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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

In a time when many companies are content to slap a new coat of paint or throw in a couple new maps or unimpressive features on games, call them sequels and ask consumers to pay full sticker price for them, Valve’s The Orange Box is a bargain of incredible proportions.  For a mere $60, The Orange Box includes first-person shooter classic Half Life 2, its quasi-sequels Episode 1 and Episode 2 (the second of which hadn’t been previously released), the wildly inventive puzzle game Portal, and last but not least, Team Fortress 2, the best team-based multiplayer shooter on the Xbox 360 not named Halo 3Half Life 2‘s reputation is well-known, and Team Fortress 2 is a sequel to a cult favorite a long time coming, but the biggest surprise is Portal. Combining first-person shooter mechanics with simple-to-learn, difficult-to-master puzzles, Portal is arguably the best of the entire batch.  But even if puzzles aren’t your bag, just about everyone will find something to love in The Orange Box. Other video game companies be warned, Valve may have just raised the bar on giving gamers their money’s worth.


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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

The Dixie Chicks’ sweep of the Grammy Awards seemed a vindication of their decision not to “make nice” with their erstwhile country fans. Seeing themselves as the Post-Comment Dixie Chicks, they reframe the controversy as a matter of free speech.  This film shows their healthy integration of professional and personal politics, and also makes clear the significance of the Chicks in broader contexts including free speech, the growing anti-war movement, and their experience as women in the music industry.



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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

How does House, M.D. manage to garner not only popular success but critical approval, as well?  By now, even the most casual of television viewers will know the answer:  sharp writing and whip-smart acting.  In just three seasons on air the absurdly talented duo of creator David Shore and lead actor Hugh Laurie have managed to re-establish the modern medical drama while simultaneously subverting many of its hallowed conventions.  For in Dr. House we have a protagonist whose very charm and likeability is intrinsically supported and bolstered by an unrelenting personal abrasion and callousness.


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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

A stunning late-career album from the country legend—free of gimmick, chock full of guests that add to the record’s authenticity. What might seem like something commemorative, a re-recorded “greatest hits” made in celebration of a great country singer’s career, is, in fact, far too vital and alive to be passed off as some late-life cash in. There isn’t an insincere moment to be found on this album. These songs are well-selected and well-executed. The guests here make not so much for a passing of the torch, but more a meeting of minds both young and old to play the music they love. Should Rick Rubin decide to take on another legend for a late-career resurrection, he’d do well to look at this record.  It is free of gimmick and ploy, happy to make the songs Charlie and company love. And the results make for a must-have record. More importantly for Charlie Louvin, though, this is a record Ira would love.


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Saturday, Dec 1, 2007


When Fox finally put Futurama out of its constantly pre-empted prime time misery, fans were flush with recognizable disgust. The network had never done right by Matt Groening’s brilliant Simpsons follow-up, and the constant schedule changes had left audiences little room to grasp the intricacies and details of the sublime sci-fi series. Almost instantly, the rumors began. With the DVD season sets selling so well, would the studio salvage the show ala Family Guy, hoping the retail popularity would translate into ratings? Or better yet, would another company come along and take over completely. Oddly enough, neither occurred. Out of production since 2003, Comedy Central recently announced it would bring back the award winning animated sitcom - but on some intriguing new terms. Groening and the gang would produce four direct to DVD “movies”. After their release, the cable network would chop each one up into four individual ‘episodes’, thereby bringing back 16 new installments to impatient devotees everywhere.


Now, the first one is here and it was well worth the wait. Subtitled Bender’s Big Score, and featuring the return of all the original characters (including some you thought the show was through with), this revamped version of the Futurama premise remains true to its tenets. For those unfamiliar with the show, a lonely 21st century pizza boy named Philip J. Fry accidentally winds up cryogenically frozen. A thousand years go by before he’s revived. Looking up his only living relative - Professor Hubert Farnsworth, a senile old scientist who’s his distant nephew, 30 times removed - Fry gets a job with the scientist’s interstellar delivery service. He works with Turanga Leila, the one-eyed ship captain, who along with Bender Rodriguez, an automated bending unit, spoiled rich intern Amy Wong, stumbling staff doctor John D. Zoidberg, and resident bureaucrat Hermes Conrad try to keep the company afloat. Living in New New York, Fry has a hard time adjusting. Luckily, his friends are around to keep his spirits up.


After leaving viewers hanging at the end of Season 4, this unusual update is a classic reminder of the show’s cartoon chaos theory. When intergalactic Internet scammers managed to undermine the entire economy of Earth - including the recently revived Planet Express crew - lovable robot Bender becomes a time traveling agent of theft for the aliens. By using an encrypted code found on Fry’s butt, the automaton can open up continuum voids and walk right into them. From there, it’s just a matter of heading into the past and grabbing as much loot as possible. Of course, this creates a paradox - two identical beings cannot occupy the same time and space as each other. We soon learn that the duplicate is doomed. As everyone on the planet is rendered penniless, comely Cyclops Leila falls for Head Museum worker Lars. He seems like the perfect guy for her, much to Fry’s chagrin.

While purists may balk at another time travel tale (the creators have often commented on how the obsessives typically whine about the various physical and metaphysical contradictions involved) the use of such a setup, in conjunction with the masterful explanation of the staff’s return, lead to one of the best Futurama outings ever. The initial jabs at the mindless “Box Company” that ‘cancelled’ Planet Express’s contract is priceless, and the effortless manner in which the series reintroduces and reincorporates characters back into the mix is amazing. Even quite cult faves like Scruffy the Janitor, Hermes’ wife LaBarbara, and the all powerful Hypnotoad find their way into the narrative. While it seems rather odd that this seamless cinematic presentation will eventually be divvied up into four self-contained episodes (Groening has promised to preserve the overall arcs as well), the fact remains that, as with previous works by these animated anarchists, when this show sizzles, it burns hotter than a distant sun.


The ability to juggle several stories has often been a Futurama trademark, and the main ones here are all wonderfully realized. There is real emotion in Leila finally finding love, and the resolution is both heart-rending and lifting. Similarly, Bender’s transformation into a totally compliant time thief results in some stellar moments of satire (he brings the Mona Lisa back half finished, claiming that Da Vinci might not make it to “The Last Supper”). Hermes’ accident gives this often forgotten paper pusher a wonderful dilemma to overcome. Toss in the aliens, the last act space battle, the constant references to other sci-fi signposts, and the solid voice acting (Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Katie Segal remain a masterful comic trio) and you’ve got a flawless stand alone package that perfectly preserves everything that made the series a woefully unappreciated gem.


Bringing the series back via DVD is also a genius move, since it allows for all the context and concerns voiced by Groening over the years to finally be addressed. The full length audio commentary is a delicious dirt dishing overview of the entire Fox debacle as well as the production problems the renewed episodes had to overcome. Several of the cast members are on hand, and they lend a level of geniality and wit to what is already a very funny discussion. The various featurettes and bonus elements also add to our enjoyment. We get more Al Gore (always a welcome reference riff), an actual scholarly lecture on the numerous math based in-jokes and ideas used in the series, a collection of character designs and sketch galleries, some delightful deleted scenes (including a visit from the Robot Mafia), and an actual episode of the wildly successful 31st Century sitcom, Everyone Loves Hypnotoad. After viewing it, you’ll see why it’s so popular.


With three more films on the way, and the entire company back for however long the haul remains, it’s a safe bet that Futurama will finally find the notoriety (and niche) it deserved before Fox buried it for more and more football. Reruns on Adult Swim/Cartoon Network have done fabulously well, and when that contract expires, Comedy Central can be counted on to amplify the show’s already impressive profile. It’s just a shame that we had to wait four long years before Fry and his fellow futurists could make a return. It’s clear that creativity was not a significant factor in the final determination to end the show. When someone doesn’t appreciate your efforts, why waste time trying to impress them. The fans wanted more Futurama, and the DVD movie Bender’s Big Score delivers exactly that. And as Professor Farnsworth would say, that’s “good news” indeed.


 


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