REVIEW: Balls of Fury

GUY #1: “Hey, who was that lady I saw you with last night?”

GUY #2: “That’s no lady, that was my wife!”

The key to “understanding” Vaudeville staple jokes like that is to realize that they were told over and over, night after night, by comic after comic and were still basically funny. Simple joke, doesn’t even have to be especially well-told to work. Just has to be, because the audience already knows the joke, thinks it’s funny and is endeared to the comic who tells it for agreeing with their sense of humor and expectations. “Balls of Fury” is kind of like that. It’s premise gives away the entirety of the film almost immediately: It’s a comedy about a secret underground ping-pong competition, staged in the framework and trappings of a B-grade “kung-fu tournament” movie. If you can conjure a basic picture of what that might look like, and it amuses you, so will the resulting movie even though it’s obviously not the “best” telling of it’s own joke possible.

The advertisements want you to think of it as something along the lines of a “Dodgeball” sports-spoof, but the actual film is aimed best at a smaller niche: Ironic-appreciators of bad 80s U.S. martial arts films. Genre mainstays like James Hong, Jason Scott-Lee and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa are onhand in mostly-straight versions of the kind of roles they can do in their sleep. If you A.) recognize Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa by sight, B.) know who he his by name and not “that one Asian guy and C.) are glad to see him, you will like this movie.

The plot concerns a secret, underground, high-stakes, life-or-death table-tennis tournament overseen by a Triad arms dealer Feng (Christopher Walken in full “It’s Funny Because I’m Christopher Walken” mode.) A government agent (George Lopez in the first time I’ve EVER found him funny) recruits a onetime disgraced ping-pong prodigy (Dan Fogler) for training under a blind Chinatown ping-pong master (James Hong) and his niece (an unspeakably sexy Maggie Q, hotter than any woman that skinny has any right to be) to help inflitrate the contest, which holds dual significance for Fogler’s hero: The champ-to-beat is a German rival (the great Thomas Lennon) from his past, and Feng (what else) killed his father.

Fogler is a natural comic lead, the premise easily sustains a movie’s worth of jokes and all-in-all it’s good for laugh. The Asian actors, Hong especially, seem to be having fun doing deadpan-parodies of the cheesy roles they so often wind up playing in the “serious” films this is spoofing. Granted, Hong has been “in” on subverting Asian stereotypes for laughs since way back in “Big Trouble in Little China,” and Tagawa grimmaces with unmistakable “yeah, it’s me” conviction. But it’s fun to see Lee get to cut loose as a heavy, and Maggie Q demonstrably “gets” both the appeal and the absurdity of the “itty-bitty Asian girl as icy high-kicking fetish doll” routine. And Walken, well… Walken has honed this bit with such expertise that at certain points his “dialogue” consists of a series of improv-ish mumbles and/or strange, suggestive eye movements and somehow it’s still funny. (Feng on a pet Panda: “Sleeping… I think. Could be dead… I dunno. Not really sure… what they, y’know, eat. Anyhoo…”)

This one’s pretty easy, folks. Go watch the trailer. If you laugh, you’ll like the movie.


Michael Bay’s "Super Mario Bros."

UPDATED: Now using a video-player with quality that doesn’t suck!

What if the director of “Transformers” applied his, er.. “skills?” to movie remakes of OTHER beloved characters? Imagine no more…

Personal Challenge set with this project: Create something that looked and sounded awful from premise to execution but ALSO looked like an interpretation that might concievably actually get made. I think it came out decently, overall.

REVIEW: War (2007)

The best thing I can say about “War” is that it deserves to be better than it is. While I won’t spoil it here, what is probably one of the niftier “Gotcha… and gotcha AGAIN!!” plot twists I can recall for the genre caps off what is otherwise an entirely generic, disposable John Woo knockoff action thriller; and has the effect of making the characters, motivations and story points involved so much more interesting and imbued with such greater potential you wish that the actual product was worthy of it.

The film is a two-way “versus” star-vehicle for Hong Kong action legend Jet-Li and up-and-coming British action star Jason Statham. The two “met” previously in “The One,” but as it was made before Statham revealed himself to be a kung-fu virtuoso in his own right the film lacked a proper “Hero versus The Transporter” showdown. Unfortunately, despite implications of the trailers, “War” doesn’t quite provide this either- the two share only a single brief-but-brutal exchange of fists (and anything else that isn’t nailed down) at the climax -but instead sets them up as opposing forces in a large (and largely incomprehensible) Yakuza vs. Triad crime saga that finds each actor playing to darker, angrier places in their skill-sets. Fans can at least rest-assured that, whatever else is going on in “War” the standard “We must fight! Wait, we’re actually on the same side! Let’s team up to fight the REAL enemy!” hero/hero fight structure is NOT in play.

Statham is an FBI agent who’s partner/best-friend was killed, along with his entire family, by “The Rogue,” a martial-arts master Yakuza hitman who no one can catch and who surgically overhauls his face all the time to avoid recognition. Three years later, Statham has morphed into the standard-issue divorced/slovenly/bitter cop dedicated to hunting down Rogue… who has just now resurfaced, his face re-cut into that of Jet Li, in the midst of a stateside Triad/Yakuza war over priceless artifacts. What none of the cops realize is that Rogue, for reasons unknown, seems to be pulling a “Red Harvest” on both gangs. Devon Aoki (middle of my blog banner, the one with the snake) is on hand as a Yakuza princess to give us something to look at when people aren’t fighting and/or shooting.

It’s all rather basic and unremarkable, building to a pair of twist-reveals that succeed in redrawing the map of what you thought the movie was about but don’t quite make the first two acts “better.” At best, it’s enough to make it an interesting action movie footnote.

REVIEW: September Dawn

If you’re living near one of the 857 theaters currently showing “September Dawn,” I reccomend that you do so. Not necessarily because it’s entirely great, or because I believe there’s some great intrinsic benefit to it, but because you just don’t see one of “these” actually come around often. This is REAL independent filmmaking, folks, a self-made, uncompromised passion project with all the pros and cons that go with such an endeavor: A story that charges forth on the strength of will and conviction, a cast precariously balanced at the intersection of dutiful character actors, varied amateurs and marquee-name showstoppers; and most fascinating of all a tone that careens wildly to and fro between classy historical-dramatization and gut-reaction exploitation. By the time the third act rolls around, it resembles the result of Eli Roth directing second-unit for a Ken Burns piece.

This is an old-fashioned historical melodrama, the sort that Hollywood once pumped out by the truckload. True to that model, it’s comprised of two main elements that never QUITE mesh into a proper whole. Part 1: A real historical event (here, the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre) boiled down to a simplified Good vs. Evil clash. Part 2: An invented substory (here, a wagon-train Romeo & Juliet hookup) designed to make the clash ‘personal’ to the audience. It’s a difficult and usually ill-advised formula to use in the modern age, even for a period peice, but the execution here is about as good as can reasonably be asked for. It’s melodrama, either you can “take it” or you can’t.

“Mountain Meadows Massacre” is, along with the Donner Party, one of the grimmer footnotes in the history of the wagon train era. In 1857, a group of settlers en route to California stopped to rest in the Utah territories then occupied by the Mormons and their firebrand leader Brigham Young. Though welcomed to camp in the meadow under assurances of peace, the settlers were eventually decieved, betrayed and brutally slaughtered to the last man, woman and child (only infants were spared) by the Mormons’ elite Dannite troops and a smattering of Paiute Indian allies – possibly under direct orders from Young himself as “blood atonement” for the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri decades earlier. The film, who’s makers claim a painstaking amount of historical research, takes up the position that Young and the elder Apostles were indeed the masterminds of the butchery; a position that the modern Mormon church officially denies.

The film takes subtle but unmistakable pains to drive home it’s welcome – though hardly radical – message that religious fanaticism is a source of great evil, with a special emphasis on the eerie coincidence that the final gory swipe of the slaughter took place on September 11th: In addition to the subtitle highlight of the date (which elicited an audible gasp from the audience I watched it with) and plentiful closeups of the baddies solemnly reffering to Mormon founder Joseph Smith as “The Prophet,” a key flashback scene involving early Mormons destroying a critical newspaper’s press is “narrated” by a quotation in which Smith’s followers favorably compare him to Mohammed and the Koran. Allegory, much?

In fact, much of the raw power of the film (such as it is) comes from this somewhat uncomfortable source: We’re USED to seeing “alien” foriegn (or made-up) cultures as evil-incarnate bad guys for movies like this… but it’s downright jarring to see the model applied to a group of “all-American” looking frontier folk. For most U.S. audiences, seeing yet another dark-skinned, thick-accented heavy hiss “Allahu Akbar!!” through his teeth while hooking up the detonator on “24” barely elicits even a raised eyebrow. But this film, with it’s fair-haired psychopath’s solemnly chanting “all Mormons are avowed enemies of America” in Temple or howling “Do your duty to God!!!” while whipping a tomahawk at fleeing female settler, drives the point into infinitely more unsettling territory; driving home a condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism in ALL forms as opposed to individual faiths that alone makes the film a welcome inclusion in the long-overdue national discussion on the place of religion in politics and the modern world.

Some have sensed a dark motive at work in this allegory, and while I’ll agree it’s a go-for-the-jugular approach to contemporising the themes for the audience I’m not positive I see any concrete “bigotry” implicit here. And if it were, I suspect you’d find a rather even disagreement as to whether the film is attempting to smear Mormons with a comparison to Islam or to smear Islam with a comparison to Mormons. Let it be said, though, that casting Bad Guy extraordinaire Terrance Stamp (in full-on “Kneel Before Zod!!!!” mode) as a grave, ranting Brigham Young is just this side of pushing-it. Still, Stamp mainly appears as a framing device or transitional sequence base, while the main villian chores are left to Jon Voigt as the Bishop General who oversees the massacre even while his eldest son is secretly slipping off for chaste romantic rendevousz with a lovely “Gentile” settler girl. Three guesses on whether or not “that’s” gonna end happy. Jon Gries (“Napolean Dynamite’s” Uncle Rico) in a terrifically underplayed performance as massacre field-leader/scapegoat John D. Lees and Lolita Davidovitch as a lady gunslinger who’s “sinful” unisex clothing enrage the Mormons round out the cast.

All this setup and character work (including a welcome detailing of the earlier intolerance and expulsion that helped make the Mormons so distrustful of other Americans) settles the story into a leisurely (and, it must be said, overlong) first two acts carefully laying out the machinations that led to the tragedy and playing-out the obligatory love story with such deliberate pacing that it’s all the more wrenching when the actual massacre begins to unfold and the film takes-off (or descends, depending on your point of view) into unappologetic grab-the-audience-by-the-balls-and-twist-till-they-get-it exploitation territory. Whatever else it may be while getting there, the Massacre scenes themselves reveal “Dawn’s” true desire to be nothing less than the Pioneer Era “Schindler’s List.”

The film is staking it’s claim as THE dramatic rendering of this event, and the horrors play out as an endless montage of shot, beaten and slashed innocents with special attention to the targeting of women and children along with some of the Mormon raiders creepy decision to go into battle in garish “Indian” costumes. (One main character eventually looks like an escapee from Lord of The Flies, dual-wielding a knife/pistol combo and literally salivating with bloodlust.) It comes just up to “the line” of Mel Gibson-style sadism, (save that none of the Mormon baddies are set up to appear slightly effeminate or Jewish-looking beforehand, of course.)

“September Dawn” is a fascinating, flawed, occasionally grand and deeply troubling film that should absolutely be seen just for the sake of expanding the palette. “The Hollywood System” doesn’t put out movies like this, and the film serves double-duty at demonstrating both why that’s a shame and also why it’s not entirely unwise or unexpected. In the end, a flawed film that gets under your skin is usually more worthwhile than a “perfect” one that evaporates the moment it’s over. Reccomended.


P.S. The “other” story of the film is the now-lingering question of how any focus onto this dark part of the rather secretive Mormon sect’s history will effect, if at all, the presidential campaign of Republican and Mormon Mitt Romney. For the record, I think it would be a true shame if people opted not to vote for Romney because they saw this movie. I feel that people should come to dislike Mitt Romney the natural way: By having to listen to him for a few minutes 😉

REVIEW: Stardust (2007)

It’s based on a book by popular fantasist Neil Gaiman, but “Stardust” could’ve come straight from a pre-fab outlet in a crate marked “Instant Cult Classic.” It’s a loopy, silly, fairytale mini-epic spilling over with ideas that are finally too big for the movie that holds them, executed with an abundance of dry Python-esque satire that seems at least in part intended to make it’s core of ooey-gooey “dear diary” romanticism a bit easier to take for audiences who aren’t wistful young ladies from the Drama Club. Resembling the offspring of “Somewhere in Time” and “Buckaroo Banzai,” it’s an agreeable, enjoyably hard-to-categorize thing, and the parts that work will earn it devotees who’ll love it fiercely and turn the ignoring of the parts that don’t work into a kind of mental kung-fu.

As is the case with most Instant Cult Classics, the “plot” is elaborate and complicated, all the better to reward multiple viewings and detail-hunting: Young romantic Tristan, aiming to prove his love for the vain Victoria, sets off from their tiny village of Wall (the setting seems to be some point in 19th-Century England) to collect a recently-fallen star. This involves hopping over the stone wall seperating, er.. Wall from what the locals believe (but don’t seem all that amazed with) is an alternate-universe fairytale kingdom called Stormhold, who’s Lear-ish dying King has opted to settle the thus-far bloody succession quarrel among his sons by sending the remaining boys on a quest for a magical object – an act which is responsible for knocking the star from the sky in the first place. Stars, it turns out, have a human shape: This one is named Yvaine, looks like Claire Danes and has something of a sour disposition. Tristan and the wicked Prince aren’t the only ones seeking her, either: A trio of aging Witches are aiming to restore their youth and powers by devouring her heart, and have dispatched their leader Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) to fetch her.

So, what we’re ultimately presented with a point-A to point-B chase movie, set in an amusing little world of magic spells, fairytale staples and even the occasional unicorn – and if the prospect of seeing a live-action unicorn is already making you swoon, this is the movie for you. I can also add, treading lightly so as to avoid spoilers, that it offers up a bounty of grand sights and well-observed goofs at the expense of genre cliches: There’s some terrifically gruesome fun to be had with the absurdity of the three Witches’ entrail-based divinations, and it borrows an ever-welcome bit from “American Werewolf” involving the ever-expanding Greek Chorus of the ghosts of the fueding Princes. Best of all are a truly original final battle scene and the grand centerpiece: Robert DeNiro as the sky-pirate Captain Shakespeare, easily the best comedy turn for the actor in a long time.

For all that goodwill, unfortunately, no film that’s asking it’s audience to both laugh at the silliness of it’s own genre and still get swept up in it’s “I Wuv you thiiiiiiiiiis much!”-level romantic dizziness can fully overcome it’s more irksome issues: There are some distractingly cheesy special effects, an inappropriately bombastic score and an embarassingly-telegraphed surprise twist. Director Matthew Vaughn, as far away from his breakthrough territory in Ritchie-esque British gangster films as possible, puts in a worthy effort and manages to come up with a movie that’s a damn good time in spite of it’s own failings. When all is said and done, “Stardust” is too much fun to have much quarrell with.


REVIEW: Underdog (2007)

“Underdog” basically has three quaint, manageable target audiences with three sets of quaint, manageable “demands” in terms of enjoying it: Nostalgiac fans of the original 60s cartoon show, who’re mainly there to see whats been left and whats been lost in the adaptation; small children who are mainly there to see a flying beagle wearing a cape; and folks looking to see a funny, family-friendly new comedy who’ve already seen everything else. All three should find themselves entertained, though Group #3 may find themselves frequently restless once they realize that the stew is pretty thin outside of “Awww, he can fly!” and “Hey, that’s from the show!” In other words, while quite short of a classic, it’s probably the best movie you can make out of “Underdog” and still have it be ABOUT Underdog.

The cartoon, a General Mills funded cheapie superhero-spoof featured Shoeshine Boy, one of three inexplicably anthromorphic dogs (heroine Sweet Polly Purebred and gangster Riff-Raff being the other two) in an otherwise human world. When his city fell under attack by villians, most-often mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister, Shoeshine donned a Superman-inspired costume and dropped a power-granting Super Energy Pill to become the superhero Underdog, who spoke all of his dialogue in rhyme.

In the new film, Shoeshine (voice of Jason Lee) is a beagle pup who, after coming up short on his dream to become part of the police department’s elite squad of bomb sniffing dogs, finds himself abducted by egomaniacal scientist Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage.) Bar Sinister aims to use Shoeshine as fodder for the creation of genetically-engineered Super Dogs he can then sell to the (apparently canine-fixated) police force, but the pup escapes – causing an accident that blows Sinister up along with his lab… and leaves Shoeshine with ramped-up senses, the ability to speak to humans and a healthy assortment of standard-issue Super Powers. Adopted by the son of an ex-cop (Jim Belushi,) Shoeshine is encouraged to put his powers to good use: Fighting crime as the costumed hero Underdog. Unfortunately, Bar Sinister has survived as well, scarred and driven to (greater) madness by the accident and thirsting for city-wide revenge. Oldschool fans, take note: The rhymes are here, along with Polly’s “where oh where can my Underdog be?” and, surprisingly, even a variation on the Super Energy Pill (an element famously censored from 70s/80s reruns due to ludicrous complaints that it encouraged drug abuse.)

It’s a lightweight affair, as befits the material. The filmmakers are accutely aware that they have a winning central visual in the personage of a flying, cape-clad beagle going through the now-familiar beats of Superhero bad guy busting, and they’re content to go not much further than that’ll carry them. Imagine Richard Donner’s original “Superman” if Christopher Reeve was a beagle, and you’ve got the movie. It shows telltale signs of having been drastically cut for time, with too many plot points being advanced by Lee’s voiceover narration, but when it’s settled into The Stuff We Came For, i.e. the mandatory 2nd act crimefighting montage, the puppy-love spoof of “Superman’s” famous date-with-Lois sequence and the Final Battle with Simon, it’s piched EXACTLY where it needs to be. If you can’t smile at seeing a superhero-costumed beagle stop an out-of-control car – rear bumper clenched in it’s jaws, asphalt flying up in a wave as he digs in his heels – from hitting a busload of schoolkids, I don’t want to know what happened to make you so cold.

By far the most (okay, only) genuinely intriguing element of note is Dinklage’s turn as Simon Bar Sinister. Dinklage, a tremendously-talented character actor best known for “The Station Agent,” is a dwarf and, thus, so is Simon. However, were you to watch the film with you’re eyes closed the entire time the matter of the villian’s physical size would be entirely unknown to you: It never comes up. Not once. There are no short jokes, no physical gags or even broad references to Mr. Dinklage’s size, and the camera typically approaches him either on his own eye-level or from an intimidation-increasing low angle – never in a downshot that would accenuate his stature. No one in the film even brings it up, not even a single “oh, didn’t see you there” bit. He’s a straight-on mad scientist supervillian, and Dinklage seems to be enjoying playing a full-bore baddie; especially in his just-freakish-enough post-accident makeup which I can attest scared the SHIT out of the younger kids in the theater.

It’s a fun turn from an actor who, let’s face it, isn’t often presented with broad, showy material like this to work from; and it’s the first time I can remember seeing Dinklage or any other little-person actor in a role that didn’t seem to think the audience required a constant reminder of their size. “Underdog” isn’t exactly one for the ages, but it at least deserves it’s due credit in this regard. Well done.


REVIEW: Rescue Dawn

It has to mean something that the making of generally-positive, dare we say even “patriotic,” films about America and/or the American soldier that are actually GOOD MOVIES is an act that Americans seem to no longer be capable of. Understand, I’m not talking about the broken-record of “conservative” bleating about “the hate-America left” or “the eeeeeevil Gay/Jewish/Liberal Hollywood conspiracy.” I’m talking more generally about a disinterest or lack of “outside perspective” that at least SEEMS to be keeping U.S. filmmakers from any kind of net-positive examination of our admittedly quirky lil’ culture. And no, Michael Bay’s John-Philip-Sousza-Meets-Linkin-Park horeshit doesn’t count. Where is the modern cinema’s John Ford, able to celebrate (“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”) even as he scolded (“The Grapes of Wrath”)? Where is our Frank Capra to mine the affection by HIGHLIGHTING the faults? Where is Preston Sturges to see virtue among the absurdity?

As depressing as it is to consider, is it possible or even PROBABLE that we are now so profoundly divided as a people that we no longer have anywhere to meet in universal acclaim? After all, why make a film about everyday people who make it through determination and opportunity when you KNOW that “conservatives” will just accuse you of “class warfare?” And why highlight the unique courage of American soldiers when you know “liberals” will see ANY positive military story as “pro-Bush/Iraq propaganda?” Who’s got the time or gumption to risk that kind of B.S. just to tell a simple story?

The answer, as it turns out: Foriegners. Last year saw the best positive, uplifting “American dream” movie in almost decade in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” directed by an Italian on the suggestion of the film’s real-life inspiration that a foriegn filmmaker would understand the American Dream BETTER than most Americans. And now we have “Rescue Dawn,” easily the most genuinely-felt and, yes, essentially patriotic ode to the will-to-survive and “frontier spirit” of American self-mythology in general and American soldiers in particular in YEARS… directed by German film icon Werner Herzog.

A “just-the-exciting-parts” dramatization of a true story Herzog documented years ago as “Little Dieter Needs To Fly,” the film’s hero is Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) a German-born American pilot shot down during a secret bombing-raid over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam (not-yet) War. As a child in Nazi Germany, Dieter caught the eyes of an American bomber pilot straffing the countryside from his bedroom window and became hell-bent on taking to the skies himself. When offered freedom and comfort post-capture by the Viet Cong authorities in exchange for signing an anti-American propaganda letter, his response is to matter-of-factly refuse, sliding the page back and calmly explaining “I will not sign this. I love America, America gave me wings.” For this he earns a round of exceptionally nasty tortures, punishing marches an eventual internment in a hellish jungle prison camp – but neither these burdens nor the initial defeatedness of his fellow “inmates” seem to make a dent in Dengler’s (brave? naive? both?) optimism as he hatches a daring escaped targeted for, yes, the 4th of July.

And, really, that’s all there is to it. There’s no reach for irony, context or broader questions. It’s the simple story of a peculiar yet exceptional guy with the will to survive and the drive to actually pull it off. And while you’ll find no slow-motion group-strides in front of a billowing flag or magic-hour aerial high-fives, Herzog subtly but unmistakably draws a clear paralell between Dieter Dengler’s personality and the fact of his existance as what we once called the quintessential American: The optimistic immigrant with a surplus of spirit and guts. Once upon a time, this was the default-setting for “our” heroes, and as jarring as it is to see one played “straight” in a modern film it’s EQUALLY jarring to see him existing at all in, of all places, a Vietnam movie. Such a strange animal… a story-outline and a character that would’ve been ideal fodder for John Ford and John Wayne (or Capra and Jimmy Stewart, come to think of it) somehow time-displaced to the very war where such iconography was supposed to have ceased to be, concieved in the age of 9-11 and Iraq by a German director and a British star.

It’s not surprising at all that arthouse-icon Herzog would find a rather atypical (for a European filmmaker) affection for the U.S. His stock in trade, after-all, is a fascination with individuals posessed of “pioneer spirit” or it’s ugly flip-side, pig-headed self-destructive tunnel vision. What better oasis for such fascinations than the culture that gave the world both the Moon Landind AND Manifest Destiny? And it’s equally clear that Herzog, who makes his home Stateside, feels a certain kinship with fellow ex-pat countryman Dieter Dengler. The man himself said as much in an IFC interview about the film:

“We should be cautious, because there are an abundance of films that are anti-American or at least question American’s attitude in the world. Strangely enough, this is a film that praises the real qualities of America. In Dieter Dengler, you had the best you can find in America: courage, frontier spirit, loyalty, the joy of life. He’s the quintessential immigrant. He wanted to fly and America gave him wings. As you may know, I live in America, and it’s not for no reason. I like America, even though I see there’s trouble at the moment and turmoil. But in my opinion, America always has a kind of resilience and youthfulness to overcome all these things. Everyone is desperate about the situation right now and I keep saying, “Look back 50 years ago, how America overcame the McCarthy witchhunts.” There is something I like about America, it’s dear to my heart and I’m a guest in your country. It’s not that I don’t have some ambivalent feelings, but strangely enough, the film is against the trend.”Werner Herzog

Of more immediate import is that it’s also a damn, DAMN good little movie; a lean, mean, no-bullshit “POW escape” movie that merges Herzog’s unparalelled expertise in capturing the feel of man pitted against The Forest Primeval with Christian Bale’s fearless physical endurance-acting (alongside a pair of shockingly raw turns from Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) and the rat-tat-tat pace of an old-fashioned war picture. At once dreamlike and immediate, with moments of intruding-unreality as Dieter’s mental state threatens to come undone, it’s as though Herzog has located the central nexus of all other Vietnam films – if Dieter were, during his escape, bump into both Colonel Kurtz and John Rambo stalking side-by-side through the foliage, neither man would feel entirely out of place.

It’s difficult to accurately describe just how good Bale actually is as Dieter, making a flesh-and-blood human being AND an improbably resourceful Movie Hero out of a character who is either the bravest man alive or a lunatic – in a film that doesn’t seem to be interested in drawing a definative line between either option. Zahn, eternally-underrated and once-more the sidekick, has quite simply never been better – or in a better movie.

For decades now, Herzog has been one of the closely-protected cause-celebres of the most elite of the U.S. “arthouse” circles, but in the last few years he’s had a sudden break toward the American mainstream thanks to the nature-doc circuit’s embrace of his “Grizzly Man” and the Geek Culture’s celebration of his oddball docu-spoof “Incident At Loch Ness.” Yet even still, it’s genuinely surprising to see him offer up such a personal-feeling work that is ALSO more broadly-accessible than a lot of so-called “tentpole” blockbusters of the summer. It will likely find it’s audience on DVD, as did the similarly-underappreciated “The Great Raid,” and when it does it will find itself in the rare position of a film that both Tarantino-generation Movie Geeks and film-lovers old enough to have seen “The Cowboys” on the big screen can find equally meritous – even if they’ll soon be right back to arguing over whether or not the onscreen shooting-death of John Wayne was more or less traumatic than that of Optimus Prime.


Zombie Racism: Part 2

Figures. Something interesting finally breaks out in the comments section and I’m away for the weekend. Ah, well.

For those just joining us: Back on August 1st, I offered up a few thoughts on the mini-controversy that was then just breaking out over the first-look footage from the game “Resident Evil 5.” ( Featuring, as it does, a white lead character versus (seemingly) majority-black zombies and/or mutants in Africa (or possibly Haiti) a blogger over at “BlackLooks” pitched a fit, accusing the game and by-association it’s potential audience of racism. Said potential audience responded in (mostly) appropriate measures, and more-locally a pair of readers took to hashing some finer points out in my comments section.

Now home, I’m inspired to respond to the both of them, but said thoughts are (typically) running a bit long, so I think I’ll do it as this larger “sequel” post. For the sake of anonimity i.e. main-page vs. comments, any quotations used here will be attributed to “Reader A” and “Reader B” until I figure out (or Blogspot creates) a better way to do these things.

But first, to address one little thing: The word “racism” is being abused here, unsurprisingly considering it’s one of the most chronically mis-used words in modern English parlance, and I’m guilty of it as well for not addressing it sooner. Here’s the thing: In proper usage, words ending in “ist” or “ism” refer either to a belief or to a policy. In this case, “racism” refers to A.) a belief that the superiority/inferiority of an individual or group correlates chiefly to race or B.) a policy (institutional, personal or otherwise) correllating chiefly to race. See also: Sexism, Age-ism, etc.

Thusly, “racism” is technically a benign descriptive term which, correctly-applied, can refer to either “good” or “bad” people, things, etc. – while naturally admitting that in the modern world the “bad” options are MUCH more prevalent in this case. For example, “No Hispanics can live in this building” is, I think most of us can agree, BAD racism: A policy based on race which does bad. Please understand, this is NOT to say that I don’t “get” that “racist” has become a mostly-appropriate shorthand for bigotry. However, consider: The United Negro College Fund (UNICEF) is technically “racist” because it benefits one set of applicants and excludes others based on race. It does a tremendous amount of good, is designed to assuage a historical wrong, and so on. So, then, oughtn’t that be called a “good racist” organization/policy? And if not, what DO you call it? “Race-based?” Doesn’t work, since the same description would still technically apply to “bad racism:” After all, what are the KKK but a race-based organization? Just asking.

Long story short: Whether or not the game “Resident Evil 5” is “racist” is neither here nor there. There’s nothing inherently “racist” about a white character fending off zombies who, given the setting, are going to be primarily black, nor about the audience that will eventually play it. The issue is whether or not the game and some segment of it’s audience are BIGOTTED, an entirely seperate issue. Anyway, to the meat of the thing…

Reader A:
“Perhaps it is pre-emptive (although I’m curious as to how that applies exactly)”

Pre-emptive in the sense that the blogger in question has not played the game, nor seen anything from it other than the same trailer everyone else has. It’s a tiny fragment, and she’s already starting from a position of “this kinda resembles a rough idea of a historical ugliness” and jumping ALL THE WAY to “the makers of this game, the game itself and it’s players are bigots!” Is the potential there? Sure. If you turn on the game as Chris Redfield walks onto frame, recieves his mission and says “Africa? Alright, FINALLY the chance to blast all the black guys I want with impunity!!!” then yeah, we’ve got a problem. Until then, it’s pre-emptive.

Reader A:
“but considering your example of Blade as depicting equality cutting both ways, can you honestly say you’d have no problem with it if history and entertainment for hundreds of years promoted the image of black people perpetrating violence against horrific savage white people in the name of peace and justice?”

No film, no deluge of black heroes and no LACK of black villians can undo or even properly “make up for” the horrible history of bigotry that is a scar on Western civilization to this day. You’re not going to “fix” the legacy of European pillaging of Africa by loading-up on black action heroes, and you’re not going to “attone” for Slavery by calling no-no on black characters as villians. Dr. King didn’t dream of a world where the hero-to-villian role-ratio of his people had been retroactively “evened-out,” his dream was of a world where we were judged not by the color of our skin by the content of our character. The blogger flipping her lid over RE5 is doing to exact OPPOSITE of that. What’s the game about? Why is this guy the good guy? What’s going on? She apparently doesn’t care. She sees only race, digs no deeper, and that’s that. Do I “get” why she might be initially “piqued” by the trailer? Sure I do. But the incidental reminder of negative events doesn’t excuse or justify lazy analysis. Even of video-game trailers.

Reader B:
“1. The last entry in the series took place in ofay Europe where you gunned down countless Spaniards of the White variety.”


Now this, honestly, is where this whole thing starts to get a little murky. It’s also why that big linguistics spiel came first…

Speaking only for myself, I’d say that Capcom was “guilty” of employing a cultural stereotype in the creation of “Resident Evil 4.” Rural old-world European backwaters have been imagined as monster-central in horror fiction since, well… pretty much as long as there’s BEEN rural old-world European backwaters. In that respect, RE4 isn’t really doing anything that Stoker et al didn’t already do decades ago, the lone “innovation” being to use rural SPAIN (rather than the more common Teutonic settings) in order to, well… probably because Spanish supernatual goings-on allowed them to add more quasi-blasphemous Catholic iconography to the proceedings. So, did they exploit the “spooky to outsiders” aspects of a particular culture for shock effect? Yes, yes they did. Is that bad? Well, I suppose it’s less-than-righteous… but it’s the same principal at work in “Deliverance,” “Straw Dogs,” pretty much any “I’m out of my element” horror/thriller you can name… so better make sure you’ve got enough fingers before you decide to start pointing.

Is the same dynamic at play in #5? Sure seems to be. Poverty-stricken ghettos in Africa (or Haiti) are scary-ass places. You probably don’t want to be there. If fact, you’d probably be scared to hell if you found yourself there. Is it “wrong” for a zombie-blasting game to “use” this in order to craft it’s atmosphere? If it IS wrong, aren’t all the others wrong, too? This is the problem: When you get into the area of saying we should exempt certain people/groups from “demonization” in fiction, where does it stop? If zombies can’t be black because it’s “racist,” how long before NO ONE can be zombies? And then who will S.T.A.R.S. have to shoot at?

And what after that? Will Sonic be stopped from throttling Dr. Robotnik by Russian activists? Will turtle lovers rage against the Super Mario Bros.?

Zombie racism?

Shoulda seen this one coming….

First and foremost, you should see this clip. It’s the “trailer” for the video game “Resident Evil 5”, the fifth installment of the popular game series about rampaging zombies and the people who blast them. You do the blasting. Most of the time:

So, as you can see the “new hook” this time seems to be that the story takes place among the more poverty-ravaged parts of Africa (NOTE: the actual location MAY be Port au Prince, Haiti, not Africa,) and features as it’s star series-mainstay Chris Redfield, still wearing his police-style S.T.A.R.S. gear. The overriding aesthetic looks to be on the lines of “y’know how the poorest parts of Africa have constant issues with AIDS and other disease outbreaks? Well, what if it’s zombies instead!!” Or, to put it another way, players will take the role of a white, military-uniformed hero character in Africa who, at least in the trailer, will have to shoot his way through wave after wave of snarling, beastial, subhumanoid zombie hordes… who are predominantly black African villagers.

Gee… you don’t suppose anyone’s going to… well… jump to conclusions and have a friggin’ COW over this, do you? 😉

Sure enough, GamePolitics ( and best-gamer-blog-on-the-web Kotaku ( are both reporting on the blog BlackLooks ( where blogger Kym Platt did, in fact, have a cow… and the following to say about the trailer:

“This is problematic on so many levels, including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages, the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing, and the fact that this video game is marketed to children and young adults. Start them young… fearing, hating, and destroying Black people.”

*Sigh.* School-shootings, bullying, neighborhood violence, obesity… and now RACISM joins the club of “stuff getting blamed on video-games.” As you might imagine, the comments section over at BlackLooks got pretty heated once gamer-blogs picked up the story, though it’s worth noting that overall the level of discourse was (trust me) quite reasonable and intelligent for a political blog talkback, as gamers mainly took Platt to task for a lack of understanding of the series, conclusion-jumping and the unavoidable question of why she’s apparently not bothered by the mass-killing of ALL zombies in video games instead of just the black ones. Unfortunately, despite a (comparitively) low occurance of trolls a flames in the talkback, BlackLooks has (as of this writing) shut down the comments and, thus, the discussion.

For the record: While I “get” where Mrs. Platt is drawing her pre-emptive outrage from, it’s jumping the gun, plain and simple. Bottom line is, equality has to cut in multiple directions and NOT all of them positive if it’s going to mean anything. Saying that one race shouldn’t be placed in villianous roles is the well-meaning flip side of saying that it shouldn’t be in heroic roles, and you can’t invite one exclusion without letting the other in at the same time. While realizing that personal history DOES matter and perspective is important, if it’s ‘okay’ for the “Blade” films to feature Wesley Snipes’ black hero slicing through legions of predominantly white/European vampires, then it also has to be ‘okay’ for “Resident Evil 5” to have a caucasian hero versus predominantly black zombies. It’d be another story, in both cases, if there WAS a deliberate racial subtext to it… but there wasn’t in “Blade” and so far there doesn’t seem to be any here.