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by Gregg Lipkin

6 Nov 2009

“Anger is a gift.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Freedom”

Anger was a pretty standard component of popular music by 1992.  Grunge and gangsta rap had a stranglehold on both radio and MTV (where the “M” still stood for “music”), and words like “nihilism” and “violent” were musical buzzwords.  It seemed that anybody who could write a riff or sample a George Clinton song was pissed off.  And then, in the midst of all the enraged sentiments crashing through the airwaves came a group that gift wrapped anger with a barbed wire bow.  Anger was more than just an emotion for them.  It was more than a gift.  For Rage Against the Machine, anger was an art form, and with the release of their self-titled debut they proved that they were Masters of the Form.

Rage Against the Machine wasn’t a band, they were predators.  As they credited themselves in the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine, they were “Guilty Parties” rather than musicians; pure audio aggression, a walking encyclopedia of violent electricity the likes of which rock and roll had never seen.  There had been plenty of anger in rock and roll before, but rarely had it been so pure.  Being the guilty parties made Rage Against the Machine more than just an album.  It was a weapon, a sledgehammer; a blunt instrument of political protest that assaulted listeners, making any working speaker an accomplice, with an experience that was so sudden, so immediate that the reaction to it was physical, as though it had been added directly to the world’s drip feed.

“...like fluid in your veins”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Fistful of Steel”

It’s an album that chases its listeners.  Rage Against the Machine sneaks up on you, like a prowler weaving through the well shot shadows of a ‘70s movie.  “Bombtrack” rolls in on a spiral of guitar and bass that refuse to make their intentions plain as they gradually crescendo until, 25 seconds in, the whole track finally explodes in an act of musical battery.  It’s a blow to the back of the head, an unsuspected and relentless attack that doesn’t let up for the entire album, “Hardline, hardline, after hardline”.  Rage Against the Machine is an album devoid of any truly quiet moments.  “Settle for Nothing” begins in a muted fashion as Zack de la Rocha relays the story of a boy without a father, but the entire song is drowned in de la Rocha’s blood curdling screams as the boy is initiated into a local gang.  “Fistful of Steel” intrigues the ear with the inventiveness of Tom Morello’s guitar as it wails through the verses—part banshee, part siren, drawing you closer, until the inevitable punishing thump of the chorus.  Every track was an assault.  Every track was a…

“Fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”

Rage Against The Machine was a line in the sand that separated a deceived “us” from a perceived “them”, and it was defiantly loud because, as de la Rocha points out in “Township Rebellion”, there’s no point in standing on a silent platform when you can fight the war, whatever war needs to be fought.  The enemies on Rage Against the Machine are so numerous—the Klu Klux Klan, Eurocentric school systems, lying teachers, media propagandists, the class system—and words like “rage” and “bullet” riddle the lyrics with such frequency, that it’s difficult to keep track of where the anger is being aimed.  This frequent shifting of targets made it difficult to “Know Your Enemy”, which itself is a blistering track about teachers who try to get students to conform to society and do what they’re told.

“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”

 

In the end, however, none of this confusion matters.  The incendiary performance of the material, as incendiary as the monk burning himself in protest on the album’s cover, makes such confusion immaterial.  The barrage is all that matters, the fierceness of it; the speed with which it hits listeners and leaves them gasping for air that won’t return to them until the album’s conclusion.  Rage Against the Machine is a masterpiece of attitude.  Young attitude.  Righteously belligerent attitude that feels the need to growl “Bam! Here’s the plan, motherfuck Uncle Sam, step back I know who I am”.

Rage Against the Machine was an excessive debut, and then?  Well, then the band focused its considerable energies on the task of conquering an Evil Empire.

by Tyler Gould

6 Nov 2009

J. Tillman‘s video for “Though I Have Wronged You” is barely a video, consisting only of a low-res conversation between green and pink pixel clusters. What do they talk about? The usual: feeling disconnected when we’re technologically connected to more of the world than ever before, the difficulty of living from within as opposed to building a persona out of tweets and status updates, the way the Internet feeds narcissism by allowing us to submit parts of ourselves for judgment by our peers so we can then judge for ourselves whether or not we like the reaction to the self that we’ve put out into the world, the modern desire for ultimate power over ourselves and others through calculation, mediation, modulation. The conversation is is engaging enough to detract from the song itself, making them two disparate conversations cruelly sharing the same .flv file, which suits the mood about right.

by Tyler Gould

6 Nov 2009

Here’s a video for the title track from Cocker’s Further Complications, slinky stage presence and paper airplane transitions included.

by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2009

At this point in the post-modern, cynical dicta, nothing really surprises us about the military. From defense contracts which result in kick-back rich toilet seats to useless wars which tend to foster the power in the purveyors, not the people, a structured citizen soldiery is an unhealthy combination of jingoism and bumbling bureaucracy - and no place is this more obvious than in Grant Heslov’s proposed satire The Men Who Stare at Goats. Based on the “mostly” true tome by UK journalist Jon Ronson, we are told that throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, America was developing a kind of “super warrior”, one that would use a priority of peace (and a well-honed psychic ability) to resolve conflicts. But instead of resonating with the kind of comedy we expect from such oddball ideas, Heslov mismanages his narrative, bringing in ancillary elements that derail his attempts at insight.

When we first meet struggling American reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), his wife has just left him and he feels his career going nowhere. So he decides to become a war correspondent, heading to Iraq to cover the country post-“Mission Accomplished”. Stuck in Kuwait and desperate for a way in, he runs into the mysterious Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who turns out to be a deactivated black ops agent whose recently returned to the game, on a mission deep in the heart of enemy territory.

Turns out, he was once part of a top secret experiment known as Project Jedi, the brainchild of forward-thinking officer Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who employs New Age philosophies and counterculture ideas to find a way to make enlisted men as lethal in peace as they are in war. Unfortunately, a failed sci-fi writer named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) becomes part of the company. Jealous of Lyn’s abilities, including the power to stop a goat’s heart with his mind, the angry author decides to undermine the project - an effort that continues to this very day.

Neither as quirky as it thinks it is nor as witty as it wants to be, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a low grade military send-up. There are moments when Ronson’s true “tall tale” sizzles with a kind of silly authenticity, a jaw-dropping reality that makes Americans wonder just what their men in uniform are up to. Every time the story travels back to the moment when Django and company create their re-imagined model, the movie soars. It provides a clever combination of nostalgia and insanity, Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” chugging along in the background while a long-haired Clooney shakes his booty magnificently. Whenever Bridges is onscreen, Goats gives over to his Dude-induced bliss, and everything is better for it. Along with our updated Gable, he brings a lot of hilarious heart to the material.

McGregor, sadly, has the exact opposite effect. Stuck in a one-note joke of a role (the big gag? He doesn’t understand the concept of a “Jedi”…think about for a moment…), he is a sad sack as a plot device, a means of getting us to the updated Cassady, the story behind the entire psychic project, and the last act reveal about what has happened to the concept since. He adds nothing to the narrative, and in fact draws our attention away from entertainment possibilities with his incessant whining and fake-accented antics. It seems odd that a British actor would be hired to play an American reporter (especially when Ronson himself was from Wales), but one imagines some studio interference in the decision. And let’s not even discuss a dull-eyed Spacey doing ‘villain’ in his sleep. As two facets of the failed modern material, they both sink Goat‘s chances of succeeding.

In fact, both the past and present in this particular movie offers limited entertainment value. Heslov, taking the reigns of a major feature film for the first time, clearly needs a few more turns behind the lens before tackling material this complex. It’s not just a question of comic timing or overall tone. As a director, he truly doesn’t understand where the best bits lie. Whenever the flashbacks fill the screen, Bridges et. al. doing their best bemused hippy shtick, we are immediately whisked away to a more innocent - and enjoyable - era. The jokes flow and the sight gags click. But then, just as we are getting into the groove, Heslov brings back the War in Iraq road movie and things simply die. No matter their level of talent, Clooney and McGregor are an unsuccessful Hope and Crosby.

But more importantly, Goats really has no point. The script doesn’t find a fresh way of dealing with military incompetence or the often surreal situations surrounding same. In fact, the most telling attempt comes at the expense of excellent actor Stephen Lang, who definitely gets the deranged Dr. Strangelove nuttiness involved. Yet beyond one or two brief moments of comedic clarity, Goats doesn’t “get” it. Instead, it throws random scenes at the audience and hopes that they make the necessary critical connections. With Bridges, such cinematic heavy lifting is easy. Everyone else, however, only increases the burden. While Heslov should get most of the blame, the script by Peter Straughan doesn’t help. After all, this is the man responsible for disemboweling Toby Young’s bitter magazine publishing rant How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, turning it into a tired media spoof.

Somewhere buried in all the screwball struggles and inconsistent time shifts is a potent film about outsized ideas and the perversion of same. When Bridges is explaining his notion of an “Earth First” army, we easily recognize his goal. Too bad few in the film follow in his footsteps. As another example of Clooney’s patented “mainstream/iconoclastic” back and forth, career wise, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a likeable failure. There may not be enough here to completely satisfy, given the inconsistency behind the scenes, but at the very least there are individual sequences that illustrate what this wacky military farce could have been. We expect a little lunacy from those invested with keeping out country safe. Unfortunately, the bumpy approach to this particular “true” story thwarts its intentions. 

by Nick Dinicola

6 Nov 2009

I recently read a rumor that Assassin’s Creed 2 might have three hours worth of cut scenes. Unlike a lot of gamers, I don’t mind most cut scenes. I remember when games would advertise “X hours of realistic CG cut scenes” as a good thing. I understand the common complaint against them, but I also think cut scenes are a fine way to tell a story in a linear game, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is proof of this.

Cut scenes get a lot of hate because they interrupt gameplay. Too often a boss fight will suddenly become a cut scene, and after a quick verbal back-and-forth the protagonist will perform one final action that kills the antagonist. This wouldn’t be so awful if the scene only involved dialogue, but by reserving the death of the villain for a cut scene the game removes some of the satisfaction of winning. Technically the player never gets to kill the main bad guy as it happens in a cut scene.

One reason these non-interactive sequences work in Uncharted 2 is that they never interrupt gameplay, in fact gameplay sometimes interrupts a cut scene. During a couple movies, just when the player thinks the action is over, an enemy attacks a nearby companion and suddenly we’re in control again, shooting the attacker. As soon as he’s dead the cut scene continues. Action always happens to the player, Nathan Drake only fires his gun once in a cut scene, every other time he shoots it’s because the player has pressed the R1 button. When a building starts to crumble with Drake in it, we’re in control; when a stone platform begins sliding down a hill with Drake and company on it, we’re in control; when he has to jump from car to car during a high speed chase, we’re hitting the button to make him jump. By making these grand set pieces interactive, it feels like they’re happening to us, not just happening to him. We become more invested in the character and his struggles because we’ve gone through them as well.

Since a good cut scene doesn’t have much, if any, action in it, it relies on the plot to keep players interested. These moments of calm have to move the plot forwards while setting up the next action scene, but these are also fitting moments for character development. Characters can be developed during gameplay through animation, voice over, or by having a unique skill set, but cut scenes are by far the easiest method for doing so because of their similarities to film, a medium with several standards already in place regarding proper character development. But any cut scene, even a well directed, well acted, graphical showcase, is still interrupting gameplay, so it must accomplish these goals quickly, or risk losing the interest of the player.

The Metal Gear Solid games are infamous for their failure in this regard. The high production values of its cut scenes are obvious, but the scenes drag on far too long thanks to endless exposition by various characters describing their personal motivations, their complicated pasts, the current political landscape, or others aspect of the plot. While some may defend these long movies for their high quality and intriguing themes, there are just as many people that hate them for their meandering dialogue and length.

On the other hand, the cut scenes in Uncharted 2 are never more than a couple minutes long, even when the plot twists and turns. In one scene Drake is caught by the villain Lazarevic and makes that classic “You need me so you can’t hurt me” stand, but when he’s searched Lazarevic gets a hold of a map with a giant X on it. The balance of power swings from Lazarevic to Drake and back to Lazarevic within the span of two minutes. The plot is pushed forwards by dialogue that gets straight to the point, there’s no exposition, so the player is constantly engaged by the quick pace.

The cut scenes in Gears of War 2 were successful in moving the plot forwards quickly, but never contained any meaningful character development. The new characters of Tai and Dizzy are interchangeable with out other teammates, personality wise. But since the cut scenes focus purely on the plot, the game give these new characters a distinct look to set them apart. Tai’s tattoos make him look like some ancient mystic, and Dizzy has a cowboy hat; the game then hopes that we’ll get attached to them based solely on their unique appearances.

The second cut scene in Uncharted 2 fully introduces us to Chloe, one of the new characters in the sequel. Within a few minutes we learn that she and Drake have a romantic history, that she’s using Flynn (the other new character) to help get a treasure, and that her and Drake plan to run away together after the heist. Too often in games a women is portrayed as tough by being cruel or indifferent to everyone around her (see Rubi in Wet). We see a little bit of that in Chloe as she casually plans to betray Flynn, but then we see a vulnerable side to her as well: She has genuine feelings for Drake, she wants to run away with him because she actually likes him. She’s not the one dimensional “tough bitch” stereotype that games normally fall back on, she’s a complicated character with complicated motivations.

Cut scenes are a viable way to tell a story in linear games. They provide a chance to advance the plot while developing characters, but the gameplay must always take precedent, and that’s a mistake many games make. The player should get to partake in all the action. Successfully implementing a cut scene is difficult, the many failed attempts are proof of that, but Uncharted 2 is proof that, when done right, cut scenes can add to the depth and enjoyment of a game.

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