the creative element doesn’t agree with. In attempting to ‘modernize’ or cater to this new ideal, some of the standards used to make their movie magic have been lost. Indeed, a good way of describing Fatal Contact is as an epic battle of physical proportions constantly brought back down to earth by standard archetypal dramatics. The undeniable grace of the body ballet, the well choreographed majesty of a martial arts tussle have been cast aside for more mindless character pursuits. Between the comedy of the Captain (who’s taken freeloading to a whole new level of laziness) and the dour hooker histrionics, there’s very little room for our champion to shine. And that’s a shame. 


DVD

 
EXTRAS

by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2008


Star power is everything. That’s how it used to be back in the golden days of the Tinsel Town studio system. Acting was never priority number one. Instead, the way a man or woman commanded the camera, the direct connection with the audience beyond the character or the performance, were the key to cinematic success. Few in the current crop of celebrity have this special trait. Most get by on a combination of publicity and hype-enforced popularity. But if you’re looking for a post-modern example of this old school ideal, then Amanda Bynes is your amiable icon. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features.

With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween to Pinkberry set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. Now available from Universal on an excellent DVD release, this wonderfully effective film is her first foray into quasi-adult fare. As a result, it functions as a future career gauge, measuring how much true star staying power she really has.

By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based (intermittently) on the famed fairytale - the film’s title should provide the necessary hint - and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and really makes it hum. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins, or anyone else in the Hannah Montana demo, passed on this project. The simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Tri-Delt dementia. It’s all very Revenge of the John Hughes Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, and the last act confirms our current laugh-along love affair with geek nation.

This is a film that relies on Bynes’ innate ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president (and future beau) Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the resident rejects of the all dork Vortex House reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. Yet our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous circumstances with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of freshness. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook.

Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar snap. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. As the rightly named Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven likeable losers, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.

In fact, it’s proper to compare Sydney White favorably to the classic college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the middle school marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. A few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative can’t help but follow traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.

As part of the DVD package, Universal includes some interesting extras. Director Nussbaum gets an opportunity to explain his motives and what drew him to the project in a sitdown Q&A, while he’s also around to introduce a collection of intriguing deleted scenes. Many in the cast, including Bynes and the dorks, get a chance to play EPK with the film, praising each other and their efforts. From specific set design choices to dealing with the various personalities on set, the material here all leads to one conclusion - everyone here tried really hard to make a sunny, successful comedy. And they succeeded.

In fact, it’s clear that what we wind up with is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.

It also provides proof that Amanda Bynes is the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. And pure star power is the foundation. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


DVD

 
EXTRAS

 

by Bill Gibron

17 Jan 2008


For the weekend beginning 18 January, here are the films in focus:

Cloverfield [rating: 9]

Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.  read full review…

Cassandra’s Dream [rating: 3]

Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative draught evident in Cassandra’s Dream.


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in. read full review…

There Will Be Blood [rating: 9]

When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism.


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

17 Jan 2008


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in.

Ian and Terry are two working class blokes from London. Both dream of a better life. Ian works in their father’s restaurant, hobnobbing with businessmen who promise him part in their lucrative real estate deals. Terry is a mechanic, hands constantly dirty and mind stuck in a spiraling cycle of gambling and drink. When he looses £90,000 one night, he goes to his brother for help. Their decision? Seek some financial backing from their benevolent Uncle Howard. He runs a series of successful clinics, and always seems to have large amounts of cash to give the family. But when they ask for his help, Howard turns the tables. Seems he’s under investigation for unethical - even criminal - activities. He needs the boys to do him a favor. He needs them to kill the board member that’s ratting him out. Stunned, Ian and Terry weigh their options. One wants to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. The other wants the money to break out of his desperate life. Together, they must decide what they are - men, or murderers.

Though he’s tackled crime and misdemeanors before, Allen is the last director you’d imagine capable of creating a tense, interfamilial suspense thriller. There’s just too much classicism in him, too much Greek tragedy meshed with hours spent in Manhattan arthouses absorbing every Bergman riff imaginable. Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative drought evident in Cassandra’s Dream. It’s not just the overdone angst, the push me/pull you problems in the storyline, or the odd sensation of hearing English actors spout the filmmaker’s patented New York-isms. No, the real problem with this talky, turgid exercise in moral ambiguity is that Allen has finally found a cinematic category he can’t fully handle - and the resulting awkwardness is undeniably dull.

While stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both accomplished actors, it’s only the latter that makes an impact. Though he chain smokes to the point of distraction, Terry is the weaker member of the conspiracy, and as a result, the one we feel the closest bond toward. McGregor’s Ian is so smugly sure that he’s destined for business acumen greatness that we can’t connect to his perplexed pipe dreaming. At least Farrell’s flawed sibling uses realistic vices - gambling, drink, lying - as a means of making sense of his lax life. If they are supposed to represent two sides of a similarly dispirit coin, we don’t see the connection. Instead, it’s like watching Slack and Slacker complain about their miserable existence in clipped British accents.

Even worse, those around Ian and Terry are like specters, ill-conceived one note supporters that never provide a foundation for their feelings or flaws. Tom Wilkinson’s Uncle Howard, supposedly rich and successful, comes across as vague and poorly written. He has enough money to buy and sell his relatives out of their ever increasing financial worries. He can jet set around the world and keep high living arrangements in three very expensive cities. Yet the minute his ethical lot is challenged by a whistleblower, he has no other option than to ask his nephews to commit murder. If it was a matter of counter comeuppance, a kind of challenge to his young charges to put their morals where their mouth is, Allen needed to run his screenplay through the typewriter a couple more times. As it stands, the half-assed hitman angle feels like a necessary narrative catalyst, nothing more.

Equally uninspired are the other personalities floating around the boys. Claire Higgins mother character is so whiny (‘we’re poor, and it’s all Dad’s fault’) that when Allen tries something novel with her toward the end, we don’t respond. Similarly, there are so many clues and connections being expressed by Terry’s gal pal Lucy that we wonder why she hasn’t called the police and turned the brothers in. Yet the worst offender is Sally Hawkin’s Kate. Spewing lines that would sound arch even coming out of the circa ‘70s mouth of Diane Keaton, she’s the spoiled, slutty actress whose muse is the excuse for her bed hopping indistinctness. We never really care for her, so we don’t see Ian’s fascination. Oddly enough, Allen lets both girlfriends drop at the end, hoping something poignant comes from it. It doesn’t work.

Indeed, all of Cassandra’s Dream is a moody, maudlin miscue. Whereas previous Allen efforts revolving around good people doing bad things had a stigma of social relevance to them, the entire narrative plays like so much UK jive. There is nothing particularly English about what Allen is up to, nothing indicating an insight into people or place. Instead, this is a clear case of locational locomotion - taking a bland, baseless story and sticking it wherever the travel agency takes you. Perhaps in a US setting, without the ephemeral ambience of a European perspective, this material might work. But one senses Allen treading water here, waiting for his next bout of inspiration. Clearly, it’s been a long time coming and has yet to arrive.

Which all leads back to the opening thought. Is Allen helping or hurting his legacy by pumping out the product - ANY product - every 18 months or so? Would his already wounded reputation benefit from a little artistic hindsight, a banishment both creatively and continentally? When something like the incomplete experimentation of Alice or September appear like masterworks in comparison, Cassandra’s Dream really shows its fatal flaws. The only true tragedy here is that a once vital and important filmmaker has apparently lost his way. Whether he finds it upon a return to his native soil remains to be seen. Clearly, the move abroad was a mistake. Cassandra confirms this. 

 

by Bill Gibron

17 Jan 2008


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.

When we first meet the ambitious prospector, Plainview is trading silver for surveys and supplies. His ultimate goal is oil, and he soon strikes it rich. Hoping to interest the big companies in his land-based pipeline ideal, Plainview targets a small town. Thanks to a tip from a disgruntled member of the destitute Sunday family, the mogul gets what he wants. But it comes with a price that he may not be willing to pay. Local preacher Eli, brother of the betrayer, wants Plainview to support his fledging church. With lip service and lies, the two come to a cautious accord. But as money begins to blur the ethics of all involved, both sides start to suffer. Plainview’s young son is injured in an accident, and Sunday uses the issue to blackmail the man. Even worse, an important piece of land stands between the tycoon and his ambitious dream. As usual, Eli holds all the cards - or at least, that’s what Plainview lets him think.

When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism. Both dogmas are offered in their most perverted, unsavory versions, each one championed by an icon seemingly forged directly out of the individual ideologies’ darkest heart. Plainview is the most obvious in his subversion. He may play protector and beneficiary, but the only good that will ever come out of his speculation inures to his bank account only. On the other end of the spectrum, spiritually if not in principle, is Eli Sunday. The original flim flamming man of God, this unholy holy roller wants everyone to believe in his noble, church going purpose. But again, we soon discover that there’s more to his motives than Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Indeed, between the two, Eli is more evil, since he can’t differentiate between the congregation and his own personal coffers. For Plainview, it’s always about his own pockets.

The war that Anderson sets up plays out against a blistering backdrop of the West as untamed wilderness. Forget the cowboys and their Native American enemies. Ignore the gunslingers and the main street High Noon showdowns. This is how the new frontier was won (or better still, overthrown), and it’s more cutthroat and depraved than any exchange of gunfire. By using the indomitable pioneer spirit against itself, by showing that everyone has an agenda when it comes to land, money, and the fine art of the double cross, Anderson lifts the story beyond its patient, personal components. In some ways, it’s like watching human incarnations of philosophical opposites striving for karmic control. Both men here are despicable and self-centered, but only Plainview lives up to his name. Even with his Cheshire Cat grin and down home palaver, the man is one mean SOB.

Sunday is the harder component to get a handle on, and it’s to actor Paul Dano’s credit that he never lets Day-Lewis overwhelm him. A last minute replacement on the film (apparently, Anderson was not happy with his first choice), he brings an unnerving quiet to what could have been a scenery chewing caricature. Religious fervor often brings out the worst in a performer, letting the spirit overtake any sense of subtlety. Here, Dano is all underplayed menace. He seems weak willed and self-righteous, but the minute Plainview tries to trounce him, the wily preacher shows his hidden horrors. Sunday is easily the oddest element in the film, a figure that some may mistake as minor. But in truth, he supplies the most important facets of the film - a barrier begging for our sly industrialist to confront and conquer. And it’s not an easy campaign.

Naturally, all the buzz that’s built around Day-Lewis and his work here may seem like nothing more than massive media blitzing, but for once, the hype is actually under-serving the work. The English thesp is absolutely spellbinding, so good that his mere presence in a room creates untold levels of character complexity. Some have likened his voice and manner to late filmmaking legend John Huston, but that’s not all together true. Instead, Daniel Plainview is the very essence of the self-made man, a human carved out of the various personalities and perspectives he’s gained in a world filled with business-oriented observation. He’s a master mimic and manipulator. Anderson makes this a physical as well as emotional reality by having the first act of the film play out in pantomime - no dialogue, just Day-Lewis in all his 49er regalia, endlessly toiling for that next scrap of the dream. He is building who he is as he systematically stakes his claims.

As a director, Anderson does a sensational job of assembling his story, He starts small - closed in caves and small ranch shacks. Before long, we see Plainview literally traversing the distance between his claim and the Pacific Ocean. Every so often, the plot throws our emblematic anti-hero an issue (complex son, long lost brother, obstructionist land owner) and we watch as our auteur devises interesting and insightful ways of having Plainview overcome them. By the end, he’s so indestructible, so completely devoid of inherent human kindness that a chance for reconciliation and redemption are avoided for one last game of one-upmanship. Within a design centered more on individuals than ideas, it’s amazing how deep Anderson manages to get. Add in the stellar look and texture of the film and you’ve got one mesmerizing masterpiece.

In fact, the funny thing about There Will Be Blood is that it has the kind of narrative resonance that drives a wedge into your subconscious. As you sit around, days…even months later, your mind wanders back to certain symbolic items: the burning oil rig; Plainview passed out on the floor; Eli’s ethereal services; the last line of dialogue - “I’m finished”. It all gels into the kind of monumental motion picture experience the artform has been missing for far too long. If this movie is ignored come awards time, it will merely be another sign of its lasting classicism. True cinematic greatness eventually gains critical consensus. For Anderson, Day-Lewis, and Blood, the time is clearly now.

 

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Double Take: 'The French Connection' (1971)

// Short Ends and Leader

"You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, and we pick The French Connection for Double Take #18.

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