High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Fury Fur: Balls of Fury, Reviewed

So this week, M and I are celebrating the 11th anniversary of our meeting. And I do mean "this week." Monday we hit Fried Chicken Mondays at West Town Tavern (our umami dinner was canceled and has been rescheduled for October), then we had the Magic Cabaret on Tuesday. Thursday was actually "the day," and in honor of our B-Movie-themed origins we went to see a movie rife with B-movie promise.
And, of course, a chewy cowbell center.

We were prepared to be pretty content if it turned out that all the good bits had been revealed in the trailer. It was, after all, a really good trailer. As is frequently the case with such low expectations, they were exceeded.

As parody movies go, I'd place Balls of Fury (which the marquee and the ticket kiosk unfortunately abbreviated to Balls of Fur, to our 12-year-old amusement) much nearer the funnier-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Hot Shots than the so-appallingly-bad-there-is-no-excuse-for-the-continued-metabolism-of-anyone-connected-with-it Epic Movie. Much of the reason for that is attributable to the writers, director, and actors having some concept of how much is too much.

There are schticky sight gags, yes, but they're not every 90 seconds. There are absurd interruptions of Big Dramatic Moments, but there are also Big Dramatic Moments that are allowed to be absurd in and of themselves because everyone is taking them seriously. There's precious little gratuitous filth or gross-out humor (not that I have any objection to either, per se, but when 90 minutes of them is more than a bit much). And it even manages to be mildly daring in turning some of the tropes of the genre (both the "regular guy goes undercover on a deadly important mission" genre itself and parody as a genre) on their head. For example, the "pleasure courtesans" are all male doofuses, headed by the King Doofus Diedrich Bader, and he and the main character drink beer and play Boggle all night. But the most important element may be that it's a funny movie with an actual plot and it moves pretty briskly from point A to B and so on.

The cast is, without exception, just right. I'm not even going to say anything about Walken. He's like a plate of hash brownies all on his own for giving the giggles. The wardrobe is hysterical, most of his dialogue is hysterical, and thus, he is pretty hysterical. As the ZK put it, there is a little too much dependence on his being inherently funny, but you can ride that pony a long way.

Maggie Q and George Lopez, both without a lot to work with, hit all the right notes as the love interest and the FBI agent who gets the main character into the mess, respectively. Thomas Lennon is almost unrecognizable as the German mega-opponent, and every time I think about him—especially when I also think about him being Dangle from Reno 911—I laugh and laugh and laugh. Also pegging the hilarity meter is the retroactive knowledge that the guy who gets chopsticks up his nose is, in fact, Jason Scott Lee (that would be funny to you, too, if I could find a picture of the character on linem, and it's funnier still if you lived through the live-action Jungle Book and Rapa Nui on a bus ride in Peru, but I suspect you're going to have to trust me on that).

James Hong can do no wrong whatsoever (seriously, are you going to fuck with Lo Pan? Didn't think so.), but I do wish that less of the burden of stereotype and the comparatively (within the confines of the genre) minor amounts of homophobia weren't directed his way. And Patton Oswalt? Good lord, did he make me laugh and laugh with about 12 words of dialogue. I just wish there'd been more of him. Although if there had been, I might have hurt myself internally.

But the best for last: Dan Folger where have you been all my life? What a great, low-key actor. Funny as hell without any of the spastic, smarmy, asshole mugging of so many of the "big" comic actors. And damn if he didn't pull off the genuine, suave, heart pitter-pattering Bond-like hero moments when he's being "such a dick" to keep Maggie from sacrificing herself for him.

And all this silly goodness is topped with Def Leppard and loving 80s homage. It's all very, very stupid, and I was laughing like Muttley for no good reason all the way through the credits.

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Nothing Up My Sleeve, for I Am SLEEVELESS: The Magic Cabaret

Back in the spring, I saw ads for the Magic Cabaret and there was much rejoicing. And then I used my mysterious powers of reading comprehension to determine that its run was both short and exclusively on Tuesdays, putting it out of the reach of Telecommuniculturey. KAAAAHHHNN! But soft! What light over at the Frankenstein place breaks?

THEN, it was tremendously popular and got an extended run, but remained on Tuesdays. The toying with me was only moderate, though, as the extension included some Tuesdays in the interim between OTSFM sessions. M got on the stick and got us some tickets for this week.

The show runs in the upstairs theater at the Biograph Theater, which now belongs to Victory Gardens Theater. I haven't been there since it was a movie theater (in fact, I believe I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut there).

The renovation of the interior is impressive. The lobby is a nice, welcoming space. I didn't get to see the mainstage, (but I will! More on that later). The upstairs theater, where the MC takes place, is a little problematic. It's not one of those long, narrow dog-run-type spaces that a lot of theaters find themselves having to make do with, but it is longer north to south than it is wide east to west.

The west wall is a brick face with newly installed windows (but from some flaws in the brick, I think these are built into spaces that have always housed windows). It's a weird, mismatched arrangement of windows looking out over the marquee and awning of the theater on to Lincoln Avenue. Fortunately, they seem to be have been installed with sound proofing in mind, but there are still issues with light coming in.

For the Magic Cabaret, a small, low stage (about 6' x 5' and maybe 18" high) is set near the west wall against a burgundy drape hung between the banks of windows. The house comprises about 30 seats set in three clusters of two rows each. Behind the audience and opposite the stage is a tall (and I assume movable) stage or thrust that was probably even smaller than the stage used in the show. On the north and south walls there are somewhat wing spaces built in with floor-to-ceiling walls.

For the artistic purposes of the Cabaret, the size of the space and house are a feature, not a bug. As numerous reviewers have noted, the "parlor magic" flavor has a lot to recommend it over glitz, tigers, and making the statue of liberty disappear(shame on him!).

The main drawback to the space is, unfortunately, the acoustics. The brick and relatively high ceilings make for a lot of echoing, and much of the show is subtle and sound-dependent enough that this does interfere. And, of course, many of the easier solutions (more sound draping, more sound-dampening carpets [they already have two, one on the stage and one immediately in front of it]) could easily look like attempts to conceal the tricks of the trade.

The sound may have been an even bigger problem in the specific performance we saw, which, I believe, was unusual. P. T. Murphy, one of the two main performers and founder of the show, did not appear at all, except in a photograph (which kept making me laugh and laugh) and, near the end of the show, via cell phone.

David Parr, the other half of the founding duo, shared most of Act I with special guest Benjamin Barnes (woo! South Side, represent!), which was embedded in the set-up for Act II, which dealt with Murphy's absence. Per the oath I took, I won't dwell on the specifics of either performer's illusions, but certainly they put proof to their own theme: The oldest tricks get their magic not from the mechanics of the illusion, but from the style and personality of the performer.

I, of course, don't know how Murphy and Parr usually work together, but Parr and Barnes took on a loose "good cop-bad cop" framework, with Parr leaning toward the geeked out "believer" persona and Barnes ably playing the wink-and-nod skeptic. There were some rough spots in the scripted dialogue, but I'm more than willing to give them a pass on the grounds that (a) they're not exactly trying to pull off Shakespeare here and (b) whatever unusual circumstances might've benched Murphy for the evening, they probably didn't have a lot of time either to craft the story line or to rehearse it. And, in general, both guys are charming in very different ways and very, very good at what they do. Moreover, the parts of the show that seemed to be more standard have a fair amount of history of magic and highlight Chicago's place in that history. And if you think that didn't appeal to me, you seriously underestimate my nerditude.

The other super-special guest was Arthur Trace, who did about a 10-minute set solo in Act I. Without at all wishing to play favorites or sound as if Barnes and Parr compare unfavorably, Trace rather knocked our socks off. We feel fortunate to have caught his last show. To fully disclose all possible points of bias, I got picked to participate in a trick of his (I think probably because it was hot as hell on Tuesday an I was wearing a spaghetti-strapped top and and outfit that otherwise pretty obviously had no pockets), I won't reveal any of the specifics (I, like, took an oath, man!), but I have no idea at all how it was done and I'm still feeling a bit like a giddy kid about that.

In fact, I'm feeling like a giddy kid about the whole thing. As I've written rather ad nauseum over the last few months, I've lately been fascinated with magical performance and art derivative of it. (Feel fortunate that I have never completed the entry on my triumph as a cold tarot reader, because it keeps coming out damnably personal and painful.)

One of the most striking experiences of the evening came not during the show, but at intermission. The audience, quite naturally, seems to have had a fair number of folks who were interested in the mechanics of the performance, what was scripted, what was a real glitch, and so on. There were many more authoritative voices on this subject at intermission than there could be authorities in the audience.

I was not one of them. No way, man. I've read a moderate amount on those mechanics, and in the abstract, I am interested in them, particularly those that require interaction with the audience: How do you force a card? How do you deal with someone who "overhelps" in a trick? With someone who's too rigid? (I can neither confirm nor deny into what category I fall.) But in the specific case of the show, it was such a pleasure to be fooled and baffled and delighted.

Early on in the evening, I viewed their stage manager with envy, thinking I'd kill for that gig. I think it's obvious from my blatherings that, in general, my theater-going experiences are enhanced by having been a theater-doing being in the past (despite my inner stage manager weeping at the UNNECESSARY DANGER AND TROUBLE THAT DIRECTORS REGULARLY COURT!). But in this case, I feel like I could enjoy myself over and over again in seeing this show. I'm not saying that knowing would reduce my enjoyment. But it was a delightful recapture of that childlike feeling not to know.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Burning Ring of Jell-O: War, Reviewed

So in honor of War,we've had to revise our preexisting Statham Operating Procedure (1) because L no longer lives within easy joint-movie-viewing distance and (2) because War is a super-duper special case, having not only Jason Statham, but the snuggleably deadly Jet Li. I sincerely hope that L was able to carry through on his diabolical plot to tempt his brother-in-law out to the movies on the grounds that it is his (the b-i-l's) last weekend of freedom before he returns to the level of hell known as law school. We took in an early evening showing after a late lunch featuring very stoned service and, possibly, a behind-the-scenes waitress fight.

I am relieved to report that War does not make the mistakes of Crank. Well, ok, it has some of the overcaffeinated short-attention-span camera work and editing of Crank, but in all fairness, Crank made so many mistakes it would be almost impossible not to overlap with it at some point.

Otherwise, the plot is pretty standard issue: Crawford (Statham) is an FBI agent heading a special "Pesky Asian Gangsters" Unit in San Francisco. In the foreplay opening scenes, Crawford and his partner Tom (Terry Chen, who must have been bitter about drawing the Token Ethnic Partner role in a movie about Asian gangsters) are embroiled in the climax of a case that has gone banana shaped because "someone close to us" has obviously tipped off the gangsters. Crawford has sustained one gunshot wound to the arm, and it's about to get a much more fatal friend when Tom manages to shoot the shooter in the face and save the day. Crawford is unflatteringly disbelieving that his plucky sidekick could possibly have killed "Rogue" (relax, youngsters, Anna Paquin, so far as I know, is safe), the (possibly literally) legendary yakuza enforcer.

But the yakuza seem to have taken the sidekick seriously enough to kill his wife and daughter in front of him, shoot him in the face, and burn his house to the ground. Crawford, being a movie cop, is a little peeved by this turn of events and manages to alienate his wife and son tracking down information about Rogue. We rejoin his train wreck, already in progress, when Rogue, to everyone's surprise prematurely ends an Asian vice montage by blowing up a bunch of yakuzas (using a dog-delivered bomb, and I am still pissed about that plot device, which occurs smack in the middle of the usual exploitative misogyny, and no I'm not interested in reexamining my priorities this week).

Rogue, it seems, has resurfaced only to switch sides: He's now working for the Triads. Ok, I'm big enough to admit that I was prepared to do a calendar check to be sure that it wasn't 1944, when an Asian was an Asian was an Asian and I shouldn't worry my pretty little head about why a Chinese guy was a Yakuza enforcer, but then the light bulb went on: Oh! Competing Asian gangs! In my defense, the script did not suffer from an excess of clarity.

And just when I'd gotten my Chinese and Japanese gangsters sorted out, Rogue morphed into a true chaos player. In the midst of car chases, tea parties, turf wars conducted on motorcycles in San Francisco's famous cement drainage pipe forest, ever stylishly clad, Rogue sets the yakuzas on the triads and vice versa. Crawford's Token Ethnic Partner v2.0 (Michael St. Patrick, whom you might know from Six Feet Under; I, of course, know him from All My Chidren) gets caught in the crossfire (so many of these senseless deaths could be avoided if people in the movies went to the movies once in a while).

But wait! I'm maligning all the characters, when it's clear that the Japanese boss has, at least, seen Kill Bill. He orders Rogue not only to kill the leader of the Triads but to bring him the head of Catalina and her preternaturally cute child. Rogue is not best pleased with this charge, so he fully pops the top off his can of whoopass and . . .

Oh, really, who shows up to these things for the plot? There's a face turn. And a heel turn (and frankly, the heel turn was tipped to me, at least, when an innocent 1969 Chevelle Supersport was pointlessly and without proper mourning smashed into another car). And some things that are a little from column A, a little from column B, and quite frankly, confusing and unsatisfying. But these points are late in the game and embedded in the, by this time, much-anticipated hot Statham-on-Li action. So, really, who cares?

So, yeah, War is pretty much a standard-issue cop movie couched within an Asian gangster movie. If they were doing a made-to-order War, I'd have requested:

  • Jet Li earlier and Jet Li oftener, but I must acknowledge that, while shorting me on the Jet Li front, War did give us totally suave Jet Li hotness. Seriously, the suits from the Mr. Rourke collection (McDowell vintage, natch) really really work for Jet.
  • Fewer gun battles, more ass-kicking.
  • More ass-kicking in the clear for the better observation of ass-kicking. For research purposes, I assure you.
  • Some acknowledgment of the folly of bringing a katana to a gun fight.
  • Blanket replacement of gun fights with katana and/or ass kicking contingent on my promise to ask no questions regarding why 21st century gangsters are conducting their business without recourse to firearms, cannabis, or government hand outs.
  • More Jet Li driving futuristic Japanese concept cars. (Seriously? I could not give a shit less about cars, but Jet Li cheerfully slap shifting was surprisingly hot.)

Statham and Li will always have my ass in a seat as soon as possible, but the supporting cast is pretty great in War, too. I'm afraid that Nadine Velasquez (AND HER CLEAVAGE) are too firmly (See? Cleavage!) Catalina in my mind for me to take her seriously as anything else, but with very little more than stock trophy wife lines, she managed to play a marginally different character. Devon Aoki was appropriately creepy and had a fabulously tailored pinstripe suit, plus I'm happy to see anyone escape from the vomitous clutches of Sin City. I just love Luis Guzman. He cracks my shit up. And everyone in the casts of thousands holds up pretty well, from the asio-trash kid brother to the loyal-but-seriously-annoyed older brother. And, of course, half a dozen Stargate alums (Vancouver IS the new San Francisco, sez M).

Diagnosis: Good, bloody, violent fun.

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