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Thursday, Apr 17, 2008


The information is eerily the same. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. These young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. No, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead, this is what Morgan Spurlock, famed documentarian (Super Size Me) learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.


In his fascinating, fly by night overview of the Middle East crisis, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, Spurlock uses the impending birth of his first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing. While premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.


It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 


Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.


Where Spurlock stumbles is in the follow up department. He never gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Instead, it’s all passive aggressive acceptance. In Saudi Arabia, he gets the party line and nothing more (including a memorable scene where two teenage school boys are questioned under the watchful eye of their suspicious teacher and principal). A group of Hassidic Jews paint the people of Israel in an equally unappetizing light. They rant and rave, screaming their hate filled threats, before literally pushing the filmmaker off their part of the world stage.


In both cases, our host doesn’t try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.


A well-defined motive is also missing here - and the ‘what are we afraid of/my baby’s future’ angle is specious and frequently forgotten. We understand implicitly that the world is not the way our power-mad officials make it out to be. We also are clear that not everyone in the Middle East wants to hug a Westerner or adopt an Israeli. Somewhere in between lies the truth, and yet Spurlock is only interested in putting forth his ‘Kumbaya’ concept of globalization (though he purposefully mocks said message toward the end).


Still, as the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game goofiness, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.



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Thursday, Apr 17, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
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WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS Scheduled release date: May 9


Oh, if only the saying were true.


But you know what really should have stayed in Vegas? Cameron Diaz’s and Ashton Kutcher’s performances in this hammy, showy, circus-freak-act of a flick, that’s what.


What Happens in Vegas is a cautionary tale about two people who wake up to a helluva hangover when they realize they got hitched during a night of wild partying.


How very Britney Spears of them.


Then, just as the unhappily hitched couple is talking annulment, one of them wins a huge jackpot with - wait for it, wait for it - the other’s quarter.


So now they need a high-powered divorce attorney, marital counseling or, because this is a stupid comedy, both.


Queen Latifah and Dennis Miller show up to mug for the camera; Diaz turns on her weird, shrieky, herky-jerky schtick; Kutcher acts dumb and makes us all question Demi Moore’s judgment, and for every second I continue to watch this trailer, I die just a little bit inside.


Rating: Zero dancing popcorn guys (out of 4)



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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008

In preparation for Monday’s feature piece on director Darren Lynn Bousmann’s revisionist rock musical, Repo!: The Genetic Opera, SE&L sorts through the past forty years on the Great White Way to find five additional projects that may just revitalize the still flatlining film genre.


Okay all you young hot shots. It’s time to pitch your next project to the same old unimpressed suits. Sure, you’ve got a half-completed script by some wannabe indie icon who used to be stripper but now supports liberal causes while continuing to cook up more mindless pop culture reference strewn dialogue. There’s also that lame J-Horror remake you’ve been mulling over. The scary movie ship may have already sailed (guess that ‘gorno’ project is out as well), but there’s probably some gullible teens left out there willing to give more of their disposable text messaging money. A-listers aren’t returning your calls, and the current controversies like the War in Iraq and Britney’s battle with media mental illness have proven to be box office poison. So what do you do? How do you get your foot in the door and your lips locked on some studio’s keister before they claim you’re washed up and should be scripting reality TV instead?


Here’s an idea - ROCK IT! That’s right, the big screen musical is still reestablishing its must-see legs, and if you can’t find the perfect guitar-oriented project among the current crop of smelly greasepaint and roaring crowds, perhaps a look back at theater’s sketchy past might help. There are lots of undiscovered prospects among the Andrew Lloyd Webber revivals and jukebox jive of the Footloose/Xanadu zeitgeist. Since SE&L is never one to close its eyes toward any entertainment possibility, we gladly submit the following six shows for your consideration. Some were minor hits. Most were outright flops. But what’s clear about each and every one is that they were way before their time - and one or two may still be waiting for said era to finally arrive. Yet with the right approach, and the proper salesmanship, you’ll be rolling in development dough in no time. And don’t forget our finder’s fee. In this business, nothing is free.




The Lieutenant (1975) Book, Music and Lyrics by Gene Curty, Nitra Scharfman and Chuck Strand


The Pitch: It’s Stephen Sondheim meets the Seventh Circle of Hell!


What better way to set tongues wagging and critics complaining than this, an actual opera (meaning no linking dialogue) centering on the horrendous events of the 1968 My Lai Massacre. That’s right, the forward thinking efforts of these first (and last) time musical makers believed that ‘70s audiences were ready for a show featuring the senseless slaughter of hundreds of Vietnamese women and children, all set within the infamous trial of Lieutenant William Calley and 13 other officers. With song titles such as “Kill”, “Something’s Gone Wrong”, and “The Conscious of a Nation”, this was some high minded stuff, especially for a public still reeling from Watergate and the generational divide the war created. Opening and closing in a record eight days (after nine performances and seven previews), now may be right for such a revisionist work. If Sweeny Todd can heartlessly slit throats while singing, why can’t misguided US troops mow down innocent civilians while carelessly crooning? Seems reasonable enough.




Paris (1982) Book, Music and Lyrics by Jon English


The Pitch: It’s 300 meshed with Les Miserables!


It started off as a joke. Back in 1982, English was writing songs for his 12th album, Some People. Inspired by the mythical legends of the Trojan War (and the recent Ultravox hit “Vienna”), the musician decided, on a lark, to write a tune for the hero of the classic Greek tales. When DJs played the song however, they misinterpreted it as a shout out to the famous French capital. Thus began a long gestation that saw English finally finish his epic exercise, record a star studded soundtrack album (including contributions from the London Symphony Orchestra) and chalk up some impressive sales. Warner Brothers dropped the CD from its catalog, anyway. Several stagings in Australia later, and Paris now seems poised to be a lost genre gem. Just imagine Zak Snyder revisiting his Spring 2007 success with Gerard Butler back as the title character (he was the Phantom in the film version, you know) and it’s a possible muscle musical extravaganza.




Dude (1972) Music by Galt MacDermot, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni


Pitch: It’s the Book of Genesis jerryrigged into a Peace and Love paradigm - Kerouac style?


Conceived as a major multimedia presentation and featuring the work of Hair pair MacDermot and Ragni, this story of the road trip journeys of the title Everyman was highly anticipated by New York elitists. After all, while it seems dated and quite dopey today, the duo’s previous effort (with help from James Rado) was the seismic shock the staid Broadway musical had desperately needed. But from the very logistical foundations of the show (once described as a ‘circus taking place in a primeval forest’) to the disastrous previews, the ‘happening’ was constantly taken off the boards and reworked - unsuccessfully, one might add. It ran for only 16 performances. While not as lambasted as MacDermot’s folly of a follow-up (a futuristic mess entitled Via Galactica) it’s clear that Ragni’s approach was too technologically sophisticated for an 8-track and analog mentality. Thanks to our newfound addiction to the digital domain, this could be resurrected as the late author/composer intended.




Carrie (1988) Book by Lawrence D. Cohen, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and Music by Michael Gore


Pitch: It’s the Hairspray of Horror!


It remains one of the most notorious flops in the annals of Broadway, a show so misguided that a cult of devotees practically sprang up somewhere around Act II. Adapting Stephen King’s novel about an outcast teenager with telekinetic powers is not the worst idea for a major musical, but the interpretative approach seemed antithetical to what late ‘80s audiences wanted. After all, they were lining up in droves to see people dressed like cats! The cast contained some stage powerhouses, with Betty Buckley prominent as the religious fanatic mother of the title character, and Debbie Allen handled the complicated choreography. But for many in the audience for the five total performances, the leap of logic - and faith - required to accept the onstage situations was just too great. Yet as Marc Shaiman has shown, it’s possible to take a straight film, rework it for song and dance, and then bring it back for another shot of cinematic glory. Maybe Pitchford and Gore can give him a ring. 




Blitz! (1962) Book, Lyrics, and Music by Lionel Bart


Pitch: It’s Merchant/Ivory meets All This And World War II!


His Oliver! remains one of the great stage experiences of all time, a perfect amalgamation of man, melody, and material. So when Bart decided to turn his mannered musical hall attention to one of the greatest tragedies ever to beset Britain (the Nazi bombing of London and the surrounds) it seemed like the perfect subject for the slightly insane maverick. After all, this was an award winning composer who couldn’t read music and had to whistle all his ideas to a stenographer. Taking the standard star-crossed lovers storyline (featuring two feuding families, one Jewish, one Cockney) and superimposing it onto massive stage recreations of Victoria Station, Petticoat Lane, and the Bank Underground required a great deal of that patented Bart chutzpah. While UK audiences loved it, keeping the show on the boards for 568 performances, costs and perceived American indifference toward the subject matter kept it from our shores. With its built in spectacle and Bart’s tunes, this has massive mainstream movie potential.




Kronborg: 1582/Rockabye Hamlet/ Somethin’ Rockin’ in Denmark (1976) Book, Lyrics, and Music by Cliff Jones


Pitch: It’s the Greatest Tragedy of All Time as a Full Blown Rock Concert!


Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (where it later appeared as part of a radio series) Cliff Jones’ cobbled together take on the archetypal melancholy Dane sounds like a Jurassic Park level horrendous idea. Yet apparently our neighbors in the Great White North just couldn’t get enough of it. After several successful stagings and tours, Broadway vet Gower Champion brought the show to a Bicentennial batty New York. Closing after only seven performances, it was clear that audiences were more interested in celebrating the USA than sitting through a baffling take on the Bard. Jones has revived the show several times, changing the title to suit the situation. With such songs as “Don’t Unmask Your Beauty to the Moon”, “He Got It in the Ear”, and “The Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Boogie”, the camp factor alone should guarantee a certain susceptible demographic. Besides, all you have to do is convince school-age adolescents that this be-bopping update will replace having to read the actual play, and they’ll line up in droves.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
Jason Rohrer's at it again, with a fascinating little game that has a lot more to say than its primitive layout would imply.

What can we learn from Idealism?  For one, there’s more to Jason Rohrer than Passage, and there’s more to The Escapist than Zero Punctuation.


Of course, a lot of folks already know this; The Escapist has quickly become a hotspot for intelligent commentary on the gaming medium, and this is actually Rohrer’s second project for the magazine after the mindbuster that was Perfectionism.  Rohrer has taken up residence at The Escapist, it seems, and both Perfectionism and Idealism can be found there.


Idealism is a fascinating little game, especially when put next to Perfectionism.  For one, both were created in Game Maker, a framework and scripting language for game creation (to seriously oversimplify its capabilities), which may partially account for the similarities in presentation.  Both games are presented on a solid black background, using simple shapes and sprites evoking the graphics of the Atari 2600, and both games start out as incredibly simple exercises in button-pushing and turn into head-scratching mindbenders as they progress.  They are both decidedly brief experiences, but both can be returned to and approached in a variety of ways.


What Rohrer likes to do, however, is infuse his games with some sort of symbolic value, and this is where the contrast between Perfectionism and Idealism starts to take shape.  Where Perfectionism was largely motivated by introspection—namely, Rohrer’s need to go over and over and over his work until it’s exactly the way he wants it—Idealism seems motivated by an observation on the industry.  As Rohrer himself puts it in his own explanation of the game, “What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?”  It’s the classic design conundrum, and it happens in games, in music, in art, and in literature, popularly known as the sell out.  How far can an idealistic worldview take you in your outlet of choice, and what would it take for you to compromise those ideals?


The way that Rohrer goes about exploring these ideals is fascinating.  The primitive means used to force the player into making these decisions is perfect, as the presentation never distracts from the issues at hand.  Without wanting to give too much away, Rohrer has encapsulated his moral quandary in a shooter that can move as quickly or as slowly as the user wants.  The decision to “sell out” can be a quick, split-second decision, or it can be a calculated, strategic move. 


What I wonder, however, is what point Rohrer is trying to make when he ramps up the difficulty so far at one point as to make the game nearly unplayable.  Perhaps he’s making the point of how meaningless the choice ultimately is; perhaps he just likes the number 23.  If anyone out there in game land can get through the point I’m talking about here (and you will know it when you see it), I hope you leave a comment and tell me what happens.


So?  What are you waiting for?  It’s free!  And it’ll probably run on your old 486 (don’t quote me on that).  Go and give it a look.


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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
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This week: Just blew your paycheck on a shiny new toy? What did dad always tell you? No, the other thing. Always read the instructions! Whether you’re building a desk or activating an interstellar planetary defense interface unit, spend a few moments reading the manual or else all is lost.


PopMatters offers exclusive early looks at new episodes of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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