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Thursday, May 8, 2008
While we've had clues thrown our way, we really don't know for sure which games will be part of WiiWare's launch on Monday. Here's what one writer is hoping for...

Well, here we are.  This is like lying in bed on the day before my birthday, or Father’s Day, or Christmas.  I have a vague idea of what could possibly be in that shiny, enticing giftwrap when I get up, I know what I’m wishing for, I know what I asked for, but I don’t know exactly what I’ll be opening when morning finally arrives.


Yes, Monday brings with it the launch of WiiWare, or Wii Live Arcade, or whatever you want to call it.  Is it an innovative idea?  Well, no, Microsoft and Sony have been offering original downloadable content for quite some time now, some of which defines the consoles it resides on (Everyday Shooter, flOw, Geometry Wars) as much as the big ticket items that get all of the publicity and the numbers.  That it took this long for Nintendo to get on board is both a testament to the power of the library of old games Nintendo had at its disposal via the Virtual Console and yet another aspect of the online experience that Nintendo is shamelessly behind on.


This is not the time to dwell on the Wii’s shortcomings, however; the stable of games that WiiWare has lined up looks immediately appealing and very, very creative.  Remember two years ago, when we were first hearing about the Wii and its nutty little control interface?  Remember the promise that it held, as we dreamed of virtual swordfights and endless tennis volleys that actually increased our heart rate?  Occasionally, that promise is fulfilled, but I don’t think anyone was suspecting the onslaught of minigames and PS2-with-waggle conversions that have ultimately come to define the system for those who would detract from it.  WiiWare, on the other hand, is like a new beginning.  Having independent developers create software for the Wii is like handing the reins to people like us, people who once saw the Wii as a system of infinite possibilities, now offered the chance to realize some of those possibilities.


Much like the Virtual Console, however, we really have no idea which of those possibilities we are going to get to experience come Monday afternoon.  With that in mind, after the jump are five WiiWare games that would look great inside Monday’s shiny wrapping paper…


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Thursday, May 8, 2008


SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 9 May, here are the films in focus:


Speed Racer [rating: 10]


Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie. read full review…
 


Young@Heart [rating: 9]


Young@Heart is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.


Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural reference.read full review…
 


Surfwise [rating: 8]


(Surfwise) delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors.


When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as he.read full review…


Redbelt [rating: 7]


(S)omewhere in Redbelt‘s running time it a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations.

David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage to grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo. read full review…


Other Releases—In Brief


What Happens in Vegas… [rating: 3]


According to self-help gurus and others profiteering from the lovelorn and the lost, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. In this latest lame Romcom from Hollywood’s hopelessly quixotic hackworks, the cosmic realignment has put both parties squarely up Uranus. Making a pair of mismatched New Yorkers (she a power hungry professional, he a sarcastic himbo slacker) hook up over a Sin City shindig of too much booze and not enough brains is the very definition of a cliché. Having them win a $3 million dollar jackpot is aggravating icing on the cake. And let’s not even mention the court ordered six months of nuptials. Leave it to scorched Earth scribe Dana Fox to distill 100 years of he/she cinema into jokes about toilet seats and male horniness. She’s not helped by director Tom Vaughn. He relies on montages to get his mindless messages across, aiming for the cheap seats while never forgetting to pander, pander, pander. Luckily, stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton “I Have a Career, Why?” Kutcher keep things from meandering over into outright nausea. They salvage what little chemistry the movie can generate. The rest is just a pain in the asteroids


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Thursday, May 8, 2008


When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as he.

Thus Surfwise, the excellent new documentary from Doug Pray (Hype! Big Rig) arrives at its first dramatic hurdle. How does a utopian philosopher, part hippy, part hedonist, seem relevant to a drastically reconfigured Type-A society? Especially when the veneer of the Paskowitz’s lifestyle seems so outwardly…odd. Luckily, Pray provides archival footage of the family, as well as current conversations and interviews, painting context and offering clarity where sunswept vistas and well tanned bodies exist. We soon learn that, for little kids, lost in the fantasy fallacy of their nomadic existence, living Dad’s dream was not such a bad way to pass one’s youth. But once adolescence struck, and with it the typical, hormonally charged sibling rivalries and social urges, the Paskowitz clan began to implode.


Pray’s approach comes straight out of the three act story arc school of narrative. Part one focuses on Doc, how he came to his decision to ‘drop out’, and the slightly seedy sex-capades he indulged in before settling down again (he even offers the tacky ‘test scores’ he gave his physical conquests). Part two describes the full blown family dynamic - breakfasts of heavy multigrain gruel, nights sleeping stacked literally one on top of the other. In the middle are idyllic days of beach bum luxury, sequences of rampant poverty and need offset by a chance to live freely, cleanly, and as fully as possible. Doc believes in something called ‘optimum health’, a notion that we can never be completely disease free. But by getting in touch with our inner happiness and sense of well being, we can become happy. 


Part three provides the payoff, the bickering and backbiting that drives the Paskowitz clan apart. As we are introduced to each and every sibling - oldest Dave, followed in quick succession by Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, only daughter, Navah, and ninth child, Joshua - we see how different they appear from their past personas. Each carries a grudge against the others (issues over money, control of the family name, and other competition complications are everpresent) and a huge shoulder sized chip regarding their dad. Most complain about the lack of a formal education, one angry son arguing that, to pursue his dream of being a doctor, he needed ten YEARS of schooling just to catch up.


Others offer more ambivalent condemnation. It’s clearly a case of love/hate, the recognition of an early life in pursuit of pleasure with a middle age bill continually coming due. Most striking is Israel/“Izzy”, a former world champion who now argues with God over the birth of his autistic son. Similarly, David has a supremely self-serving moment when he sings a dark Goth tinged dirge to his father, anger amplified by lyrics that seem more like a whine than wisdom. Pray makes a major mistake during this awkward, off putting moment. Instead of breaking in, or intercutting something that would suggest Dave is doing this on purpose, he simply lets the man reel and rant. It’s not an example of true emotion - it’s showboating for the sake of sensationalism.


Clearly, Doc Paskowitz’s major flaw as a parent was instilling within his kids a feeling of social invincibility and elitism. All strive to be stars, either in the music or motion picture biz. The dejection they wear on their faces, bar bands barely making it, career choices seeing more valleys than peaks, provides a nice counterbalance to all the warm wistfulness. Granted, we do get glimpses of the shoddy campers the family lived in for years, and the bohemian element that surrounded the Paskowitz brood does tend toward shock come time to face the real world. But it seems like for many in the family, normalcy means another kind of specialness. They can’t just be farmers or clerks or plumbers. Something about Doc and the name Paskowitz turns even the most level headed member into an angry adult child.


Fortunately, the head of the now scattered household keeps things in perspective - sort of. Wildly Jewish, he grows somber when he realizes he did nothing to help save his brethren during the Holocaust, and while he’s noted for bringing surfing to Israel, attempts to join their army got him laughed out of the ranks. Still, faith is very important to Doc, and you can sense it whenever he speaks. Maybe it’s a messianic complex taking over, or his decision to parlay his particular story into a self-help book and website, but there is a definite sermon on the mount quality to his catchphrases and lifestyle buzzwords.


Pray’s participation comes in the focus, and Surfwise only slips up once (the aforementioned song by Dave). The rest of the time, the director delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors. This is a gorgeous movie to look at, sunsets providing proof that nature delivers the best light show in town. And since the story is equally compelling, we wind up with a winning combination. Again, few contemporary minds will see what the Paskowitz clan did and think that mimicking it makes sense. After all, we are all caught up in our sullen suburban malaise and need for creature comforts. But there is something inspiring about this tribe that hit the open road to discover the world and themselves. Sadly, what they found wasn’t always pretty or pleasant.



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Thursday, May 8, 2008


David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo.


Mike Terry is a jujitsu instructor who specializes in his own take on the Brazilian form of the art. Noble to a fault, his business is failing, partly because he views his teaching to be more about life lessons than money made. Of course, his fashion designer wife sees things differently. She is sick of being strapped for cash and turning to her family - part of the professional extreme fighting circuit locally - for loans. One night, Mike helps aging Hollywood star Chet Frank fend off a group of attackers. Suddenly, he’s a possible part of show business, with a producer interested in buying in to his novel competition concept. Mike’s wife Sonya then borrows $30K from a loan shark to help Chet’s wife stock her boutique shelves. A misunderstanding leads to a tiff, and soon the debt is being called in. Mike has no choice but to enter the big fight, hoping he can show everyone the value in what he believes in while paying off the marker. 


If there’s one thing Redbelt isn’t lacking, it’s plot. Mamet, known for his knotty narratives, literally overloads this film with more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain roadway. Just when you think he can’t plow more storylines into his situations, the slightly bloated script finds room for five or six more. This doesn’t detract from the movie’s many charms, nor does it destroy the excellent performances overall. But when you, as an audience member, require a firm handle on what’s happening as a mandate for enjoying an already multifaceted story, being constantly sideswiped by more narrative is rather disconcerting. By the time we’ve been introduced to the lawyer with a past, the mobster with a decent heart, and the entire MMA universe, we’re woozy from all the overtures. And, of course, Mamet isn’t done misdirecting us.


Luckily, we enjoy the subterfuge, up to a point. Redbelt languishes over scenes of simmering rage, people loaded with pent up anger waiting for the right moment to strike out and make others suffer. The two or three fight scenes are sensational, but Mamet isn’t out to make a thinking man’s action flick. Instead, he hopes to use the brutality of the sport to underline the Zen within the discipline. He gives this job to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he couldn’t have made a better choice. Body primed to play the part, and demeanor indicating a level of philosophical calm that’s almost impossible to illustrate visually, he gives a stirring, commanding turn. As Mike Terry, Ejiofor is required to be both hero and chump, vindicator and victim. He manages each move with wonderfully understated grace.


Equally compelling is the usually middling Tim Allen. Playing an egotistical superstar whose alcohol fueled folly gets Mike in trouble - and then in touch with Hollywood - there’s a real arrogance to his slightly paunchy persona. Other standouts in the cast include Ricky Jay as bad guy Marty Brown, ex-boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini as George the stunt coordinator, and David Paymer as bookie/loan shark Ritchie. Of course, there are some weak links as well, characters that come across as half shaped and ill-advised. Emily Mortimer’s shaky attorney has more personality quirks than a room full of theater majors, and Alice Braga can’t keep her put-upon spouse from being anything but a shrew. Luckily, they represent the only misgivings in what is a uniformly fine company. 


Mamet’s script is no slouch, either. Again, it contains way too much plot for its own good, but a least the writer gives his characters some wonderful lines to speak. While Ejiofor occasionally sounds like a shaman in overdrive, there is a great deal of meaning in his mantras. Equally effective are the many “this is how the real world works” rants coming at Mike from all sides. Sure, all the ‘duty to the academy’ stuff can be a drag, but we enjoy the sentiment anyway. Indeed, much of Redbelt‘s success stems from how easily we forget Mamet’s convolutions and get caught up in the situations. This is a movie that actually works better in its individual moments than as an overall effort. Even the mandatory fisticuffs seem welded on from somewhere else.


Of course, no one expects the mind behind Speed-the-Plow to totally abandon his artistic intentions, and he wasn’t about to make the kind of popcorn fluff the summer season thrives on. But somewhere in Redbelt‘s running time is a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations. Mamet can be faulted for falling back into puzzle box mode. It’s what made his first films such tight genre gems. Here, there’s a feeling that some of the layers are illegitimate, added to make the butt kicking more palatable to a non-six pack crowd. There is no doubt that this writer suggests the literary art at its best. Redbelt may not be representative, but it sure does satisfy at times



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Thursday, May 8, 2008


Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural reference.


Thus we have the set up for the fantastic feel good documentary, Young@Heart. Director Stephen Walker chronicles the preparations by the titular Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), using the various members as a starting point toward a greater understanding of how we age. From the moment we see Eileen Hall onstage, her bawdy British pepper-pottiness caressing the lyrics to the Clash classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, we know the juxtaposition of song to senior will be part of this movie’s main modus. It continues as various others wrestle with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, and the Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”


And for the most part, we don’t really want much more. The rehearsal material is so warming, so undeniably uplifting and joyful that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Since we get to know many of the faces here, their voices giving way to backstories loaded with compelling history, the pain we feel is as pure as the passion these oldsters have for performing. One of the most intriguing scenes in the entire film shows Young@Heart overseer Bob Cilman growing tired of missed lyrics and off beat stumbles. The moment he threatens to cancel the tune, the entire chorus responds. Give them a chance, they chime in, they’ll figure it out. Watching them prove him wrong (or right) symbolizes everything that makes this movie so special.


There are other sentimental set-pieces as well, moments director Walker knows will leave the audience grasping for the nearest pile of handkerchiefs. When the group is invited to serenade a group of local prisoners, their jailhouse rendition of “Forever Young” is just devastating. Equally compelling is Hall, in her mid 90s, roaming the lobby of her nursing home as she prepares to leave for a gig. Given her own key by the facility, she’s like a breath of recognizable life in an institutional situation sadly lacking same. Of course, the entire narrative revolves around the return of Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, retired ex-participants. Both stricken with serious illness, they want to celebrate their friendship and time in Young@Heart with a dynamic duet of the Coldplay song “Fix You”.


Though we’re hopeful that the men can pull this off (Knittle, while more or less immobile, seems far more capable), there’s an aura of finality that washes over the entire proceedings, making this documentary far more powerful on a personal level. Something similar happens with Joe Benoit, a World War II vet who has used up eight and a half of his cat-like nine lives. Because of the reality of what Young@Heart stands for (these are people solidly in their 70s and 80s), we know that death is always around the corner. But their undying spirit, in combination with the timelessness of some great music, makes it hard for us to fathom - or face - their impending transience.


There are a few gaffs along the way, times when Walker should have pulled back on the ‘cute old coots’ conceit. Additionally, Cilman gets way to much screen time considering what he contributes overall. Sure, he’s called a task master and a hard to please perfectionist, but all of that washes away the second his participants charge up the scales. There’s a tiny bit of stage mother in the man, someone looking to parlay the success of someone else into his own personal import, but it’s a minor expression at best. Instead, what Walker does deliver is scene after scene of sound as celebration, people at the end of their allotted time taking one last drink from a melodious fountain of youth before shuffling off forever.


True, we really don’t get to know these people beyond a certain shorthand sketch (Joe - great singer, Fred - funnyman cut up), and when death finally does visit the group, it’s handled in an almost perfunctory, matter of fact dullness. Or it might just play this way since we want each and every member of Young@Heart celebrated like the hero or heroine that they are. It’s why Knittle’s work with the Coldplay tune becomes a heart-wrenching masterwork, a brilliant combination of music, musician, and meaning. The auditory stars rarely align like this, but when they do, the results are rapturous.


While those in the chorus’ senior citizen demographic might not appreciate how prescient Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” sounds coming out of a pair of aged old biddies, and won’t see the irony in a group of curmudgeons warbling “Staying Alive”,  Young@Heart - the movie and the membership - understand exactly what they are doing. While it’s clear we’re looking at another stellar documentary destined to be left out come Oscar time (Walker began this project, and broadcast part of it, as a BBC television special in 2004), make no mistake: Young@Heart is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.



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