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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008

He’s been making movies since 1992. Yet in 16 years, he’s completed only four projects - 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s magnificent Moulin Rogue, and now the old school epic named for his native land, Australia. So why has Baz Luhrmann been so lax in his creative output? Granted, there have been a couple of setbacks (he was fast tracking an Alexander the Great pic with Leonardo DiCaprio when Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell beat him to the punch), and has rejected offers to “go Hollywood” to make standard mainstream fare. And yet his latest is so enamored of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age that MGM and Gone with the Wind should get a restraining order. This doesn’t make Australia bad, just antithetical to what we know about Lurmann’s previous patterns.


After her husband toddles off to the mythic title country to settle up on a bad land deal, Lady Sarah Ashley decides to head Downunder herself to see what’s going on. It’s the late ‘30s, right before Japan enters World War II and threatens the entire Pacific Rim. Upon arriving, Lady Ashley learns of her spouse’s death, the dire situation on her ranch, Faraway Downs, and the only possible solution to her problems - a cattle drive across miles of untouched outback. Hiring a handsome rapscallion named “The Drover” (a man her husband relied on to manage the enterprise), Lady Ashley succeeds in saving her land.


But then she is faced with two more major problems. One concerns beef baron King Carney, his corrupt future son-in-law Neil Fletcher, and the duo’s desire to claim her property. The second surrounds a half-caste aboriginal boy named Nullah, Lady Ashley’s growing affection for the child, and a government mandate which requires the lad to be taken to an island mission for training as a servant. It will take all her resolve, and her budding relationship with The Drover, to prevent personal and professional disaster.


Somehow, we expect more from Baz Luhrmann. While Australia is a movie with ambitions as large as the island continent itself, its Tinsel Town greatest hits approach keeps it from being the larger than life experience the filmmaker fancies. Granted, when you’re channeling everything from Margaret Mitchell to King Vidor, you’re naturally going to stumble upon some spectacle, and there are times when Luhrmann lulls us into a sense of clear imaginative complacency. But with its partially porcelain casting, dependence on an aboriginal approach to magical realism, and a last act narrative that piles on the false endings, what should have been stellar is merely amiable and acceptable. You will definitely love a great deal of what you see. Problem is - it has very little aesthetic or artistic nutritional value.


One can only thank the moviemaking gods that original Drover choice, Russell Crowe, bowed out of this project early on. His burly, beer swilling smirking would have ruined this film’s ersatz romantic chemistry. Beside, Hugh Jackman is a much more satisfying male lead. He brings a real sense of adventure and machismo to the character, so much that we really never care that he’s all six pack pretty boyishness and little else. Drover does have many of the movie’s strongest speeches, and hearing Jackman “go native”, accent wise, is well worth the ticket price. Sadly, Ms. Kidman is not. Though Luhrmann tries everything in his art box design powers to bring some ordinariness to the unwarranted A-list wax figure, he can’t coax a convincing performance out of her. At first, she’s merely awkward. By the time of her transformation into a woman of significant means, she’s shrill and overtly maudlin.


That just leaves doe-eyed dreamchild Brandon Walters as Nullah to carry us through, and he more or less does. With a face so sweet it could cause sugar to sour, and a demeanor that mixes his aboriginal roots with just the right amount of mainstream movie mannerism, he’s the single best thing in a film that should have several dozen such standouts. It takes someone of significant talents to avoid making a nonstop sonic reference to The Wizard of Oz‘s “Over the Rainbow” into a saccharine, syrupy statement, and yet Walters works it like the secular “Amazing Grace” it’s become. If Kidman had been replaced with, say, Naomi Watts, and Luhrmann had been convinced to pile on, not purposefully avoid, his previous visionary somersaults, Australia would truly soar. As it stands, we get a fine film frequently undermined by its own unobtainable aspirations. 


And it’s all clearly Luhrmann’s fault. When he gives Jackman a “Clark Gable” moment during a fancy dress ball, or merges old school melodrama with references to outback mythos, we enjoy the revisionist reverence. But we want more of that Moulin majesty, that eye candy craziness that argued that anything could happen and probably would. The frequent montages, used to highlight instances of sex and violence, are not without their charms. But when your previous film flaunted grunge masters Nirvana as part of a turn of the century French dance hall drama, we should be wowed, not waiting to be so. By the time he gets to the CG heavy attack on Darwin (done up in complete Tora, Tora, Tora style), we welcome the novelty, no matter how uniformly fake it all looks.


With narrative threads frequently falling by the wayside, unresolved, only to see a half hearted attempt at an intertwining later on, and a feeling that no one is ever really in danger, even with evil staring our heroes directly in their flawless faces, Australia underwhelms. It’s still a very good film, albeit one marred by our desire to make it something more. If you simply stop kvetching and give in to Luhrmann’s latest inspiration, ignoring a few obvious flaws along the way, you’ll be whisked off to a land of enchantment, wonder, and occasionally solid visual virtues. But for his fourth film in 16 years, we anticipate something more from Mr. Moulin Rogue! That it’s not confrontational or deconstructionist may seem rebellious on paper, but blown up on the big screen for nearly three hours, Australia sure plays as purely conventional.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
For all intents and purposes, Art Style: Rotohex is Tetris with triangles.

The third and potentially final game in Nintendo’s Art Style series, Rotohex, follows form with its counterparts by focusing on very simple game design and reward structure. With a price tag of six dollars and no concerns about fighting for shelf space, the games are freed up to deliver a much more basic experience than other puzzle games. They disperse with the graphics and focus on core game mechanics while the audience consumes the less visually sophisticated product because of the bargain price. Rotohex is a prime example of what the downloadable game scene and the internet can deliver.


The game is a traditional falling block puzzle game with a very unique twist. Rather than just use blocks and a color matching design, it relies on triangles to apply that concept. The player must arrange six triangles of the same color in a hexagon while more triangles fall down into the game map, which is itself a hexagon. The player points a Wiimote cursor that is also this same shape and presses A to rotate the triangles inside of it.


It takes a couple of plays to orient yourself to this, but eventually you learn how to carry triangles inside a six-sided grid and piggyback them into completed shapes. You wouldn’t really expect someone proposing that Tetris with triangles would involve this radical of a shift in play style, but it really is a game concept in and of itself. The entire way you observe the environment, discover potential combinations, and make combos changes drastically from block-based puzzle games. In order to spot combinations, you’re better off observing the shapes that are away from where you want to make the combination and you also have to start thinking in terms of clusters and pie slices. Versus Mode works about like you’d expect with the added twist of having a controlled delay before the triangles you’ve combined fall on your opponent. There is also a neutral space with which you must make a combo before the the blocks will fall.


Equally interesting is the basic reward structure the game applies to this setup. There are still leaderboards and score counting in the game’s unlockable ‘Endless’ mode, but the basic ‘Solo’ section relies on an entirely different experience. Like with Orbient, layers of music are your reward for making a complete hexagon. The game starts off with a simple series of beeps in the background, and with each combo another layer of a song is added. Drums, electronic music, and numerous other bizarre effects are built onto that basis. Once you complete a certain number of Hexagons, a new color gets added and these must then be combined to add the next layer of song. The effect is a very good use of synesthesia to deliver a gaming experience. You’re not just playing to arbitrarily score well, as one does in Tetris or Dr. Mario, you’re engaging in discovering the next piece of music.


It’s a very good carrot to put on the stick of reward structure, as I discovered in Orbient, because the game is sucking you in through a variety of techniques rather than just your basic High Score reward. As you progress, the layers of music that are crowding the soundscape are abandoned for new ones, creating an ongoing and ever-changing musical experience for the player. The fact that most of my play sessions devolved into me wanting to hear the next evolution of the music instead of caring about beating the game speaks to how much broader of an audience this design can appeal to.


And…that’s the gist of it. The Art Style games are about core mechanics, musical reward structures, and making very small tweaks that have enormous effects on gameplay. It’s still basically just Tetris with triangles but as with Orbient, the changes result in an entirely new gaming experience. Rotohex is still fundamentally a redux on the puzzle game genre, but by making it into triangles and having a musical reward structure it becomes something that stands apart. Proving that it takes so little to teach an old game design new tricks is what makes Rotohex worth a download.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008

Somehow, it feels as though 2009 will be the PlayStation 3’s year. The Xbox 360 has shown us what “next generation” hardware can look like, and has introduced the necessity of a well-implemented online infrastructure. The Wii and DS have shown us just how wide the audience for gaming can be. 2009 is going to be the year that gamers want to see just how far they can take the new generation of consoles, and the PlayStation 3 will be the console to take them there. 2008 was the year that Blu-Ray won; 2008 was the year that the vocal masses got their way and convinced Sony that a controller that vibrates is important. 2008 was the year that the PS3 got its own version of achievements, and 2008 was the year that Sony’s exclusives started to make people sit up and take notice.  This particular bundle starts you with the biggest PS3 yet released—160GB is enough to store a whole pile of music, movies, and downloaded games—and tosses in one of the first exclusives that actually managed to make other console owners jealous: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Add to this the fact that the whole bundle is retailing for the same price point that the merely 20GB PS3 sold for all by itself two tiny years ago, and the time simply seems right for a PS3. Want to wow a gamer with a gift this holiday season? The PS3 is your ticket. [$499.99]


AMAZON


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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker, Last Hope for the Galaxy - Dark Horse [$99.95]

This massive 800-plus-page tome, lavishly bound in slipcase and printed on high quality glossy paper, will wow both sci-fi and comic book aficionados. All the major Luke Skywalker stories spanning 30 years from the earliest Marvel incarnation up through Dark Horse’s latest adventures are compiled here in glorious, sparkling color. It’s an art quality book jam-packed with nostalgia. As one of the largest and most comprehensive Star Wars-related compendiums on the market, it will hold wide appeal to the legions of the series fans as well as lovers of fine comic artistry.


AMAZON


Tagged as: dark horse, star wars
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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
Two Dudes One Pan: Maximum Flavor for a Minimalist Kitchen - Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo - Potter [$24.95]

For students and those living on tight budgets (i.e. pretty much all of us these days), the idea of throwing a dinner party may seem financially impossible, both in terms of buying the ingredients and having the equipment to prepare the feast. Shook and Dotolo, chefs at Los Angeles’ new hotly tipped Animal restaurant, remember those lean days well and offer up 100 recipes to impress for those cooking in a small kitchen with limited means. Including are plenty of tips for assembling the bare bones of working kitchen. From salads to desserts, the focus is new American cuisine. [$24.95]


AMAZON


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