Archive for August, 2008

Ping Pong Playa
What Balls Of Fury Could Have Been

The basic premise is that a family’s honor (and business) must be salvaged by the most unlikely hero: C-Dub Wang, yet another twenty-something slacker who fails to hold down basic jobs like selling cell phones in malls. It’s a formula for a pretty routine slack comedy, the type which is bound to disappear from theaters in three to four weeks. But wait! This isn’t your standard late-summer dumper! The star of this movie, Jimmy Tsai, has invented a truly hysterical character in C-Dub Wang—a Chinese ranconteur who’s equal parts Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Charles Barkley, and Larry the Cucumber—and director Jessica Yu knows how to milk every setup for maximum laughs. If you’re just sick of the comedic dreck that Hollywood’s been dishing out lately and want something new (but not saintly), please please please give Ping Pong Playa a chance.

Death Race Redux
When Films Deliver What They Promise

If the audience at the screening I attended is any indicator, there’s definitely a place for this film. Like its predecessor, the 1975 Death Race 2000, Death Race is not art. It doesn’t have a deep plot, and it’s not going to win any awards for acting talent; but it doesn’t promise any of that either. It promises cars with machine guns mounted on top, massive explosions, and the squishy wet consequences of speeding metal and human organs. But fans of the first film looking for the satirical Second Coming of David Carradine are going to be disappointed. For the rest of us? If you’re thinking about seeing this film, then you’re probably not too interested in the storyline or its classic roots anyways. Grab yourself a group of rowdy friends and an extra-large popcorn and let your brain take a load off.

If You're Sick, You Need Diagnosis

The documentary I.O.U.S.A., helmed by Wordplay director Patrick Creadon, is PGP’s first salvo for raising the level of public awareness about what a 60 Minutes report called “the dirty little secret everyone in Washington knows: a set of financial truths so inconvenient that most elected officials don’t even want to talk about them.” And why is that? Because we don’t want to hear about them. Instead, we want to hear about Britney Spears, Bret Favre, Brangelina, American Idol, and Girls Gone Wild. Get serious, America. As Dave Walker puts it, there’s little point in being “the best-looking horse in the glue factory.” I.O.U.S.A really should be required viewing for every American—and for my money, prior to the election in November.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

I enjoyed the first two thirds of this movie; and if the production team could have brought it home with a fitting final act, I think this would have been halfway decent film. Given how things went in the early going I’m a little puzzled why that didn’t happen. I can only chalk it up to a misplaced philosophy intended to leave the audience feeling positive and upbeat the end of the experience. As a result, instead of a powerful message about belief and sacrifice we get a climactic moment that left the audience I watched with literally laughing out loud. In another movie, that might have been appropriate—but it was completely out of place here. Disappointing, to say the least. In the end, Traitor winds up being a fairly thoughtful look at some of the issues and causes of terrorism backed up by a strong cast. Unfortunately, a lack of thrills and a weak resolution fail to deliver the goods.

Disaster Movie
No Mixed Messages Here

The best thing I can say about Disaster Movie is that it does my work for me: the review is right there in the title. In theory, the movie has that title because it supposedly lampoons “one of the biggest and most bloated movie genres of all time—the disaster film.” But really, aside from an earthquake here, a meteor there, and a tornado yonder, there is no resemblance to a Hollywood disaster movie. Few, if any, of the film’s horribly embarrassing jokes are comments on the genre. And did we really need to reunite the entire cast for a horrible musical number at the end? I would have preferred they cut the film just short of that, so I could make my escape from this unnatural disaster. I counted only once through this entire movie that I actually laughed (a great jab at Star Wars); and only very, very few times did the movie make me smile—and then only briefly, before my expression returned to the disgusted scowl this movie inspired.

One Taut, Cold Thriller

I enjoyed the performances in this film. As Roy, Woody Harrelson channels the small-town aw-shucks nature of his Woody Boyd from Cheers, whereas Ben Kingsley (as Grinko) continues an incredible run this year. Is there a nationality that this guy can’t play? This tale of an innocent couple caught up way over their head in criminal acts echoes the work of Alfred Hitchcock. If fact, when Jessie first discovered that Roy was missing from the train, I thought for a minute that this film may actually be a remake of Hitch’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes, which we actually got a couple of years ago with the Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan. But Transsiberian is a terrific thriller. Director Brad Anderson and co-screenwriter Will Conroy keep us on our toes, and we are never quite sure where the film is taking us next. I think Hitchcock would be proud.

A Talk With Gil Cates, Jr.
No Crying Over A Bad Hand

“I feel like everybody is dealt a certain hand, so to speak,” says Gil Cates, Jr., the director of Deal, just out on DVD. “And it’s up to you how you want to play it. You can’t just look down and go, I’ve got an Ace-King, so I’m definitely going to do this, or I’ve got a Two-Seven, the worst starting hand in poker; I’m definitely going to fold. There might be an opportunity, or a reason— You know, Joe Hachem won the 2005 World Series of Poker with a Three-Seven, and then a Four-Five-Six came on the board. But you just don’t know. It’s all circumstantial. So that is kind of the way that I like to live life.”

The Rocker
Not Your Granny's Knitting Chair...

Although on the surface the film seems somewhat like a new version of Jack Black’s School of Rock, I never got the feeling that I was watching a rehashed plotline. Sure, the plot is fairly predictable and you can pretty much guess its climax from the get-go, but it was so entertaining that I really didn’t care. A lot of the credit goes to actor Rainn Wilson in his first starring role, who is far from your typical leading man; but he’s able to pull off some Will Ferrell-style antics (remember, “the naked drummer”) without going overboard. I was also impressed with the music, which is quite a compliment considering I just came from the EMP. It’s a little too Pop and not near the level of the music in recent films like August Rush and Once, but it works well for the film.

Tuya’s Marriage
Thought-Provoking and Old-Fashioned

Right from his striking opening sequences, director Wang Quan An delivers old-school storytelling, posing intriguing questions rather than delivering distilled exposition so we can quickly move on to “what happens next.” Even stylistically, Wang keeps us guessing. One way to read the film is as modernist realism; another possibility is that the film is intended as an impressionist farce of sorts, along the lines of what Jim Jarmusch was doing twenty-odd years ago. And yet there’s a riveting seriousness to many of the intervening scenes. My guess is that Wang is trying to tell a parable about the roles that men and women in Mongolian peasant culture—and world culture at large—are taught to play. You might find it fascinating, and you might find it dull.

Death Race
Cars, Guns, and Explosions... Yeah!

To me, Death Race is a sure bet. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching the trailer and being confused about what they’re going to see when the lights go down and the movie starts. Either you like this kind of action movie and you plan to see it or you don’t. Still—like the story—you don’t watch Death Race for the acting. You might have picked up on this already, but the film is mostly about cars. And guns. And lots of explosions. Say what you will about the rest of the movie, but director Paul W. S. Anderson gets this part right. The action sequences come at you like a runaway freight train. It’s all the sweeter because most of what you see on the screen was filmed the old-fashioned way: using cameras, skilled stunt performers, and actual vehicles.

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