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Monday, Oct 6, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-06...

It seems so long ago that LucasArts was known for anything other than their Star Wars games.  Once upon a time, it may actually have been known more for its classic point ‘n click adventure games than the prize license it wields.  Maniac Mansion, its sequel Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road...these are games that LucasArts built its non-Star Wars reputation on.  Lately, it’s been…well, pretty much nothing.  Nothing, that is, until tomorrow.


Now, we have Fracture, LucasArts’ foray into the world of new-IP first-person shooting.  As with any new IP in this genre that’s not exactly hurting for games, there’s a hook: namely, that one of your guns can raise and lower the surrounding terrain.  Look, this is like playing Populous as one of the people on the ground.  Potentially, this could be (pardon my gushing) AWESOME.  Raise the ground to provide yourself with some cover, reach previously unreachable platforms, really confuse some poor sap who happens to be standing on a hill…the possibilities are tremendous.  This is the sort of mechanic that tends to only reach its potential when the sequel (or the sequel to the sequel) hits, but the idea of this one sounds great.


If you can defeat your enemies by creating impromptu ponds underneath them and drowning them, I’m so there.


I talked last week about having a hard time letting go of my old devotion to Sonic the Hedgehog, and this week features another of my old standbys that I have a hard time letting go of: Crash Bandicoot.  Granted, the last couple of Crash games have been just fine, honestly, but they’re not as absorbing and certainly not as novel as the original PlayStation versions of the games.  Part of that might have something to do with the fact that Crash, as a character, was designed with the limits of the PlayStation in mind; a large part of Crash’s character design was around creating a character using polygons that looked like he was actually made up of a bunch of polygons.  Crash has always looked a little awkward, but it was perfectly natural on the PlayStation.  The current generation of systems hasn’t quite figured out how to render the bandicoot such that he looks natural in HD.  Maybe Mind Over Mutant can figure out the secret.


This year’s editions of EA and 2K’s competing NBA franchises come out this week too, and hey!  There’s an Etch-a-Sketch game of some sort coming out for the PC, too.  Who wants to bet they get sued because someone shakes the microprocessor clean out of their laptop just trying to clean the screen?


What are you looking at this week?  What did I miss?  Scope out the full release list and a trailer for Fracture after the jump!


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Sunday, Oct 5, 2008

The theory that sequels should exceed their originals is nothing new to the filmmaking machine. Most big budget blockbusters attempt the “pile on” conceit when creating a follow-up to a smash summer hit - more robots, more explosions, more stylized CG spectacle. The conventional thinking is that audiences want the same thing, just much more of it. The horror genre tries the same strategy. When Jason Voorhees kills several teenagers in any number of Friday the 13ths, you know that the next visit to Camp Crystal Lake will be bigger, badder, and bloodier. It’s the same with other fear franchises like The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Fledgling series Feast wants to capitalize on the cult status of the original Project Greenlight to set up a gruesome collection of gross outs. Thankfully, Feast II: Sloppy Seconds doubles everything that made the first film so unforgettable.


The morning after the initial attack, a few survivors remain. The Bartender is picked up by Biker Queen, sister of Harley Mom. She and her gang of roughrider gals want revenge on the guy who betrayed their friend and fellow chopper chick. Elsewhere, a pair of dwarf wrestlers who also own the town’s only locksmith establishment are out to escape the creatures who interrupted their recreational fun (read: sex with a buxom babe), while a car dealer known as Slasher discovers his Secret-preaching wife is sleeping with his number one salesman. And Honey Pie, who escaped the melee the first time around, is back battling sexually aggressive monsters with the same slapstick struggles. As the small town is overrun with repugnant randy fiends, our rag tag group tries to infiltrate the only safe building left - a jail controlled by a junkie Meth-head whose desperate to keep them out. 


Geek shows don’t get more gloriously gruesome than Feast II: Sloppy Seconds (new to DVD from Dimension Extreme and The Weinstein Group). They also don’t offer up this many splatter rampage laughs. This is one funny, fudged up film, an outright amplification of everything John Gulager did when given the opportunity to make his original madcap monster movie. Simultaneously schlocky and sickening, with just enough creature carnality to make you question the sanity of everyone involved, Feast II simply picks up where the first film left off, tosses in a bunch of tattooed biker chicks, a pair of wrestling midgets, and enough vomit, blood, and beast bodily fluids to start a specimen lab. Then it treats everyone as a potential victim and goes gangbusters for the throat. The result is something rare in the world of cinematic scares - a completely fearless offering that has the audacity to exceed audience expectations while stumbling along to its own unique drummer.


The first thing you notice about Feast II is how Gulager riffs on recent independent mythos. There’s lots of Tarantino here, as well as some Rodriguez lifts and a couple of looks back to early era Raimi, Romero, Fulci, and Jackson. Yet as a filmmaker, the son of Clu understands how best to handle his homages, using the boffo bits to accentuate his often unhinged ideas. This is not to say that Gulager has nothing original to offer. Any film that has sex crazed creatures running around trying to copulate with everything that walks (including pets) while tearing said potential partners limb from bloody limb is exploring underserved terror-tory. Indeed Feast II is really obsessed with finding as many unusual ways to destroy a human (or creature’s) body as possible. And for the most part, we are willing to watch the funky foul slaughter in all its Unrated glory.


In a film full of extremes, the best/worst is perhaps the scattershot autopsy of a supposedly dead monster. As our wannabe surgeon slices open the corpse (with a blowtorch, of all things), we see various viscera. As the exploration goes deeper, there are torrents of bile, lots of post-mortem flatulence, and a shower of stinky beast spunk that would make a paid porn star jealous. Clearly looking to be as irreverent as possible, this is the point where fans will either stay on board, or balk at Gulager’s outright offensiveness. Feast II doesn’t want to play by the standard genre rules, should they mandate the protection of old ladies or little babies. Nothing is safe or sacred here, and in many ways, that’s the movie’s specialty… and saving grace.


Sure, some of the sequences don’t work. Honey Pie’s endless physical comedy torment in a local five and dime becomes dull - especially when we, the audience, see her potential escape routes staring her square in the face. Equally drawn out is a rooftop roundelay where all the remaining characters get a few faux emotional beats. After the frenetic pace of the opening, and the nonstop carnage that ensues, seeing individuals we barely know aching about their personal problems offers little direct interest. Still, when Feast II falls back onto its buckets of bloodletting, we gladly accept the atrocities. After all, the legacy of movie macabre is peppered with crazed claret carnival barking - and most fans find themselves lining up again and again.


Besides, everyone is clearly having a good time uncorking the awfulness. On the cast and crew commentary included on the DVD, Gulager and the gang marvel at the hideousness of this version of the film (read: lots more gore and boundary-pushing brazenness). They giggle at inside jokes and wonder aloud how they ever thought they’d get away with such nastiness. Of course, with Part Three on the way, they recognize the need to save some splatter for later. The disc also contains a look at all the Gulager’s involved (along with John, Dad Clu and brother Tom make an appearance) and you can tell the family enjoys working together. Finally, the Making-of featurette finds the residents of a small Louisiana town startled by the sudden influx of a major movie production - and lots of latex body parts.


Indeed, shaking up the standard genre dynamic is at the core of Feast II: Sloppy Seconds strategy. J-Horrors dark haired spook showboating is dead, and Eli Roth has taken torture porn and its surrounding influence back to the urban legend realm where such faux snuff films belong. Michael Bay is remaking every ‘70s’/‘80s franchise he can find (next up - The Puppet Master movies) while zombies still can’t catch a respectable break. Maybe making a good old fashioned literal flesh feast is the right way to go. Forget the explanations and rationales - bring on the offal and aim as low as you can. If you enjoyed the first film, Feast II will definitely provide your mandated Andre True connection. If you haven’t had the pleasure of being fully Gulagered yet, this is as good a place as any to start. Gore doesn’t get more goofy than this.


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Friday, Oct 3, 2008

On his blog a few weeks ago, Kevin Kelly celebrates what I complained about in this recent column: the growing ability to monitor and measure everything. I argued that fashioning databases of ourselves reduces our capacity for selfhood and enslaves us to quantitative ways of evaluating our experiences; Kelly, however, sees all this “metering” as an opportunity to create shareholder value.


In the long run, there is nothing that cannot be made more valuable by metering it. (And in this recursive world, even metering is not too cheap to meter, so metering the meters is a good strategy as well.) We are rapidly inventing new sensors to cheaply, accurately, and continuously measure all things in all dimensions: geo-graphical location, speed, consumption, health, fitness, repairablity, connection, performance, rest, charge, and a million other vectors.


It’s true that you can’t profit from what you can’t measure. But it still seems short-sighted to celebrate everything being metered, and to promote the incursion of measurement further into the private lives of individuals, as if they are being measured for their own benefit. It’s instead the final obliteration of idea that any part of life takes place outside of the commercial nexus. To this vision of the future, everything of any significance, any piece of self-knowledge or self-enhancement will come filtered through the valves and gauges of the commercial machine. Outside of that, we don’t actually exist; unmeasured we are ghosts. It won’t be impossible to be a ghost in this future, but it will be a difficult choice to stick to; it will be hard to be content with merely haunting the lives of others, who will most likely not have made the same choice, since the blandishments of the measured life are not negligible.


What are these blandishments? Kelly points to the “freeconomy” our data streams support: “Cheaply metering data, in fact, is what propels the free economy. Metering is a type of attention. Products and services will be given away in exchange for the meta data about their use. Data about the free is now more valuable than the free thing itself.” On the surface that sounds like nonsense: If the thing is free, than it has no economic value to anyone. But the stuff is not truly free. Kelly continually labels goods and services as “free” even when the payment is being extracted as surveillance: “I can get free email, free storage, free photo manipulation tools, free genealogical sharing, free phone service, free twittering, free .. well almost free anything ... knowing that the hosts are monitoring (metering) my usage.” Being watched is the cost, and for most people it is negligible, because they are online exhibitionists. (Social networking, as I was trying to argue here, invites us all to become online exhibitionists, an attractive appeal because the public forum—where our behavior can be “metered”—is the primary place to establish our selfhood, which, in a mediated world, derives from being observed and judged.) But nonetheless it can be very costly, as the information is used to construct filters around us, affecting the choice architecture we confront and subtly changing just what it is that we are “free” to do, online and elsewhere. The more data we generated, the more we become confined by the preferences it predicts for us. The field in which we can discover spontaneity, or experience serendipity, shrinks. Perhaps in the future we will look back and see that these qualities were worth surrendering, that spontaneity was overrated. But chances are that the impossibility of spontaneity will make the promise of spontaneity a very powerful marketing tool.


Of course, there is the alternate possibility that the avalanche of data will create a new field for accidental discoveries and serendipitous linkages. If metering is as recursive as Kelly predicts, with metering itself being metered, and so on, the infinite flow of information will become even more unmanageable. With an infinite pool to draw from, “usefulness” and meaning can be extracted with the same arbitrarity that allows astrology to derive useful information from the stars. It requires only a clever manipulator of data to proclaim a significance to a pattern in the miasma. Rhetorical skill trumps statistical analysis when there are always more and more statistics to draw from and present as truth. Objective truth recedes even further from access as the data tide rises. The more data there is, the easier it is to lose sight of the correlations that truly signify—whatever that means. As Kelly himself notes, “The skills to parse and divine meaningful patterns out of this new environment will become paramount and eagerly sought.  Those who control the gateways to this metered information will be kings.” “Divine” is an apt choice of words. But controlling the gateway will be less important than having the unscrupulous facility to manipulate the information that is flowing. This is the mettle from which kings of the information age are made—demagoguery.


Measuring everything merely intensifies the need for trustworthy filters, which makes the service Google provides more necessary. “Google and web 2.0 companies realize this,” Kelly writes of the looming information treasure trove. “They meter everything they can because the data about things is more valuable than the thing itself.” At face value, this can’t be true. Metadata is derivative of the “thing”; without the thing that people are primarily interested in knowing about, there is no metadata from which to extract value. It’s like arguing that the credit-default-swap market can continue to expand without any underlying loans to insure. (Arguably the credit crisis exploded in part because investors lost sight of the relevance of those underlying loans to those swaps and began trading CDS contracts as though they were independent assets.)


Measuring everything is clearly valuable to Google, but not necessarily for us, who are interested in things in themselves and not profiting from ways to label and sort them. The value of metering is ultimately parasitical.


In fact, the obsession with metadata compromises our ability to enjoy the thing itself, sidetracking us into a preoccupation with quantitative aspects of our consuming experience rather than qualitative ones. The metadata is always other than the thing itself, but it makes it easier to think we’ve processed the thing itself without investing the time to experience it directly. Because so much more stuff is being thrust at us in digitized form, we begin to see our attention as a limited resource that should be budgeted to stretch it the farthest, which means applying it to derivatives (which can aggregate and condense information about many things) instead of things themselves and allow us to process more stuff superficially, with a sense of satisfaction that we have allowed our mind to touch on more things. We become maximizers, and as Barry Schwartz explained in The Paradox of Choice, this can be debilitating.


Our attention doesn’t need budgeting as long as it is fully engaged. Being engaged, truly and thoroughly, is all we reasonably should require of ourselves; consuming more stuff for the sake of quantity itself is fruitless; we’re always left with a feeling that we should have consumed more. Ubiquitous measurement serves only to intensify that feeling.


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Thursday, Oct 2, 2008

Paul McCartney has fondly remarked on the innocence of the Beatles’ early years, a time when they could perform a song that seemed keen on members of the male sex and not, as a result, inspire widespread idle chatter. The song, “Boys”, was in fact a noted crowd-pleaser and, judging by the glow of joy that their recorded version emits, also a favorite of the Beatles themselves.


Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, “Boys” is a busy and rhythmically perky rock tune that features Ringo’s debut as a lead vocalist. Ringo isn’t a natural, polished singer but neither is he entirely dismissible. His technical limitations can serve the purposes of the right material, like on self-mocking songs such as “Act Naturally” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”. On “Boys”, his shouty vocal style brings a spark to the already jaunty song while the accompanying screams, “bop-shuops”, and “yeah yeah boys” from John, Paul, and George make for a boisterous back-up section. The call-and-response dynamic is infectiously spirited. Ringo even delivers a shout-out to a fellow Beatle – “Alright, George” – before the latter proceeds into a guitar solo (which, like his composition on “I Saw Her Standing There”, is strangely patchy and untuneful. I have negligible knowledge of the early history of pop guitar solos. I can’t comment with authority on why George’s guitar-work, circa 1962-1963, might be the way it is beyond the fact of his very unfinished maturation as a musician. Even so, I don’t feel I’m terribly amiss in regarding those two solos as mis-hits).


In adapting the lyric from a female group (the Shirelles, of whom John was a big fan), to four males, the Beatles changed the verses so that, when Ringo alludes to intimacy with his significant other, he sings of kissing “her lips”. Within those lines, a girl is clearly the object of his affection. But the chorus remains unaltered (based on what I’ve read. I couldn’t find the original lyrics), meaning that what follows the claim of a heterosexual relationship are apparent exclamations to the contrary – “Well I talk about boys/Don’t you know I mean boys…/What a bundle of joy”. The effect, from the perspective of a listener, is a confusion of orientations. First Ringo mentions his girl but later he’s convincingly enthusiastic about the subject of boys. Even the song’s opening line is curious in a way. Ringo sings, “I been told when a boy kiss a girl/Take a trip around the world”, almost suggesting that he himself didn’t have experience in kissing a woman. Perhaps he didn’t want any. Thus, someone else had to describe the experience to him.


It’s hard to resist this sort of line-by-line, excessively innuendo-seeking analysis even when it’s obviously overkill. According to their testimonies, the Beatles didn’t harbor any scandalous intentions with “Boys”. The gay connotations of their cover were just incidental to the song’s addictively exuberant quality that attracted them in the first place.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Thursday, Oct 2, 2008

Awards Season keeps chugging away. However, many of the films in focus for 3 October will probably come away empty handed, beginning with:


Towelhead [rating: 1]


“Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors.”

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.  read full review…



Appaloosa [rating: 7]


(I)n a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss.

When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.  read full review…



Blindness [rating: 2]


Blindness delivers…30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance.

Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess.  read full review…



Religulous [rating: 8]


Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation..

There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.  read full review…


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