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by Bill Gibron

5 Jun 2008


It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end.

Poor Po. He has a dream that, as a panda, he will probably never fulfill. Longing to imitate his heroes, the five masters of the main martial art styles (tiger, monkey, crane, mantis, and snake), he hopes to be a kung fu icon himself. Sadly, he seems stuck following in his father’s noodle vending footsteps. Then the Jade Temple announces the choosing of the newest Dragon Master, and Po is excited. He wants to see who gets the honor. In a bizarre turn of events, elder Oogway selects….our amiable overweight bear. This infuriates Shifu, teacher of the five masters. He must now prepare this pudgy ‘loser’ for the ultimate challenge - long exiled panther Tai Lung has escaped from prison, and is headed for a showdown with the newest handpicked hero.

If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.

Indeed, Kung Fu Panda is a feast for the fanboy as well as the eyes. Immerse yourself long enough in these films and you start to see patterns - folklore forged into a viable entertainment. The Shaws, more than any other studio, followed these formulas to the letter. While no one expects authenticity from what is, by all accounts, a kiddie film, Panda provides enough archetypes to stand solidly alongside the category’s very best. Even better, it delves deep into the varying kung fu formats, allowing the characters named after certain fighting styles to effortlessly illustrate said forms. This means monkey boxes the way a student of said discipline would. The same applies to all the others, creating a real sense of respect and recognizability within the differing skill sets.

Of course, there are jokes for the wee ones as well. Lots of Kung Fu Panda‘s humor is of the physical shtick/fat guy variety. Po falls down a lot, and his girth causes him problems all along the way. There are gags about food, eating, and our hero’s uncontrollable appetite. When he’s not gorging on snacks, he’s falling down long flights of stairs. The standard issue crudities are also available (a blow to the crotch offers the exclamation “My tenders!”) with, luckily, none of the random pop culture referencing. Indeed, one of the best things about this movie is its desire to avoid type to traverse its own eclectic territory.

Speaking of the talent involved, all the voice work done on behalf of Kung Fu Panda is excellent. Jack Black does little more than channel his own chaotic yet huggable personality, and it works wonderfully. He’s very endearing as the portly Po. Equally amazing is Dustin Hoffman, refusing to fall into some manner of caricature. Instead, he makes Master Shifu appear real and authentic. Of the five main fighters, Angelina Jolie gets the most screen time as Tigress, though her character is quite irresponsible at times. Jackie Chan may be barely recognizable as Monkey (as is Seth Rogen as the miniature Mantis), but David Cross does a great job as Crane. His slightly sarcastic delivery plays perfectly to the post-adolescent crowd.

Yet the most memorable thing about Kung Fu Panda is its sumptuous look. It’s the main reason why the Shaws would gladly call it there own. There is a lavish quality to the illustrations, a real artistic aura that grows richer and more refined as the film moves along. The landscapes are breathtaking, the fights lightning quick without being too busy. Obsorne and Stevenson even deliver a memorable melee of their own, as when Po and Shifu fight, chopsticks in hand, over a plate of dumplings. It’s the kind of brawny ballet the genre is known for, and why Kung Fu Panda fits within it perfectly.

Certainly there is little drama in whether Po will defeat the evil Tai Lung, and the message about finding the truth outside the obvious is unsatisfactory in its blatancy. Yet Black and company are having so much fun, refusing to fall into self-parody or spoof, that we instantly forgive these minor flaws. In fact, by the time of the final send off, we happily celebrate the entire storyline. Kung Fu Panda is probably the biggest surprise of this already above-average Summer season. CGI loves to cannibalize itself in ways that undermine the inherent joy in the artform. This is the kind of film that completely reinvigorates your faith in the format.

by Bill Gibron

29 May 2008


It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk past.

Will Proudfoot lives a very sheltered life. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect, he is not allowed to watch TV, listen to modern music, or befriend his classmates. Quite by accident, he makes the acquaintance of school bad boy Lee Carter. Initially, the relationship is very one sided. Lee takes advantage of Will, and Will is too inexperienced to know any better. The duo begins work on a homemade movie, inspired by the recent release of First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Entitled “Son of Rambow”, it incorporates many of Will’s wildest fantasies, mostly concerning the recent death of his father. As the boys make their mini action epic, they draw the attention of a French exchange student named Didier. He also wants to star in the film. On a far more serious note, Will’s work outside the order gets the attention of the elders. They warn the Proudfoots - end this association, or face expulsion.

Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption. Writer/director Garth Jennings, last heard from helming the underappreciated big screen version of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, takes snapshots from his childhood, mixes them with some intriguing local color, and paints a glorious canvas of an era unsure of itself, punk plowing into pop without a Blitz kid’s concern for style or substance. There are sequences of sumptuous reminiscence here, times when we literally get lost in the unique time and place that Jennings is portraying. At other instances, things become so pat and predictable that the forewarning undermines the wistfulness at play.

It goes without saying that the stars of this particular piece are the young actors at the center of the story. As the irascible Lee Carter, Will Poulter seems pulled directly out of a primer on purposefully angry young lads. He’s Butch from Our Gang given a slightly cockney bent, and he’s totally believable, even when slightly schizophrenic in his motivations and mannerisms. We may not believe in his ability as a future filmmaker, but we do get the impression that he’s dedicated, and when personal push comes to shove, quite loyal. Of the duo, young Bill Milner definitely has the harder role. His perplexed Will Proudfoot is walking, talking fundamentalist naiveté, desperate to break out of his religious restrictions, but unable to achieve the proper perspective. For him, the world is one big animated adventure just waiting to be had. Gullibility is hard to sell, especially in these all-knowing ‘naughts’. But Milner makes us believe, even if his ideas are a bit babyish.

Indeed, the whole moviemaking subtext steals some of Son of Rambow‘s potency. When Will and Lee are recreating overly aggressive action scenes and steroided stunts, we instantly anticipate the physical comedy. It may be rote shtick, but it is mostly satisfying. Where the film really flies is in its mix tape mapping of the early ‘80s. Sure, the song selection is all over the Top of the Pops terrain (“I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode never shared chart time with Sioxsie and the Banshee’s “Peek a Boo”), and the fashions scream of the broadest epoch generalization, but Jennings does a jolly job of capturing a moment when the dour depression of before seemed to open into an optimist, anything goes giddiness. It’s nostalgia, but its knowing, not knotty.

Perhaps the most intriguing material is left more or less unexplored. The Plymouth Brethren may appear like any other sect, starved of rationality as they use the Bible as the basis for every one of their often unconscionable decisions. And there is an interesting plotpoint when Will’s mother lets slip her secret love of a certain 45 rpm record. But we don’t get much more than mean-spirited reprimands and a leader who clearly lusts for the passive Proudfoot widow. Not much is made out of the missing father either - he is dead, but the details appear shrouded in a lack of clarity that makes his absence lack the standard cinematic impact. We want more of this material, to really understand the last act decision made by the family. But Son of Rambow is not interested in intricacy. It’s satisfied with a more slapdash approach.

Not that we as an audience mind, really. This is clearly a movie where the sum of all parts transcends the individual problems with each particular narrative thread. When mixed together with Didier’s pseudo stash, Plastic Bertrand panache (he’s an odd addition to this story, to be sure), Lee Carter’s old folks home front, Will’s wonderfully cartoonish flights of fancy, and the Monty Python meets misery of our heroes’ school situation, the manic movie making really zings. Certainly this is an incomplete effort, leaving more questions than clear cut conclusions, and the required wrap seems too easy given all that’s gone before. But there is also a bubbly exuberance that really reminds one of their youth and all its awkward awakening glory. This is one Son that any source could be proud of. 

by Bill Gibron

29 May 2008


The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.

It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.

The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.

The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come.  Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.

Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.

In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.

As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.

Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.   

 

by Chris Barsanti

29 May 2008


After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.

It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).

All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.

For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).

After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.

We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.

As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.

Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.

After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.

It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.

But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.

The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.

Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.

It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself. 

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