Film

Reign of Fire (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

There's probably something to be said here about guys and competition and pointy weapons.


Reign of Fire

Director: Rob Bowman
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco, Gerald Butler
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Disney
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-07-12

Coming upon a band of revelers -- that is, a band of raggedy post-apocalyptic Brits dancing round a fire to ancient guitar-rock -- the roughneck American Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) is furious. And he stomps down their merriment in a New York minute: "Envy the country that has heroes!" he roars. "I say, pity the country that needs 'em." Everyone stops everything. And you can see why: the guy is a sight, an earnestly angry, elaborately tattooed, bald-headed, cigar-chomping soldier, late of the "Kentucky irregulars." Even more awesome, he's mad that the British crew is celebrating his very own heroic act, namely, his slaying of a fire-breathing dragon earlier that day. Needless to say, the revelers are stunned and confused.

Unfortunately, this is only one of many confusing moments in Rob (The X-Files) Bowman's Reign of Fire, as it holds that "countries" make any sense at all in this wholly devastated world, circa 2020. It's true that the dragons are burning up everything -- people, trees, buildings -- because they eat ash (or, as Van Zan puts it, more poetically, "They feed on death!"). It's true that Van Zan and his people have come across the pond, in search of the single Male Dragon's lair in London (somehow, they've figured out that if they can only kill this one dragon, the hundreds of other girl-dragons that have been flying hither and thither, burning up the planet, will die out). It's true too, that they have found brief respite with the British enclave, hiding from the dragons in an old castle in Northumberland. And it is, at last, also true that the British rag-taggers are not fond of Americans: "There's only one thing worse than a dragon," one sniffs, on seeing the tanks headed their way, "Americans!" Indeed. But really, since there are no cities, no populations, no substantial or sustainable food sources, no militias or banks or churches -- well, it seems odd that anyone still imagines there are "countries" per se.

At the same time, it's become abundantly clear that hurtful flying objects and cities on fire do tend to rally people to flags, national identifications, and hatred of others. And so, this reference to countries might make more sense than it first seems. It also might be understood as the film's saving grace (assuming you're feeling disposed to say it has one), in that it makes it seem remotely relevant to anyone paying to see it in 2002. In this context, the film might even press you to wonder about the concept of nations in a world and time so overdetermined, on a daily basis and to effects as often horrific as they are productive, by globalization. In Reign of Fire, the "global" issues are not commercial or economic, but they remain political, and certainly, about power, in a rudimentary way, and so, they are material, in several senses.

This point becomes clear in the conflict between Van Zan and the British leader, Quinn (Christian Bale, now bearded and still, these several years after American Psycho, spending serious time in the gym). As you learn well before Van Zan even comes on the scene, Quinn has a particular history with the dragons: as a child (played by Ben Thornton), he visits his engineer mom (Alice Krige) on a London construction site, where he stumbles on a slumbering monster. The thing lurches to life, breathes a lot of fire, and kills everyone except little Quinn. Poor kid. And poor you, as he'll be having flashbacks, so you don't forget the aesthetically grisly specifics of this scene.

Twenty years after (which you see rush by in a very convenient and silly montage, occasioned by Quinn flipping through a Time magazine, full of pictures and headlines about the hellish destruction of Europe), he's got heavy-duty survivor's guilt. This, in movie-shorthand psychology, explains why he's so dogged about keeping his little band of folks "safe" (a relative concept, given that monsters can come swooping along to incinerate wide swathes of land at any moment), and rejects Van Zan's invitation to join the rowdy Americans to go dragon-hunting.

While the dragons are simultaneously graceful and scary effects, you don't really get the sense that they've been thought through as concepts. They're "intelligent" because they make plans about how to track and kill humans. But they're not "evil," because really, all they want to do is eat to survive (and they've been around for-ever, being the basis for a new theory about what happened to the dinosaurs, namely, they burned everything and sent enough ash into the atmosphere to jumpstart the Ice Age; hence, their hibernation until little Quinn and the London construction workers woke them up). But this bizarre notion hardly drives the film to originality. It pays homage to Star Wars (this in a cute bit where Quinn acts out the "Luke I am your father" scene for an appreciative audience of kiddies) and rips off Mad Max and Godzilla movies, but can't really get past the pastiche format to, oh, coherence.

Van Zan is not so well planned either. You don't see his childhood suffering, though he tells a dark story in a throaty whisper, about how he killed his first dragon and so got that dragon's tooth he wears around his neck. But he does make a lot of noise about his devotion to his "men," some of whom are women, and most of whom he loses at an alarming rate. He is repeatedly referred to as an "American," as if this gives reason for all his gung-ho-ness, rudeness, and harsh 'tude. Since this is, essentially, a buddy movie, he brings along a girl (because you need a girl in a buddy movie, to prove the guys aren't gay or anything). And so, his loyal, admiring, but also more generously inclined chopper pilot, Alex (Izabella Scorupco) serves as liaison between the guys, informing Quinn that Van Zan "doesn't feel anything; it's the only way he can do what he does."

What he does, being the dragon-slayer, is slay dragons. Van Zan and company have come up with an ingenious, lunatic, and visually thrilling tactic for hunting these voracious, flying and humongous creatures, using a few jeeps with bazookas, a couple of tanks, and a single chopper (the rest of their hardware long since melted by dragon-breath). In one of the film's several fx-action set pieces (the other involves Van Zan leaping off a turret with an axe in hand -- you have to see it to believe it), you see that the self-designated "archangels" (including the film's sole black character -- perhaps the dragons have eaten all others) leap out of the helicopter as "bait," shooting through the air for some time before opening their parachutes. They're supposed to get the targeted dragon's interest and lead her toward an appointed area where Van Zan waits, with well-aimed weapon. They say that once an archangel jumps out the chopper door, he has only 17 seconds before he smashes into the ground or gets gulped down and/or cremated by the dragon. Yucky.

Quinn and Van Zan argue a lot, and engage in one glorious mano-a-mano scene, where Quinn rips off his vest to reveal his amazing array of elegant, dragonish tattoos, making you wonder just when and how he had time to have this done. Eventually, of course, they do have to go to London to fight the Male Dragon, because, well, because that's what they have to do. They take Alex along, which is fortunate, because here she brings the hilarity. As they look out over the city in flames, dragons flying everywhichway, she solemnly observes that the odds are against them: "It's hundreds to three!" It's hard not to notice that the three are very puny-looking humans, even if they do have some arrows with explosive tips.

But no matter. The dragons must be slayed. Or more accurately, all the girl-dragons must conveniently disappear for the duration of the scene wherein the Male Dragon must be slayed. There's probably something to be said here about guys and competition and pointy weapons. But the film is, amazingly, less well focused than even that little line-up of ideas might make it sound.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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