Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This Action Packed Trailer Will Make You Eager To Visit "The Town"

By Scott Tre

At their best, heist and caper films serve a subconscious need.  Why is it that television programs featuring footage of high speed chases and surveillance videos of brazen crimes continue to be popular?  Those who follow the straight and narrow get a voyeuristic charge out of witnessing the exploits of those who don't.  That such antics rarely meet with success is of little consequence as the spectators aren't the ones on the front line.   The audience gets to cheer on the perpetrator, feeding a secret desire to see him get away with it.  If he fails, the audience can snicker at the ineptitude in which he does so or gasp at the carnage that results. 

For his sophomore directorial effort, Ben Affleck has decided to try his hand in the crime genre.  His next film, The Town is based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves.  The story centers on a quartet of bank robbers who operate in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts.  The fearsome foursome is headed up by Doug Macray (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall). Their relationship blossoms at a decidedly inopportune time, as FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is closing in on  Macray and his team.

All of this sounds very similar to Micheal Mann's Heat, and the trailer seems to be inviting comparisons the Micheal Mann's cops and robbers masterpiece.  If that is the case, Ben Affleck has some truly big shoes to fill, as the famous shoot out from that film has yet to be topped.  Judging by this trailer, Affleck seems to be up to the task.  The brief moments of gun play on display seem to be going for a fairly "realistic" tone.  The overall vibe seems to be that of a gritty urban crime drama more so than a standard caper film or action flick.  Boston is fast developing its own cinematic mythology by way of the modern crime film.  Let's hope that The Town proves to be a worthy addition to that legacy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zack Snyder's Next Film To Deliver A Real "Sucker Punch" To Audiences

By Scott Tre

It may be hard to picture now, but there was a time when filmmakers were limited in terms of resources.  In this new age, CGI has made it possible for films with relatively meager budgets to be epic in scope.  If a director has a truly marketable idea (or is lucky enough to assigned to adapt a well known property from another medium), execs will spare no expense to be sure that his vision is fully realized.  While the argument could be made that the lack of financial restraints has resulted in a less disciplined and less resourceful generation of filmmakers, it is still undoubtedly fun to see the mind of a visual stylist let loose upon the big screen.

In Zack Snyder's upcoming Sucker Punch, a young girl named Babydoll (Emily Browning) is placed in a mental institution and scheduled to be lobotomized.  In order to cope with her predicament, she retreats into an elaborate fantasy world of her own design.  Her adventures in this imaginary world help her to deal with and possibly escape the horrible real life fate that awaits her.  Her friends Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Sweet Pea(Abbie Cornish), Amber(Jamie Chung), and Rocket(Jena Malone) accompany her on her journey down the rabbit hole.

Aside from the plentiful eye candy on display, The criminally underrated Michael White is also listed among the cast.  The trailer immediately bombards the viewer with a number of flashy visuals that seem derived from realities both real and imagined.  Gigantic, heavily armored samurai warriors are shown.  A massive fire breathing dragon is seen emitting a blanket of flame.  The film has the look of a well rendered video game, but given the premise that may very well be by design.  How these seemingly random images will fit into the narrative are anyone's guess, but their immediate impact is undeniable.  Zack Snyder is shaping up to be one of the premiere visual stylists of his day, and Sucker Punch might just be the film that cements his reputation.


The "Machete" Red Band Trailer Cuts Right Down To The Bone

By Scott Tre

Exploitation films and B-Movies are enjoying a higher profile than ever thanks to the efforts of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez.  The questionable quality of his films not withstanding, one has to admire his commitment to his vision.  In a way, his films are every bit as personal as the higher brow offerings usually favored by critics.  Rodriguez works on controlled budgets and makes exactly the kinds of films he wants to make.  In that sense he is living the dream.   The relative failure of 2007's Grindhouse might have frightened a less resilient filmmaker, but Robert Rodriguez remains steadfast, opting to crank the volume up full blast and forge ahead.  If he fails, at least he does so by his own hands.

The idea to turn Machete into a full blown feature struck me as gimmicky fanboy pandering when I first heard it.  It would be hard for a feature length film to maintain such a tone throughout it's duration, much less find a worthwhile story to saddle it to.  That kind of novelty works just fine for a couple of minutes, but a full length movie?  Even if Rodriguez was able to fashion a serviceable action movie out of the concept, it would most assuredly only play to the converted.  The converted in this case would be the legions of fans who giggled with glee as the original fake trailer on which the film is based played in front of Grindhouse three years ago.

Fortunately, each subsequent piece of advertising for the film has slowly warmed me to it.  Now, with this red band trailer I am completely sold.  The film clearly does not take itself seriously, featuring the sort of cartoonish carnage that would be right at home in Riki-Oh: The Story of Riki.  Machete (Danny Trejo) is seen repelling out of a window using someones  intestines as a rope.  Limbs are severed, brains are splattered, bare breasts are displayed and lead flies in all directions.  The whole thing comes off like an ultra violent three ringed circus.  We also get some prominent shots of Steven Segal in what looks to be a major set-piece.  There isn't one unappealing moment in the whole thing.  Watch it at your own risk, and be careful not to get any of the burgundy colored stage blood on your clothes. 

Tasty Treat: Antonia Thomas

By Scott Tre

She is completely in tune with and aware of her sexuality.  She uses it like a weapon.  She can see the effect it has on you and is amused by it.  She can break the impenetrability of your gaze and cause your alpha male facade to crumble.  Nothing is more sexy than a woman who is conscious of her abilities and not afraid to play fast and loose with the rules.  It wouldn't be wholly inaccurate to describe her aura as being an honest to god talent.  What she has cannot be learned or taught.  It comes naturally and organically.  If you consider your self a heterosexual male and she doesn't get your blood pumping, you may want to rethink your sexual orientation.  Fittingly cast as the seductive Alisha Bailey in the excellent British superhero television series Misfits, you get to see her powers in all there glory.  Don't fight it, just give in.  Resistance is futile.  

Crimson Vengeance: "Batman: Under The Red Hood" Review

By Scott Tre

For well over thirty years, the "dark and brooding" version of the caped crusader has been the order of the day.  Disdain for the campy 1960's television series coupled with praise for Frank Millers seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns set the stage for a new image of the Batman to take over popular media.  Fans saw it as more in keeping with Bob Kane's original vision of the character, but this new Batman was in many ways his own beast, more "Dirty Harry" than caped crime-fighter.  The success of Tim Burton's iteration of the character proved more popular than any version of him yet, and Batman: The Animated Series further sealed the deal.  The American public wanted the cape and cowl to remain obscured in the shadows.  Since then, we've gotten increasingly darker visions of Bruce Wayne's alter ego, each one going further into the abyss.  Now Bruce Timm and company offer the darkest animated iteration of the character yet with Batman: Under The Red Hood.

Ever since failing to save Jason Todd (Alex Martella/Vincent Martella) from the murderous clutches of the Joker (John Dimaggio), Batman (Bruce Greenwood) has being living under a perpetual cloud of guilt.  He has little time to mourn, however, as the Gotham City underworld is in the throws of a major coup.  The vigilante known as "The Red Hood" (Jensen Ackles) is making a play to become Gotham's undisputed kingpin of crime.  Fearfully all the other crime lords begin to fall in line with the program save for the fearsome Black Mask, acting crime lord of Gotham.  Reluctant to relinquish his thrown, he turns to the clown prince of crime to slow Red Hood's rise to power.  Meanwhile, the caped crusader, aided by former Robin Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) desperately races to figure out the identity of this new Red Hood, who proves to be a more formidable opponent than he has ever faced.  As this masked foursome battle over the soul of Gotham, the future of the city has never seemed in more peril.

Batman: The Animated series was considerably darker in tone than other syndicated cartoon of its day, yet it still remained suitable for younger audiences.  With the current wave of straight to DVD features from Warner Brothers animation, Bruce Timm and his associates are free to explore ever darker avenues with the character.  Batman: Under The Red Hood takes the DC Animated universe into extremely violent waters.  It is fitting that the the story includes elements of the controversial story arc "Death in the Family", where replacement Robin Jason Todd was beaten to death by the Joker at the behest of the readers.  It uses that as a jumping off point for the more recent "Under The Hood" story arc by Judd Winick of Real World 3 fame.

As always, Batman: Under The Red Hood is given a look that is distinct from earlier  DC Animated Universe projects, yet still clearly recognizable as a part of that same universe. The character design of the Joker was clearly inspired by Heath Ledger's portrayal of him in the dark knight, while Batman's character design remains relatively unchanged.  The bat logo is emblazoned directly on his chest and has not been placed in a yellow oval.  The designs of the underworld figures such as black mask owes much to the classic Warners gangster pictures as well as the more gaudy and tacky mobsters of the Scorcese films.  Fedoras and trenchcoats exist side by side with jewelry and fly away collars.  As in Christopher Nolan's recent batman films, the hierarchy of the Gotham underworld is multi-ethnic.

The animation truly shines during the fight and action sequences.  The storyboards for Under the Red Hood could very well serve as a tutorial for Hollywood directors on how to deliver fast paced and rapidly edited action in a coherent manner.  The laws of physics are not strictly adhered to as Batman and Nightwing chase The Red Hood from one ledge to the next, but there is still a sense of gravity and logic to the fight mechanics.  The violence has a feeling of finality and consequence as characters are gunned down in cold blood and brain matter is splattered on brick walls.  The animators even pay attention to the ballistic details, as shell casings parade out of ejection ports and the guns themselves are rendered accurately.

The story line combines elements of crime films and occult horror.  Resurrection from the dead and the dilemmas therein are explored.  The age old question of why Batman simply does not kill the Joker is asked and answered.  Story wise, Batman: Under The Red Hood bares a bit of a resemblance to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in the way it portrays both the Joker and the Gotham underworld, much in the same way that Batman: The Animated Series showed the influence of the Tim Burton films.  While it would be nice if the animated universe of Batman could exist autonomously from his cinematic universe, the cross pollination makes sense.  The milieu is fitting.

It's rare for a DCAU production to not contain at least serviceable voice-over work, and Under The Red Hood is no exception.  Bruce Greenwood sounds strikingly like Kevin Conroy, to the point where his absence isn't a factor.  Neil Patrick Harris is the proverbial wise cracking sidekick as Nightwing.  Harris doesn't bring anything unique to the character but he doesn't detract from the proceedings either.  As The Red Hood, Jensen Ackles exudes youthful reckless, idealism and confusion.  John Dimaggio can't hold a candle to Mark Hamill, but like Bruce Greenwood he does a good enough impersonation to get the job done.

Batman: Under The Red Hood delivers exactly what it's previews have promised.  The action blindsides you with its brutality, and the themes are dark indeed.  This is the Dark Knight as he exists in the minds of fans and often on the comic page.  Though it might not be accurate to call it fun, it is most definitely compelling.  One can't imagine Bruce Timm and company going much darker with the material than they have here, lest they risk making something that is completely unsuitable for kids.  If they did, it's not as though the DCAU could not accommodate such a vision.  As it expands at a prodigious rate, we are provided with slight variations on the caped crusader that perfectly capture every shade of his dark world.        


Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Rock Gets Back To Business With "Faster"

By Scott Tre

Once upon a time it seemed as though Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was poised to become the next big action action star.  A cameo from Arnold Shwarzenegger in The Rundown seemed to signify a changing of the guard.  Alas, that brand of machine gun toting superman had already fallen well out of favor by that point.  As a result, Johnson's career took a decidedly different path.  The upcoming Faster looks to set him squarely back on course.

Johnson plays Driver, an ex-con out to avenge the death of his brother after the two were double crossed during a hiest.  Billy Bob Thornton plays a veteran police officer who shadows his every move.  Tom Berenger is also listed among the cast.  George Tillman, JR., who dramatized the life and career of rap icon The Notorious B.I.G with last years Notorious, is directing.

The trailer establishes a sense of comfort and familiarity right from the outset.  The iconic gunslinger imagery effectively sells the film as a modern day western.  The accompanying "sermon" and bluesy electric guitar that underscore the images add considerably to the ambiance .  The Rock seems right at home, as does Billy Bob Thornton.  This is clearly a meat and potatoes action film, designed for viewers who appreciate the genre in it's purist form.      

Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert Freeman Turns To "Mr. Medicinal" To Cure His Woes

By Scott Tre

The perception of Marijuana as both dangerous and addictive is played for laughs The Boondocks episode entitled "Mr. Medicinal".  After enduring a long overdue physical, Robert Freeman is told that he must reduce his stress levels immediately.  When a regimen of prescription pills fails to do the trick, Thugnificent offers grandpa an "herbal" alternative in the form of Cannabis Sativa.  This brings about a noticeable change in Robert's normally grumpy demeanor, turning him into an uncharacteristically pleasant fellow.  As his marijuana use gradually becomes more habitual than medicinal, the law attempts to separate him from his beloved Mary Jane.      

"Mr. Medical" primarily lampoons hyperbolic anti-drug propaganda and the general misinformation concerning marijuana use.  It also slyly references the general feeling of distrust that many African Americans feel toward traditional medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.  Mr. Medicinal also points out the hypocrisy of how Americans categorize stimulants.  Alcohol abuse is not only casually tolerated but encouraged to a degree, while others shun prescription medicine but won't hesitate to take a long pull off a joint.  The pop culture references are kept to a bare minimum, with an obvious reference to A Fish Called Wanda.  

While the soundtrack for The Boondocks has never been lacking in terms of good production, this music in this episode really stands out.  The beat that plays during Robert's physical instantly gets the head nodding.  As far as laughs are concerned, there is a parody of Matthew McConaughey's 1999 arrest that should have many viewers in stitches.  Overall, the episode is not as consistently funny or shocking as "Pause" and not as touching as "Lovely Ebony Brown" or "The Story of Lando Freeman".  It is mostly an amusing misadventure in the life of Robert Freeman..   

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Obscure Pop Culture Obsessions: Beware The Deadly Fists of Riki Oh!

By Scott Tre

It may be much easier to destroy than to create, but destruction itself can be undeniable funThis is especially true when destruction comes in the form of musclebound monosyllabic types who are skilled in the fighting arts.  Eastern culture has always had its own unique take on the "post modern gunslinger" (as Ben Ramsey would call it) archetype.  Instead of using guns, they use fists and imaginary martial arts techniques that result in severed and exploding limbs.  An early example of this can be seen in Japanese Chanbara films, which themselves provided inspiration for Spaghetti Westerns. 

When I first discovered the joys of Hong Kong action cinema, I happened upon a film called Riki-Oh: The Story of Riki after reading about it in Sex & Zen : A Bullet in the Head, which had become my unofficial guide to this weird but wonderful new world.  It sounded like just the sort of pop culture oddity that would tickle my fancy.  The story centers on Riki Ho (the live action movie name), a young martial arts master who goes to prison after avenging the death of his girlfriend at the hands of heroin dealers (it was was a young boy in the OVA).  Upon arriving in the jail, Riki upsets the balance of power by unleashing his deadly martial skill on various bullying inmates.  In order to protect the secret opium growing business from being discovered, the assistant warden dispatches a group of super powered trustees known as the "gang of four" to dispose of Riki.  A blood bath ensues.

Even if you've never seen The Story of Riki, you may unwittingly viewed a clip from it The Daily Show's Five questions segment.  It was obviously chosen for that distinction due to the unintended hilarity of its outrageous imagery:

The Story of Riki was based on the manga, and is considered something of a "comic book" film in certain quarters.  its graphic violence earned it the dreaded "category III" rating in its native country.  In fact, the reported levels of violence had me a little apprehensive at first.  As any film buff knows, there is a big difference between violence in mainstream films and the brand of carnage b-level exploitation pictures.  A true exploitation picture has an equal chance at being either unintentionally funny or truly disturbing.  What I ended up seeing, while undoubtedly mean spirited, was far from disturbing.  Its style was "comic book" in the most overt sense of the term, with the violence reaching improbable and nonsensical heights.  Obviously phony gore effects are shamelessly put on display.  At some point only sheer morbid fascination kept me engaged.  The movie was simply unbelievable in both conception and execution.

Yet, my morbid curiosity still remained and demanded to be satiated.  Luckily, around the same time I discovered The 43rd Chamber I also discovered a store called Games & James.  For me, it became the anime equivalent of "The Chamber".  It specialized in video games and fan subbed anime, some of which was done by the store itself.  One could purchase VHS tapes with episodes of Dragonball Z recorded directly off of Japanese television, sometimes containing Japanese commercials.   I looked among their collection of tapes and saw a cover with a beautifully rendered manga drawing and the title "Riki-Oh" emblazoned on the front.  I asked the clerk if that was the anime version of The Story of Riki and he nodded in he affirmative.  I immediately snapped it up, paid my ten bucks and shoved it into my book bag.

Titled "Wall of Hell", the OVA is much easier to take seriously.    The carnage is rendered much more convincingly in animated form.  Alas, this hardly consolation for a story that serves as an excuse for graphic violence.  The fights have relatively little in the way of suspense as Riki often dispatches his enemies with the greatest of ease.  The animation quality is typical of early 90's anime in that the frame rate is noticeably low, but the animators compensate for that with an emphasis on style.  upon watching it for the first time in almost 12 years, I was struck by how mundane it all seemed.  Maybe I'm becoming a curmudgeon in my old age, but the whole thing played like a poor man's version of Fist of the North Star.

While revisiting the pleasures youth can offer comfort, in many instances it just serves as a reminder of how just how much your tastes have evolved.  Unconsciously, we come to demand more from our entertainment.  Even "guilty pleasures" have to have something more than gimmickry and novelty to keep us engaged.  While certain elements of Riki's story still fascinate me, I'd rather not commit to the full journey.

Friday, July 16, 2010

New Trailer For "The Expendables" Is More Than Happy To Offend Your Tender Sensibilities

By Scott Tre

In celebration of all things politically incorrect and regressive, The new red band Trailer for The Expendables reminds us why we love action films.  It urges manchildren the world over to reclaim their rightful place as Hollywood's most coveted demographic.  The Expendables opens on the same day as the Julia Roberts vehicle Eat Drink Love. This trailer pits the two against each other and suggests that nothing less than the very manhood of male moviegoers hangs in the balance (no pun intended).  While that's not entirely accurate, it's an ingenious way to market this movie.  There doesn't seem to be much in the way of new footage, though we do get a few awesome frames of Terry Crews emptying an automatic shotgun.  August 13th can't get here fast enough.   


"Inception" Ventures Fearlessly Down The Rabbit Hole

By Scott Tre

Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) is the best at what he does.  He's an "extractor", a professional thief who specializes in invading the subconscious of his targets and creating elaborate dream worlds that allow him to steal specific ideas from their minds.  This is a very delicate and exacting process that is performed after the target is induced into a deep sleep.  Cobb and his team venture deep into subconscious, often creating dreams within dreams as part of their ruse.  Cobb is recruited by businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea (as opposed to stealing one) in the subconscious of Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy).  Cobb reluctantly takes the job after Saito promises to pull some strings that will allow him to return to U.S. soil and reunite with his estranged children. 

Cobb assembles a crack team of dream specialists.  There is Arthur "the point man" (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames "The Forger" (Tom Hardy), and Ariadne (Ellen Page) "The architect".   Together they will embark on a perilous journey that probes deeper into the subconscious mind than any of them had previously thought possible.  Along the way, they have to contend not only with the usual obstacles, but the Ghosts of Cobb's tortured past.

Inception is Christopher Nolan's first film since The Dark Knight, and his first attempt at crafting a blockbuster that is not a part of the Batman brand.  It is the culmination of all the skills he has acquired over the years as a filmmaker.  Inception is almost as difficult to follow as it is to describe.  In that way it is very much like a dream.  It lingers in the mind long after it's over, yet the viewer may find it difficult to articulate what they have seen. 

The film covers similar territory as The Matrix, Total Recall, and A Nightmare On Elm Street.  The characters are allowed to "share" dreams, or occupy the same dream at the same time.  The mind is an infinite playground where alternate realities spin endlessly from the target's subconscious.  People and ideas appear as "projections".  The protagonists must go about there business with stealth for fear of alerting the subconscious of their presence, as the minds "defense mechanisms" will automatically kick in.  The action scenes show the influence of video games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.  The dream world is almost entirely interactive.  Things can be used, accessed and navigated.  The film is like a Mission Impossible episode, with the "dream team" operating in dreamland as opposed the real world.

Nolan employs start of the art effects to visualize the dream world.  Instead of creating a sensory experience that takes place in an obvious fantasy land, Nolan grounds everything in the familiar.  The action takes place within the confines of familiar cities, but the architecture and structures themselves seem to be alive.  They can be made to conform to the will of the "architect", who uses the subconscious as a canvas.  The buildings and cityscapes of Inception are like abstract art, constantly in flux and changing at will.  The effect is seamless and totally convincing.  All things are possible in this world, but the terrestrial setting makes everything seem all the more "real".

The fight scenes in Nolan's Batman films were hindered by frenetic cutting and frustrating camerawork that conspired to obscure the action.  With Inception, Nolan has become more sure handed.  The shootouts and chases move fast, but are coherent and pulse with  spontaneity.  There is an ambush that occurs in Fischers. Subconscious that combines the mayhem of Micheal bay with the deliberate staging of Micheal Mann.  It's quick and compact, but visceral.  There is also a fight scene that might very likely reinvent the concept of action sequences much like "bullet time" did in The Matrix.   

Leonardo Dicaprio is fast becoming the "go to" guy for these types of roles, combing fierce intensity with a certain vulnerability.  Cobb isn't all that different from Marshal Edward Daniels in Shutter Island, and Inception shares more than a few similarities to Martin Scorcese's psychological thriller.  Leo's head strong performance cuts a clear path through the subterfuge established by both films, leaving a taught line of emotion for the viewer to grab onto.  Inception is difficult to navigate, but somehow Dicaprio's performance helps to keep the audience grounded and focused.  

Inception is similar to many films that have come before it, yet as a whole it is different than all of them.  There is a certain elusive and intangible beauty to it.  It is meticulously constructed and fragile, but not fragile in the sense that it can't stand up to scrutiny.  One is afraid to delve too deeply into the intricate blueprint that Nolan has constructed, as the possibilities are endless.  He has created a cinematic playground that will keep audiences enthralled, baffled and coming back for more.  Inception is remarkable and unlike anything you have ever seen. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cavario H. Paints a Harrowing Portrait of a Hustlers Ambition With "Raised By Wolves"

By Scott Tre

The last ten years have been a renaissance period in regards to the availability of information on real life black gangsterism.  The popularity of street magazines like F.E.D.S and Don Diva has flourished into an entire cottage industry that includes countless documentaries, books and movies.  All of these purport to tell the "real" story.  Many of them are mired in shameless hero worship and dubious reporting,  or exploitation masquerading as objective journalism.  Fortunately, there are a few truly worthwhile gems amidst the clutter.

Cavario H., co founder of Don Diva magazine, now gives his take on a hustlers ambition with Raised by Wolves: Inside The Life & Mind of a Guerrilla Hustler.  It is an exhaustive and lengthy work that begins in the golden age of the black gangster and spans into the post crack era ruins of the mid 90's.  Aimed at dedicated and attentive readers, it does not offer the quick and frivolous thrills associated with such subject matter.  Instead, it takes the reader on a meticulous journey with a man who seemed to be bred for the street life.

Cavario begins at the beginning, painting a vivid picture of New York City in the 1970's and the 1980's.  His eye for detail is immediately evident, as is his sense of history regarding his hometown.  This was a time when names like Pee Wee Kirkland commanded huge respect in certain quarters, and the mystique of the hustler was still very much intact.  We learn how Cavario's mother Vivian imparted all sorts of forbidden knowledge to him.  This ranged from killing arts to common sense methods for avoiding unwanted attention from the police.  Vivian herself is the most memorable character from the opening passages, vivid and fearsome, yet doting in her own way.  She clearly loves her son, but she expresses it in way that will be completely foreign to outsiders.

Cavario's career as a "BoPp the Hustler" provides the substance of the book.  Heroin is still the high of choice in 1980's New York, until crack cocaine sweeps through the hood like a brush fire.  Cavario positions himself to take advantage of both vices, combining an insatiable need for money with a keen understanding of his clientele.  He explains in great detail the preparation and methods that go into establishing and maintaining a drug spot.  He also breaks down the science behind the preparation of the drugs themselves, as well as how they are rationed out to the fiends in order to maximize profits expand product.

The action moves from the five boroughs of New York City to the seedy streets of Baltimore, where smack is still the drug of choice.  Cavario's quest for the almighty dollar eventually takes him up and down the eastern seaboard.  Every city has fiends eager to be served and enterprising hustlers eager to make money.  Different hoods are infiltrated through stealth and cunning instead of brute force.  Talking one's way in and out of situations is shown to be more valuable than using a gun.

The book admirably avoids the telling of tall tales.  Cavario speaks of being able to acquire certain creature comforts and luxuries with his ill gotten gains, but he never throws around any astronomical figures.  The reader will not read about powder being shipped in by the metric ton, or mafia style organizations that hold the town in a vice grip. Raised by Wolves shows hustling to be a constant grind, where sleep itself is a luxury afforded by few.  Cavario seems to have relatively little time to enjoy the spoils of war because he is to busy mapping out and then executing his battle plans.       

Raised By Wolves also offers insight into the emotional toll that hustling takes on the individual.  Feelings of pain and guilt are never shown, but they are always present.  Friends and relatives become unfortunate casualties of war.  Those who haven't the drive or the resilience for "the life" don't heed Cavario's warnings and proceed at their own peril.  "The life" does not honor blood ties, and even those closest to Cavario are not spared its wrath.

The massive length makes it hard to process the avalanche of information in a single sitting.  The 450 plus page tome is brimming with names, dates, places and events.  Cavario lays it out as smoothly as can be expected, but sometimes it feels like too much of a good thing.  Raised By Wolves is best digested over a gradual period and not instantly devoured like a pocket sized pulp novel.  Patient readers will be rewarded.

All in all, Raised by Wolves is a considerable achievement.  It transcends its origins and defies the limitations and stereotypes associated with such novels.  By journey's end, the reader has come to know Cavario and his world as well as any outsider could possibly hope to.  It will leave its readers feeling exhausted and world weary, desperately needing a break from it all.  One suspects that was the entire point.

The order a copy of Raised By Wolves: Inside the Life & Mind of A Guerrilla Hustler go to https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=9812400

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yuen Woo Ping Spins The Colorful Tale Of A "True Legend"

By Scott Tre

Western audiences have been trained to value relative realism above all else, even at the sake of fun and whimsy.  Whether they realize it or not, this imposes somewhat rigid and artificial guidelines on genre film making.  The quality of a stunt or effect is judged on how "real" it looks as opposed to whether or not it facilitates adequate suspension of disbelief.  The same goes for explanations of the fantastic.  Western genre fans often require that everything be supported by airtight physics and exact science, not realizing that this to can take the fantasy out of "fantasy".  By contrast Eastern genre films have always remained stubbornly and comfortably in the land of make believe.

True Legend tells the story of General Su Can (Vincent Zhao).  After rescuing a prince from certain death,  Su  is awarded a governorship.  In order to assuage the envious feelings of his half brother Yuan (Andy On), Su requests that Yuan be granted the title instead.  Su leaves his military career behind, opting to become a family man instead.  He marries the beautiful Ying (Zhou Xun) and fathers a son named Feng (Li Zo, Suen Hanwen).  The three live in relative tranquility while Su trains vigorously in the art of Wu Shu.

A vengeful Yuan returns from his tenure in the military to take his place as governor.  He kills Su's father and holds Ying and Feng hostage.  Su confronts Yuan but is soundly defeated, as Yuan has mastered a supernatural martial arts technique known as the "Five Venoms Fist".  Yuan casts Su's limp body into the river.  A grief stricken Ying dives after him, leaving the young Feng at the mercy of his crazed uncle.

Ying nurses Su back to health in relative seclusion.  As his body recovers, he resumes training in hopes of one day defeating Yuan and rescuing his son.  During his daily workouts he begins to wander into the forest.  He returns every evening with fresh bruises and injuries and claims to be training with the Wu Shu God (Jay Chou) and an old drunken sage (Jay Chou).  Ying is made aware of the possibility that Su may indeed be going mad. Su insists that his sparring matches with mythical figures are quite real, and continue to venture daily into the forest in hopes of defeating them.  Then and only then can he go about the business of rescuing Feng and exacting justice on his half brother.

True Legend is the latest wire assisted marvel directed by the great Yuen Woo Ping, who has lent his martial expertise to many a western blockbuster.  Here, unrestrained by Hollywood suits or the cultural differences of the west, he constructs a colorful and vibrant fairy tale.  While not without its share of bloody violence, there is a certain lightheartedness that permeates True Legend.  As melodramatic as it is, it never takes itself too seriously.

The third act seems to belong to a wholly different film, and viewers may find themselves thinking that they missed something.  The transition is a bit rough, but once things settle a bit the closing act emanates a charm all its own.  The theme of boorish and arrogant westerners intruding on the eastern world and showing disdain for both China itself and "Chinese Boxing" are introduced.  While Ip Man 2 opts to do an eastern variation on the Rocky formula, True Legend remains steeped in more obviously mythic lore.

Yuan is a great villain.  He has the appearance of a Mortal Kombat character.  He has scaly armor sewn into his skin, and the deadly "Five Venoms Fist" allows him to infect an opponent with a potent toxin simply by touching him.  This supernatural ability adds real tension to the fight scenes.  Not only do you not want this guy to strike you, but you can't afford to even let him touch you.  In the context of the film, the character works well.  His  back story gives him solid motivation and his actions are believable.

It would be nice to see some truly convincing CGI in this sort of production.  The FX work on display when Yuan uses the "Five Venoms Fist" is adequate, but the virtual stuntmen during the opening battle scenes continuously threaten to pull the viewer right out of the movie.  The fantastical confrontations with the God of Wushu also have a glossily transparent sheen that ultimately proves distracting.  From a technical standpoint, this is the only element that's lacking.  

The fight scenes are shot in medium shots with lots of rapid movement, giving the action a comic panel feel.  The sound FX give each blow impact.  All in all the approach has a very 90's feel, harking back to when such films were still relatively new to western eyes.  The set pieces toward the end are inventive, combining elements of a three ring circus with that of "tournament"films in which fights take place in an arena in front of an audience.  Special mention should be given to the final confrontation between Su and Yuan, which takes place in the shaft of deep well. 

True Legend is one of the more enjoyable Martial Arts fantasy pictures to emerge in recent years.  It would be right at home during the golden age of the genre, when bootlegged versions of Hong Kong classics where washing up on Western shores with regularity.  It gives the imagination a good workout, and takes viewers on a ride through a world where all things are possible.  It's a place that your inner child will want to visit again and again.


"Predators" Proves Itself a Worthy Reboot

By Scott Tre

Eight people find themselves inexplicably thrown together in a mysterious forest.  Though they all arrived via the same means, none have any idea how or why they are in such a predicament, but all are warriors of one sort or another.  There is the special forces soldier Royce (Adrien Brody), who eventually emerges as the reluctant group leader.  Russian Spetsnaz soldier Nicholai (Oleg Taktarov) shoots first and asks questions later.  Mexican Drug cartel enforcer Chuchillo (Danny Trejo) wields twin Mp5's like a gunfighter out of the old west.  IDF Black Ops Sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga) is the most dangerous woman on earth when peering through the scope of her rifle.  RUF officer Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) cuts a stoic and imposing figure.  Death Row inmate Stans (Walton Goggins) is a incessant chatterbox who is nonetheless dangerous.  The seemingly mute Yakuza enforcer Hanzo's (Louis Ozawa) bewildered demeanor belie his skill with a katana.  Among these fearsome fighters, only the nerdy doctor Edwin (Topher Grace) seems out of his element.

Save for the disgraced doctor, this rag tag bunch of scrappers would seem well equipped to handle anything these mysterious forest throws at them. Alas, as they explore the terrain they realize three decidedly inconvenient truths:

  1. Their predicament is not a coincidence.
  2. The strange forest is actually a strange planet untold light years from the earth.
  3. They are being hunted like wild game by an unseen enemy

As these revelations gradually sink in, the group has little if any time to take stock of the situation and consider any options.  The mysterious hunters give relentless chase, giving the heroes no rest.  Royce, ever the loner, finds himself charged with not only surviving the game, but finding a way home.

Predators is both a franchise reboot and direct sequel to the original.  While it does not disregard to the continuity of the second film, it does not actively acknowledge it either.  The Aliens Vs. Predator films are thankfully discarded like dead carcasses on the side of the road.  Producer Robert Rodriguez and Director Nimrod Antal not only return to the franchises jungle survival roots, but pay loving tribute to the high concept Schwarzenegger vehicle by making Predators a virtual shot for shot remake.  The results are a decidedly mixed bag.

There are any number of call backs to the original.  The locale is the most obvious one, despite it being located on a fictional planet.  The scene where the commando unit joins Sergeant Mack (Bill Duke) in laying waste to an entire patch of jungle is referenced, as is Billy's mano-a-mano confrontation with the Predator.  The strains of Alan Sylvestri's theme music have been interpolated into the score.  Predators also shares the originals fetishism of exotic weaponry.  Royce brandishes an automatic shotgun with a drum magazine.  Nicholai wields a helicopter mounted Gatling gun not too dissimilar to "Ole Painless".  The parallels are endless.

The decision to plop these characters on another planet is a stroke of genius.  It effectively ups the stakes and delves further into the Twilight Zone atmosphere that was vaguely present in the original.  The concept of the original Predator would have been right at home as an entry of the classic sci-fi anthology series, offering an abject lesson in what happens when the roles of predator and prey are reversed.  Predators go even further into sci-fi territory, leaving the makeshift military unit no real escape, as a planet is a little harder to escape from than an  island.

Also interesting is the decision to make these characters of different "tribes".  They have no loyalty to one another, inviting the prospect of infighting that will only complicate the situation.  It's a rather cliched scenario, but it is tailor made for movies of this sort.  With the exception of the deceitful and self serving Dillon (Carl Weathers), the commando unit in the original had gone on countless missions together and where comrades in arms.  They clearly trusted each other with their lives.  The humans in Predators are mostly self serving and would feed each other to the wolves at a moments notice.  Again, hardly original, but it makes sense.

The dialogue seems half baked, consisting of every imaginable tough guy cliche.  Almost every exchange unfolds as expected, robbing many of the quips of their desired impact.  None of it is exactly cringe worthy, but it doesn't add anything to the proceedings either.  Just a little more imagination would have done the screenplay wonders.

Director Nimrod Antal is nowhere near John Mctiernan's skill level when it comes to generating suspense, but he's no slouch either.  The opening passages gain much from simply throwing the characters headlong into the situation with no explanations as to how they got there.  The effect is jarring and disorienting.

Adrien Brody is quite believable as Royce.  He seems to understand that being a good action hero is more about presence and personality than actual acting.  Lacking Arnold's physique, he opts for the silent but deadly shtick.  At times, he seems to be in an unofficial contest with Christian Bale for worst Clint Eastwood impression, but for the most part he doesn't allow himself to go too far overboard.  The original was selling the persona of Arnold as well as the premise.  Predators is smart enough to realize it doesn't have that caliber of star on its hands (though Brody is without question an immensely talented actor) and as a result does not function like a star vehicle.  

The Predators themselves seem a lot less deadly this time around.  In earlier installments it was established that elite commando units and heavily armed gangs/drug cartels were no match for one Predator.  Here, a small group of people with no connections to one another are able to evade more than one predator for an extended period of time.  It feels a bit inconsistent to say the least.  We aren't treated to any strange new weaponry of note.  Still, there is palpable tension whenever one of the dreadlocked warriors appears onscreen.  The pincers that guard their mouths form a fearsome "keep away" sign.  Stan Winston's original design is still every bit as repulsive now as it was in 1987.

Predators is a serviceable B-movie, even lower brow than the original.  It ambitions are meager when taking into account the considerable task it has in front of it.  The AVP hybrids have rendered the once potent franchise limp.  This stripped down reboot will provide a nice trip down memory lane for the faithful, but it could have been a bit more.  On that level, it is very similar to the best of the Planet of the Apes sequels.  It might not stand on its own and it might not hold up to serious scrutiny, but it still gets the blood pumping enough to register a pulse.  If only Rodriguez and Antal had really cut loose and had fun with the concept the way Stephen Hopkins did on the second film.  Predators will do for now, but it is a little too aware of its own legacy.  

Robert Freeman At Long Last Finds Happiness With The "Lovely Ebony Brown"

By Scott Tre

The love life of Robert Freeman has been a freak show of epic proportions.  The long suffering Huey and Riley have had a front row seat as Granddad's questionable taste in women has brought all manners of weirdos into their home.  While this has provided ample fodder for low brow humor, The Boondocks has had yet to show us what is driving Robert's bizarre forays into the modern dating scene.  "Lovely Ebony Brown" adds a bit of closure to the situation, as well as a silver lining (sort of).   

After many failed attempts at meeting women via online dating and social networking sites, Robert dismantles his Facebook page in disgust.  While jogging in the park with Tom Dubois and Uncle Ruckus, he sees his vision of perfection in the young and beautiful Ebony Brown.  He is immediately smitten.  Their first date confirms that she is indeed as perfect as she appears, but self doubt and second guessing prevent Robert from being truly happy with her.

"Lovely Ebony Brown" is the second episode in a row to focus on Robert Freeman.  It reveals a level of insecurity in the character that wasn't evident before.  For all of his wisdom and experience, Robert is prone to the same self destructive tendencies as the rest of us.  He searches for true happiness, yet he is unable to  enjoy it once he has it.  Ebony simply seems too good to be true.  The fact that she is genuinely into him brings all of his insecurities brimming to the surface.

The episode also features some sly commentary on the rather bleak outlook that many black men harbor about black women.  Ebony is beautiful, educated, accomplished and selfless.  The perpetually self hating Ruckus works overtime trying to convince the lovestruck Robert that such a black woman could never exist.  Riley also gives his granddad the worst advice imaginable.  As always, only the introspective Huey seems able to see the situation for what it is.  As far as pop culture references go, there is a sly jab at the museum trip in Ferris Bueller's Day Off that fits in perfectly with the story and themes of the episode.

"Lovely Ebony Brown" is both funny and unexpectedly touching.  Its central message proves useful not only for granddad, but for all of us.  Perhaps Robert has his hands so full with Huey and Riley that he never finds the time to examine himself and figure out what he really wants.  Such is the life of many of America's single parents.  Sometimes we are so focused on our responsibilities that we never bother to try and figure out what would make us happy, or what we would do once we attained the happiness we seek.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Performance Personified: Maybach Music III Is a Sonically Smooth Ride

By Scott Tre

With the release of Teflon Don looming just over the horizon, anticipation for Rick Ross's fourth album is at critical mass.  While his lyrical content reveals an insatiable taste for the high life, the gradually improving quality of his music suggests an artist with an increasingly high standard for himself.  Not satisfied with the warm reception given to last years Deeper Than Rap, Rick keeps reaching for the stars.  The recently leaked "Maybach Music III" shows that his grasp is at least equal to his reach.

Lush violins during the intro prepare us for the dramatic composition that awaits.  The track is not bound by the rigid confines usually imposed on Rap music.  The arrangement feels loose and free flowing as opposed to being chopped and looped into a precise pattern.  Stylistically, no coastal or regional influences are apparent.  The breezy, symphonic arrangement blends together effortlessly, making love to the ear drums.  It opts to entice listeners as opposed to bludgeoning them into submission.  The bass line is reminiscent of Micheal Jackson's "I Can't Help It", or at least the portion used by De La Soul for "Breakadawn".     

The Line up is in keeping with the regional anonymity of the production itself.  T.I. delivers a generic and indistinct opening verse.  Erykah Badu's soft, Jazzy crooning melts into the crevices of the track like warm butter.  Jadakiss combines ferocity and smoothness in equal measure.  Unlike T.I, he remains firmly and comfortably "in character" for the duration of his verse.  The arrangement switches gears for the finale, building to an even more dramatic and ominous tone.  One could imagine flashy pyrotechnics accompanying Ross's stage entrance during a live performance.  In fact, the song seems geared specifically for concert halls and outdoor arenas.

Rick Ross has an impeccable taste in beats.  With each subsequent entry into the "Maybach Music" cannon, he and The J.U.S.T.I.C.E League come closer to perfecting a formula that was nearly flawless to begin with.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ross seems to understand that the key to longevity isn't just great marketing but also great music.  Though his high level drug dealer persona might be a complete fabrication, he definitely believes in the same business model as Leroy "Nicky" Barnes: Provide your clientele with the best quality product possible and they will keep coming back for more.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"The Boondocks" Reacquaints Robert Freeman With His Long Lost Son

By Scott Tre

On "The Story Of Lando Freeman", Robert Freeman's world is turned upside down when he makes the acquaintance of a young man claiming to be his long lost son.  The young man initially poses as a drifter trying to get some landscaping work in the neighborhood.  Once he gets into Grandpa Freeman's good graces, he drops the proverbial bombshell.  At first, Robert dismisses him as merely a con man.  However, Lando persists and Robert's conscience begins to get the better of him.  The two eventually wind up on The Steve Wilkos Show, awaiting the results of a DNA test. 

"The Story of Lando Freeman" is a more subdued episode than we've been treated to as of late.  It reveals a certain sentimentality amidst all of the lurid shock humor.  Parental responsibility and the importance of family are examined.  The young drifters intentions are pure.  He wants only to be close to the man he believes fathered him.  The world of day time talk shows is also lampooned, showing how the audiences for such shows wholeheartedly accept the drama on display as "real" without ever bothering to read the fine print in the closing credits.

There are a couple of legitimate laughs interspersed through out.   Since the subject matter isn't as  outrageous as "Pause" or "A Date With The Booty Warrior", the opportunities for broad slapstick and sight gags are fewer and further between.  With the "The Story of Lando Freeman", the latter half of "The Boondocks" third season takes a break from it's usual grind and opts for a smaller story.  While this may be to the chagrin of viewers who enjoy the more obvious elements of the show, it is ultimately necessary.  No amount of profanity, racial epithets or raunchy humor will matter if the audience is not invested in these characters to some degree.  "The Story of Lando Freeman" manages to actually make us care, which is to the series credit.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"Wholetrain" Leaves No Train Untouched

By Scott Tre

More than any other aspect of Hip-Hop culture, graffiti and breaking captured my imagination as a child.  The acrobatics of break dancers was a revelation to me.  I often felt jealous that my wiry, uncoordinated body could not execute those moves.  Graffiti was something that came to me a little more naturally.  I had a natural artistic ability that I inherited from my father.  One of my older cousins showed me how to do bubble letters and simple characters.  While I didn't even qualify as a "toy", I felt a certain kinship to graffiti writers.

When I finally saw Beat Street on HBO in October of 1985, it only piqued my curiosity further.  It romanticized the lives of New Yorkers as no other film could.  As the 5 train roared past my suburban Bronx neighborhood on its way to and from the Gun Hill Road station, I imagined the adventures that could be had using it as a canvas.  Graffiti writers embody the inherent outlaw spirit of Hip-Hop, and I'm not talking about gangsterism. 

That era has long since passed, and with it any opportunity to mine the exploits of graffiti writing for its inherent drama.  These are artist who are willing to risk their freedom and their lives for the art.  Their only reward is personal satisfaction and recognition.  Rap music have been the most marketable aspect of the culture, but Graffiti represents something much more mysterious and adventurous.  Prowling train yards and subway tunnels, carrying bags of spray paint looking for nice clean train to victimize.  How could a mere rapper compete?

Perhaps sensing the void that exists for appreciators of Subway art, German filmmaker Florian Gaag has made Wholetrain.  Not so much a throwback to an earlier era as it is a voyeuristic peak at how an artifact from that era still thrives in other parts of the world.  The film centers on a crew of writers whose lives revolve around bombing trains and walls, smoking weed and partying.  The responsibilities of adulthood are mere annoyances.

David (Mike Adler), Tino (Florian Renner), Elyas(Elyas M’Barek), and Achim (Jacob Matschenz) have one concern in life: graffiti.  Whether adorning commuter cars with "burners" or walls with "pieces" and tags, these four are addicted to leaving their mark.  When they aren't vandalizing, they are holed up in each others apartments smoking weed and filling their black books with abstract masterpieces.  They make time for women, but anything that doesn't involve markers and spray paint is relegated to a side concern.

David, the de facto "alpha male" and protector of the group is at a cross roads.  He has run afoul of the law one too many times.  Any further indiscretions will result in jail time.  Tino is a young father who barely lives up to the responsibilities implied by the title.  Achim is a young prospect who is favored by David but shunned by the other crew members. As if these internal conflicts weren't enough, the winds of change are blowing through town in the form of a rival crew known as ATL.  ATL bring a more advanced sensibility to their burners that makes the efforts of David's crew seem antiquated.  Amidst the turmoil, the foursome set out to bomb an entire "wholecar".  This is dangerous as it is a time consuming effort that leaves them exposed to the cops that prowl the train stations.  As all these situations reach a head, the foursome are forced to make a choice: adapt to the changes and become men, or succumb to the walls and trains that beg to be beautified by aerosol paint.

Florian Gaag employs a visual style that emphasizes the small scale but risky lifestyle of the principles.  It's a no frills affair.  The camera work makes the viewer feel like an eavesdropper or a peeping tom, peering over the shoulders of the actors.  The expeditions into the train stations at night play like black ops.  Everything is supported by a screenplay that never feels the need to offer overly heightened situations to ratchet up the drama.  Everything unfolds in a probable, believable manner.  There are some rather obvious nods to genre standards like Wild Style and Beat Street that never feel forced or intrusive.

Wholetrain is a small, simple film that suffices as a serviceable coming of age tale.  Florian Gaag has an obvious respect and affinity for this world that is obvious in every frame.  In an era where rappers and rap fans openly champion material rewards as the only purpose for the culture to exist, Wholetrain shows serves as a reminder of what it truly means to live and sacrifice for your art.  While that may be an antiquated and naive notion, it's nice to know that it still exists in some form.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gaiking To Demolish Countless City Blocks In 2012

By Scott Tre

This bit of news is hardly new, but I came across this footage on a messageboard I frequent and I felt compelled to share it.  The trailer below is apparently test footage for a live action adaptation of the super robot mecha anime series Demon Dragon of the Heavens Gaiking.  Entitled simply Gaiking, the film will be helmed by American FX wizards Jules Urbach and Matthew Gratzner and released sometime in 2012.  According to an e-mail received by Harry Knowles over at Ain't It Cool News, the effects in the finished film will be a combination of CGI and practical effercts.  A life sized robot will be constructed and scanned by a computer, to achieve the desired illusion.

Though I don't even have a casual familiarity with the original property, I have always had a weakness for mecha-based anime that goes back to my childhood.  There's something about people piloting giant robots and using them as weapons of war that really speaks to my sense of the fantastic.  While nowhere near photo real, the FX in the clip below are more than serviceable enough to sustain a straight to DVD production or even big budget television series.  Since this was conceived to give fans an idea of the basic concept, one can only imagine what the finished product will look like like. Kind of gives us an idea of what a live action Unicron could look like.

Here's the opening credits sequence from the show for the sake of comparison: