Monday, May 31, 2010

Tasty Treat: Tamala Jones

By Scott Tre

She's got everything in the proper proportions, and I don't just mean physically. Her attitude is as well balanced as her body. She's aware of her sex appeal and isn't selfish with her gifts, but she won't show you everything. She understands the need to leave something to the imagination. She's got just enough of the Hood in her to be down to earth, but not so much that she sacrifices self respect.  She's a perfect package, managing to be everything a man wants.

Obscure Pop Culture Obsessions: The Strange Beast That is "Kaiju"

By Scott Tre

I have a thing for obscure pop culture artifacts, especially when it comes to genre films. I'm a sucker for anything that contains some combination of action, visual FX, graphic violence and outlandish storytelling. The less people that know about it, the better. I'm afflicted with the typical fanboy disdain for anything too mainstream.  It's fun to be ahead of the pop culture curve, or to be privy to info that is valued by a select few.

My hunger for all things rare and obscure has recently manifested itself in a weird obsession: Japanese "Kaiju" films.  For the uninitiated, the term Kaiju refers to a very specific type of effects driven film that features giant monsters fighting each other and laying waste to entire cities.  The word itself translates to "Strange Beast".   I've never been interested in the genre outside of a casual infatuation with Godzilla movies as a boy (I remember being profoundly disturbed after watching Godzilla vs. Hedorah when I was seven).

That infatuation resurfaced when the American Godzilla film was released in 1998. The genre always required too much of a suspension of disbelief for me. That may sound funny coming from a casual Chopsocky connoisseur such as myself, but no one ever accused me of being consistent. Kaiju films focus on large scale destruction and as a result are dependent on visual FX in a way that martial arts films are not. After a while, the charm of guys in rubber suits laying waste to scale models kind of wears off.

Still, I feel an odd sort of  kinship to those who are enamored with things that the general population would balk at. That kinship prevents me from looking down my nose at other nerds. It takes a certain level of courage to indulge an enthusiasm that seems strange to outsiders. We are all part of a special fraternity that can see depth and worth in the most seemingly ridiculous and unlikely specimens. That should be celebrated.

Since my sudden and inexplicable curiosity about Kaiju had to be satiated, I began to seek out the cream of the crop. Due to my ignorance of the genre, I was tempted to go back to the dependable Godzilla films of my youth. Feeling that to be too predictable and easy, I figured there had to be something that those in "the know" considered to be superior. What is considered to be the Citizen Kane of Kaiju? My search for a better made alternative to Godzilla lead me to a certain flying turtle.

I had heard of Gamera sometime in the 1990's.  Roger Ebert's  3.5 star review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe stands out in my mind. I've had an affinity for turtles that goes back to my teenage years. I Never had one as a pet, but something about their slow and steady nature appealed to my sympathies. I once saw the remains of turtle trying to cross the road in my subdivision in Lithonia, Georgia. His shell had been split down the middle by the tire of a car. I spent all day at school feeling sorry for the poor guy. Even if he saw the car coming, what could he do?

Aside from appealing to my sappy nature, I always liked the novelty of being born with your own body armor. Has a more convenient defense mechanism ever been devised? A peaceful creature with the innate ability to protect itself from damage.  What could be more worthy of my fascination? Since Gamera is a giant city trashing bad ass instead of  a passive reptile, that only added to his appeal. As my shallow pool of choices revolved around him, Godzilla and Ultraman, I decided on the flying turtle.

I knew next to nothing about him, so I decided to go with Roger Ebert's recommendation and check out Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.  The 1995 film was a reboot of the by then 30 year old franchise as well as the first film in a trilogy.  My first viewing of the film was sort of a superficial once over.  I just wanted to get the general feel for these types of films, especially the modern ones.  My knowledge of them is mostly limited to the grainy, badly dubbed pan and scan versions that aired on WWOR channel 9 in New York during the 80's.

What I saw was uniquely 90's in it's own way.  It features opening passages that are reminiscent of Spielberg's Jurassic Park, as well as flying Pterodactyl creatures who are the villains of the piece.  The are called Gyao.  They were created ten thousand years ago for the purposes of combating pollution.  When they began feeding on human flesh, the Gameras were created to contain them.  Once the Gyao were forced into hibernation, the last Gamera remained dormant until they were needed.  10,000 years pass, and the Gyao launch an attack on modern day Tokyo.  Gamera appears to deal with the threat.  The story contains lots of sci-fi and fantasy elements, as well as the expected giant monster battles.  Much of this feels very random and bizarre, yet I feel compelled to finish out the trilogy and seek out more Kaiju films.

Like classic Chopsockies, Kaiju exists in it's own unique universe.  The laws of that universe are governed more by cultural differences and questionable production values than by reality.  I'd like to think that the special effects come out of a stubborn adherence to tradition as opposed to budgetary constraints.  Maybe the makers and fans of these films don't want the best CGI money can buy, or even the best practical effects.  Perhaps their appeal doesn't lie in the tech on display, as the appeal of old school martial arts films does not lie in the acting or writing.

Either way I am enthused.  It gives me another weird cinematic world to explore, one that I am sure is abundant in hidden gems and the occasional good or even great movie.  I'd like to raise my glass to all of the Kaiju fans of the world, as well as the makers of the films themselves.  Continue feeding the imaginations of kids young and old.  Giant mutated dinosaurs and jet propelled turtles are what make childhood worth enduring.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wu-Tang's Moment of "Triumph"

By Scott Tre

In the summer of 1997, The Wu-Tang Clan needed a grand single and an even grander video to herald the arrival of their much anticipated second album Wu-Tang Forever. It had been four years since the clans debut, and a series of well received solo projects only heightened expectations. This double LP would represent the next phase of the Wu-revolution. It would either cement their legacy or expose them as little more than a glorified gimmick. Diddy's shiny suit movement was well under way in the wake of B.I.G's death. This showed that if you wanted to capture the imagination of the public, you had to think big.

"Triumph" proved to be the silver surfer to Wu-Tang Forever's Galactus. Though the album sold well and was musically superior, it received a mixed reception from it's core audience. It was a victim of overblown expectations and changing musical tastes. However, the lead single "Triumph" perfectly captured the excitement that was generated by it's release and the confirmation that a new Wu album was indeed on the way. The single was unusual for its time in that it was not designed to be catchy. It has no chorus, and the beat is anything but danceable. The track consists of a thunderous 808 stomp and synthesized violins that could very well be scoring an epic battle field movie. The pitch of the sample changes and builds as each clan member lays down a verse. Inspectah Deck is first up to bat, and his verse is considered to be his best ever.

The visuals that accompanied the video had to be equally epic. The clan enlisted the help of a pre-Rush Hour Brett Ratner. The result is a bombastic orgy of comic book visuals and apocalyptic imagery. This was not in keeping with the gritty aesthetic of the earlier Wu-tang videos, but consistent with the mythic themes that permeated their work. As the video begins, all hell appears to be breaking loose. A swarm of killer bees attacks the big apple and the Wu-tang members suddenly reveal superhuman attributes. Old Dirty becomes a suicide bomber. Inspectah Deck scales a building in Spider-man like fashion. Method Man follows in the Ghost Riding footsteps of his Alias Johnny Blaze. RZA dons wings and escapes from a maximum security prison. GZA hovers above the earth like The Watcher. Masta Killa restores sight to the blind. Does any of this make sense? Not to the uninitiated, but it still makes for a entertaining mixed bag.

"Triumph" is rarely mentioned anymore when folks speak of the clans very best. Perhaps that is due to overly serious and east coast biased hip-hop purists who wanted RZA to maintain the gritty, crate digging aesthetic he pioneered on 36 chambers and perfected with Cuban Linx. His vision for the Clan was grander than that. He wanted to conquer more than the five boroughs of NYC. He set his sights worldwide. As white fans at Clan shows began to outnumber black ones, the east coast hip-hop scene moved on to greener and more profitable pastures with the likes of Roc-a-Fella and Ruff Ryders. While that era birthed it's share of legitimate classics, it is important to acknowledge what RZA and his associates attempted to bring to the table. So if you want to hear the vocals to that instrumental that greets you every time you visit the introspection section, pause the player on the right and watch the Youtube clip. You know the drill!

Follow The "Leaders"

By Scott Tre

There are always those who stand out from the pack. Those who distinguish themselves with confidence and swagger. Those who inspire us with their actions and their words. Individuals like that are more rare than the most flawless diamond. That is why we sing their praises and build monuments to them when they make themselves known. By allowing their light to shine brightly, they inspire the best in all of us. That kind of inspiration is what keeps us progressing as a species.

Nas and Damian Marley offer up an intoxicating meditation on just what attracts us to those types on the their song "Leaders", featuring Stephen Marley. It's my absolute favorite song off of their new collaborative LP Distant Relatives. The song is a concentrated dose of everything that makes them both exceptional artists.

Acoustic guitars and a sharp, Reggae influenced bassline roll along as smooth as a summer breeze. The hook itself sounds like a tribute to the rising sun. Nas offers his usual abstract gems that combine images of black criminality and black consciousness. Elsworth "Bumpy" Johnson is elevated to the same category as more prominent and legitimate black leaders. While such comparisons may be off putting to some, the point rings load and clear. Bumpy was a leader of men. He captured the imaginations and hearts of those around him. That's what this song is about.

Damian Marley's soft Reggae crooning taps directly into our collective subconscious, giving voice to the child in all of us that yearns to be somebody. He simultaneously exposes the inherent danger in blind hero worship and shows why "hero" types are so essential to the development of children:

Who do I follow?
Who do I copy?
Look in to the mirror
and it’s you I see look at me
everything new, like it fresh from the factory
everything you do, it impact me
your lifestyle attract me, parents try distract me
when I grow up, I want to be like you exactly.

It is not merely a love poem to larger than life icons, but a musical extension of our collective admiration for those who possess that magic "It" factor. As the Green Goblin once said to Spider-man, the "exceptional" people. This world would be all the more bland and aimless without them. So click pause on the player to the right and then click play on the Youtube clip below to become inspired. Appreciate your "leaders".

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The 50 Cent Method

By Scott Tre

Extreme methods are often the sign of true dedication. Sometimes, to prove your mettle you have to go all out. No one respects a half stepper, and minimal effort rarely bears fruit. Such adages are rarely recognized or respected in Hip-Hop unless they apply to business acumen or financial success. A rapper who employs extreme methods in a purely artistic Vein is almost never celebrated.

50 Cent portrays a football Player stricken with cancer in the upcoming "Things Fall Apart", which is based on a screenplay by him and Brain Miller. In preparation for the role, 50 put himself on liquid diet and shed 54 lbs. These pictures show him looking nothing like his muscular self. One can imagine any one of these pics gracing the cover of a tabloid under a caption that has him struggling with a mysterious illness.

No doubt his transformation will draw comparisons to the extreme methods employed by actors such as Robert De Niro, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, and Christian Bale. Whether his dedication will pay off with the same praise and accolades visited on the aforementioned thespians remains to be seen. 50's track record as an actor has been less than stellar thus far. Still, you can't say that guy isn't serious about the craft. Let's hope his actual performance turns out to be as startling as the images in these photos.

50's star may be fading, but I've always considered him one of Hip-Hop's most entertaining personalities and I hope he proves the naysayers wrong. See the other pics over at

Pelvic Thrusts and Gyrations abound as Ciara and Luda Prepare To "Ride"

By Scott Tre

Simplicity is often the most effective mode of delivery. Get to the point and get there quick. Don't have any illusions about what your doing. Sell what your selling and be up front about it. If nothing else, your detractors will respect your honesty. Then again, maybe they'll just ban you.

The video for Ciara's latest single, "Ride" (featuring Ludacris), has been banned from Black Entertainment Television. The clip features a slim and flexible Ciara performing countless pelvic thrusts to the delight of heterosexual males everywhere, but BET was clearly unimpressed. This is rich coming from a channel that once aired the video for Nelly's "Tip Drill" countless times on the now defunct late night program Uncut. Pretty late in the in the game to be drawing lines in the sand, no?

Well, no one ever accused the more puritanical of us of consistency. Aside from the suggestive dancing the clip is pretty standard. I'm guessing even the guys who don't dig her music will be viewing this video over and over again, which is the point. Might as well just sit back and enjoy the eye candy. Either way, the clip is now available via CiaraVEVO on Youtube.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Learning From Losing: The Life Lessons of "The Empire Strikes Back"

by Scott Tre

The thrill of victory is a natural high like no other, but the agony of defeat lingers much longer. It also tends to tell us more about who we are. If adversity builds character, suffering losses in life should render your character ironclad. Since we all love to win but hate to lose, our fear of losing causes us to miss out on such lessons. We hold on to the pain but forget to contemplate what that pain has taught us. Such is the foolhardiness of youth.

On May 21st of 1980, George Lucas unleashed the sequel to his industry redefining success Star Wars on a rabid but unsuspecting public. The title should have been a clue. Those expecting the fairy tale optimism of the 1977 original were offered something else entirely: a meditation on growing pains, sacrifice, and ultimately, Loss. The Empire Strikes Back was still a chapter in a fairy tale, albeit a dark and despairing one. It offered no easy answers to the dilemma's it presented, and boldly refused it's fanbase the consolation prize of a tacked on happy ending. Lucas, having raised the spirits of an entire generation, was now about teach them a hard and ultimately useful lesson.

He did so with the help of journeyman filmmaker Irvin Kershner, who he turned the directorial reigns over to. Kershner had been one of Lucas's professor's at USC. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasden were brought in to flesh out the story. The budget was nearly twice that of the first film. Lucas relationship with the Directors and Writers guilds would not survive the production intact.

Let us put our disdain for the prequels and the special editions to the side for a moment. Let's appreciate and acknowledge the sheer power of the The Empire Strikes Back in all of it's purity. Lucas had created the most affecting kids story of all time, and then turned the tables on his audience. He did so without any malice. The end result initially left people lukewarm, but has since gone on to be regarded as one of, if not the greatest sequel ever made. It is a triumph of artistic vision and storytelling. It manages to immerse it's audience in impenetrable darkness without relying on the crutch of graphic violence.

30 years after the fact, it is easy to forget how bold an endeavor this was. An unhappy ending, a somber mood and a main character that was to be portrayed by a puppet hardly sounds like the makings for a sequel to the Highest grossing film of all time until that point. Empire took all sorts of chances with the good will that was generated by Star Wars. Those chances paid of in grand fashion. The somber mood haunted the dreams of children for years. The unhappy ending left them at the edge of their seats, and that puppet turned out to be the most endearing mentor figure of all time. Was this the result of shrewd calculation, or a case of all the planets being aligned? Usually the greatest things are some combination of both.

While the the first Star Wars opens with a space battle and quickly moves the action to the bright, sandy dunes of Tattooine. Empire starts off on the ice planet of Hoth. It is covered by an endless blanket of snow that stretches out as far as the eye can see, while a restless wind whistles away on the sound track. The camera wastes no time taking all of this in. We are simply planted in the middle of it and instantly reunited with our cocky protagonist, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke's ride on his "Ton Ton" is cut short by an abominable snowman called a Wampa. Luke is knocked from atop his steed and dragged off to who knows where. We are markedly different territory.

After Luke escapes being eaten by the Wampa, he is stranded in the snow and rescued by Han Solo. Now it's on to the films next amazing sequence, The At-At walkers assault on the rebel base. The At-At walkers are giant, lumbering mechanical behemoths that resemble war ready Woolly mammoths. Their presence is announced by the thud of an impact tremor (an idea that Spielberg would employ to equally satisfying effect in Jurassic Park. When a wide shot finally reveals them, we see an entire battalion. It is a sight that is at once creepy and awe inspiring. It taps into both our childhood fears and our sense of wonder. The stop motion effects, models, miniatures and matte paintings used to bring the sequence to life are as seamless as one could hope for. Those who prefer CGI to practical effects should take a close look at the pre-special edition version. They will become true believers.

Let us move to the next amazing locale, the murky swamp planet of Dagobah. On Hoth, the endless sheets of snow and incessant winds suggested isolation. This is emphasized by the visual of Luke wandering aimlessly after escaping the Wampa's lair. He has been deprived of his mode of transportation and his friends are nowhere in sight. This is a clue that Luke is about to embark on the loneliest of journies. On Dagobah, we see isolation of a different sort. Slimy marsh covered in clouds of pea soup fog. Stagnant bodies of water hide slithering beasts. Chirps and noises on the soundtrack suggest life, but the visuals themselves show us a moist dungeon. Luke again appears to be alone, until he is graced with the presence of Jedi Master Yoda.

Here, The film offers us not a larger than life special effect or a familiar face, but a tiny puppet voiced by Frank Oz. That Yoda works instantly is part of the films spellbinding power. We automatically accept him despite the fact that he is obviously a puppet that emerged from Jim Henson's creature shop. The wrinkles and cracks on his face create a complex map of experience and wisdom. Somehow, his design communicates everything his character is about before he utters a single line of dialogue. Luke, in all of his ignorance, never suspects that this is the Jedi master he has been told to seek out. Yoda does not initially reveal himself, but chooses to sit back and observe. It is during this stretch of the film that a less appealing side of Luke's character emerges.

When it finally dawns on Luke that he is in the presence of Yoda, the dimunitive sage master looks at him with a disapproving frown. He has failed the first test. His shallow and impatient nature causes him to miss the forest for the trees. Much like the target audience for the Star Wars film's, he is a youth that craves adventure. The first film framed this trait in a way that made audiences connect with hom. Empire turns the tables, showing us the pitfalls of such an attitude. Yoda's frown is the frown of the older generation that looks upon the recklessness of youth, both pitying the young and fearing what their recklessness may bring about.

It is important to note that Star Wars established Luke as both a winner and hero. he should be full of himself. After all, he destroyed an orbiting battle station didn't he? Empire effectively demotes him once he is in the presence of Yoda. Yoda is unimpressed by his past accomplishments. Somehow this attitude is conveyed in the music and visuals. For a while we forget the adrenaline rush of the Death Star trench run, and we are there with Yoda and Luke in this moment. Winning a battle with the aide of high technology and a Star Fleet was the easy part. Now, the the hard work begins. Yoda will take him on spiritual journey as well as a physical and philosophical one. Like most young people, Luke wants the Prize but hasn't the patience for the long road ahead.

We now enter a training sequence that is not unlike those routinely found in martial arts films. Under Yoda's tutelage, Luke does roadwork and learns to levitate small objects. The lightsaber never comes into play. Yoda is helping Luke to build a spiritual foundation. It isn't simply a means by which to win a battle, but a way of life that is to be studied and respected. It requires a level of total faith that eludes Luke. Any mountain can be moved, all one requires is belief. When Luke openly and arrogantly doubts the limitless power of the force, Yoda gives him a demonstration. In the single most magical moment of the original trilogy, Yoda lifts The sunken X-Wing fighter out of the marsh and places it gently on the ground before Luke. He does so using the levitation technique. John Williams music builds to an invigorating and intoxicating crescendo. It says to both Luke and to audience, "Believe". At that moment, we are floating on air. Moments like this are what all great fairy tales are made of, the crossroads where inspiration and imagination meet.

Just as quickly, our elation is deflated. Luke, gasping for air, approaches his teacher:

Luke Skywalker: "I don't believe it"
Yoda: " why you fail."

In those few words, reality comes crashing down. Our hero is failing. We begin to see that Yoda is not a curmudgeon, but a veteran who grasps the seriousness of the situation. He is a not only a teacher but a true believer. Luke's immaturity and spiritual shallowness may very well cost the rebel alliance the war.

Meanwhile his friends are desperately looking for shelter while evading capture from the Empire. Han Solo, Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer), Chewbacca and C3PO(Anthony Daniels) race for dear life in the Millennium Falcon. They weave in and out of an asteroid field and land in a vast cave on one of the massive floating boulders. There, they take a breather, hoping to wait out the fleet of Tie fighters that search endlessly for them. Their break is cut short when they realize that they are actually inside the mouth of a giant worm. The asteroid was it's nesting place. This sidebar from the main story is very much in the spirit of the old adventure serials, and in keeping with the sense of humor established in the Star Wars films thus far. We are thrilled, but we are also delighted.

From their we go to our next locale, the beautifully rendered Cloud City that hovers in the skies of the planet Bespin. For once we are treated to a sight that is elevating as opposed to isolating. The pink and red hues evoke the feel of picturesque sunset. We are introduced to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the first African American character of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps in a nod to the by then defunct Blaxploitation genre, Lando sports a cape and a hairdo that would make Superfly's Priest green with envy. Like the architectural beauty of Cloud City itself, Lando's dapper appearance is a facade. Bright lights and smooth talkers are often a subterfuge meant to fool you. Han and his companions learn this too late, as Lando sells them out to Vader. Han is encased in Carbonite, suspending him in animation and readying him for delivery to Jabba The Hut. Hans encasement is a nightmarish image that consummates the mood of the entire film.

Luke has a psychic vision while meditating that alerts him to his friends capture. He decides to interrupt his training, much the chagrin of Yoda and the disembodied Obi-Won (Alec Guinness). Luke is willing to forsake the causes of both the Jedi and the rebel alliance. His reasons for doing so are honorable, but Yoda sees them for the selfish shortsightedness they represent. Wars have casualties, and true sacrifice means dealing with loss. Luke is not ready to embrace such lofty ideals, and rushes off to Cloud City unaware of the great revelation that awaits him.

Darth Vader's character was already iconic by the time of Empire's release, but Empire made him even more imposing. Here, he uses his "force choke" to punish imperial officers who fail him. Forgiveness and patience are qualities that elude the Sith lord. This is played to darkly comic effect, as it seems that the pool of commanding officers in the imperial fleet will eventually run dry under Vader's supervision. His impatience mirrors that of Luke, albeit in a much more extreme way. Such foreshadowing was lost on audiences back in 1980. Vader has captured Luke's companions in order to draw him out and trap him. Luke falls into the trap without hesitation.

It is here that the film enters it's most despairing stretch. Luke's confrontation with Vader brings to life our worst fears. Vader taunts Luke verbally and toys with him. The beginning of the fight suggests they may be evenly matched, but as things progress the truth becomes clear. Vader is a more accomplished opponent and a more experienced combatant. His intentions may be less than honorable, but his faith in and command of the force is undeniable. Luke clutches his lightsaber with both hands while Vader uses just one. Never underestimate a man who is sure is his faith and has experience on his side. Raw talent is rarely if ever, enough.

Vader's victory is chilling in it's complexity and completeness. Now begins the nightmare phase of their duel. Vader has used stealth and cover to evade Luke, showing his cunning and strategy to be superior. Now, he shows the depth of his mastery of the force. He lowers his saber, and suddenly things begin to levitate and detatch from their bearings. Luke is pummeled by the debris and disoriented by Vader's psychic attack. The message of the scene is clear as crystal: "Let me show just how outmatched and outclassed you are. I don't need a weapon to beat you. Now...The pain begins". It is obvious that Luke cannot win this fight.

The duel continues. Having shown Luke the extent of his abilities, Vader demands surrender. Though beaten, Luke is scrappy. He refuses to admit defeat. Vader toys with Luke a bit too long, allowing him to land a saber stroke. In one of the most shocking instances of violence in the original trilogy, Vader severs Luke's hand. Luke has been bested physically, mentally and spiritually. Now comes the death blow, delivered via the most shocking twist in summer blockbuster history:

Darth Vader: Obi Won never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No...I am your father!

Luke's loss is now complete. Everything he thought he knew has been undone. The audience has no idea where they stand with this film. The fairy tale optimism of Star Wars has been replaced with emptiness, despair, and regret. The hardest thing about growing up is learning to accept the truth. The truth about the world and the truth about ourselves. The world is not the way we want it to be, and things are rarely the way we perceive them. The truth is obviously too much for Luke to take. He leaps to his death, and is eventually saved from the brink Leia, Chewie and a newly reformed Lando.

As the film draws to a close, A battered but healing Luke receives a mechanical hand to replace the one he lost. Lando and Chewie depart in the Falcon to rescue Han from the clutches of Jabba The Hut. As The elegant John Williams score rises to an emotional close, we are left with one final lesson: Even in the darkest of moments, hope prevails. All wounds heal. Learn from your mistakes, and be ready to seize victory when a second chance presents itself. This was of little comfort to audiences that were not ready for a cliff hanger ending, or to see the Hero of the first film so soundly defeated. The initial response to The Empire Strikes Back was lukewarm. The technical superiority to the first film was evident, but the end product was hardly as satisfying. The Box Office gross reflected this sentiment, as Empire proved extremely popular, but not nearly as popular as the original.

Times have certainly changed. Empire is now rightly regarded as easily the best of all six Star Wars films, and among the very best sequels ever made. While it lacks the instant satisfaction of the original, it's haunting presence resonates much more. it is a beautiful metaphor for the growing pains that we all experience from puberty on throughout adulthood. Growth means pain, and ultimate victory is meaningless without struggle. George Lucas sought not to discourage kids, but to enlighten them to what awaits them. Empire seeks to make young people ready and strong for the trials that await them. Sometimes, your shortcomings will get the best of you. Sometimes the bad guys win. This is inevitable. True warriors are resilient and continue on. Do not fear the truth or regret it. Simply regroup and decide what to do next.

May The Force Be With You.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wonderous Weapons: Say Hello To "Old Painless"

By Scott Tre

The action films of the 1980's introduced the masses to all sorts of exotic and high tech firearms. These weapons were monstrously big and made unbearable amounts of noise. These dangerous toys delighted the legions of man children who obsessed over their every detail and awed at their destructive powers. With the help of ever advancing sound mixing technology, one could relish the thunderous noises that emerged when triggers were pulled.

By the time the late 80's rolled around, action films of the day were embroiled in an unofficial contest, equipping characters with bigger and better weapons. So intense did this contest get that existing weapons received implausible modifications. In some cases, weapons had to be designed from scratch. They need not exist in the real world. All that mattered is that they were functional and looked "cool".

In 1987, Predator brought an end to the fantasy weapons race. Future Governor Jess Ventura's character Blaine unleashed Hell on the jungles of Guatemala with his friend "Old Painless". "Old Painless" is a M134 Minigun that had been modified for hand held use. It didn't exist in real life, and was about as impractical a weapon as had ever been conceived. It was huge and ran on electric power, yet Jesse Ventura wields it like an M-16.

Despite the obvious logistical gripes, it was amazing to see "old Painless" in action. As the whirring engine roars to life, it's growl is covered by the drum roll crackle of rapid gunfire. The muzzle flash resembles a mushroom cloud made out of flames. It's scene stealing moment occurs when Mac (Bill Duke) lays waste to an entire patch of forest while Blind firing at the Predator. His buddies arrive and join in. By the time the team of commandos stop firing, you'd think a lightening bolt had just touched down.

"Old Painless" might have brought pain to whoever was unlucky enough to be in it's line of fire, but it also brought joy to millions of Action fans the world over and continues to do so.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bullets Aren't The Only Things That Richochet

By Scott Tre

Even a relatively subdued or "realistic" fight scene can have a moment where logic is put on hold and the laws of physics go right out the window. Of course, realism has never been a prerequisite for a great fight scene, but you can only ask so much of an audience before they simply tune out. Some of these moments are so outlandish that they make you pause to consider the utter ridiculousness of what you just watched.

One such moment occurs during the climatic fight of The Big Boss (1971). After a few minutes of fierce hand to hand combat, Cheng Chao-an (Bruce Lee) and Hsiao Mi (Yin-Chieh Han) begin to circle each other. Hsiao is armed with a knife, which he suddenly throws at Chao-an. Chao-an then falls backward into a defensive position and...kicks the knife back at Hsiao! The knife stabs Hsiao in the gut, disabling him long enough for Chao-an to get up and drive his fingers into Hsiao's midsection.

This moment has to be seen to be believed. Of all the unintentionally funny moments in Bruce Lee's filmography, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's even funnier when you consider what a workaholic and perfectionist Bruce was when it came to fight choreography. Now we see why he craved so much creative control over his projects. The finishing move of a martial arts fight should inspire awe, not uncontrollable fits of laughter.

So hit pause button on the music player and go right to the 7:35 mark on the Youtube clip at the bottom. Make sure your not drinking anything as I would hate for you to spit it out all over your keyboard and monitor. Don't say I didn't warn you...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pain Tolerance: Superhuman Ability As Envisioned by Scorcese

By Scott Tre

Pain is one of many barriers between mankind and immortality. We associate death with pain, a sensation that we avoid at all costs. To control our fear of pain and our reaction to it brings us one step closer to cheating death and achieving immortality. This desire to cheat death can be seen in our fascination with superheroes. Superheroes possess a number of abilities beyond our own, chief among them are usually some level of super strength or invincibility. They often cannot be hurt by the same things that hurt us, and even if they are, they are able to compartmentalize the pain and recover faster. Remove the Kryptonite from Superman's presence and he recovers in mere seconds. If only human beings were so resilient.

Awesome displays of superhuman ability can be seen in any number of modern blockbusters adapted from superhero comics. Surprisingly, they can also be found in some of the better known and regarded films of Martin Scorcese. While Superhero Blockbusters and Scorcese films would seem to be on wildly opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, a closer look reveals that Scorcese is just as enamored by the idea of superhuman abilities as the rest of us. In his fiercely visceral and ultra personal cinematic world, this vision is not realized with CGI and pyrotechnics. Instead, shocking violence is used and pathology pathology is explored. In the world according to Scorcese, those who possess superhuman abilities are not mild mannered nerds or billionaires. They are often the shabbiest and craziest among us, and they rarely use their abilities for the greater good.

It is important to note that the characters in Scorcese movies do not come by these gifts as part of the traditional "origin story", and the powers themselves are not the focus. Rather, the powers in question are the means by which these characters achieve a certain goal. They also reveal the inner workings of their tortured Psyche. Three of Scorcese's "immortals" stand out among this rogues gallery, each the product of a different decade. All were brought to life with the help of method actor extraordinaire Robert De Niro. In 1976 their was the introverted and reclusive Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. At the dawn of the 1980's, we got the insanely jealous Jake La Motta of Raging Bull. In 1991, we were introduced to the brutal and murderous Max Cady. All are frightening in decidedly different ways and all reveal the darker underbelly of the Male preoccupation with power and image. More specifically, they deal with the fragility that lies just beneath.

First up is Travis Bickle. The most seemingly harmless and inconsequential of the three yet hardly the least dangerous, Travis is a Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving cabs around midtown Manhattan in the mid 1970's. He displays an inability to engage in even the most simple social interaction and courting rituals. The opposite sex remains more elusive and mysterious to him than the most socially inept preteen. In fact, Travis has an overall problem expressing his thoughts and feelings. The clearest picture we get of his thought processes is from the voice over that reveals his journal entries. His thoughts are articulate and sometimes poetic, but reveal a sense of detachment and childish naiveté.

When Travis's attempts to connect to the outside world fail, his id begins to materialize. It manifests itself via travis's disgust with the lurid underbelly of 1970's New York City. He sees the various addicts, dealers, whores, pimps and stick-up artists as roaches that need exterminating. Since he appears to have no friends or family, Travis has nothing but time to ready himself for this task. He eventually sets his sights on liberating preteen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from the hands of a sleazy pimp named sport (Harvey Kietel). Travis readies himself for war. he acquires numerous firearms and commits to a rigorous exercise regimen.

Travis's warrior rituals inevitably lead to him trying to develop an actual super power: pain tolerance. he stands shirtless with his forearm and wrist over an open flame on a stove. He stubbornly holds it there, resisting the urge to pull it away. His frame vibrates and veins writhe beneath the skin of his sinewy forearms like baby snakes. For me it is one of the most iconic and telling images of the film. This exercise comes in handy during Travis's suicidal attempt to rescue Iris. While shooting it out with scumbags in a darkened apartment hallway, Travis is shot once in the neck and again at point blank range in the arm. Both times he is stunned but not incapacitated. he is still able to function and carry out his suicide mission. His bizarre training methods had worked. He has controlled his reaction to pain. As if a darkly humorous comment on his Superhuman status, Travis fails at killing himself after his rescue mission because he has ran out of bullets.

Next up is middleweight champion Jake La Motta, who prides himself on being able to take great amounts of physical punishment in the ring and never be knocked down. In his mind, if you never knock him down, you didn't win. Such bravado can easily be written off as macho foolishness until you see the extent to which the oafish La Motta takes this philosophy. He encourages his brother Joey to strike him in the face numerous times with his bare knuckles. He barely flinches. He agrees to throw a fight and then fails to do so in a convincing manner when he realizes his opponent is incapable of throwing sufficiently devastating blows. His pride will not let him feign a loss to an inferior opponent. Jake seems to value his pain tolerance to the detriment of just about every other aspect of boxing. He is more masochistic brawler than a sportsman or pugilist. The question is, why?

Jake is insanely jealous, especially when it comes to his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). He perpetually suspects her of cheating and/or harboring a desire to cheat. His violently jealous rages know no bounds and recognize no bonds, familial or otherwise. Jake is a staunch believer in Chris Rock's adage that "no one is above an ass whipping". Even after attaining a championship belt, Jakes insecurities are not muted. In fact they are amplified. Jake's tolerance for pain doesn't translate to his personal relationships. His ego and manhood are fragile and cannot withstand much punishment. Jake inflicts emotional and physical pain on his loved ones, and not within the context of a sporting contest.

last but certainly not least we have Max Cady. More cartoonish and larger than life than either Bickle or lamotta, Cady offers us a much more literal and flamboyant portrayal of a superhuman. Max is a sociopath and exceedingly brutal rapist who spent 14 years in a penal facility for a rape he committed. This could have been avoided had his lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) not buried a report that confirmed the promiscuity of Max's victim. Upon his release from jail, Max emerges as someone, or something, quite different than the illiterate hillbilly that was sent to prison all those years ago. He zeroes in on Sam and his family, intent on exacting the most thorough and ghastly revenge possible. He seeks a moral victory as well. Bowden shirked his responsibilities his client and to the law. That he did so while suffering a crisis of conscience is of no consequence to Max, just as it would be of no consequence to the state bar should Sam's actions come to light. In Cady's mind, his propensity for rape and murder is no more reprehensible than Sam's refusal to carry out his lawyers duties. That Sam is free and allowed to think of himself as being morally upright reads to Cady as hypocrisy of the worst sort.

While preparing for his vengeance, Max fortifies his mind and body. While in jail He learns to read, and more importantly he is able to comprehend what he reads. As his personal library grows more complex, so does his ability to philosophize and pontificate. He adopts an exercise regimen that shreds his body into a sinewy collection of striations and cross striations. He adorns his musculature with a variety of jailhouse tats that reveal his religious fanaticism (perhaps a remnant of his pentecostal upbringing). As if that weren't enough, he possesses a tolerance for pain that is otherworldly. It's source is unknown. In one scene, Cady ruminates on it's origin as he clutches a lit road flare. As the burning hot wax pours out over his fist, he does not flinch. We see no sign that the pain actually registers. This is a far cry from Travis Bickle, who trembled as he attempted to stand stoically with his arm extended over an open flame. Cady is Bickle's superhuman ambition realized, albeit in a caricaturishly countrified form.

Max Cady is able to withstand a severe beating by multiple armed attackers and even turns the tide on them. He brushes off a pan full of boiling water being thrown on him as if it were a mere annoyance. The only thing able to elicit anything remotely resembling a human reaction to pain is when he is set ablaze after being doused in lighter fluid. Unlike Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, Cape Fear sort of disregards any attempt at realism after a certain point. As the third act approaches, Max Cady quite literally appears Godlike. Nothing seems able to stop him, much less kill him.

Max Cady represented a point on no return in Martin Scorcese's infatuation with superhuman levels of pain tolerance. Cape Fear takes that idea to a metaphorical and stylistic extreme. It was Martin's first truly commercial film and his highest grossing up until that point. Critics considered it over the top and inferior to the 1962 original, but that hardly seemed to matter to audiences, he had become accustomed to (and developed quite a taste for) violent thrillers. The fruitful teaming of Scorcese and De Niro had finally found a way to appeal to the masses.

The evolution of Martin Scorcese's infatuation with, and envisioning of, superhuman ability adds another layer to an already fascinating filmography. Pain, both emotional and physical, is no stranger to the characters in Scorsese films. None of them ever really escape it, though they find extraordinary ways to deal with it. In that, they are just as superhuman as Spider-man, Superman or the X-men. Villainous though they sometimes may be, they possess an ability that we all crave. Though they endure hells both literal and personal, we never see them flinch. Such a skill would be invaluable in the real world.

Thank God for the movies, and thank God for Scorcese.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong: A Public Service Announcement From The TR-808

By Scott Tre

Vivid storytelling is an essential part of Mc'ing, and tends to be highly undervalued. Nothing is a better testing ground for an artists skills. Though Rapping has it's roots in partying and braggadocio there's no reason for it to remain limited to that definition. Check out any of Raps sub genres and you'll find that many of the best songs include some form of storytelling.

Quiet as it's kept, Derrick "D-Nice" Jones had one of the catchiest Rap songs of the early 90's with the self descriptive and boastful "Call Me D-Nice" (from his debut album of the same name). Why it didn't become a platinum selling hit back then is anyones guess, but it did provide a glimpse at what the young Boogie Down Productions affiliate was capable of. Known mostly for the beat boxes and guest verses he provided on various BDP Projects, D-Nice was a constant presence and an instantly recognizable name for any true BDP fan. By all accounts, "My Name is D-Nice" pointed the way to a very successful career.

However, it would not be until the release of the first single on his second LP "To tha Rescue" that would see the TR-808 truly stretch his artistic chops. He offered up a lively tale that starts in the mundane quickly veers into nightmare territory. That tale was the ominously titled "25 Ta Life"

While sipping a beer on hot summers day, D-Nice welcomes the flattering attention of some pretty young ladies. A few jealous onlookers take exception to his his good fortune. When one of them challenges D to a fist fight and loses, his friends proceed to give D a route ass kicking. As D collects himself, a Good Samaritan slips him a semi-automatic pistol with which he proceeds to handle his business. The song title alludes to the results of his actions.

The story ends rather abruptly, but D fills the three minute running time with an amazing attention to detail as well as a play by play account of the events as they unfold. The juke joint liveliness of the musical accompaniment leaves you unprepared for the bloodbath that occurs at the end. Your nodding your head, and suddenly the seemingly trivial activities of a summers day gives way to life changing tragedy.

The video clip for the song is quite simply perfect. Shot in garish black and white and featuring a variety of zooms, close ups and weird angles, the piece draws you even further into the tale. It's a near perfect marriage of image and sound, and manages to tell a compelling tale in a remarkably short amount of time.

The single and video were released in the fall of 1991, when Rappers had considerable leeway with what they could depict in a song or in a video. Firearms could be brandished with abandon. Violence was okay as long as gunshot and stab wounds were not graphically depicted. Gangsta rappers of the day could not go all out, but enough room to craft effective visual representations of their street cred. Such an environment allowed small, low budget masterpieces like "25 Ta Life" to spring forth.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tasty Treat: Nona Gaye

By Scott Tre

A full figure and a beautiful complexion. In fact, that is the main word comes to mind: Filling. There is something nourishing about Nona's earthy beauty that pleases both the eyes and the spirit. She has a look that is at once "exotic" yet unmistakably black. The feisty attitudes displayed by her characters in Blood and Bone and The Matrix sequels only add to her appeal.