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2006-05-29 22:13:40 (link)
X-Men 3: The Last Stand

The first two X-Men movies were remarkably balanced. They offered great action thrills, but did it alongside compelling storylines and strong character development. As a result, they were not only two of the most exciting blockbusters of the decade, but also two of the most soulful. Perhaps X-Men: The Last Stand wouldn’t seem so dreadful if it weren’t trying to fill those shoes. But with the departure of director Bryan Singer and his writing team, so too departed the sense of balance, depth, and nuance that until now defined the franchise.

Wolverine: The reason we're all here.

Under new director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon), the movie focuses on the creation of a “cure” for mutation created by the government. As the treatment is distributed, and the mutant community debates its implications, Magneto (Ian McKellan) recruits angered mutants to a holy war against the humans. This war is further complicated by the resurrection of Jean Gray, with her considerable powers intact but her mental state less stable.

The latest X-outing suffers from adding undeveloped characters, while eliminating or marginalizing the franchise’s most interesting characters. Mystique, Cyclops, and Xavier himself are quickly shunted, while Rogue’s role is chopped down to little more than a bit part. The first two installments depended heavily on the bonds and shared experiences of Rogue and Wolverine, and on the presence and philosophical differences of Xavier and Magneto. With Rogue and Xavier cast aside, and Wolverine reduced to tough-talk and posturing, Ratner attempts to centralize Storm. But Storm’s character has never been made interesting, and Halle Berry has never played her well. This leaves a dead space where the movie’s heart should be, and leaves Magneto alone to provide all character depth in an overqualified performance from Ian McKellan.

Beast: Because you would rather have seen Gambit, and this movie wants to keep your expectations in check.

Instead of building through back-story and character, X3 builds through scale, upping the ante at every turn. Where the first two movies featured battles and struggles, the new one turns to full-on war. And where just a few characters dominated earlier work, a flood of new characters now compete for attention on both sides of the battle. Vinnie Jones steps in as evil giant Juggernaut, while Hard Candy’s Ellen Page makes a magnetic Kitty Pryde. But none of them comes with more than a sentence or two of story. While they provide fun new powers, every bit of attention to new figures means emphasis on flash over story.

It’s this lack of subtlety and balance, and a “bigger is better” mentality, that ruins the movie. The movie raises the stakes so high when it comes to some of the mutants’ powers that it feels like a childishly-conceived battle between infinity and infinity-plus-one. Aiming for excess provides some fun moments, but every step forward comes with two steps back. Aaron Stanford’s brooding charisma as Pyro doesn’t justify focusing on the rivalry between him and Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman, particularly when it culminates in the truly stupid climactic battle between fire and ice. And a chase scene between Kitty Pryde and Juggernaut is exhilarating and funny, but more often Ratner’s expanded sense of humor is needlessly lowbrow.

by Amos Posner

2006-05-15 22:55:05 (link)
"An American Haunting" - Great Only if You Have "Daddy Issues"

I thought "An American Haunting" had the potential to be very scary. It has a good marketing hook -- a film about the only documented case in U.S. history where a spirit killed a man. Sounds very spooky, right? Well, it wasn't. The movie was unnecessary and contrived... and this is coming from someone who cried during "The Grudge," so my standards for horror movies are very low.

We're first introduced to Sissy Spacek, who lives in an old house with her teenage daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Her daughter finds an old manuscript in the attic that details their "family secret." And the rest of the film flips between present day and the early 1800s as Sissy reads the account of the Bell Family Haunting.

So we're brought to the early 1800s where John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his family are publicly chastised by the Church after swindling a mean old lady out of some cash. They lose "their good name" and the mean hag curses John and his pretty daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Soon after, weird shit starts happening to Betsy. A spirit, or something, smacks the crap out of her every night and the family hunkers down at home (the spirit won't let them leave) and tries to exorcise the demon. There are some genuinely scary moments in the middle of the movie as John also becomes a target of a the spirit, in addition to his daughter.

Then the director and writer Courtney Solomon tries to explain why Betsy and John are being beaten so mercilessly by the poltergeist. This is where the film went belly up. I'm just going to tell you what the spirit's apparent motive was because no one should see this movie anyway. It turns out that John Bell, a seemingly moral guy, was raping the hell out of his daughter and the ensuing emotional disturbance somehow conjured a poltergeist that not only beat the shit out of her, but eventually killed John.

This is baffling. Why would the angry spirit, whose origin is the abused girl, continue hurting her? Maybe I don't fully understand the nature of poltergeists, and maybe I could forgive such an illogical plot twist... but then Ms. Solomon really drove the whole sexual-abuse theme home in the ending scenes.

At the end of the film, present-day Sissy Spacek, who now knows the "family secret," is helping her daughter get ready for a weekend with her father. As her ex-husband pulls out of the driveway, precious daughter in tow, Sissy sees the ghost of Betsy Bell! Which means: OMGZ HER EXHUSBAND IS RAPING THEIR DAUGHTER JUST LIKE JOHN BELL RAPED HIS DAUGHTER! :O She consequently runs down the driveway, yelling. End film.

What a terrible, terrible, terrible way to resolve a movie; poorly done and unnecessary.

by Kristin V. Johnson

2006-05-01 22:26:09 (link)
United 93 - Review

Someone had to make the first 9/11 movie. Many filmmakers have grazed the issue up until now, from the suicide bomber tales of Paradise Now and Syriana, to the indirect references in Steven Spielberg’s last two films, War of the Worlds and Munich. But now the gates have been opened with United 93, in which writer-director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) seeks to reenact the events within and surrounding the only hijacked plane that failed to reach its target.

In a stunning display of frankness and sincerity, Greengrass has vividly breathed life into an event that we could previously only comprehend from a great distance. It’s not only the best and most important movie of the year so far, but the most difficult viewing experience of any good movie in recent memory.

The movie intertwines multiple perspectives on the events of the day, first following the every day routines of the airport and the preparation and engagement of the terrorists. It then moves into the building tension, observation, and panic in air traffic control rooms and military bases along the Eastern seaboard. The story culminates in the reactions of Flight 93 passengers, some of whom mustered the courage to storm the hijackers and thwart the attack.

Some might see it as a silver-lining approach to history to focus on the one event where we have such clear individual, triumphant heroes. But the movie does not spare us the pain of discovery and shattered comfort that marked the day. The attack on the World Trade Center is shown through news footage, and Greengrass effectively places us back in the mindset of shock and the certainty that more attacks were imminent. While a traumatic viewing experience, the movie is not exploitative. It’s the most tasteful approach that could have been taken, no matter how relentlessly chilling it is.

What makes it so effective is how direct it is, while at the same time deeply personal. Greengrass does everything possible to eliminate the distance between the day’s events and the audience. The cast is entirely devoid of stars, and uniformly offers strong and appropriately minimalist performances. The writing almost completely avoids commentary and analysis, music is used minimally, and the camera work lends tremendous intimacy to the storytelling. Greengrass’ use of handheld cameras in The Bourne Supremacy was merely kinetic. In United 93, it’s emotive and atmospheric in much deeper ways. He also helps embed the audience by capturing just how many of the people closest to the events at hand were, in effect, audiences themselves. We are placed in the movie to watch helplessly along so many key people who were forced to do the same.

No movie should be taken as a historical document. With that said, it is historically important that the first cinematic take on 9/11 wasn’t Pearl Harbor, or what many of us are afraid Oliver Stone’s forthcoming WTC project will be. There’s a limit to how close a reenactment like this can be, and many people aren’t ready to re-encounter some of the feelings the movie will unquestionably evoke. The movie is much more personal in how it exists off-screen than on.

But as a movie, it’s worth consuming, and as a piece of our cultural memory and recovery, it’s worth interacting with. United 93 is an attempt to understand what happened around and on one of the flights of September 11th in the most basic possible sense. Taken on those terms, it’s a triumphant piece of work, and the most impressive accomplishment any filmmaker will achieve this year.

by Amos Posner

2006-04-26 23:03:25 (link)
American Dreamz - Review

American Dreamz held real promise. Writer-director Paul Weitz had grown from American Pie through About a Boy and In Good Company into an able craftsman of funny and increasingly poignant work. The latter two saw him coax top performances from Hugh Grant and Dennis Quaid, with whom he would reunite for the new release. Sic this team on the Bush administration, American Idol, and the dicey mechanics of fame and politics, and the result should at least be interesting to watch. But instead, American Dreamz made it to the table as a sad, tepid hash in which none of the ingredients is sufficiently fresh.

The movie follows a handful of intertwining storylines. The smarmy host (Grant) of an American Idol-like show called “American Dreamz” tries to stir up the show’s new season to fight the monotony; a shallow, ambitious girl (Mandy Moore) from small town America will make any compromise to find fame and fortune on the show; the dim-witted American President (Quaid) soul-searches as he begins actually reading newspapers at the beginning of his second term; and a well-meaning, but incompetent young Arab orphan (Sam Golzari) recruited to terror is shunted off to Orange County, where his penchant for show tunes unwittingly leads him to the show.

American Dreamz is built on a poor foundation. It’s easy to call Bush a slow-minded, out-of-touch puppet riding his father’s coattails, but if your jokes and critiques bear no more teeth than that, then your satire is more gumming than biting. The same applies to spoofing American Idol. The show does so much to acknowledge its own machinery and the mediocrity of its contestants that merely parading these ideas has no effect. With both Bush and American Idol, Weitz doesn’t really abstract them enough to make his portrayals any more absurd than the genuine articles. That’s a bad recipe for satire or comedy. Things only get worse when one of your other core ideas is that watching people with accents sing never loses its novelty.

Weitz’ special talent has always been finding laughs and heart in superficially uninteresting places. American Dreamz marks an overambitious, under-conceived juggling act. The movie seems glued together from a series of big “Wouldn’t it be funny if (blank)?” ideas, each of which is half-baked. What’s most unfortunate is that you can see a better movie shining through the cracks.

Quaid and Golzari offer game performances with surprising heart, and there are few greater joys in cinema than Hugh Grant when he’s having fun, which seems true here. Meanwhile, Moore is too nakedly engineered in her persona and career to be the sweetheart star she was intended to be, but she’s great at playing callous, over-constructed bitches, as demonstrated both here and in Saved!. And Willem Dafoe rounds out the stellar cast in a fun turn as a Dick Cheney/Karl Rove figure. But even the greatest cast can’t carry the burden of a script that leaves its actors coated in flop sweat.

In a parallel universe of unmade movies, American Dreamz is a top-notch screwball comedy. The same cast shows the same kind of enthusiasm for the absurd, and with the same underlying heart. The politics might be the same, but with less explication, and the whole presidential storyline would be reconfigured to serve some sort of purpose. The pace would be made twice as fast, and the result might be the most uniquely, deliriously funny movie of the season; almost like a Sullivan’s Travels for a new generation.

But in this universe, all we have is a painful swing and a miss. Though often amusing, American Dreamz is little more than an artifact of a bad idea; a record of what garnered spoofing, without knowing how to spoof it.

by Amos Posner

2006-03-19 21:57:33 (link)
V for Vendetta - Review

It’s a sad state of affairs when people look to a Wachowski brothers movie to spur political discourse and controversy. In a time of real issues to discuss, we could certainly find better rhetorical maestros than the men who brought us “There is no spoon.” Still, it’s easy to see where V for Vendetta, the new graphic novel adaptation written and produced by the Matrix helmers, might raise eyebrows among the thin-skinned. It deals in the ramifications of war, censorship, government-controlled media, terrorism, and gay rights, all the while referencing present-day America. But for all its striving toward relevance, V for Vendetta poses one problem that should trouble audiences on all sides of the political divide. That problem, of course, is that it’s an awful, awful movie.

Directed by Matrix assistant director James McTeigue and based on the graphic novel by David Lloyd and Alan Moore, the movie exists in a near-future vision where America has collapsed and England has been taken over by a Nazi-like dictator who controls the country through brute force, strict curfews, and a government-run television network (think Fox News with a few dashes of Stalin). Natalie Portman stars as Evey Hammond, a young network employee who is saved from the wrath of corrupt night patrolmen and recruited to rebellion by a masked terrorist known only as V (Hugo Weaving). Hidden in a lair full of forbidden jazz, vintage weapons, and a suspicious supply of Natalie Portman-sized clothing, V dons a Guy Fawkes mask, and in Fawkes fashion, seeks to blow up Parliament and tumble the establishment.

There are some good ideas at the core of V for Vendetta. The notions of masking, media, and the democracy of art and storytelling could certainly be interesting. And there is one downright brilliant TV-show-within-the-movie sequence that nearly justifies the whole thing by itself. But everything else is so stupid, sloppy, and borrowed that it’s hard to notice the potential. Long, empty speeches spout from every character. Needless, misfired allusions to everything from Shakespeare to The Wizard of Oz fall flat. Orwell is already political parable designed for 14-year olds to digest; it’s agonizing to watch it dumbed down even further to bumper-sticker philosophy to impress stoners and fourth graders.

All the movie’s pedantic, vacuous attempts at intelligence might be forgiven if the action were better. But the movie buries its action in endless words and asides, only to disappoint with lackluster thrills. The parliament explosion and a couple of other scenes are nifty, but more often special effects are put to genuinely stupid use, like slow-motion rain or a needlessly complicated dominoes display. Pointlessness and lack of focus are the rules of the game here, though. Protesting the suppression of gay rights is all well and good, but not when it comes in a lengthy tangent to a movie that already feels desperately overlong.

For a movie that thinks it’s a rogue intellectual stirring things up, V for Vendetta is more like the obnoxious grade school classmate who never shuts up, but has all the cool toys. Political discussions and the action genre both deserve better than this.

by Amos Posner

2006-01-24 11:13:04 (link)
New Year's Eve in Cambodia

We woke up early on December 31, 2005. Dan and I skipped hygiene and breakfast and checked out of the “not so” Royal Highness Hotel—in the middle of Phnom Penh—a few minutes before 7 am. My friend Neil’s apartment was next door and was the meeting point before we started the trip up the mountain.

It was only Dan and my second day in Cambodia. The day before, we had arrived at the Phnom Penh International Airport in the early afternoon from Bangkok, and slept for most of the day and night. Now, presumably rested, we were ready to party. Our ever-resourceful host, Neil, had managed to haggle us a pickup truck complete with a driver the previous day for $120 U.S. dollars. Divided by the number of (paying) riders, it would be $12 per person. Not bad, one might say, not knowing the truck was a shit-awful piece of crap. There were two benches in the in the back covered by a tin roof, that was far too short for anyone over 5 feet tall. The inside wasn’t much more comfortable, but it didn’t matter because the “girls” got to sit there. Prudes.

Same Region of the World...

Our destination was an abandoned casino and hotel at the top of a mountain in Bokor. A relic from Cambodia’s days as a “colony” of France, the casino had been the main attraction of a French-built, mountaintop resort in the early 20th century. For the last five or six years, however, it played host to an annual New Year’s Eve party/rave.

Traveling with us that day was a scattering of foreigners residing in Phnom Penh, along with a few extras. Brandon—a well-traveled, funny Canadian; Katie—a somewhat hazy, but kind Brit; Zach—20 years old, Canadian and undoubtedly the most mature of the bunch; Ash—a quiet, tatted up Australian; and Barb—his quiet, modestly-tatted up girlfriend. Katie’s extremely British mom, who looked to be approaching her sixties, came along as well, as did Neil’s kid sister, Natalie, who was visiting from the U.S.

By 8:00 am, we were off. The first order of business for the Phnom Penh crew (note: this doesn’t include Leif and Dan, drug police of Japan) was rolling spliffs while traveling at 80 k/hr and being bounced around like a bunch of people being bounced around in a shit-poor pickup truck. Not surprisingly—living in a country where rolling spliffs can be and is done at anytime and place (restaurants, dentist’s office etc.)—they were quite skillful. Our driver needed to take an annoyingly elaborate route to get out of Phnom Penh to avoid the police. Oh, there are no “tickets” given out in Phnom Penh, but we (THEY! * cough* ) would have had to give the police some money. There would be none of that though.

Only minutes outside of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian countryside takes over and overwhelms with the simplistic beauty of its surroundings and people. Children running around naked while parents cook, clean, converse and the animals roam freely. Then I started paying attention to what our driver was doing. He had seemed so mild-mannered, but he was actually a fucking nutter. I don’t know how fast we were going, but it felt like way too much for the dirt road we were on. My friend Neil describes the rules of the road in Cambodia as “big fish, little fish.” The “biggest fish” are the SUVs, but on the Cambodian country roads, a pick-up truck—even if it’s in shocking shape—qualifies. So we were passing all of the little harmless motorbikes, and tuk-tuks and nearly hitting all of them. We routinely came inches from hitting oncoming traffic, as we attempted ludicrous passes over the “median” (halfway point of the dirt road). I quickly forgot about the beauty of my surroundings, and just as quickly began picturing the various ways that we would all certainly die on this shit pick-up truck. I definitely wouldn’t have been surprised if we had gotten in a fantastic car crash with an oncoming pick-up truck loaded with 40 Cambodians, but I figured my obsessing wouldn’t change anything.

So, we reached Kampot and ate a nice western lunch. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to poop after eating my burger. (Nudge, nudge, this will end up being important later in this story…that is why I included it…remember this detail…I wasn’t able to poop!) A few kilometers after Kampot, we began our climb up the mountain, but not before buying our party/rave supplies. A bunch of the Phnom Penh crowd had come well equipped for the rave. In other words, they all had many and varying pills to take so that they could dance better, and feel light on their feet, among other things. I chose not to do that, but I still needed to replicate the effect. Whiskey had been my muse of choice in college, though it had been a while since we’d gotten together, but I figured what the hell! Also bought some “muscle wine,” which is made of deer antlers among other things. According to its slogan, though, it makes you able to “walk longer, and be stronger.” So this muscle wine could only be a good thing, I surmised.

So, up the mountain we went. Neil had warned us earlier that the road up the mountain was not in good repair, and he wasn’t lying. This was not a road. This had elements of a road. For example, there weren’t any big fucking trees in the middle of this “road.” So it wasn’t like we were driving up a mountain without a path. In fact, let’s just call it a path. It was like a suggestion of how to get up the mountain, and we decided to take it at its word.

It was 30 kilometers to the top, and after 15 k (in just under 2 hours) of slamming through jagged, broken concrete, huge rocks and “whatever else,” we were in agony. Sitting on the benches in the back was no longer a good option as doing so saw us bounced around like a bunch of dumb foreigners bouncing around in a shit-terrible Cambodian pick up truck. Sitting in the truck was impossible, because, remember, the dumb girls had laid claim hours ago. So, we all began switching positions every five minutes or so to evenly distribute the pain. Ash went on top of the truck. Up to 4 and 5 hung out the back. 2 sprawled out on the benches. It didn’t help that much, but it was better than just taking it. The pain, I mean.

We reached the summit at 5 pm, and the location really was breathtaking. (Whether it was worth the trip up is debatable, but still…nice view!). We could see the ocean, and with the sun setting, I felt like we were on top of a mountain or something.

Also breathtaking, was the sheer amount of Cambodian people that were already fall-down drunk and roasting pigs. I also noticed that more than a few were carrying hand guns, and a few even had AKs—a sight that past partying, unfortunately, hadn’t quite prepared me for.

Rather than reflect on the mixing of booze, automatic weapons and Cambodian riff raff, we explored. We walked in, out and around the hotel—I couldn’t help thinking of “The Shining,”—and proceeded to get our drink on. First, though, I went to poop on a rock, cause there were no bathrooms. (Remember, the foreshadowing earlier? I wasn’t able to poop, and I told you it’d be important later on! See what I did there? Foreshadowing, people!)

After pooping, I started with the muscle wine. It tasted like deer antler must taste, but it was making me stronger. Dan and I traded swigs like a pair of ancient, worldly, cannibal explorers. I began to wonder when people would start taking pills. “Is there a ‘right’ time to take them?” “What’s the Ecstasy protocol?” “Maybe they already took it?” “I’d better keep drinking so I can figure this out!”

The trouble was I wasn’t getting drunk. “It better not be one of those nights!” I thought angrily to myself. “Gotta keep drinking like the answer to the problem’s at the bottle’s bottom. Only way to do it!” Inspired by the voices in my head, I continued to attack the muscle wine.

The first DJ really sucked. He was playing crap, world music. Also, the muscle wine surprisingly wasn’t causing me to break out in dance. The best way to promote internationalizing at the local level of Cambodia, I decided, would be through stumbling half-drunk over to a group of them and shooting the shit. To that end, Zach and I stumbled half-drunk over to a group of Cambodian men around 10 pm and began to shoot the shit.

It was actually going really well at first. One of them spoke passable English, and our English was still passable at that juncture too, so we were able to talk a bit. They offered us crab, which we ate. They offered us drink, which we sipped. We talked about Cambodia, America, Canada and guns (they all were holding). We laughed. We understood one another. Well, actually most of them sat and stared at Zach (he’s taller than them) and I (my ruggedly handsome looks, no doubt) while we clumsily ate our crab (I have no idea how to eat crab) and talked to the passable English guy. Still, it was cool. Until, I started to feel sick. Really, really sick. Was it the muscle wine? The crab? Am I dying?

We abandoned our internationalizing at the local level early, and went back to the casino. Well, Zach did. I went to find a nice dry spot of grass to pass out in at 10:45 pm. I woke up at 11:40 pm and almost barfed. Some dumb guy was spitting ridiculous game to some poor Cambodian girl, oblivious both to how stupid he sounded and to me lying passed out in the grass below him. I got up, and really did barf. Probably ruined that guy’s game, but still…What a lame-O! Not like me, who may have nearly passed out before midnight on New Year’s Eve, but who never spits the weak game! (Am I right ladies? Ha. Thought so!)

I found Dan—hadn’t seen him since we triumphantly cashed the muscle wine—around midnight and we celebrated the arrival of 2006, which came complete with AK fire. Those crazy fuckers were shooting their guns! “Someone’s gonna get shot,” we both remarked to each other.

I still felt like shit, but there was no way I would go out like this. Like a sucker. Like a punk. I rallied. I rallied like the stand up guy I am. I am a party beast! I own this casino! I will dance you all into the fucking ground! Kiss my dancing shoes, you fucks! Hahahahahahahaha!!!!

I passed out again at 12:40 am. In a tent that wasn’t mine. Fucking Cambodian crab! Fucking internationalization!

The next day, the gang traveled back down the evil mountain path, and back to Phnom Penh. A combination of high, exhausted, sick and grumpy. On a serious note, they would also find out from the local newspaper, that 3 people had been shot at the previous night’s party. 2 of those 3 people died. None of them witnessed the shootings, and surprisingly to Leif and Dan, it didn’t seem to shock anyone.

by Leif Griffin

2005-11-21 06:53:15 (link)
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" A film by Robert Greenwald

Crawling out from trenches littered with broken mics and handycams, America's guerrilla film makers have finally withdrawn from the battlefields of the last election. But lessons learned from such full-blooded partisan cinema may have forever changed the way such films will be brought to the public. In stark contrast to the days when one could proclaim political allegiance with a ticket stub, the new breed of documentary is far more ambiguous and inclusive, favoring issues that should presumably get the support of every patriotic American.

The most striking element about Robert Greenwald's new movie, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," is just how much it plays to conservative Americans. In an effort to maintain ambiguity throughout, "Wal-Mart" chooses not to discuss any political contributions the corporation made. When a lone statistic shows a donation figure, it doesn't even mention to which party. Furthermore, the only people who openly state their political leanings identify themselves as Republican. Even at the beginning of the film, Greenwald is quick to shoot close-ups of NRA and Republican bumper stickers clinging to the backs of beat-up pickup trucks. It's almost as if he's trying to assuage any red stater's fears that they had been suckered into buying a ticket for the new Michael Moore flick.

Perhaps Greenwald is justified in such a preemptive safeguard. Though he aims his cameras with the precision of a well placed sniper shot, the very nature of the documentary genre invites comparison to the daisy cutter bombasity of "Fahrenheit 911." But this is a much more subtle film than any of Moore's bumrush journalism, or for that matter even Greenwald's previous effort, "Outfoxed:" Cameras are placed on coffee tables in flyover country doublewides, interviews are conducted while people are cooking dinner or working on their car. But this Middle American, Springsteen-circa "Nebraska" attitude shifts gears dramatically when focusing on subject of the film. Wal-Mart: the company that makes a business out of shutting down mom and pop stores. Wal-Mart: the villain with a crack squad of union busters that fly in on private jets. Wal-Mart: the monster that locks illegal immigrants in overnight while they clean the store.

To accurately portray the spreading disease, Greenwald hop-scotches across the country, reveals a variety of problems with the store ranging from environmental to crime prevention, and even has time to stop by a Chinese sweatshop. The effect often overwhelms the audience with sheer numbers and statistics but becomes more than a checklist of facts. Until they're caught, Wal-Mart seems more than happy to provide such damning evidence of rampant negligence and profiteering; and every additional example is another brick in a building case against the giant corporation. With the end of the movie comes the success stories against Wal-Mart (from both conservatives and liberals, of course), as well as more questions. The extent to which Wal-Mart is responsible for the lack of ethics within big business or whether they are just a convenient target is never really addressed. But as the Wal-Mart CEO himself states in the film, "people like to go after the big guy." Robert Greenwald and his sniper rifle of a movie are aiming right for that smiling yellow head.

by Jon Fischer

2005-10-07 07:05:18 (link)
System of a Down - Concert Review

During the height of the “nu-metal” movement, the casual listener could be forgiven for dismissing LA’s System of A Down as just another hard rock act. Years later, after the popularity of groups like Slipknot and Korn has faded into nonexistence, there is no denying the significance of System as one of the most important bands around today. They proved it Wednesday night at the Key Arena in Seattle, WA.

Left in a subdued stupor by the latin infused progrock of openers The Mars Volta/Hella, the audience was in need of a serious wake up and they were not disappointed. Silhouetted behind a massive curtain, guitarist Daron Malakian began the concert on a somber note by plucking “soldier side,” the first track from their latest album “Mezmerize.” As the shroud abruptly dropped and they launched into the blistering “B.Y.O.B,” System revealed themselves and their eclectic mix of styles. It was only fitting that they looked as unique as they sound.

404'd! (The System is...)

Malakian appeared in a red smoking jacket that would make Hugh Hefner proud; Vocalist Serj Tankian looked the part of Frank Zappa’s evil twin, and bassist Shavo Odadjian maintained their punk pedigree by donning black pinback jeans and old school converses. John Dolmayan, meanwhile, was hidden behind a massive array of drums, and he used them all as the band proceeded to crash through their set. The selection of songs highlighted some new music from their forthcoming LP, Hypnotize, but mostly the band pulled quite heavily from both their first two albums.

It is impressive that a group this popular didn’t employ any touring musicians to compliment their sound on the road. Instead, they opted for a stripped down, minimalist approach that was used to varying effect. While the choruses of “Chop Suey” lacked the appropriate symphonic weight, their soaring vocal harmonies more than made up for the thinner instrumentals. And though lead vocalist Tankian certainly had his time in the sun, this was clearly Malakian’s show. In contrast with their previous albums, he wrote the majority of songs that appear on Mezmerize. The diminutive Armenian basked in this newfound importance, often introducing songs on solo guitar with rants that included cheeky covers of Neil Young and the Dire Straits, not to mention the obligatory indictments of corporate media and George W. Bush.

Most interesting was the new and growing versatility of the band. While Shavo and John were more than content to stick to their instruments, Daron and Serj toyed with a variety of moogs, Theremins and synths, complete with vocorder, during the course of the show. Their noodling reworked classics such as “War?” in a truly bizarre new wave fashion and displayed some surprising and exciting new sounds for the band. After they closed with “Sugar,” the song responsible for their initial success, one thing was very clear- The most exciting band in rock is only going to get better. And there is no telling what they will do next.

Seattle, WA 10/05/05

Set list:
1. Soldier side
2. B.Y.O.B.
3. Revenga
4. Know
5. Hypnotize (new song)
6. Tapeworm
7. Deer Dance
8. Suggestions
9. Psycho
10. Chop Suey
11. (unidentified new song)
12. Sad Statue
13. Violent Pornography
14. Mr. Jack
15. Cigaro
16. This Cocaine Makes me Feel Like I’m on this Song
17. Bounce
18. Atwa
19. Forest
20. Lost in Hollywood
21. Question!
22. War
23. Prison Song
24. Aerials
25. Toxicity
26. Science
27. Suite-Pee
28. Sugar

by Jon Fischer

2005-09-20 20:03:51 (link)
Common in Osaka - Concert Review

I’ve always really liked Common Sense (the rapper—not so much the principle). In terms of intelligence, lyrics and heart there isn’t a better artist in hip hop today. Yeah, he had a bit of an eccentric period there for a while, but the music was still good, so stop hatin’! Anyways, I’ve never had the chance to catch Common live, and one might think that my moving to Japan wouldn’t help much to end this unfortunate streak of not seeing him live, but…hold on! Guess who finally saw Common live despite living across the globe from him? That’s right! This guy! (Note: It’s obviously been a while since I’ve written a lead. I apologize.)

This past weekend, I traveled to Osaka—the 2nd largest metropolis in Japan behind Tokyo, of course—to see Common play at Club Quattro, a delightfully small venue (think Luther’s Blues for you ex and current Madison-ites). Having grabbed an Asahi (brilliant) beer and a cozy spot close up to the stage, I waited for the Chicago-born and New York-based MC to bless us with his unworldly skills, and (sorry to ruin the suspense) I wouldn’t be disappointed.

The first thing I noticed about Common as he took the stage is that dude is buff, and on a purely aesthetic level, not bad on the eyes at all. Moving along, the best part of a rap show is always the first song because of all that pent up energy being released by both MC and crowd, and this was no exception. The crowd, made up of mostly Japanese hip hop heads and a few of us gaijins (foreigners), seemed to understand how cool of an opportunity it was to see Common in such an intimate setting, and the place was accordingly buzzing. Even better, Common was able to keep the momentum going and the crowd vibing with him until the encore.

His band consisted of DJ Dummy (a pretty dope DJ from Brooklyn), a dude on the bongos and cymbals and another guy on keyboard. I’m still not quite sure what the point of having the bongo guy was (he added bongo hits and cymbal crashes to echo, and I guess emphasize, certain parts that the DJ was already spinning), but the rest of the musical elements combined to give Common a nice sound with which to work.

The brother named Sense navigated his way through his latest disc and several (not enough) songs from other releases, and unlike some rappers I’ve seen live, Common’s composed yet potent voice and rhyming style translated very well to stage. In a genre currently dominated by L’il Jon and co. yelling really loud and angry things at us on hooks, Common’s style is toned-down but capable of so much (real) passion even if he isn’t screaming about “fucking someone up” or drippin sweat of various body parts. In addition, hearing Kanye West’s beats in a live setting is always a treat. (Word to Mike Jones and Sasquatch). [Quick Digression] “Late Registration” is phenomenal. As solid as “College Dropout” was, I doubted Kanye’s staying power for a while, but I’m definitely reevaluating that now. He is an extremely talented and varied artist. Yeah, he rhymes the same words a lot, but as a mainstream producer/MC he blows Puffy and co. out of the water, and he’s certainly lyrically better than Dre.

It’s hard to pick highlights, as the whole show was consistently good, but hearing “The Corner,” “Go,” “The Food” and “Testify” was especially cool. In between songs, he bantered in very bad Japanese with the small crowd of about 100, spoke about/against Bush, big up-ed God a lot (surprisingly not that annoying) and dry humped my friend Embry on stage. So in short, everyone came out winners. A bunch of us Americans were able to go back stage after the show and meet the man, so that was cool too. He is just as humble and cool as you would expect him to be. So the morale is…go buy “Be” if you haven’t already and support good hip-hop. I will continue to do my part here in Japan.

As an aside, I wanted to mention how much I miss the old Cardinal crew. I was a brief member, catching on only just in time for my two “senior” years, but I believe some of my best friendships will come from that period. I really do miss you guys and hope you will stay in touch. I also hope that Big Cheese Press will accept more of my writing. Konnichiwa bitches!

by Leif Griffin

2005-07-21 07:14:56 (link)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Few movies in recent memory have needed to justify their own existences more than the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” from director Tim Burton. The second major adaptation of Roald Dahl’s timeless novel, and a notional attempt to interpret it more faithfully than the beloved 1971 rendition starring Gene Wilder, the movie faces two layers of high expectations beyond the scrutiny facing ordinary summer blockbusters.

And setting out with a huge budget, creative vision, and a star in Johnny Depp that almost made even “Secret Window” seem like a good idea, the new “Chocolate Factory” very nearly succeeds. But somehow through all its creativity and good intentions, the movie falls flat. Delivered with a misguided spirit, it not only fails to live up to its literary and big-screen predecessors, but also fails to live up to its own devastatingly clear potential.

Like the novel, the movie follows Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland”), an impoverished young English boy whose life changes when he receives one of five golden tickets to enter the magical chocolate factory of the reclusive and enigmatic Willy Wonka (Depp). The first outsiders to enter in years, Charlie and his unscrupulous counterparts witness the bizarre secrets behind their favorite candies, while competing for a mystery prize and one-by-one befalling strange, calamitous, and musical exits.

Burton’s gifted eye certainly hasn’t dulled with time. Perhaps the director with the greatest command of stylized production design since Fritz Lang, Burton grafts his quirky visual brilliance onto each set and costume. But Burton has struggled in recent years with projects that needed more than to be seen through odd spectacles. “Big Fish” was a middling and over-stylized attempt that’s only memorable for its gorgeous ending, while his “Planet of the Apes” remake was an outright disaster. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” just sadly misses the point.

In the novel and first movie, the Wonka character sets the tone for the whole story: charismatic, eccentric, and twisted, but ultimately warm-hearted. The oddities were magic and so was Wonka. But in Burton’s rendition, the whole experience is ill-spirited in a new and unfortunate way. The magic is demented and cynical, the man is a nattering man-child too detached to inspire. The difference in spirit between the first Wonka movie and this one is the difference between oddball whimsy and mean, misguided lunacy.

The greatest indictment of the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the way it treats the children. The story is supposed to treat the non-Charlie kids as unsavory cautionary tales about poor parenting, but it’s not supposed to genuinely hate them. Burton’s movie turns Mike Teavee from an insistent, know-it-all runt to a sociopathic genius. Meanwhile, Charlie is completely de-clawed.

The first movie’s climactic judgment of Charlie’s goodness was predicated on him misbehaving. But Burton might as well have put a halo over his head. Highmore’s earnest, wide-eyed goodness was heartwarming in “Neverland,” but in “Chocolate Factory,” it serves the film’s hopefully accidental message: Saintly kids will be rewarded, all others will be hideously disfigured in candy-themed ways.

All of which is unfortunate. The movie is tremendous in many ways. The sets, costumes, and production numbers are wonderfully conceived. Veruca Salt is played to a beautifully despicable tee by newcomer Julia Winter, and escorted out to a downright brilliant song performance. And Depp’s conviction and presence are as strong as ever.

But those sets always look overcast. The production numbers are poor-fitting tangents of spectacle. And Depp’s conviction is poured into a nearly unwatchable performance—Wonka’s supposed to be an odd guy, not an alien.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is dazzling, creative, compelling, entertaining, and intermittently stunning. It’s just not a good movie.

by Amos Posner


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