From the archives: April 2004

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Kiwanis, the bringer of harmony

Tuesday, 20 April 2004 — 11:09pm | Classical, Music

I think I slap this label on a lot of things, each in their own mutually exclusive localized contexts, but as the song goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

This evening I went to see the Gala Opening of the 96th Edmonton Kiwanis Music Festival on the steps of City Hall. While my own Kiwanis roots are strictly in assorted piano classes in the Calgary equivalent, which took place in March, the same principle applies – the principle here being, go support young musicians and watch some performances in the competition. I guarantee that you will find at least one, if not many instances where you can say, “Wow, I wish I could do that as a kid.”

Tonight’s concert, at which the Lieutenant-Governor Lois Hole was in attendance, featured everything from the Gartner family, a father-and-three-sons accordion quartet, to seven-year-old piano prodigy Harris Wang, who appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last year. It also featured my former high school classmate Christine Eggert, who performed Liszt’s Concert Etude No. 3 in D-flat (“Un sospiro”). Now I finally have the grounds to affirm to people that yes, she’s a phenomenal musician.

Unfortunately, I leave town before the Musical Theatre Competition at Muttart Hall (Grant McEwan College) on Sunday, but somebody out there attend for me by proxy. The festival proper runs from tomorrow to May 5th, and performances take place at Alberta College, McDougall Church and the Cosmopolitan Music Society Hall.

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Smoke me a Kiprusoff…

Monday, 19 April 2004 — 11:15pm | Hockey

I’ll be back for breakfast – that is, when the Calgary Flames feast on a plate of Wings.

The last time Calgary made it past the first round, the Berlin Wall was standing, cell phones were novelty items the size of bricks, and I held a British passport.

The rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs have a lot to live up to, because this series has had every form of high drama conceivable in a sport – a 4-0 sweep, a near-comeback against a four-goal deficit resulting in three overtimes, and a Game 7 sudden-death fight to the finish after a third-period goal with five seconds on the clock – but with my hometown team coming out on top. That was fun.

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Five-Chapter Film Exploding Heart Technique

Saturday, 17 April 2004 — 8:43pm | Film, Full reviews

Yesterday I wrote a reasonably thorough dissection of a problematic revenge-themed action flick more verbose than said movie deserved. In stark contrast, words are not enough to praise the concluding five chapters of the already-bisected Kill Bill.

When a movie delivers a forties-style rear projection driving scene, a Samuel L. Jackson cameo and an Ennio Morricone cue from the Man With No Name Trilogy in the first five minutes, you know it’s going to be good. What you don’t know, at this point, is that Vol. 2 is in same ways a world away from Vol. 1. This is not to say that the two parts do not cohere; they do, and quite brilliantly so, once the chapter structure falls into place and the jigsaw that is the Bride stands complete. But Vol. 2 has nothing akin to the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, no visceral lessons on the many ways to dismember the human anatomy with an example a second; by my count, the body count remains in the single digits. For those of you keeping track, that’s a whole two digits less than Chapters 1 to 5, never mind how it’s stated at one point that there aren’t actually eighty-eight Crazy 88s.

Instead, the second half of Kill Bill is progressively more literary in its writing. This is not in any way a cakewalk like Uma Thurman’s Bride – whose name is finally revealed – fighting her way up to and killing her remaining victims, Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (finally revealed onscreen as David Carradine). After plunging headfirst into Japanese cinema in the O-Ren chapters of Vol. 1, now we have a return to America’s Wild West, and even an all-too-brief stop in China. As with the first half, Tarantino treats his material with precise visual acuity true to the visual flair of his influences. By the end of it all, Kill Bill is like a film studies course in a box, taking the techniques of the great filmmaking dynasties from around the world and putting them in one four-hour package; all it’s missing is a Bollywood musical number on the streets of Delhi.

I cannot say enough about the China sequence – Chapter 8, “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei”. It stands as a towering tribute to classic Hong Kong cinema, with the same zoom-in, zoom-out photography and the beard-stroking of the legendary White-Eyebrowed Monk, Pai Mei – here portrayed by Gordon Liu, who also played Crazy 88s leader Johnny Mo in the first part. His scenes miss nothing. One of my recurring gripes about American films with brief forays in Hong Kong or China is the careless indifference to the gulf of separation between the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects, often resulting in inconsistent banter where you would see alternation between the two in the same conversation, banking on the fact that the audience won’t notice. Tarantino knows better; he even goes out of his way to mock this from the beginning – as an aside, with Pai Mei reminding this reviewer that he still understands Cantonese in the context of martial arts movies. In this chapter in particular, we see a display of something Tarantino executes remarkably well: a balanced juxtaposition of scenes goofy and serious.

Budd and Elle Driver are valuable additions to the Tarantino canon, and complement well the half of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad we have already seen. Budd, like Vernita Green, left his past behind to start anew, only he is anything but well-adjusted to being a Texas bar bouncer who lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. In seeing his wreck of a life, one observes an important parallel with what is revealed about the Bride’s own path in life. Elle, on the other hand, followed O-Ren’s path in that she never gave up being a Deadly Viper, and she is every bit the same assassin as in her brief appearance in Chapter 2: someone who wears an eyepatch, carries a cell phone, is never content with settling with second place, and resorts to the most vile techniques to express her dissatisfaction. In many ways, she is perhaps the most villainous character in the saga.

Kill Bill is one film, with its separation in two an afterthought of release strategy, and it never lets the audience forget that. Neither part stands alone, and the most impressive thing about the work is just how well the two parts fit together. The second part, however, distinguishes itself right off the bat; no longer is the Bride’s name concealed by a censoring beep, and no longer is Bill a faceless entity. Both of them drop their anonymity over the course of Vol. 2 and blossom to completion as two of the deepest original characters in recent cinema. What we see most of in this movie are revelations of motive through character interaction in a way that takes the chaos of the “roaring rampage of revenge” and sets it in order.

But when it comes to motive, most revenge films – even the good ones – stop right there. Kill Bill goes beyond. It dares to pose the question of why the perpetrator and counter-perpetrating victim resort to violence, and what it is in the nature of these individuals, or human nature itself, that drives them to commit their actions. The film realizes that as far as full-on action spectacles go, it already reached an asymptotal limit at the House of Blue Leaves in Chapter 5, and takes a different developmental path that favours depth over death. As it works its way towards a grand finale that may not be a spectacular boss battle, but is anything but anti-climactic, it shows a progressive level of maturity. To boot, this maturity never precludes it from being outright fun.

Does Kill Bill, Vol. 2 have flaws? On a trivial, “nobody’s perfect” level, arguably. An encounter with a Mexican pimp (Michael Parks) near the end comes a little late, and could be construed as an aberrant drop in the pace. With the amount of screen time devoted to Budd and Elle in this volume and O-Ren in the first, of the Deadly Vipers, Vernita Green is shafted in terms of development – though some balance is restored given that her brief appearance in Chapter 1 has a symbolic value that is made ever more evident in the second half, when we find out more about the Bride herself. As far as Budd goes, a lot of his fractured relationship with his brother Bill is left ambiguous, but the tensions there make enough sense to avoid being too unsatisfying. By itself, Vol. 2 seems as light on action as the first seemed light on Tarantino’s trademark soliloquies, but again, the two have to be regarded as a unified product.

These reservations can be put aside in the face of what Quentin Tarantino has achieved with his project, an attempt to create the ultimate cult film, and one that could be dubbed successful. Kill Bill, when considered in its entirety, is the quintessential movie for people who love movies.

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Vol. 2 Kills The Punisher

Friday, 16 April 2004 — 8:11pm | Comics, Film, Full reviews

I know, I know. I still haven’t written up my detailed analyses of how The Passion of the Christ can or cannot be approached objectively, the gall of bathing Omar Sharif in the two hours of mediocrity that is Hidalgo, and a valiant attempt at deciphering the villain-side plot of the otherwise entertaining Hellboy – but a man’s got to have priorities.

Step up to the witness stand, Jonathan Hensleigh: you have to answer for The Punisher.

Let’s get this out of the way, first of all: The Punisher is not the sudden and untimely demise of Marvel’s cinematic renaissance, nor is it the coming of the apocalypse with respect to comics on film, as a lot of websites out there would have you believe. It has some pretty bad moments, but by no means are they, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bad. Unlike that particular “movie”, I will not be making fun of The Punisher in every subsequent weblog entry I write concerning comic book adaptations. It has some very serious problems, but is not without merit.

In the spirit of being critical, let us first examine the problems.

The biggest issue with The Punisher is tonal inconsistency. To frame it more comprehensibly, it is in all likelihood impossible for anyone to enjoy the entire movie, given how certain sections of the film are diametrically opposed in their ideological approach. The first act of the film, which sets up the revenge tragedy with the obligatory family-killing that happens in every piece of this sort, does everything in its power to avoid being a comic book. The destruction of Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), played straight-up, comprises some of the work’s most brutal and genuine moments of high tension. There is some good filmmaking going on for a few patches here, completely removed from the costumed heroics of the Marvel Universe.

Within minutes, we are suddenly an intederminate period of time ahead of ourselves, when Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France suddenly decided to fast-forward and reveal that like this here reviewer, yes indeed, they have read a Punisher comic – specifically, the Marvel Knights Punisher #1: Welcome Back, Frank by Garth Ennis, complete with Castle’s new neighbours Joan the Mouse (a very miscast Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette). Without interruption, at this point the hitherto decidedly un-comical film places itself in the midst of three individuals straight from a two-dimensional arrangement of inked and coloured panels – which, incidentally, are the three most human characters in the whole 123-minute sittting. That should not be mistaken for saying much. The worst is when The Punisher exists in a void where it is unsure of whether it should be comic-like or not, and softens itself up to ostensibly be less offensive; for instance, there is no “death by Bumpo” in sight. That’s a minor adaptation complaint that this here author is unqualified to make, but the inconsistent waffling is more than fair game.

Then there’s the matter of story construction, which is, for lack of a better descriptor, illogical. Without spoiling too many of the details, here’s how it goes: Castle makes his intentions of vengeance known to chief villain Howard Saint (John Travolta) via standing around, throwing money out a window and mouthing off to the cops. This results in a death toll of roundabout two. Before you know it, Saint is in a rage about Castle ruining his life and immediately sends out heavy-hitters such as a guitarist who fails to be sufficiently ominous and a hulkster known as “The Russian” (Kevin Nash) – the latter straight from Ennis, minus the superhero obsession and the “suffocating” demise. Then after a lot of sneaking around and double-crossing not really characteristic of an angry guy with a white skull on his shirt out for blood, Castle starts gunning down trivial henchmen in nontrivial quantities.

There is a problem here. The proper order for a back-from-the-dead revenge story is: raise a lot of hell to make yourself known, then reap the hard-earned ire of the chief villain, then start fighting the minibosses and getting really nasty. It’s called a “linear progression”. Case studies: Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator fighting, nay, earning his way up to the bout with Tigris of Gaul. Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition having a properly ominous miniboss meeting with Jude Law’s crooked photographer. The Bride slicing her way through the Crazy 88s at the House of Blue Leaves before taking on O-Ren Ishii – but let’s save the Kill Bill discussion for later, shall we.

So we are left with a weak and inconsequential villain whose closest associates dress like the Men in Black, but act like they have no idea they are in a comic book adaptation. You can’t have it both ways, folks. We have a story that suffers from what is quickly becoming something that can be termed “Marvel Syndrome” – a severe imbalance between the origin story and the pilot-episode story, and with an unclear dividing line between the two, to boot. By having no secrecy of identity in place, a lot of conventional assertions about the hero mystique fall flat.

But I think I’ve punished this movie enough; time to look at its better aspects. Thomas Jane is a well-cast Frank Castle. He plays the role with the composure of a broken man and the voice to match his ruthlessness. As was mentioned earlier, the first act of the movie has some terrifying moments; there is a very real sense of fear for the lives of doomed characters in the critical scenes where they meet their ends. One would think that of all the overdone revenge-flick conventions, the inciting incident that triggers everything – particularly when it involves the deaths of a wife and child – would be the most stale. Here, the opposite is true. While Joan, Dave and Bumpo seem very out of place in the context of much of the rest of the movie, the interaction between the three and their relationship to Castle are an enthralling dynamic to observe.

The end product: a wishy-washy adaptation of an already trashy comic that intermittently tries not to be so trashy, and instead ends up without a clear sense of identity. It is far from disastrous, but considering its position at the nexus of several subgenres that have been done far better, The Punisher has nothing new to add.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a different story.

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A Pirate’s life for me

Wednesday, 14 April 2004 — 11:20am

I have yet to compile a definitive list of Nick’s Greatest Examination Moments, but discussing the 1999 TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley in the short-answer section of the History of Technology final is up there with the best of them. Pity it was only worth 6%.

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