Thursday, December 22, 2011

Super 8

Super 8 (4/5)

Super 8 is a love story. No, not a love story between the characters (sure, there’s a little bit of that kissy stuff), but a love story between director J.J. Abrams and Stephen Spielberg. It is obvious from Abrams’s films that, like plenty of children who grew up in 70s and 80s, he was raised on the work of Spielberg and Lucas. In fact, his Star Trek preboot arguably has more in common with the work of Lucas and Spielberg than with the original series. Fashioning himself as something of a protégé, Abrams has created a wonderful little homage to his mentor.

The film opens with the off screen death of Joe Lamb’s mother who worked at the local steel mill. Both Joe and his father, Jackson, a deputy in the local police department, must deal with the emotional trauma that naturally comes from losing a loved one. At the same time, the death also strains the relationship between Joe and Jackson. Jackson just doesn’t seem to know how to raise his son without his wife around, and he wants to ship him off to a baseball camp for the summer in the hopes that it will give him some space and stifle Joe’s interest in filmmaking. Joe has been serving as the special effects and make-up artist on his friends’ movie about, what else, zombies.

The kids’ zombie movie is arguably the most important aspect of Super 8. The gang’s film represents the transformation of their playacting into an art form, a transition from childhood into adulthood that still manages to bridge these two conditions. The film further embodies the split between the world of adults and children. In many of Spielberg’s early films, especially E.T., the difference between how children and adults see the world is represented in esoteric knowledge. The fact that the wonderful and strange actually exists can only first be perceived by an innocent youth. But it is also by making this film that the boys come into contact with the fairer sex. The director, Charles, has managed to get a girl, Alice, to agree to play the part of the hero’s wife. Joe happens to have an unrequited crush on Alice, and later in the film he gets to play the daring hero to her damsel in distress when Alice is in danger.

Oh, and there’s also a giant space alien in the film that’s trying to get off this planet while wreaking havoc on the towns folk. The alien arrives in town by way of a derailed freight train. The only witnesses to the train disaster are Joe and his gang who have set up next to the tracks in hopes of incorporating the train into their film so that it will lend it some verisimilitude. The train derailment and the gang’s escape is one of the finer set pieces of the film, and it is somewhat reminiscent of the plane crash in what is arguably Abrams’s finest directorial effort, the pilot to the TV show Lost. In all, the alien seems like something of an afterthought. While Abrams does a commendable job of laying down some carefully constructed chaos, the alien himself seems somewhat perfunctory. Unlike in E.T. (a movie that I cannot help comparing Super 8 to, even if a little unfairly), where E.T. served as a companion to a child of a single parent household who struggled to connect to other children of his own age, Super 8’s monster seems like generic threat #5, seemingly picked out of a hat at random. The alien menace and the drama of loss and adulthood never come together fully. And while it is often enjoyable watching people escape or be eaten by the monster, I couldn’t help but want to get back to the gang making their movie.

But as homage the film does plenty right. In the 80s Spielberg placed films he produced and directed in small town suburbia, often in the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, Abrams’s Super 8 takes place in a small town in Southwest Ohio. We can tell the movie takes place in the late seventies because the local steel mill has yet to close down. I also grew up in a small Ohio town, and while we didn’t have a steel mill (maple syrup was a large part of the local economy), the setting did make me a little wistful for small town life. One of the great messages that come out of Spielberg’s early work as a director and producer, whether it is E.T. or Goonies, is that you need not leave your town to look for adventure. The unusual, the exciting can be uncovered in your neighbors yard, the boarded up house down the street, or the local patch of woods. The paradoxically infinite confines of suburbia were so full of excitement that leaving that world seemed unnecessary.

And in this sense, Abrams does a fine job of mimicking Spielberg. He may not have all of the details right, but he has done his homework, and the result is an entertaining summer blockbuster. In a world full of sequels and prequels, we need more movies like Super 8. Abrams may fall into the cliché of the prodigy piano player carefully reconstructing a classic; he can play the notes but he misses the soul of the music. But then again, the music was pretty great to begin with.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2/5)

In the second late night wars of 2010 it was easy to side with Conan O’Brien over Jay Leno. Conan was the upstart, the underdog, who pushed his craft in order to create a unique brand of humor that owed plenty to early Saturday Night Live as well as David Letterman, but still refused to be shackled by his influences. He was also, unlike Jay Leno, funny. If you have choice between a comedian who makes you laugh and one who doesn’t, then it’s not much of a choice is it? So the documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows Conan on the live tour he assembled following his departure from NBC, has plenty of material to work with. The movie should have been an easy win. And yet, the documentary ends up being an unfocused piece of work that can’t pick a single narrative strain to follow, or even to competently present the few moments of insight it manages to stumble across.

For some it might be a little shocking to see Conan O’Brien outside of his “Conan O’Brien” persona. Any performer on stage or screen is acting, even if that actor happens to be playing his or herself. Conan has fashioned a great character over the years. He plays himself as an anxious bundle of nerves who is at times naïve, geeky, lascivious, and flummoxed. Certainly the “real” Conan is in there somewhere, but when we tune in every night we’re watching a performance, not the Conan O’Brien who sits on his couch to kill a Sunday morning. But in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the person behind the persona can be funny, kind, cutting, vain, and somewhat bitchy. If the only version of Conan you want in your mind is the one who shows up on weeknights to tell jokes, then I would recommend skipping this film altogether. I’m sure plenty of people don’t need to watch Conan O’Brien complain that his assistant fetched him food with too much butter, because he is, after all, watching his weight.

But for those who don’t mind seeing the man behind the curtain, the film has some passing moments of insight, even if they mostly go unfulfilled. At one point Conan explains that he has a habit of telling “jokes” to his staff that are in actuality critiques of their work. There’s an unspoken bargain struck between Conan and those working for him where he undercuts his complaints with humor but they understand that he does in fact want them to step up their game. These tense exchanges make sense. After all, Conan and his writers have been responsible for putting on a show five times a night for most of the year. That sort of output requires discipline, and you cannot fault Conan for applying pressure on his writers and himself. But even if we receive a few insights into Conan’s process, the film never follows up on it. He is never asked who his major influences are, how he came to comedy, how performing late night differs from writing for others.

This complete lack of curiosity on the part of the filmmakers makes some sense, since the film is following Conan on his The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. Besides, Conan’s actual life seems rather run of the mill, a fact he plays on during his tour by telling his life story in the form of a Southern Blues song of hardship and pain before finally admitting to the audience that he was born to well to do parents in the affluent Boston suburb of Brookline. But the tour winds up being little more than an afterthought. The movie is less about Conan the artist than it is about this specific moment in Conan’s life. For some reason the filmmakers felt that whatever is going on back stage was much more interesting than the pyrotechnics on stage, a tragic decision. There are several moments where we get to see Conan interact with guest stars who have joined him on stage in several cities, such as John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Jim Carrey. But we don’t actually get to see Conan perform with these people. It’s as if the director thought to himself, sure, I could show a clip of Conan and Jim Carrey singing a duet, but the audience probably just wants to see the two of them complimenting each other backstage.

And this is the most frustrating aspect of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. We spend maybe twenty percent of the film watching footage from the tour (which is, admittedly, really funny) and about eighty percent of the film watching Conan and his entourage snap at each other as the pressures of constant touring increasingly weigh on them. The movie at times resembles a concert film, but with the percentage of music to interview is completely flipped. In another, fairer, universe, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the comedy equivalent of The Last Waltz, but here in our dull little world it’s nothing more than a missed opportunity.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (5/5)

Martha Marcy May Marlene marks the debut of two talents, the director, Sean Durkin, and the actress, Elizabeth Olsen. Both actor and director show a kind of assured performance that seems relegated to those who are either new to a scene, when talent has been building up for some time and only now has had a chance to unveil itself, or to older creative types, who have enough success behind them that they no longer fear failure (the in-between is usually the tricky part). Elizabeth Olsen (and here I’m required to tell you that she is the younger sister to the famed Full House Olsen twins) plays Martha, a girl who has spent an indeterminate amount of time in a cult hidden away in upstate New York. She eventually flees the confines of the commune and is taken in by her sister and brother-in-law who own a spacious lake house in Connecticut.

From here the film is divided into two narratives, one chronicling Martha’s ordeal in the Manson-like collective and the other detailing her return to polite society at her sister’s place. We learn from the former narrative that the cult takes in runaways and is overseen by a charismatic leader, Patrick, played by John Hawkes. While the cult members bandy about pseudo-New Wave jargon, we hear talk of energies, the specific philosophy of the cult remains vague. As one might expect, Patrick has intimate access to most of the women, as do the other men on the compound, to varying degrees. The cult members share duties taking care of children and tending to a garden, and they hope one day to go fully off the grid.

The second narrative follows Martha as she attempts to reconnect with her sister Lucy and return to normalcy. For Martha, the lake house is an even more foreign world than the cult. She still plays by the rules set up for her by Patrick. She goes skinny dipping in the middle of the day. And when she feels lonely in her bedroom, she has no qualms about lying down on the foot of Lucy’s bed, even if her sister is in mid-coitus. As Martha’s actions become increasingly bizarre, her brother-in-law puts more pressure on Lucy to hand her sister over to an institution. As we learn what Martha has gone through, it becomes more and more difficult to sympathize with Lucy and her husband’s frustrations. But while Lucy’s husband, Ted, often comes off as a prick (tellingly, he has a well enunciated British accent), it is hard to blame Lucy’s reticence to take on the responsibility of handling Martha on her own.

Even though the two narratives are chronologically back to back—the story of Martha’s time in the cult followed by her time with her sister—neither is prized over the other. In fact, it is difficult for me to describe events that occur at the compound as flashbacks because for Martha these events do not exist in the past. She carries the trauma with her. Durkin, the director, excises most establishing shots from the movie, making it difficult to tell whether the next scene begins at the lake house or the compound. The title of the film is a series of names the main character goes by. Her birth name is obviously Martha. She is given the name Marcy May by Patrick when she joins the cult. And Marlene is a communal name used by all the women in the cult to answer the phone. Martha is a woman who has been stripped of her ego and exists in the liminal space between “is” and “was.”

Elizabeth Olsen does a fantastic job of portraying a woman who has undergone immense pain. While this trauma does not always manifest itself, it always lingers underneath the surface of her performance. Likewise, Durkin imbues even the most mundane scenes with a sense of tension. It is far, far too early to tell where either Olsen or Durkin’s career will go at this point, but I would be interested in seeing the two work together again. Regardless, I have a feeling plenty more will come from both of these talents.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (5/5)

I was as shocked as anyone to learn that after thirty years of writing, recording and touring R.E.M. would finally call it quits. It’s strange to hear that a band with such a long history has broken up. It’s kind of like when a couple decides on a divorce when both partners are firmly entrenched in middle age. You have to wonder, why now? Surely R.E.M. could have gone on touring and putting out albums every five years or so, and no one would have thought less of them. Perhaps it has to do with slipping out from under the expectations that the name R.E.M. carries with it. Perhaps they don’t have anything left to say, or are finished making music (I certainly hope this isn’t the case). Like many, following R.E.M.’s breakup, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on where they stand both in my personal aural autobiography I keep running through my head and in their larger place as musicians. I would like to take a moment to highlight one of their great early records, Fables of the Reconstruction, in order to reassess the album in light of the R.E.M.’s entire oeuvre.

It may be hard to remember now but before the world tours and sold out stadiums, R.E.M. began as more of a local act. For the first part of their career they were heavily associated with the Athens music scene, and it seemed like R.E.M. couldn’t exist anywhere but in the American South. Peter Buck’s folk influence and Michael Stipe’s dark, cryptic lyrics evoked the hidden backwoods of Americana in the same manner as William Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner. Fables of the Reconstruction was, arguably, the last album by R.E.M. that still felt immersed in the Southern Gothic tradition. It might seem strange, then, that the album was recorded not in Athens, but in England. Of course, sometimes we need to leave a time and place in order to truly see it.

Fables opens with the disorienting “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” Stipe sings of falling asleep while reading and name checks the surrealist artist Man Ray while Buck’s guitar trips its way along a stuttering melody. This signals a different direction from their previous album, Reckoning, which, while still firmly planted in Southern soil, managed to have a more outsized feel with bigger hooks and catchy choruses. Fables’s off kilter feel is mirrored in the packaging. The front cover reads, “Fables of the…” and the back cover continues, “Reconstruction of the…,” creating an endless loop.

Tellingly, the second track, where most bands would place the obvious single, is instead taken up by a down tempo tribute to outsider artist, Rev. Howard Finster, “Maps and Legends.” It is only by the time we reach “Driver 8” that the album starts to develop real momentum, thanks mostly to Bill Berry and Mike Mills’s propulsive rhythm section, which nicely mirrors the subject of the song, a train engine. Themes of movement and change run throughout the album, perhaps an early indicator that after Fables R.E.M.’s sound would also shift directions. “Driver 8” in particular speaks to the timelessness of R.E.M.’s music. By reaching back and writing about an older mode of transportation, R.E.M. projects their subject matter outside of the here and now. This is nicely mirrored in their music, which borrows just as much from 60s folk as it does from punk and new wave.

The latter two influences can be heard in some of the more energetic numbers, like “Life and How to Live it” and the at times violently atonal, “Auctioneer (Another Engine).” The most out of step song on the album is perhaps “Can’t Get There from Here,” which sounds like Public Image Limited by way of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The guitar on “Can’t Get There” sounds more like a rhythm instrument than the lead. From Stipe’s low voiced deliver to the high pitched squeal that opens the songs, “Can’t Get There” serves as a humorous one off, a respite from the pitch black Southern woods that seems to hover around the rest of the album. The song may be a sonic outlier, but thanks to its placement in the center of the album, at the moment when the listener is ready for a break, and thanks to lyrics that extend the theme of geography and insider/outsider, the album just wouldn’t work as well without “Can’t Get There from Here.”

And it’s this inconsistency made congruent that perhaps best defines the sound of R.E.M. The band is probably best known for their jangle-pop sound, and yet there isn’t a single moment in their career where this description fully encompassed the band’s identity. R.E.M. borrowed too much and had too much of their own personality to easily define. In the album’s closing song, “Wendell Gee,” Stipe sings that the title character chooses to “whistle as the wind blows,” which perhaps best defines R.E.M.’s career as artists who, while ever mercurial, never made changes that weren’t on their own terms. Fables signaled the end of R.E.M.’s early sound, and as much as I love the triptych of Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables, I’m just as pleased that they chose to follow their inspiration to wherever it took them, trusting that fans were going to follow.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Woods - Sun and Shade

Woods – Sun and Shade (5/5)

Woods have released three albums in the last three years. Surprisingly, this breakneck recording speed has had no impact on the quality of their material. Woods’s past three albums, Songs of Shame, At Echo Lake, and, their most recent, Sun and Shade are all impeccable pop albums. Each album fits a certain well worn mold that the Woods have occupied for a few years now. And even if the band prefers to tinker with their sound, making changes around the edges, rather than overhauling it from the ground up, I just can’t hold that against them since Woods always hit the bullseye, even if they barely move the target.

The sound of Woods might be reductively described as a lo-fi version of the Grateful Dead, minus the self-indulgent jamming. But what makes their sound so enduring is the way different sonic elements brush up against one another. The songs themselves are instantly catchy, yet each instrument must be heard through the bristling lo-fi recording; the band’s sound can be instantly uplifting, yet their lyrics often have a cynical lilt. Woods continue to stretch these dynamics on Sun and Shade whose first three songs, “Pushing Onlys,” “Any Other Day,” and “Be All Easy” are a musical triptych that runs the emotional gamut from nostalgic to melancholy to stirring.

After this opening salvo, Woods go into one of their winding instrumental tracks, “Out of the Eye.” At least one song on Woods’s past three albums has been an experiment in songwriting where they treat structure like putty, stretching it out until the music barely holds itself together. As if to apologize for the sheer accessibility of their last album, the impossibly catchy, At Echo Lake, here Woods have included two of these instrumentals. This changes the dynamic of the album, putting the listener on edge. The second of these instrumentals, “Sol y Sombra,” delves into percussion and atmosphere, like the soundtrack to a spaghetti Western directed by Terrence Malick.

But perhaps the most surprising change on the latest album is that on several songs lead singer Jeremy Earl drops the old timey microphone, which normally makes the vocals sound as if they are being transmitted from seventy years ago. The creaky vocals are such an instantly recognizable part of the band’s identity that I was genuinely taken aback to hear his voice sound so naked. So I suppose I don’t care if Woods don’t feel the need to drop a Sgt. Pepper like reevaluation of their sound. Their music is so haunting, so limitless that tweaking their sound is enough. Besides, even the Beatles had to record Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver before they could tackle Sergeant Pepper.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tune-Yards - WHOKILL

tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L (2.5/5)

Despite his archetypal place as a hero, no one wants to be the boy who obnoxiously points out that the emperor has no clothes. Maybe the town folks were deluding themselves by celebrating the non-existent attire, but they were also taking a little time out of their day with their family to enjoy a royal procession. And that little brat had to ruin it for everyone. So, it is with little pleasure that I have to question the universal praise of the Tune-Yards’s latest album, WHOKILL. At its best, the album strives to strike out in its own direction, but at its worse, the album seems strangely emptied of new ideas, a cardinal sin for a band that, judging by their assault on rules of capitalization, pride themselves on their ingenuity.

WHOKILL is built around two important elements: the band’s interest in afro-beat rhythms and the schizophrenic vocal stylings of lead singer Merrill Garbus. Rock musicians have been entranced by African rhythms at least since the likes of Adam and the Ants dropped their first album, so it isn’t particularly revelatory several decades down the road. Of course, all musicians build upon their forebears, so Tune-Yards do not deserve demerits merely because they aren’t the first to be influenced by African music. The band’s real problems stem from their execution. The songs themselves are built tentatively on a thin frame, treating their deliberately tinny sounding drums lead each song. This at time seem to conflict with the vocals. Garbus’s voice can hover quietly or burst into a shriek at a moment’s notice. And yet this range never becomes a true asset. Whenever she chooses to let out a full throated yalp she throws the entire affair out of order, overpowering the treacly instrumentation. There are plenty of missteps throughout WHOKILL, but none get under your fingernails as easily as the moment on “You Yes You” where Garbus screams “What’s that about!” like a cartoon character over a thin beat.

But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of WHOKILL is the sense that Garbus is performing, metaphorically, in blackface. I certainly have no inherent problem with the kind of cross cultural pollination that Tune-Yards are trading in. Without different cultures borrowing from one another, then none of my favorite musical forms would even exist. However, when a white girl begins singing in a faux patois and appears to be speaking from the perspective of an urban minority, then we should probably question whether or not she is doing more than just pantomiming for affect. Perhaps the worst offender of the entire album is the song “Gangster,” which uses the following as its chorus: “Bang bang bang oh / Ain't never move to my hood / Cause danger is crawling out the wood.” Again, I actually have no problem with whites taking on the voice of black protagonists when it serves a particular artistic or narrative end, but because Garbus’s lyrics lack any depth—she seems content to merely repeat the same snippets throughout the song—the moments where she takes on a black voice come across as nothing more than affected flourishes. The African (American) experience becomes little more than an aesthetic choice.

The Tune-Yards are currently enjoying a seemingly endless amount of praise. And even if that praise is undeserved, I certainly cannot begrudge them their success. After all, there are plenty of more financially successful musicians who make far worse music. At least Tune-Yards are trying, even though they are not also succeeding.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (4/5)

As anyone who has ever turned the final pages and read the last words of a book knows, endings can be bittersweet. Some of my favorite novels only achieve their true power, their true resonance when they are finished. Great last lines seem to echo for a time long after we have finished reading them. And while this feeling is not absent from certain films, there is a reason why a sense of continuance is associated more with the novel than with a movie. While a movie may last, on average, two hours, it takes many hours and days to finish most novels. When reading a novel we live with the characters for a time. We get to know them, to understand their inner life, their goals and fears. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is that when the credits roll it feels as if I have turned the final page on a very, very long book.

The final installment in the Harry Potter series, HP 7.2 for short, feels like part of a whole not only because it follows seven other films, but because it is in fact the second half of one film. In many ways it is impossible to separate Deathly Hallows 1 and 2, but because I haven’t watched the first half since I saw it in theaters several months earlier, this review will by necessity be somewhat incomplete. My guess would be that watching both parts back to back would only enhance both films. But even when disconnected from the first half, HP 7.2 serves as a rousing, emotionally engaging film that ranks alongside some of the best installments of the series.

One of the chief complaints concerning HP 7.1 centered on the wandering section, which many (although not me) thought was amorphous and unnecessary. Those critics should be pleased to discover that part 2 stuffs plenty of action into its relatively short (for a Harry Potter movie) running time of a little over two hours. Much like its obvious inspiration Return of the Jedi, HP 7.2 functions almost entirely as a third act climax. As the movie begins Harry, Ron and Hermione are licking their wounds after their encounter with Bellatrix. They know of another Horcrux, which must be obtained and destroyed if they are to stand a chance against Voldemort, but it is unfortunately hidden in a guarded vault stuffed deep into a cave, which also happens to be owned by the Lestranges. In order to gain access to the vault Hermione uses a potion to transform herself into the very image of Bellatrix Lestrange. Ron trusses himself up as a random henchman while Harry and the Goblin Griphook, who has agreed to secret them into the vault, both hide under the trusty cloak of invisibility. Naturally, not everything goes to plan (a constant of the Potter universe that Ron happens to comment on), and, in one of the finer escapes of the series, the trio end up fleeing the vault on the back of a dragon.

From here the heroes must infiltrate Hogwarts in order to free the school from the tight fisted control of Snape. Under his guide, Hogwarts has been transformed into a kind of Voldermort’s Youth program. Borrowing from Riefenstahl by way of George Lucas, students at this new Hogwarts gravitate towards each other to form rigid geometric squares, a far cry from the chaotic hallways of yore. Upon reclaiming Hogwarts, student and teacher alike prepare for an oncoming assault from Voldemort. The final battle more or less encompasses the last half of the film, and the genre shift into a siege film is a nice change of pace, kind of an Assault on Precinct Hogwarts. The siege is deftly handled, and because most viewers are familiar with the geography of Hogwarts campus we are already aware of each ingress and egress that must be defended. This is a Harry Potter film, so there are twists that I won’t spoil, even if in all likelihood most fans have anticipated watching these surprises unfold on celluloid after reading the final book several years ago.

Perhaps the trickiest move a final film in a series must accomplish is to provide a compelling story on its own while paying homage to moments from the past. To this end, the movie shuffles in legions of creatures, locations, and items from the first six films. When Ron and Hermione revisit the chamber of secrets or when Harry makes use of the Pensieve, one can’t help but get a little nostalgic for all of the adventures these characters have shared within the seemingly boundless halls of Hogwarts, a school so vast that it has nearly house the entire Harry Potter epic. Carefully folded into the landscape, each little easter egg serves to recall adventures from a much simpler, less tortuous time in the Potter myth cycle. By trusting the audience to pick up on these signifiers of the past, HP 7.2 smartly chooses not to indulge in too much speechifying, instead choosing to let the action do the talking, this time choosing to resolve the plots of lovelorn teenagers on the go.

But the biggest surprise of the film might be the central place Neville Longbottom holds in the chaotic proceedings. Critics like to remark, with good reason, that the three main actors have grown to be surprisingly adept at their craft, inhabiting their characters with tremendous ease. What gets left out of this well worn observation is that the same can be said of Matthew Lewis who has had to bear the thankless task of portraying Neville while sporting fake teeth and at times wearing a fat suit. Lewis does a phenomenal job of portraying Neville as a once tertiary character who rises to the role of hero when time and events call on him. In many this transformation becomes the heart and soul of HP 7.2.

The fact that Longbottom could become such a highpoint of the final Harry Potter film speaks to the depths of Rowling’s creation. For her each character was the hero of his or her own story, and just because we were not always privy to these adventure did not mean they were any less important than what was happening to the big three characters. The Harry Potter series will go down as a singular achievement, a story that spans seven film and twenty hours while suggesting that even more is happening beyond the frame of the camera. It is a testament to each director that they not only understood Rowling’s vision, but that they truly understood the collaborative nature of filmmaking. A story so large deserves many authors, from each director, actor, screenwriter, Rowling herself, and every myth and legend she soaked up over the years. And even though it is sad to see the story end, the world these authors constructed seems so vast that I cannot help but think that the narrative continues for each characters long after the credits roll.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Police Story 3: Supercop

Police Story 3: Supercop (4/5)

Following Jackie Chan’s major American breakthrough, Rumble in the Bronx, American distributors started sniffing around for other Jackie Chan films they might dub and dump onto the American market. It is no surprise that one of Chan’s first Hong Kong films chosen for an American audience came from his most successful series, the Police Story movies. All they had to do was drop “Police Story” from the title and take it to a chop shop where parts of the movie could be taken out, seemingly at random. While I have seen the original cuts of both Police Story 1 and 2, this review is of the American cut of Supercop. Although I generally prefer to watch the original version of a foreign film, I do believe there’s some value in seeing what parts of a movie are deemed necessary for American viewers. Besides, getting an original cut of this film is notoriously difficult.

Relaying the plot of the American cut turns out to be somewhat difficult, but I will give it a try nonetheless. Chan is brought in on a joint international assignment between Hong Kong and mainland China. His goal is to go undercover in order to infiltrate an organized crime syndicate. Chan’s Chinese partner, Inspector Jessica Lang, is played by none other than female martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh who ably matches Jackie Chan move for move. In order to go under cover, Chan helps the imprisoned brother of an organized crime leader escape and later ingratiates himself into his association. Chan befriends his mark by hiding him in his hometown where Inspector Lang pretends to be Chan’s sister. The end goal is to follow the brother all the way up the totem pole to his drug lord brother and finally to the coalition of weapons and drugs dealers that he belongs to.

At least, I’m relatively certain this is the plot of the film. It’s a little foggy until about half way through the film. One of several scenes that the American distributors deemed unnecessary was an explanation of Chan and Lang’s mission and why it was first necessary to break the brother out of prison in order to infiltrate the syndicate. It is only when the criminal syndicate is introduced that a viewer can reasonably piece together the point of all this subterfuge. Perhaps the American distributor thought that audiences don’t go to see a Jackie Chan film for the plot, and while this might be nominally true, it would be nice to know exactly what MacGuffin Chan is after.

According to the great sage Wikipedia, scenes illustrating cultural differences between Hong Kong and China were also excised, perhaps because the distributor assumed that culture clashes from half a world away mean nothing to an American audience. This, of course, is not the case. If an American audience is coming to a foreign film, whether it’s a French new wave or Chinese martial arts film, then they are likely interested in taking in a quick glance of another culture. Likewise, the film’s American soundtrack is littered with bargain bin hip hop and second hand covers that do the movie no favors.

Police Story 3: Supercop finds the series pivoting from gritty urban action to James Bond intrigue. This shift in genre is spelled out for us in the opening minutes of the film when Chan’s boss, Uncle Bill, suggests that Interpol needs James Bond for their newest assignment. The first two Police Story movies were somewhat confused in tone, attempting to be both a goofy comedy and a Dirty Harry type rogue cop film. At times I did miss the way that the earlier films made use of enclosed urban spaces, but it is competently replaced by international vistas, shoot outs and car chases. The new genre and setting changes the action as well, which focuses less on hand to hand martial arts than it does on tremendous stunts involving as many vehicles as they could fit into the movie.

Supercop’s greatest contribution to the series may have be the introduction of Michelle Yeoh who provides the first instance of a strong capable female in the entire franchise. In the tradition of the buddy cop film (from which this movie is also borrowing), Yeoh’s character, Lang, performs the role of the buttoned up, by the book professional who clashes with the freewheeling, undisciplined Chan. By including a second hero who can also use her hand and feet as weapons, the movie not only adds something new to a Police Story movie, but it also allows for several interesting action sequences, including one where Chan must help Lang, who has been strapped with an explosive vest, avoid being shot lest both of heroes, as well as anyone else in the general vicinity.

Of course, Chan’s girlfriend, May, does show up in the film, albeit in a much smaller capacity than in the other films. Poor, poor May. Not only is she nearly forgotten for most of the film’s running time, only to show up at the end to fulfill the role of a hostage, but she is also pushed into a pool, mistaken for a prostitute and shoved out of a helicopter. In many ways Supercop’s shift in genre means, except for some familiar faces, it could have easily stood on its own (perhaps one of the reasons why it was released in the U.S.). And yet I can’t help but admire the decision to mess with the formula, to keep the series fresh.

Monday, July 04, 2011

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (5/5)

I once glibly commented to a friend of mine that, while I love many of TV on the Radio’s songs, I felt like they were one of the greatest bands to never make a great record. From their first album on TV on the Radio showed immense promise as a band. They crafted a unique sound for themselves that combined punk, new wave, funk and electronica into unexpected arrangements (if you can remember back to their debut, then you also know they briefly dabbled in acappella, and it was actually good). And yet despite punctured flashes of brilliance, I had never found an entire album by TV on the Radio completely satisfying. For their first three albums, the best songs were pushed to the first half of the record while the less impressive efforts weighed down the back end. Despite all of their brilliance as songwriters, it seemed as if they couldn’t maintain the quality of their best efforts for the entire span of an LP. With the release of Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio’s fourth album, I can no longer make the same claim about TV on the Radio’s awkward tackling of the album format.

Perhaps it is because the band has finally cracked the code of the long player, or perhaps it’s because they learned to cradle the slow numbers as well as they rock out on the obvious singles, but whatever the reason, TV on the Radio have made the best album of their career. From the funk stomp of the opener, “Second Song,” to the shout out loud closer, “Caffeinated Consciousness,” Nine Types of Light maintains a consistently high level of quality. Some numbers may grab the listener more immediately than others, but I guarantee you that any single track off Nine Types of Light would be a highlight on nearly any other group’s album.

As usual, TV on the Radio effortlessly turn in invigorating screamers whose hooks veil the fact that the lyrics could have been written by the Greek figure of death, Thanatos. “No Future Shock” conjures up images of a dance party in the middle of social and political entropy, while “Repetition” dares you not to dance to a tale of drugs, death and violence. The latter track even breaks down so that Tunde Adebimpe can provide a moment of spoken word introspection that sounds like a schizophrenic version of Vincent Price. Perhaps no other band can make humanity’s death drive seem like so much fun. But the real stunner about Nine Types of Light is that the slow numbers are perhaps the best songs off the album. The real standout here is “Killer Crane,” which leaves not a note out of place. Employing warm atmospherics, subtle strings, and even something that sounds like a banjo, TV on the Radio evince absolute control over every detail, confident enough to combine different instruments without overstuffing the song. “Killer Crane” speaks of regeneration and coming to terms with past scars, and it is this catharsis, as well as its placement in the album, that positions the song as the album’s centerpiece.

Fans of TV on the Radio have had to cope with rumors of a band break up over the past few years. Either because of solo albums, a temporary hiatus, or merely because the band seems overflowing with talented musicians, it sometimes appears that each TV on the Radio album could be our last. I hope this isn’t the case, since Nine Types of Light feels like work from a group who still has plenty to say. The final song off the album, “Caffeinated Consciousness,” is also the most aggressive, as if the band is attempting to say, “We’re just getting started.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Police Story 2

Police Story 2 (4/5)

Sequels in the 1980s and early 90s tended to be retellings of the original story. Sure, time had passed between the events of the first and second films and screenwriters would make a reasonable attempt to make obligatory mention of what happened the first time around, but largely sequels were designed to give us more of the same. The 80s/90s, if I have my chronology correct, were before the Lord of the Ringses and Pirates of the Carribeanses, movies that tried to string a single narrative through multiple films. The definition of a sequel and remake were dangerously close during this era of movie history. Ghostbusters 2 made the gang once again face an influx of supernatural activity in New York, leading to yet another climax where a giant creature walks the streets of the city; Predator 2 transplants the same plot into an urban location; Die Hard 2: Die Harder, apparently afraid the audience will not realize the similarities between the first and second movie, takes immense pleasure in having characters point out how much the movie’s events have in common with the original film, as if to say, “Hey, remember that movie you really liked, Die Hard. Well, this is a lot like that.”

Apparently Jackie Chan doesn’t like to hit the reset button because Police Story 2 not only deals with the fallout from the first film, but makes these consequences an important, if not always central, part of the movie. In fact, the opening title is translated as Police Story, Part 2. I think the “part” subtitle tends to class up the place. It’s a way for the filmmaker to tell you that he’s not in it for the money. He just wants to finish the grand narrative he began with the first one. As if to remind the viewer of the eyeball searing awesomeness of the original, Police Story 2 begins with a montage of the greatest hits from the first film set to the rousing “Police Story Theme.” We then pick up the story in what appears to be mere days after the events of the first film with Ka Kui Chan facing repercussions for going rogue. While Chan’s superiors, Superintendent Li and “Uncle” Bill, chastise him for his violent, impulsive means, they still respect him as a police officer and the ends his unconventional actions result in. Both have convinced the higher ups that Chan should not be ejected from the force. Instead they demote Chan to traffic duty.

While directing traffic, Chan is confronted by the villains from the first film, Chu Tao and his lawyer John Ko. Because he has contracted a terminal illness that gives him less than three months to live, Tao was granted a compassionate release by the Hong Kong prison system. Ko proceeds to harassed Chan and his girlfriend May by rolling up to their apartment and issuing barely veiled threats. Later, he makes good on these threats when he unleashes a handful of henchmen conveniently proficient in Kung Fu on Chan and May in an empty park at night. In addition to worrying about enemies out of the past, Chan must also contend with blackmailers who are threatening to blow up buildings owned by some corporate conglomerate unless they cough up ten million dollars.

Police Story 2 improves on the original in at least one area: the character of May. In the first movie May served as the irrationally jealous girlfriend and occasional point of comic relief. Unfortunately, this meant the outrageous action was often sideswiped by dubious humor and stereotypes that were more than a little offensive. In the sequel, May is allowed to be a fuller character whose grievances are legitimate and feelings for Chan are reciprocated. May is introduced to the story when she thoughtfully brings Chan water while he is on duty directing traffic in the scorching heat. At times May becomes subject to a disproportionate amount of abuse, whether she has been capture by the film’s villains or whether Chan’s forgetfulness causes her to spend over ten hours in a jail cell (long story), but unlike in the first film, at least her affection for Chan is mutual, which provides the inevitable damsel in distress routine with actual dramatic weight.

As is the case for most Jackie Chan pictures, Police Story 2 boasts some mesmerizing action sequences, including Chan dodging billboards while surfing the roof of a bus and a phenomenal fight in a school playground. This is the second Jackie Chan film I’ve seen that makes use of a playground to stage action, and it’s a fitting metaphor for the kind of mental and physical play required to choreograph Chan’s brutal ballet. Just as children transform parts of a playground into whatever their imagination requires of it—a swing might be used belly down to simulate the flying feats of a superhero or a slide might be climbed in reverse to mimic ascending the Himalayas—Jackie Chan transforms everyday urban ephemera into elements of a coliseum arena. Just as much as his swift choreography, Jackie Chan’s knack for incorporating every day objects into his set pieces have contributed to the success of his films.

While the action doesn’t quite reach the delirious heights of the first film (very few films do), Police Story 2 improves on all of those areas in-between. The humor routinely hits the mark (even if there are a few wide swings), especially a bit where Chan gives a rousing speech where he wishes the villains would take his life instead of those of innocent civilians, which his bosses both immediately steal verbatim when facing the higher ups. As Chan and his investigators attempt to uncover who’s behind the bombings, the movie relies more heavily on the genre of police procedural rather than the original’s use of Dirty Harry’s rogue cop archetype. Police Story 2 may lack some of the discipline of the first film—the dueling plots (semi-spoiler alert) never fully entwine at the end—but it nevertheless offers up vintage Jackie Chan at the height of his popularity as a Hong Kong action star.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Police Story

Police Story (4/5)

For many Americans their first introduction to the work of Jackie Chan was in his fish out of water Hollywood fare like the Rush Hour movies or his 90s Hong Kong imports like Rumble in the Bronx. But Chan first attempted to break into the American market a decade or so before these films were released in theaters. Back in the eighties Jackie Chan first tried to do what only a few Asian stars before him were capable of accomplishing: become an accepted fixture of American cinema. The result was the less than stellar 1985 Hollywood action film, The Protector, which paired the Asian superstar with Danny Aiello and placed him in the middle of a decaying urban milieu. Not only was the film a box office disappointment, but Jackie Chan clashed with the director. Having experience in the director’s chair, Jackie objected to the film’s shoddy workmanship, unnecessary vulgarities, and quotidian action sequences. After his debilitating experience on The Protector and feeling rejected by American audiences, Chan decided to make a film completely on his own terms. The result, Police Story, not only boasts of Jackie Chan’s most impressive stunts and iconic action, but also became the start of his most successful film franchise.

The first Police Story film veers somewhat wildly between gritty urban cop action and broad relationship slapstick. Jackie Chan plays Ka Kui Chan, a police inspector who is assigned witness protection duty after a botched police sting codenamed “Operation Boar Hunt.” Chan’s superiors believe they possess just enough evidence to convict kingpin Chu Tao so long as they can convince his moll, Selina Fong to testify against her boss and paramour. In order to get Fong to reflexively sting her boss, Chan’s superiors make it appear as if she is already working for the police by separating her from her lawyer and making sure Chan is an obvious police detail. If Chu Tao turns on Fong, then they can rely on her to run to the police for protection.

None of this exactly goes according to plan. Chan’s jealous girlfriend, May, becomes incensed when she discovers that he is housing another woman at his apartment. Despite the fact that May is a borderline offensive stereotype of a hysterical woman, I can see where she is coming from because Chan is kind of a cad. It might surprise many who are used to Jackie Chan’s ability pull off an “aw shucks” shrug even as jumped buildings, ran up walls and climbed aboard vehicles at unsafe speeds but in 1985 he played a real jerk. In order to convince Fong to stay at his place, Chan hires a friend on the force to pretend to be a bedroom intruder hired by Fong’s boss to kill her. Later, after Chan thinks his girlfriend May has left his apartment, he openly mocks her in front of his prize witness, unaware that May is just around the corner listening to him claim that he can get hundreds of other girls. (I almost felt bad for the actress playing May, Maggie Cheung, for being given such a thankless role. But I can’t feel too bad for her because she will later put in some great work with some seminal Chinese directors like Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou).

Perhaps the film’s humor has been lost in translation or in the decade (“hey, it was the eighties” has become an acceptable excuse these days). Still, Jackie does a hell of a moon walk in order to wipe the bottom of his shoes clean, and a scene in which he juggles four phone lines at once reaches towards Buster Keaton levels of physical comedy (even if one of the emergency phone calls is so outrageously offensive that I have to believe it is a mistranslation). But I don’t think you came to see a Jackie Chan film for his battle of the sexes humor. No, you came to see a Jackie Chan film for the tendon shearing, femur shattering stunts. In this regard the film unequivocally delivers. The opening raid is so ambitious that I doubted whether Jackie Chan could top it by the film’s end, and while you can debate whether or not the film reaches the delirious heights of that raid, the closing fight in the mall sure as hell tries. In fact, several of the stunts in the raid have been borrowed by Hollywood films, but arguably to less effect. In order to evade the police, the drug dealers drive their cars straight through a shanty town, obliterating both the cars and anything in their path. Later, when trying to stop a bus that kingpin Chu Tao and his henchmen have commandeered, Chan blocks the street with a car and stares down the careening double decker with a pistol. The bus stops short, sending two criminals straight through the front window. Both scenes were borrowed by Bad Boys II and Tango and Cash, respectively, but, unlike Police Story, those films have glossy production values that somewhat mutes the action.

Jackie Chan does double duty as director, and it’s safe to say he directs like he fights: with a cool, quick, economic style. He uses plenty of pans and zooms throughout the film, giving the movie a buoyant energy (add a couple of jump cuts and he’s halfway there to making a French New Wave film), but the kinetic feel of his directing never trips up his own stunts. Unlike modern action directors, who rely on handheld cameras and quick cuts to give the vague concept of action without actually presenting anything interesting on the screen, Chan clearly wants to preserve his stunt work so the audience can see every roundhouse, every bruise. The film clocks in at a succinct hour and forty minutes, meaning that even if you don’t enjoy the humor of mid-eighties Jackie Chan, you don’t have to wait long to get to ass kicking Jackie Chan. If nothing else, the movie goes down smoothly and is endlessly rewatchable, inviting us to ask again and again, how the hell did he do that?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Listening to a Police Story

This summer marks release of the final installment in the Harry Potter Franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which means my long running series of reviews on the Harry Potter films will come to a melancholy close. I have thought about turning my sights onto another film franchise, and even if it is near impossible to discover a series of movies with the same scope and ambition of the Harry Potter franchise, I think I have discovered a fitting replacement. As an antidote to all of the navel gazing and angst of the Harry Potter movies, I have decided to reward myself with Jackie Chan's long running Police Story series. Starting in 1985 Police Story is arguably Chan's signature series of films. The original not only spawned three direct sequels but also one spin off and, more recently, a reboot.

First, a little background on my own history with Jackie Chan. Like most of America, I was first introduced to Jackie Chan in the 1990s after several of his Hong Kong films, after a poor job of dubbing, were released in American movie theaters. At the time I was beginning to discover "serious" filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese and had little time for goofy Hong Kong movies that, while they contained some deliriously dangerous stunts, also had their fair share of incongruous slapstick amongst the usual action mayhem. It wasn't until several years later when Jackie Chan started making American films that were, with few exceptions, far inferior to the movies he made in Hong Kong that I started to appreciate his work. The stunts were truncated and the humor was just as corny as anything in Chan's Hong Kong output, only a kind of corny that could only come out of a Hollywood studio system, making it far less interesting. This made me reappraise my thoughts on Chan's earlier films. What was it about his earlier work that made it so much more interesting than his Hollywood fair? It also didn't hurt that I began to see that Chan was just as influenced by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as he was by martial arts greats like Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung. And yet, despite this change of heart, I have only revisited a few of Chan's earlier films during that time, and I have only seen the final Police Story movie, Police Story 4: First Strike without realizing it was part of a much larger series.

The single constant to Jackie Chan's work is his tremendous stunt work, which seems to easily transcend time and culture. I'm curious to see whether or not all those moments in-between the bad-assery will hold up as well several decades and half a world removed. I cannot promise that I will watch every film connected to the Police Story series (Netflix apparently does not have the Michelle Yeoh starring spin off, Police Story 3, Part 2: Supercop, aka Once a Cop, aka Project S, aka Supercop 2). But I will make my way through all four of the main trunk of the Police Story franchise. In the next week expect the first review in my Police Story journey.