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by Karen Zarker

11 Dec 2009

Michelle Obama is in good company, fashion-wise.  Recall her outfit at the 2009 inauguration of the President? Now imagine Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice gussied up thus. Strutting beside them; Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter and Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.  Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo illustrated gorgeous covers for these three classics, making this special Penguin collection an irresistible lure for the haute couture-minded book collector. (Ruben and his wife, Isabel, worked together on Obama’s gown, and together they were recipients of the 2005 Cooper-Hewitt Design Award for their work in fashion. You’ve seen his work in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.)  Classy covers for classic books; they’ll wear well for a long time.

by W. Scott Poole

11 Dec 2009

This is a compilation for that large demographic that yearns for narratives about a large, talking milk shake ordering a wife from Chechnya, or the micronauts going on a breast-climbing expedition. You know who you are. You will try and fail to explain to the uninitiated the wonders of Adult Swim. They will simply have to experience it for themselves and nothing but significant recreational drug can prepare them for it.

This new compilation takes some of the best seasons of the best shows and packs in hours of commentary. It includes both Adult Swim standards like Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hungerforce, along with niche delights like Morel Orel. New hits like Metalocalypse round our a fairly full presentation of the subversive joy that is Adult Swim.

One of the more interesting features of this set is an extra disc that includes a mash-up of conceptual pilots for new shows, a great added bonus for all of you Adult Swim historians and for those who want a sneak peak at programs yet to come. It’s important to note (despite marketing to the contrary) that these are not all “never-before-released pilots” in the sense that they never appeared on TV but rather never-before-released on DVD.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2009

Sometimes, the old ways are better. No matter how fancy and fresh feeling the new approach is, the original format often holds a magic untapped and unappreciated by those now enamored of the update. That’s what’s happened with computer generated animation. When it first hit the family film artform, many thought it a clever cartoon complement. A decade later, and it’s completely taken over the genre, moving the formative pen and ink version of the craft to the back burner. Even pioneer Disney dropped 2D after the less than impressive returns for their 2004 effort, Home on the Range.

A lot has happened in the five years since. Pixar, once just an arm of the House of Mouse, is now an official member of Walt’s inner circle. John Lasseter, the man behind Toy Story and other massive hits for the company has been placed in charge of Disney’s animation division - and one of his first tasks as a newly appointed head was to reinvest in hand drawn cartooning. Over the last few years, Lasseter has brought Mickey’s men back to prominence, promising something very special with the release of his first attempt at bringing back the company’s prior glory. With the fabulous Princess and the Frog, he succeeds royally.

The story is a spin on the old “kiss the toad” fairytale. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young girl in turn of the century New Orleans. Her hard working seamstress mother (Oprah Winfrey) makes dresses for Charlotte, the spoiled daughter of the city’s richest man (John Goodman). Growing up together, Tiana follows the sage advice from her late father - determination and perseverance wins the day. Her wealthy pal believes in simply wishing on a star.

When a visiting Prince (Bruno Campos) makes a stop over in the Big Easy, he instantly becomes the focus of Charlotte’s marital intentions. He’s also targeted by local voodoo shaman Dr. Facilier (Keith David). Before he knows it, his highness is a frog and part of a plot to take over the town. Hoping to find a Princess to free him, he stumbles upon Tiana dressed for a fancy costume ball. Unfortunately, when she kisses him, things go from bad to much, much worse. 

Without giving more of the plot away (the second half of the film is an elongated trip through the bayou as Tiana and the Prince try to find a way out of their predicament), it’s safe to say that Disney is indeed back with The Princess and the Frog. After nearly a decade of less than spectacular hand drawn titles, the House of Mouse - and specifically, Little Mermaid and Hercules guides Ron Clements and John Musker - have brought the stunning candy-colored patina back into animation. The look here is so arresting and revitalizing that it feels wholly new. It’s like getting into a time machine and going back to the days of great mouse detectives, lion kings, and open-hearted beauties and their lovelorn beasts.

If the old cliché reminds us that we don’t recognize what we had until it’s gone, a new maxim must be developed for The Princess and the Frog. This is the kind of movie that reminds us of why so many of us fell in love with Disney films - either as a child, a teen, or a young adult. Sure, it’s miles away from antiquated classics like Snow White or Cinderella, but by concentrating on character and story, not technology and gimmick-ridden vision, Clements and Musker re-explain why Walt stands as the once and future king. With Lasseter maintaining the respect and internal reverence, this could be the start of Disney Mach 3 (Mach 2 being the post-Mermaid period initiated, oddly enough, by the same men).

This movie is astonishing to look at, full of the majesty and mystery of the Crescent City. New Orleans looks great, and the decision to go with deep rich colors and bright explosions of light instill an instant feeling of nostalgia and homey familiarity. Randy Newman’s score evokes the best of the French Quarter while staying away from the standard showtune grandstanding. The performances all strike the right chord, from Ms. Rose’s fiery proto-feminist to the lothario lameness of Campos pampered prince. Special acknowledgment must go to the character of Dr. Facilier. As another in a long line of classic Disney villains, he is voiced superbly (by Keith David) and featured in a fantastic number that mixes elements of the macabre with splashy Mardi Gras hues.

While it’s true that this is the first time that Disney has dealt directly with the African American community as the center of their story, there is no PC-kowtowing or obvious racial balancing. Tiana is shown as proud and striving for independence. Her mom - even more so. Dad’s introductory moments illustrate the strength in family while the rest of the cast comes across as colorful, not full of minstrel missteps. A few may focus on the ragin’ Cajun firefly known as Ray, his backwoods accented jargon sounding like a combination of Justin Wilson and a cruel caricature, but he is mostly harmless. Besides, he gets the best moment in the movie, a sequence which should send even the most cynical audience member into silent, sincere sobs.

And that’s the key to The Princess and the Frog‘s success. We care about what happens here, getting lost in the slapstick and prevalent humor. We want Tiana to succeed, to realize her dream of opening a restaurant and living happily ever after. We need the Prince to wise up and realize the error of his purposeless, playboy life. We become invested here, thanks to that many ways Disney’s dream team moves us - and it’s not just from an artistic standpoint. Clement and Musker bring back the basics of the genre, the visionary ‘anything can and will happen’ feeling of imagination unleashed and unrestrained.

While it remains to be seen if this is a one-off return to form or a real renaissance, one thing’s for certain: when The House of Mouse left the moviemaking mansion it built back in 1937, it did so to the detriment of the entire artform. As The Princess and the Frog proves, when Disney does it right, it’s pretty close to perfect. 

by Katharine Wray

11 Dec 2009

The gift that keeps giving indeed. The Scene It? Franchise has delivered once again with The Simpsons and Star Trek Deluxe Editions. The Simpsons edition is a game made for the family with trivia questions ranging from general (What’s instrument does Lisa play?) to specific (What’s the name of Springfield’s movie theatre?)—making it perfect for teams. The interactive DVD adds to the fun the fun with clips from all 20 seasons, allowing new and old fans of Bart and his family to compete together. The Star Trek edition is also all-inclusive with trivia pulled from all five television series and 10 movies. Fans of Enterprise and The Next Generation both will enjoy the clips and games found on the interactive DVD. The creators of these games paid close attention to detail providing thoughtful show tokens to move around the board. Simpsons aficionados will appreciate show icons such as the Springfield power plant, the three-eyed fish and family TV. As for the Star Trek edition, Trekkies will get a kick out of moving the franchise’s famous ships around the galaxy—the Enterprise, the Enterprise D, the Defiant and the Voyager. Either of these games would make a notable gift for the host/ess of this season’s best party. Just make sure the recipient is truly a fan, otherwise those tokens won’t move at all.

by Vijith Assar

11 Dec 2009

I’ll say this much for Ghostland Observatory—they have a great lighting rig.  Wafer-thin sheets and spires in all manner of colors peppered the room the moment the lights went down; it was hard not to get excited with the visuals alone, but just in case, the band members also wore sparkly garb to heighten the effect.  Frontman Aaron Behrens’ voice is rubbery and unpredictable enough to be engaging almost no matter what the context, but for the most part this is a duo so dependent on autopilot that there will rarely be more than 1.25 people actually playing anything at any given time.  Thomas Turner, actually rocking a cape (sparkly), did his part by pushing the various triggers and play buttons, but Behrens’ purpose is apparently primarily to make it appear as though there is more than just that happening.  It only worked sometimes, the most notable shortcomings being the faux-abstract portions that inevitably screamed either FUN WITH PRESETS or else ROSS HAS A KEYBOARD.  Oh, and then there was the talkbox, for which Turner channeled not Frampton nor Kanye, but Richie Sambora.  (So are we actually supposed to be distracted from the music by all these shiny things?)  I think we can all agree that seeing this band is a hell of a lot better than merely listening to them, because this was a wonderful presentation of largely boring songs.  But hey, welcome to the music industry.

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