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by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2009

By the fourth film in their then fledgling catalog, Pixar was at a crossroads. They had seen Toy Story make money hand over fist, becoming a recognized commercial and critical hit. They were honored with an Oscar, and almost immediately, every studio that could foot the bill began trading in their pen and ink efforts for the new frontier of CG animation. It took three years before their next project - A Bug’s Life - hit theaters, and the response wasn’t as resounding. While still successful, it wasn’t seen as some great leap forward for the company. Things got even worse when it was rumored that Disney, then distributor of the production house’s product, was seriously considering releasing Toy Story 2 as a direct to video title (never a good sign). Even when it eventually arrived in theaters to even greater public and pundit appreciation, it looked like Pixar had a lot to prove with its next release - Monsters, Inc.

Naturally, they rose to the challenge. Utilizing advances in technology that allowed for more detailed and accurate character mapping (including the latest tweak - lifelike fur!) and the potent imagination of directors Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and David Silverman, the company took a massive leap of originality toward the sense of cartoon classicism they eagerly carry today. Looking over the new Blu-ray release of the title, including dozens of in-depth making-of featurettes and commentaries - we begin to see the reasons behind Pixar’s consistency. As filmmakers known for their vision and attention to onscreen spectacle, there is a real reliance on the trademarks of bravura cinema - character, story, performance, and the well combined coalescing of said facets. Like other titles in their canon, the final version of Monsters, Inc. is as much about what’s included in the story as what was purposefully left out.

Would it surprise you that Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski was not part of the original plan? Or that Boo might have been nothing more than a throwaway cameo. These were just a few of the humble (and frankly half-baked) beginnings to what would eventually become one of Pixar’s most powerful films about the loss of innocence and the specialness of childhood. The narrative revolves around furry beast James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) who is the Number One “scarer” at the title company - a place that collects child’s screams as a means of energy for the otherworldy realm of Monstropolis. Assisted by best buddy Mike, he is adored by big boss Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn), and hated by arch rival Randall (Steve Buscemi). They achieve their daily quota of fear by transporting through children’s closets, collecting their shrieks in ready to use fuel cells.

One night, while helping out his friend, Sully stumbles across Randall illegally accessing one of these doorways. When he investigates, he accidentally brings back a female human toddler whom he nicknames ‘Boo’. Children are considered poisonous in Monstropolis, and just having contact with one is a crime. So Sully seeks Mike’s help, and together they resolve to return Boo to her home. What they don’t realize, of course, is that Randall wasn’t working alone and the secret project he is part of may mean the end of Monsters, Inc. forever. In between, we learn about the everyday existence of our pre-adolescent nightmare fodder, as well as how laughter could be a better substitute than any continuous conspiracy of fear.

With its buddy comedy comfort levels and undeniable talented cast, Monsters, Inc. wouldn’t have to be a wild-eyed wonder to work. We’d laugh out loud as Crystal and Goodman exchange barbs, snicker as little Boo causes nothing but chaos for supposed experts at scary, and marvel at how the old growing pain of being afraid of the shadows in your closet is transformed into this terrific entertainment. Had they just stopped there, had Docter and the gang done the same thing for the fanged and the clawed as Pixar in general did for various playroom amusements, we’d have a clever almost-classic. Kids would marvel at the whole humans vs. monsters dynamic and never once question the heart and the heroism of all the major players involved - Mike, Sully, and cute little Boo.

But there is more to the movie than this - much, much more! From a warehouse holding every doorway between the real world and the monster world to a rousing rollercoaster ride on same, the level of creativity and invention inherent in Monsters, Inc. makes other examples of computer animated genre pale in comparison. It’s not just rampant eye candy and ADD-inspired flash. No, Pixar is one of the few film houses that meticulously re-imagine their ideas, working them over and over and over until they are as polished and near perfect as possible. So the epic elements utilized, the sequences that illustrate scope and innovation all work together in logistical lockstep seamlessness. Each piece falls into place with the others, creating a patchwork of artistic triumph that is hard to beat. Even in their later efforts when divergent ideas - lovesick robot, a post-apocalyptic Earth - seem at practical loggerheads with each other, Pixar finds a way to make them work - and Monsters, Inc. was the first time we saw it so blatantly.

Thankfully, the blu-ray bonus features shed new light on the process. We hear about story meetings and grueling “brainstorming” exercises. We see rejected ideas and almost completed casualties. We hear from the members of the team, each one feeling empowered to guide the project in the direction they feel would be best, and we see their results revisited and reexamined, arguments for and against said aesthetic connections being reinforced and redefined. And all the while, the movie continues to speak the loudest. Monsters, Inc. is the kind of motion picture magician that still amazed you several years later, even when you’ve learned all its best tricks by heart. Here, the prestidigitation is as powerful and pleasing as it ever was (especially in 1080p High Definition).

Of course, the next great step in the company’s creative progression would come with the follow-up film, Finding Nemo. There, Pixar managed the near impossible - the film became everything to everyone: young, old, cynical, and naïve. Yet within the often unforgettable elements of Monsters, Inc. was the foundation for such future mass acceptance. Today, CG settles, using cheap gimmicks and stale clichés to make up for a clear lack of creative mantle. Such a substance it definitely not lacking in Pixar’s fourth film. More than anything else, Monsters, Inc. was the confirmation of what the previous three efforts promised - that this company would be front and center of the computer animation boom for years to come. Thankfully, that motion picture prophecy did indeed come true. 

by Katharine Wray

11 Nov 2009

The Bodies Obtained have released three MP3s from their latest album,Dead Plans. These tracks offer a lot of sound and not very much song, but there is something curious about the sparse sonic landscape this Detroit band creates.

The Bodies Obtained
The Death From Above [MP3]
     

Baby It’s Not a Sin [MP3]
     

She Wants What She Wants [MP3]
     

by Faye Rasmussen

11 Nov 2009

Check out the 2009 Mercury Prize winner play a set at La Bellevilloise, in Paris, France. The British rapper released her debut album, Speech Therapy, in May of this year. Big things to come!

by G. Christopher Williams

11 Nov 2009

Your brand of charming homosexuality, Tony, it’s kind of run out of steam.
—Rocco Pelosi, Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony

This discussion of The Ballad of Gay Tony does contain spoilers.

The Ballad of Gay Tony is the straightest Grand Theft Auto ever. Okay, well not exactly (or perhaps, what my title implies isn’t exactly what I mean).  Nevertheless, despite its title, heterosexual sex acts are considerably more common than homosexual ones in The Ballad of Gay Tony.

This is due in large part to the significance of sex to this particular iteration of GTA but also due to the nature of the protagonist of this game, Luis Lopez, a partial owner of one of the hottest clubs in Liberty City, Maisonette 9. Lopez is a ladies man, unafraid to shake it on the dance floor in order to get a little on the side, and he is also the number one of the man who owns the controlling share of Maisonette 9, Gay Tony Prince.

When The Ballad of Gay Tony was announced, I was certainly surprised, left wondering if Rockstar had decided to feature a homosexual protagonist in one of their games.  That Gay Tony would not be the persona that players would be taking on was rather quickly made clear in Rockstar’s promotion of the game.  Still though, Gay Tony is a most crucial character as the title of the game implies, and his presentation is fairly fascinating given Rockstar’s history of creating cartoonish stereotypes of both gays and racial and ethnic groups as part of their parody-laden crime sagas.

As the owner of a nightclub that is signified by a description of an architectural space and designated by a number, Tony largely seems to be a kind of re-imagining, of Steve Rubell, the gay owner of Club 54.  Unlike Rubell, a man referred to openly as Gay Tony is obviously not closeted (he also owns a gay nightclub called Hercules), but Tony has been running clubs since 1987 very close to the year of Rubell’s death from AIDS.  As a result, Tony seems to be a kind of consideration of what a man like Rubell would be doing in the 2000s, and Tony is certainly prone to Rubell’s darker tendencies as he maintains a pretty substantial coke habit as well as exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and stress as a result of operating his businesses.

Club life is the central focus of The Ballad of Gay Tony, which brings us back to the sex act as a central concern of this version of GTA.  Much like Studio 54, Maisonette 9 is a hotbed of hormones.  Dancing leading up to the sex act is a tale as old as time and one written into nature itself as humans mirror the animals in performing mating dances to get the juices flowing.  The game features the ability to participate directly in such mating ritual as Luis can shake a little tail to get a little tail at the club, and his conquests frequently give out phone numbers that can be dialed up for health boosting booty calls at any point during the game.

In that sense, Gay Tony‘s sensibilities are a bit retrograde by linking sexual habits with criminality.  Much like crime fiction of the early twentieth century, homosexuality in crime fiction is often chained to the seamier aspects of life, including the criminal.  As anyone who has read a Raymond Chandler novel or two knows, crime novels tend to associate homosexuality with generally deviant lifestyle choices, and thus, homosexual characters in crime fiction are frequently associated with pornography, drugs, and the like (I’m thinking of novels like The Big Sleep for example).  Tony’s occupation and personal habits connect him to such things, but Luis’s promiscuity also marks him as being deviant from the mainstream ideal of monogamous sexuality.  Thus, the title Gay Tony might imply that sex of a wilder or more taboo nature is going to be explored or expressed in the game, sex that might be viewed as a “normal” part of a more licentious lifestyle, like that of a man dabbling with underworld connections.

However, Luis’s promiscuity is complicated by his own background, which is as a son whose own father abandoned him.  Curiously, this complication also connects him more closely to Tony.  At several points over the course of the story, Luis suggests that Tony has been like a father to him, having been the one to get Luis employed and on the straight and narrow (or at least out of prison) after running afoul of the police in his younger days.  Tony, too, mentions that Luis is like a son to him.  Thus, the game is less than retrograde in presenting a rather daring and progressive version of a father-son story, one in which the “father” is a homosexual.

The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in such stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony’s homosexuality.  Luis is not especially threatened by his “father’s” power as neither one compete with one another over a mother or any woman for that matter.  Freud would suggest that such competition is a necessary part of the psychology of becoming an adult.  The symbolic act of killing the father becomes foundational for becoming a mature adult capable of taking on the authority of being a father himself.  However, when faced with the dilemma of having to literally kill Tony near the climax of the game (which is a result of some mobsters needing the head of one of the two men because a diamond heist has put the two into bed with and in the cross-hairs of several criminal organizations), Luis chooses to save the man (as Tony did the younger Luis) rather than to destroy him and take his place (as the mobsters offer Luis the opportunity to do).  Indeed, throughout The Ballad of Gay Tony, Luis spends much of his time caring for this adopted “father” whose addiction is leading to some really bad decision making on the part of the elder of the two men.  This curious re-structuring of the Oedipal conflict with a homosexual and a heterosexual father and son removes conflict from their relationship altogether and offers instead a co-operative version of the relationship in which one man brings up and nurtures the other and then the other likewise returns the favor.

Thus, despite Rockstar’s frequent employment of stereotyping ethnic and sexual identity for the sake of parody, The Ballad of Gay Tony actually becomes a rather different kind of discourse on the development of human beings and their relationships to one another because of (not in spite of) their differences.  Social deviance becomes a means of uniting very different people rather than in dividing them from society.  Instead, Tony and Luis manage to form the most fundamental of social units out of deviance, a family.

by Jennifer Cooke

11 Nov 2009

Facebook is a hell of a thing. Not only can it end marriages and get people fired, it brings folks back into your life after years or even decades. Many of these people have oooold pictures of you, and many of these people also have scanners. You will get to relive outfits and hairdos. Oh sure, you remember these things being atrocious, but you don’t get the full impact of how alarming they truly were until someone digs up photographic evidence.

Every once in a while, some clever little archivist takes it to a whole new level of humiliation… with VIDEO. Video of you in your puffy shirt, ripped fishnets, crimped Manic Panic pink hair, and braces, doing That Dance, the dance we all did circa 1987 when a 12” extended remix of Tones on Tail came on at ‘da club. In our case, ‘da club was called Stratus, and you probably had your version of it where you grew up, so I will share the glory:

Unfortunately, I am not actually in these videos, but I hereby declare that I looked just as ridiculous, and in fact aspired to the calibre of ridiculousness of some of these girls, with whom I attended high school.

This trip down Memory Lane was all worth it, however, for reminding me of one of my favorite songs of the ‘80s: “Dance with Me” by Lords of the New Church. This band doesn’t get many pages (or even paragraphs) in the history books, even though it was a punk supergroup fronted by the legendary Stiv Bators and included Brian James of the Damned, Dave Tregunna of Sham 69, and Nicky Turner of the Barracudas. Dead Boys is Bators’ primary legacy, and rightfully so, but when I was 13, I didn’t know from the Dead Boys. All I knew was this wierd-looking dude in this bizarre video had me at “ritual fertility”. I heard real longing and desperation in that voice, and it spoke to me.

Twenty-four years later, the clothes and hair don’t hold up very well, but the song does—remarkably so. I think I’m going to go find me some Lords of the New Church CDs. And possibly a crimping iron.

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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