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by Katharine Wray

11 Dec 2009

The life and times of rich people is not a new phenomenon born of the blogging age. The ruling class have been making sagas out of their personal life for ages. In The Secret Wife, Buckley explores the life and influence of Francoise d’Aubigne, the Sun God’s second and secret wife. Get this book for any addict of US Weekly, OK! Magazine, and other of their kilt. Hopefully, they’ll become hooked on gossip of history rather than yellow journalism. For this secret wife was steady and true; she helped her husband as much as she aided her country.

by Nick Dinicola

11 Dec 2009

Online gaming has become prevalent in this generation of consoles, but curiously, online communication has not grown at the same rate. While many gamers may enjoy playing online multiplayer games, they don’t enjoy communicating with those that they play with. Xbox LIVE has a sullied reputation as a home for racists, sexists, and otherwise annoying fratboys, so it’s no wonder many decide to play without their headset. Since a microphone must be purchased separately for the Playstation 3, many people have decided to play silently rather than pay the extra cash. This isn’t a problem for competitive online games, but it’s a major hurdle for any kind of cooperative game. The whole point of something being cooperative is that the two (or more) players must work together, and that becomes difficult—if not impossible—if they can’t communicate. Some games have devised clever workarounds for this limited communication, and it’s interesting how these alternative methods of communication reflect the design philosophy of the given game. Of course, some games have no alternative, and so it’s up to the players to improvise one.

’Splosion Man is a game that embraces only the bare necessities of gameplay. The controls are the epitome of simplicity, requiring only one button and perfect timing to pass most obstacles. We spend the game jumping over, under, around, and through the environment, occasionally slowing down to solve a platforming puzzle, and the co-op mode is filled with platforms we cannot reach by ourselves. The solution here is just as basic as the rest of the game. If two ‘Splosion Men explode at the same time next to each other, they’ll jump higher than normal. Most of the obstacles in co-op can be easily passed as long as each player understands the timing required. But coordinating something as specific as timing without talking is impossible, so the game yet again provides the most simple of solutions: a countdown timer.

’Splosion Man is all about forward momentum, progress is everything. Any kind of communication that doesn’t help players progress is therefore a waste of time. Since progress only requires jumping and timing, and all players know how to jump, the only thing that must be communicated is the timing. The game takes pride in its ability to distill the gaming experience into as few interactions as possible, and its chosen method of voiceless communication reflects this design philosophy.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Little Big Planet, which allows players to use their whole sackboy body to express emotion as well as commands. Pushing left, up, and down on the D-pad makes your sackperson sad, happy, and angry respectively. Also, holding R1 makes each control stick move one of sackboy’s arms, allowing players to wave, point, or hit each other. The game is largely about social interaction, and with the ability to create and share your own levels, the game turns its fans into a social community. You can comment on levels and can play every one with up to three other people.

Since Little Big Planet is all about social elements, it is natural that it would encourage this socialization even when voice communication isn’t possible. The ability to wave and point allows us to specify locations that we want to go to or items that we want to get and being able to express emotions allows for a deeper level of communication than what ’Splosion Man offers. That’s because Little Big Planet is not simply about progressing though each level. The social interaction with strangers and friends is a core part of the game, and that desire to encourage interaction is represented in the way that it lets us communicate without speaking.

Some games don’t offer any alternative to voice chat (most first-person shooters for example) so that makes it all the more interesting when players come up with their own alternative methods of expression. Examples of this improvised communication are best observed in any Battlefield game.

Battlefield games are mostly played for their multiplayer. Only one game in the series has a dedicated single-player campaign. Matches are always team based and require that certain objectives be met for victory. The maps are large and vehicles are usually necessary to get around. In Battlefield 1943, shooting teammates in vehicles has become the most common form of expression in these games, and the act changes meaning depending on the context. If one player takes a vehicle and another player then shoots at them, this is meant as a request to stop. Since the maps are usually large, it’s inconvenient to respawn far from the fighting without a vehicle. So if another player gets in a vehicle and begins to drive away, shooting is the only way for the driver to know there’s a teammate nearby that wants a ride. However, if the vehicle only seats one person, such as a plane, then the act becomes an expression of anger, since it’s likely that the shooter wanted to drive the vehicle in question but was beaten to it. If two vehicles are driving on a long road with no fighting going on around them, shooting the teammate’s vehicle becomes an act of camaraderie, a kind of banter to kill time while waiting to reach the actual battlefield.

Of course, all this is predicated on the assumption that friendly fire isn’t possible. No amount of damage from a teammate will kill you in 1943, but in Battlefield: Bad Company, friendly fire is turned on. For the most part, shooting a teammate in a vehicle holds the same meaning since regular guns aren’t effective against vehicles—except during the last act: vehicles with mounted turrets are quite effective against similar vehicles, so shooting a teammate is likely to be considered a traitorous act instead of a playful one.

A surprising number of big releases this holiday season have online co-op as a major selling point: Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, and Halo 3: ODST. But for every one of them, it’s nearly impossible to communicate without voice chat. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of these franchises add in some method of communication that doesn’t require a microphone, but until then, players will have to settle for talking with their guns.

by tjmHolden

10 Dec 2009

So, walking around Seoul last month, I had one of these out-of-body experiences that often overwhelm me, where my mind tries to trick me into thinking that I might have been teleported back to some other space-time similar. In this case Japan.


It started with the Christmas-y decorations that were already up, albeit in cellophane, despite the fact that it was early November.

 

And then it grew in insistence as I approached the glitzy neon central train station . . .

 


 

by Bill Gibron

10 Dec 2009

With the increased popularity of Pixar’s computer generated fare and the success of the company’s own attempts at the animation subgenre (Dinosaurs) in comparison to its pen and ink efforts (Brother Bear, Home on the Range), the House that Mouse built - Mickey Mouse, that is - decided to give up on traditional cartooning. That was way back in 2004. While many wondered why the iconic studio that literally invented the type would bail on its creation, the box office (and internal grumbling) indicated a less than hearty reception for their talents. While the business model would still dictate plenty of ‘on-the cheap’ direct to video sequels of Disney favorites (Bambi II, Return to Neverland), Uncle Walt’s dream of a new animated feature every year was dead - at least, from the hand drawn perspective.

Enter John Lasseter, mastermind behind the Toy Story films and newly appointed Head of Animation for the floundering company. His mission - do what he did with Pixar for the lagging Disney luster. Along with Ed Catmull, a decision was made - return to the classic “Broadway style” title the company thrived on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bringing on the creative team of Ron Clements and John Musker, responsible for such past hits as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, The Princess and the Frog was born. Now, some several years (and a few controversies) later, the company’s first effort with an African American focus is ready to hit theaters. Early buzz has it right up there with other classics from the famed fantasy factory, and the trailer does look spectacular.

In celebration of this new phase in Disney “tradition”, SE&L has decided to list its Top Ten Animated efforts by the still mighty maker of such dreams. The first thing you’ll notice is the omissions - that’s right, there’s no Lion King, no Bambi or Dumbo, and no blue Robin Williams-inspired genie spouting off at the mouth. We’ve skipped over the obvious minor miscalculations (Pocahontas, Treasure Planet) and anything that smacks of laughing all the way back to the bank (The Jungle Book 2???). Instead, these are ‘personal’ choices, titles to this day that continuously remind one of what Disney does best - as well as what The Princess and the Frog has to match up against, beginning with:

10. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

After the critical and commercial flop sweat of The Black Cauldron, Disney was reeling. The ‘70s had almost sunk the division (The Aristocats, Robin Hood) and the new decade wasn’t looking any better. But when the team of Clements and Musker - along with associates Burny Mattinson and Dave Mitchner - came up with this adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes inspired Basil of Baker Street stories, it was obvious that a new day was dawning at Mickey’s mansion. From the clever characterization to the memorable Victorian London look, it would mark the moment when Disney Mach 2 arrived on the scene.

9. Hercules (1997)

If The Great Mouse Detective was the beginning of the second phase in classic Disney animation, this terrific take on Greek Mythology was obviously the end…at least, temporarily. Clements and Musker were on hand again, and their freewheeling, anything goes style (along with a terrific villain performance by James Woods) illustrated the new regime’s grasp of the artform flawlessly. The approach is all angular and baroque, reminiscent of the time in the early ‘60s when the company went from its more European roots to a more pop art ideal, and the story still succeeds as legend and a laughfest.

8. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

The 50’s were transitional for Disney, an attempt to move away from the more meticulous aspects of their efforts and, instead, streamline and simplify their creative process. Starting with Cinderella, and moving through Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, the company found a more contemporary way of mixing fairytale with something fresh. This terrific film marked the moment when all the previous experimentation came together. It was the company’s first in Cinemascope, as well as their first original (well…sort of) story. Iconic and endearing, it remains a solid sentimental favorite. 

7. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

It’s interesting to look at the striking and often severe design of this film and compare it to Lady and the Tramp, which came out just four years before. Clearly, the end of the ‘50s was weighing on Disney, and it took the entire decade (the voices were recorded in 1952) to realize this groundbreaking vision. Luckily, it was worth the wait. From the amazing use of form (and horrific manner) for villainess Maleficent to the outstanding saturation and combination of color, it marks a substantive step forward for everyone involved. Oddly enough, it would be The House of Mouse’s last fairytale based production until 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

6. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Who else but your Uncle Walt could take Lewis Carroll’s smashing social commentary about Britain circa 1865 and turn it into a close comic cartoon approximation of itself. While not 100% reverent to the source, this still remains one of the great adaptations of the literary classic ever. It captures the magic, the madness, the illogical beauty and rational unreality of what the Rev. Charles Dodgson was trying to accomplish while avoiding all the more “complicated” parts of its past. All other attempts at bringing these books to life just pale in comparison.

5. The Little Mermaid (1989)

Like a breath of fresh air in a stale, stagnant room, this long simmer project for the House of Mouse (it was on the table as early as 1939!) became the catalyst for the company’s return to prominence. With the sloppy, unsuccessful Oliver and Company arguing for something new and novel, the reigning minds at Disney decided to go the full-blown old school musical route. With the soon to be prolific team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman onboard, and the minds behind The Great Mouse Detective leading the way, it was hoped this movie would appeal to a more modern audience. As the last example of pure hand painted cell animation (no computer assist here), it remains a pure populist masterwork.

4. Pinocchio (1940)

With the success of Snow White came a new found confidence in Disney. The result is what many consider to be the company’s finest animation hour. Just look at the backdrops, the intricate wave splashes and crashes as our little wooden boy battles Monstro the whale. Even the nightmarish moments on Pleasure Island reflect the animators’ belief in their own abilities. Oddly enough, 1940 audiences didn’t really appreciate what Walt and his merry men were doing here. The film was not as financially or critically successful as its predecessor - yet in many ways, it surpassed it.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

For the longest time, this was everyone’s favorite Disney film, almost by rote. Few had ever seen it in its pristine, restored state, but many believed it a beloved masterpiece - and you know what, they’re right. Sure, it’s so European in look and approach that you can practically see the Alps in the background, and the drawings are so meticulous it takes multiple viewings to catch all the nuances, but just one look, and it’s clear why the House of Mouse still stands today. This is one of those rare “golden oldies” that still holds up today - for all the right reasons.

2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

1991 was a landmark year for Disney. Not only did they deliver one of their best loved title to audiences around the world with this very special adaptation of the classic fairytale, but they managed something that no other animated film had ever before - an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year. No other cartoon had found a seat right up there with the big boys. And frankly, it deserved to win. With its amazing Alan Menken and Howard Ashman songs, as well as its timeless storytelling, it is the true definition of a classic. Touching, moving, and very magical. 

1. Fantasia (1940)

Call it the ultimate Disney sampler. It’s all here - the anthropomorphized animals, the attempts at hand drawn realism, the abstract expression of art with music, and timeless qualities of characterization and creativity. Sure, it’s got some questionable elements (since excised by the company) but that doesn’t diminish its brilliance. While many prefer the more “story-oriented” efforts in the company’s catalog, this will always remain the ultimate expression of why Walt and his workers continue to own the genre to this very day. No one was as daring, as inventive, and as in tune with the artform - and its all up there in gorgeous hand drawn splendor.

by Cyrus Fard

10 Dec 2009

A good number of films that come from someone’s childhood tend to suffer from a nostalgia that blinds objectivity, but Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a truly respectful family film that doesn’t condescend to the children, and is mature enough to please adults. The recurring themes of class disparity, the condemnation of greed, and alienation caused by capitalist competition, give the film a distinct feeling of melancholy and at times, paranoia.

Warner’s’ Blu-ray treatment for the film is visually stunning, with colors popping boldly and the music sounding crisp. The technical updates give the 1971 film a modern feel, while production designer Harper Goff’s work on the kaleidoscopic chocolate room can be fully appreciated in 1080p. The litmus test for how much the film has benefitted from the upgrade to HD is the infamously disturbing boat ride scene, which feels much heavier than it originally did. And while memories of the Oompa-Loompas recall muddied brown pastels, now their makeup and outfits seem quite polished and striking.

The Blu-ray packaging for the film is one of the better ones released, made into a 38-page book with vivid production photos, lyrics to songs, and background information on Dahl and the cast and crew.

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