Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Madonna: Hard Candy

I’m a Madonna fan. I’m not entirely sure how this came about, and of course I realized this just before SWEPT AWAY and AMERICAN LIFE. Despite all the bad press I held on to an admiration to this woman, an artist with a strong voice, good songs, a unique sexual allure, and a way of coming out on the bright side of most controversies. Madge’s reputation recovered slightly with the superb CONFESSIONS ON A DANCE FLOOR, but between jokes about her age and the Kabbalah thing I gather she has to establish her mainstream credibility yet again (or just work harder to maintain it). And so we have HARD CANDY, a less fizzy, more spiky pop confection that actually marks Madonna’s last work for Warner Bros., though I’m not sure where she’s supposed to be going next. It’s an extensive collaboration with Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and about ten million producers, and Kanye West shows up at some point also. Despite the behind-the-scenes army involved here it’s still very much her show, and a tight, solid piece of work.

The big single from this that kicked up a lot of positive buzz was “4 Minutes”, featuring both Timberlake and Timbaland, but it’s the opening track, “Candy Shop”, that establishes the feel of the album. It’s got a driving, insistent beat, and lyrics that are actually more sexual than she’s been in the last few albums- I think there are bits of it that make “Justify My Love” look subtle. Like CONFESSIONS, this is a dance album- in fact I’m fairly sure I heard the phrase “dance floor” more times here than there. I think there’s one song that doesn’t mention it. A certain sameyness is risked, which isn’t necessarily bad, but at this early stage it’s harder to single out specific tracks. “She’s Not Me”, in which the singer faces the dilemma of her ex not only having a new lover but said lover having copied her style completely, stands out- it reminds me of Kirsty Maccoll’s “Treachery” for some reason, and it’s got a nice edge. It’s bookended by the more wistful “Miles Away” and the more upbeat “Incredible” (which does go on a bit, though it’s not bad.) I also liked “Dance 2Night” for its casual beat and egalitarean lyrics. The closest thing to a weak track here would be “Spanish Lesson”, if only because it’s a bit of a retread, but it’s fun in a way that recalls her early work, and not just “La Isla Bonita.” The last two tracks do mark a change of pace, being slower and more surreal- it’s a nice capper.

Madonna’s voice hasn’t lost any of its distinctiveness, and she uses the blunt texture of it to good effect. The rhythm is excellent, and the beat even borrows a bit of influence from modern R&B, blending that with the modern disco of CONFESSIONS and MUSIC. There are touches of 80s pop in there as well- overall it’s eclectic but surprisingly of a piece.

I think I don’t like this album quite as much as I did CONFESSIONS ON A DANCE FLOOR, but that may be a question of how my tastes run- it was more of a rich retro feast, this is more modern and sharp. And I have to point out that for better and worse this is mostly a first impressions review, but my impression is definitely positive. Okay, the cover design is kind of sloppy and I’m sure I have that font in Appleworks, but whatever. The point is, this is good music. Madonna may have to fight more these days to stay relevant, but when she’s up against the wall it seems to do her good. I’m glad she’s feeling punchy.

Grade: B+

Getcher Hard Candy here, or through the image above, or at the sidebar. Don't eat it all at once, though, y'hear?

Monday, April 28, 2008

In Theaters: The Forbidden Kingdom

Poster image from
There’s something refreshingly old-school about THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, a kung-fu adventure that, oddly, marks the first time Jackie Chan and Jet Li have shared the screen. It’s very much a tribute to the history of wire-fu extravaganzas, reaching back to the early days of the genre to produce a fun and colorful romp that’s a welcome change from the more glum martial arts epics that have become common in this decade. The ads have cunningly concealed what’s already a sore point among genre fans- namely, that the real protagonist is a white kid from New York- but this isn’t handled too badly, and even adds to the retro vibe. A kind of NEVERENDING STORY for Shaw Brothers fans, as it were.

The white kid in question is Jason (Michael Angarano, who was the lead in 2005’s SKY HIGH), a teenage kung-fu enthusiast who frequently browses a Chinatown pawn shop for the latest bootlegs. A local gang bullies him into helping them break into the shop after hours, and when the elderly shopkeeper is shot, he hands Jason an antique staff, telling him to return it to its rightful owner. Jason is chased by the hoods, falls off a building, and ends up in- well, Mythic China, the spirit-infested medieval world of so many kung fu films. Jason falls in with Lu Yan (Chan), a drunken master of kung fu who tells the boy that the staff belongs to the Monkey King, an immortal spirit imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who now rules the land with the proverbial iron fist. The staff must be returned to the King to free him and defeat the warlord, so Jason and Lu Yan, assisted by the beautiful and vengeful Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), head towards the titular kingdom, and the fortress where the petrified Monkey King waits. There’s one problem- Jason knows no actual kung fu, unlike the Jade Army and pretty much everyone else, and when Lu Yan starts to educate him, he’s the classic slow learner who doesn’t understand the point of all these meaningless repetitive exercises (one would think he’d remember such things from the films, but then maybe he fast forwarded through those parts.) The group is completed when a mysterious monk (Jet Li) shows up wanting to learn the secrets of the staff, and he and Lu Yan decide to teach Jason together.

From the opening credits, featuring a montage of poster images from 70s kung fu epics, you can tell this is a film made by people with a deep and abiding love of the genre. Granted, I’m not sure anybody else makes martial arts movies, or at least any worth remembering, but the level of self-awareness in this particular adventure adds to the appeal. We’re meant to have a little fun with all of this, and enjoy it as a reinforcement and reconstruction of the central tropes of these films. I think what makes a successful pastiche is both the inherent enthusiasm and an understanding of what makes the genre work- we get the good parts, with most of the cruft cut out. (The early training sequences, wherein the kid still resists the messages of discipline and control that Lu Yan is trying to impart, do go on a bit, though.)

The characters are simple but strongly defined- Chan is essentially doing his “drunken master” character, Li’s enigmatic monk will be familiar to his fans (his characterization seems a little odd but is eventually explained), Golden Sparrow is the one with the personal vendetta against the bad guy, and the kid is, well, the kid. Certainly, building the whole thing around a white wanna-be kung fu master isn’t going to make Edward Said happy, and the ad campaign for this film has been unfairly deceptive, but in the end Angarano plays the part well and makes his character’s journey interesting. His lessons are the kind of psuedo-Zen wisdom that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched these films, but is still good to hear. Kung fu is described as an art, something done through intuition and the development of a clear consciousness, something that can’t be overthought or forced. It was a nice reminder for me since good writing is done in much the same way (at least before editing.) The villain has a generic lust for power, but is appropriately fearsome.

The fantasy world of the film is a vivid one, replete with elixirs of immortality, giant temples leading to the top of the world, lush jungles, and vast deserts. The sets and costumes are nicely elaborate, and the special effects are fairly convincing. The actual kung fu action doesn’t have any particular standout stunts, but serves the story. The film’s never very serious, animated instead by the playful spirit of the Monkey King himself. Chan and Li are both in superb form, and their physical and verbal sparring is quite fun.

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM marked the first time I’d actually been to the movies in a while, and it’s the kind of spectacle you may as well see in a theater. Certainly you can afford to miss it, but it does what it does quite well, and left me with a pleasant feeling as I left. Consider it a kung-fu appetizer before the big summer movies start rolling out, and enjoy.

Written by John Fusco

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It Was Two Years Ago Today

So it’s been two years now since the Club officially opened, and the anniversary almost passed me by. What can I say, things have been busy this month, despite a lack of actual employment. Still, I try to keep up a respectable rate, and my audience, small as it is, has stayed more or less steady.

I have, as promised, inaugurated quite a few new features, and I may start looking at some more detailed tags soon. Don’t rule out even more types of review thingies. (I’m wondering if I shouldn’t put some fiction online, but I’d need to start another blog for that.) Meanwhile, the Amazon tie-in has finally paid off, technically- I think I’ve sold 3 products for a grand total of $1.30 in kickback. It’s nice not to be a total failure, but I obviously could work on that.

Never mind. After two years I still want to share opinions, and I plan to keep blogging at the same- well, okay, maybe slightly more than I have the past year. Watch this space, and thanks for reading.

The Bookshelf: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I’m a bibliophile and a sucker for anything resembling metafiction, so for me the hook of the Thursday Next series didn’t even need the line or the sinker. People entering books, and the characters within being living people with their own lives and routines- you really can’t miss. And though THE EYRE AFFAIR, Jasper Fforde’s first book in the series, has a lot of weird cruft around it and an inconsistent tone, it still manages to deliver; the premise, once fully explored, is ingenious, and is worth a lot of the oddness of the buildup.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is an alternate history novel, set in Great Britain around 1985, and just where things started diverging is hard to pin down. The Crimean War has been going off-and-on endlessly, while technology is several decades ahead- the government keeps tight tabs on time travel, and cloned dodos are popular pets. Thursday Next, a somewhat-cynical Crimea vet, works for the Literary Detectives division of Britain’s Special Operations Network, and starts out being put on the case of the theft of an original manuscript of Dickens’ MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. The prime suspect is Acheron Hades, master thief, assassin, smuggler, and all around baddie (and with a name like that, who can blame him?) and a disastrous attempt to nab him results in two agents dead and Thursday in hospital, her reputation in tatters. More importantly, though the incident leaves Hades apparently dead, Next receives a vision telling her that he is alive and still in possession of the manuscript. The reason the old book is so important is that Next’s uncle has invented a “prose portal” capable of bringing people into, and out of, a piece of writing, and if you happen to have the original manuscript of something you can effect a change in all copies of it. Hades knows about the portal, and intends to hold a beloved work of Victorian literature for ransom. People in this world take their books seriously enough for this to be a problem, and though Next is officially off the case, she’s not going to let that stop her.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is Fforde’s first published novel, and though it is not about the struggle of a young writer to get his first novel written, it has many other traits of a first book, chief among them a surplus of ideas. We have alternate history, high tech espionage, literary whimsy, grim drama, and the occasional bit of supernatural business all sharing the stage and crowding each other just a bit. It’s all a bit much, and suffers from a certain conceptual incoherence- genre-bending is all well and good but the main thrust of the book threatens to get lost. Indeed, it’s quite a long time before the actual title starts to mean anything.

My major problem with the book being as muddled as it is is that it ultimately means the tone bounces about a lot as well. The prose portal is a thing of whimsy and delight, but most of the book is written in this very stone-faced spy thriller mood, and though there is plenty of humor (most amusingly the treatment of anti-Stratfordian theorists as Jehova’s Witnesses) it doesn’t quite blend with Thursday Next’s bitter memories of the Crimean War and the way in which her brother’s reputation was shattered. Given her attitude it makes sense that a pall hangs over things, but then you have Next’s dealings with the all-powerful Goliath corporation and its frontman, who happens to be named Jack Schitt and who is your classic over-the-top corporate bastard straight out of a 90s action film. And somehow, in all this, we pay visits to a branch of SpecOps devoting to keeping tabs on vampires and werewolves, which does play into the plot at one point but in other scenes seems as random as the space alien interlude in MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN, only it’s not a joke.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is by any means bad. It’s well-written, though the impact of the first person narrative is diluted somewhat by a large number of cutaways. The character of Thursday Next is very well-drawn, and Fforde must be given credit for avoiding the obvious Mary Sue traps that this narrative throws in his path. Thursday is smart, brave, haunted by her past, etc., but all this is just low-key enough to work. All in all, I definitely kept going through the slower bits, and there’s a twist near the end which, though foreshadowed throughout, is a true corker.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is a bit of an odd beast, but it works as an action adventure story despite all the excess baggage. Fforde’s already made this into a series of at least four, with bestseller list appearances and critical blurbs out the wazoo, so obviously a lot of people liked this book even more than I did, but then, a solid hook and a good protagonist can excuse a number of sins. A good read, with qualification.

Grade: B-

Purchase THE EYRE AFFAIR by clicking on the image above, or check the "My Recommendations" sidebar to see if it's still up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Updates from the Whoniverse

Content would be nice, wouldn’t it? Got one part of a project done, you may hear more about that later. But now I’m free to talk about whatever, and there are a few things worth looking at over in one of my favorite fictional universes.

While the third season of DOCTOR WHO was heavily spoiled for almost everyone in the US by the time it finally struggled onto our screens, the Sci-Fi Channel is more on the ball this time and will start airing new-to-America material next Friday with the Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned.” The new season will follow, so that’ll be a gap of three to four weeks, far more acceptable.

Though the spunky and gorgeous Martha Jones departed far too quickly, I’m starting to come around to the idea of Catherine Tate’s Donna as the companion. In any case, we’re going to be spoiled for choice of assistants as this season wears on- not only will Martha return at some point, we will also get a return appearance by Rose Tyler, hopefully not as distraught as she was at the end of “Doomsday.” There are also going to be some classic baddies returning (I think the Daleks are guaranteed to show up at least once per year), and since this is technically the thirtieth full season of DOCTOR WHO, it should be a big fun celebration. I remain as optimistic as ever, though I’d hoped I’d be seeing this in Britain by now.

The Sci-Fi Channel has also seen fit to pick up THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, the “kiddie” spin-off of the show that airs on CBBC in Britain. I’ve enthused about the ability of Lis Sladen to carry a show earlier, but now that she’s got a program in which things actually happen she’s really starting to realize her potential. The pilot, which aired last Friday, was a tad bumpy, having to introduce the cast, write in a strange vat-grown child with the traits and knowledge of 10,000 or so people, and deal with the main plot of aliens trying to conquer the Earth through an organic energy drink. But there were some lovely moments, including an ethereal scene where Sarah interacts with a singing, angelic alien poet before sending her home among the stars. K-9 appears in a cameo, though an attempt to give him his own animated series has kept him off the show proper, which is a shame. Still, as odd as it is to see this airing on the same night as BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, it’s fun, with Sarah Jane still kicking ass and the child cast having quite a bit of potential as well. It’s the kind of show that makes me wish I had a young daughter to watch it with- Sarah’s an excellent role model.

And then there’s TORCHWOOD. BBC America may deserve some credit for us getting WHO quicker, because through heavy promotion and good scheduling they’ve managed to make this darker, “adult” WHO spin-off into the biggest thing on their channel, which led to them getting Season 2 within a few weeks of the Brits. That run finishes off next Saturday, and it’s an odd program, which compared to these others is saying something. There’s still a basic tension between the desire to be taken seriously (which usually leads to very dull episodes about existentialism and the like) and the desire to just be a more sexed-up and violent spin on WHO. Some genre shows are very good at being serious, but they don’t seem to have the hang of it here yet- a recent triad of episodes featuring Owen just seemed to rehash themes we’d gone over before, without much to offer people who don’t buy into the basic philosophy. However, despite not being the most assured drama on television, TORCHWOOD remains perversely entertaining, and I credit this to the characters, who range from genuinely sympathetic to so broken you have to enjoy them. Toshiko Sato, adorably and believably rendered by Naoko Mori (who is within one degree of Julia Sawalha, and so benefits from additional transferred cuteness), still is not used as much as she should, Gwen has become more sympathetic due to a decision to finally let Rhys in on the whole alien hunting thing (which led to a brilliant wedding episode), Ianto remains whatever the heck he is, Owen’s become a bit less fun as of late but has his moments, and Jack still holds everything together as best he can. It’s still got a hold on me.

I still remember when it was a matter of considerable doubt whether DOCTOR WHO would ever be made again, so to not just have it back but to have two variations on it airing alongside is more than one could have hoped for.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Pulp Fiction

Okay, after that I owe all of you a REAL opening credits sequence (and possibly money), so while I'm working on a couple of things, have a look at the brilliant opening titles to PULP FICTION:

So simple, yet so ostentatious- here the music's the thing, with Miserlou's ferocious surf riff telling us that things can only get wilder after the opening. Of course, the great title design helps- the way the title itself is used, almost filling the screen, implies a largeness to the entire project. This may be a low-budget film, but it's going to be a bit epic as well. And then, of course, we change stations, throwing us a bit off and transitioning into the next scene, without losing any energy.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Star Godzilla

This one is interesting, as it's the credits to a film I haven't been able to see. STAR GODZILLA was an unauthorized entry in the franchise made by a Hong Kong studio in 1980, and was quickly buried by Toho. The good folks over at Stomp Tokyo were able to provide a review, but now someone has finally gone and unearthed the opening sequence to this low-budget obscurity. Even though the actual credits are of course in Mandarin, the glowing backgrounds and haunting music hint at a very heavily stylized picture in the vein of GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER, and there's a remarkable sense of tension from the outset. Enjoy.

The owner of the video disabled embedding, so click here.

I'm so sorry.