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by Mike Schiller

15 Dec 2008

You honestly can’t go wrong with Telltale games’ offerings this holiday season. Spanning a tremendous range of prices and formats, Telltale’s throwback adventure games are always welcome respite from the shooters, sports, and music games that sell so many copies throughout the year. What makes these games appealing is that they are highly passive gaming experiences; you play these as much to watch a story (one that’ll make you laugh, of course) as you do to play a game. If you want a surreal, chaotic experience, you go for Sam & Max. If you want a highly meta, sarcastic experience, you go for Strong Bad. Both have their merits, both stand up well as episodic adventures, and both will make you laugh. You really can’t go wrong with either of Telltale’s adventures, and even if you don’t want to commit to a whole game, you can buy each series one episode at a time, under $10 for a solid 5 hours of play.  Even if you weren’t gaming back when LucasArts was synonymous for quality point ‘n’ click adventuring, you owe it to yourself as a gamer to give at least one of these two a look.

Sam & Max: Season One

by Karen Zarker

15 Dec 2008

For the resourceful, patient, mystery-minded sleuth wanna be in your life, these three interactive books can be mixed and matched as suites their taste. I know an otherwise upright, honest 60-year-old woman who would lift The Crimes of Dr. Watson from my shelf, squirrel it away to her lair, then ponder its pages, notebook in hand, from the privacy of her reading chair—if she thought I wouldn’t notice it had gone missing. Then next visit, she might eye the Batman and Dracula versions which may not be her first inclination but they just might quench, at least for a time, her insatiable love of mysteries.  We all know how close the law abider and the lawbreaker are to one another. In the spirit of Christmas, I’m going to spare my friend any criminal charges, and make all three a gift for her. You might do well to follow my example.

Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor: An Interactive Mystery (Interactive Batman Mystery)
Dracula’s Heir: An Interactive Mystery
The Crimes of Dr. Watson: An Interactive Sherlock Holmes Mystery

by Bill Gibron

15 Dec 2008

Bettie Page had a face that was meant to be photographed. Forget the body - not that you could, actually - and the various racy poses and sexual situations she found herself in during her career as the ultimate post-war pin-up. Beyond the carnality and peek-a-boo allure, the jet black bangs and seductive, devilish smile, Bettie was the new frontier, the soon to be swinging suburban roulette of ‘anything goes’ interpersonal exploration. From 1950 to 1959, she was the queen of the camera club, the face of fetishism, the initial introduction to the realm beyond many a young man’s fancy, and one of the founding centerfolds for a fledgling little “lifestyle” publication known as Playboy. By the ‘60s, she was a sexual revolution afterthought - mostly by her own hand, mind you.

Like the era’s brassiness, brunette polar opposite, Bettie didn’t hint at anything. Men didn’t have to imagine what she would look like undressed and available in any of their deep, dark secret fantasy frescos. Her career as a model saw her cover the entire randy range, from dominatrix to submissive victim, proto-lesbian partner to outright come hither aggression. It was mail order pornographer Irving Klaw that made Bettie a superstar, turning the temporary NY secretary into the Eisenhower era’s answer to availability. Over the course of five years, she was featured in hundreds of his pictures, stag reels, and special order customer request films. While never explicit, she illustrated a world beyond the macho and the missionary.

By the middle ‘50s, Bettie was indeed an underground luminary, the grindhouse taking notice of her celebrity and featuring her in several striptease spectaculars, including Striporama (1953), Teaserama (1954), Varietease (1955). Mostly reserved for hostess duties, and the occasional supplemental starlet spot to main stage names like Lili St. Cry and Tempest Storm, these filmed burlesque shows illustrated Bettie’s natural stage presence and slight Southern accent (she was born Betty Mae Page in Nashville, Tennessee). While she took acting classes, and even appeared on a few television shows of the day, her career in other mediums was limited. Bettie was just more effective standing still.

During a trip to Florida in 1954, Bettie met Bunny Yeager. The former New York model had branched out to form her own Miami studio, and she was desperate to get one of the more iconic figures in the business before her lens. Setting up a shoot at a local animal park, the now infamous “Jungle Bettie” images gained the attention of a mild mannered Midwesterner named Hugh Hefner. His fledgling men’s magazine was frantic for an infusion of new, noted blood, and Bettie was immediately selected to be 1955’s Playmate of the Year. It would end up being the closest she’d come to mainstream acceptance for at least three decades.

As the ‘60s approached, social unrest and juvenile delinquency became the buzzwords for a generation unable to deal with their unsettled boomer offspring. Everything from music to comic books was blamed for the rise in youth violence and discontent, with Congress eventually getting involved to try and regulate underage morality. The Kefauver Hearings before the US Senate ended Klaw’s postal pulchritude exchange, Bettie being asked (and then excused) from testifying to explain her work in his catalog. In combination with her recent conversion to Born Again Christianity, it was the end of her career as the carrier of America’s anti-bombshell beauty marks.

Like a visage frozen in time, Bettie literally disappeared from the public forum. The next few years saw her marry a second and third time (she divorced her first husband before her rise to pin-up stardom began), work for many religious organizations - including the Rev. Billy Graham - and help spread the Word as a missionary. The ‘70s saw a sensationalized nervous breakdown and a few hospitalizations, and diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia (later contested by the idol and her champions). At one point during the ‘90s, she would spend eight years under State Supervision. All the while, a cult was building around her previous work. Magazines rediscovered her incessant hotness. Rock-n-Roll revivalists made her their human sexual response. Bettie, in typical fashion, was completely unaware of the renaissance.

Without the paparazzi privacy invasion of the post-modern journalistic TMZ front, Bettie was allowed to remain forever young. There were no late in life letdowns, no “where are they now” nods to public interest and individual frailty. When curiosity was renewed in her pictures and prints, she was typically uninterested in interviews or other media requests. On the rare occasions where she’d grant an audience, the express restriction was simple - no photographs. The face and figure that once cried out to be captured by Eastman Kodak was now strictly prohibited from public view. It was an incredibly smart approach, planned or not. Without a current façade to match, Bettie could remain the entity for erotica past.

With the rise in the Internet, the continued reclassification of cinema via scholarship, fandom, and home video, Bettie also became the representation of early exploitation. Companies like Something Weird Video celebrated her importance, while books and biopics tried to explain how a simple Southern girl could become the Queen of Simulated Sexuality. As she aged, she became more reclusive, keeping a close circle of friends and fans. Yet even as awareness increased, she still kept a close watch on her only remaining asset - her likeness. Bettie even made an attempt to secure the rights to her own image (ala the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, etc.), hiring lawyers to help her pursue those ends.

After suffering a heart attack earlier this month (December), she was rushed to a hospital where she fell into a coma. Bettie later died, locked eternally in the mind of those who loved her as the catty, coquettish tease with a look that demanded satisfaction without suggesting anything remotely unwholesome. Call it “naughty naiveté” or “innocent wantonness”, but Bettie Page definitely helped ease an unsettled conservative America into a more open and honest discussion of desire.

While her photos and films may have stayed the private shame of many a man (and woman), they’ve since become a symbol of what was brewing beneath the surface of prim and proper society. Without demand, there would have been no legend. Yet when you look at her inherent beauty and connection with the camera, it’s clear: Bettie Page was meant to be photographed. Thankfully, someone recognized that fact and made it a reality. While she’s gone now, we will have those provocation pictures for all eternity - exactly where someone like Bettie belongs. 

by Thomas Hauner

15 Dec 2008

To say that 2008 has been good to Justin Vernon is the understatement of the year. A little over 12 months ago, prompted by illness and the breakup of a band and girlfriend, he released what many consider the bleakest, most beautiful, set of personal songs put out in the last year and a half. The image of Vernon recording in isolation for three months in his North Wisconsin cabin only added to the mystique and a re-release by indie label Jagjaguwar in February provided a boost, exalting For Emma, Forever Ago into a blogosphere-ordained gem. As the year winds down, Forever Ago finds itself a staple “Best of…” entry and Bon Iver (Vernon’s musical entity) found itself headlining a pair of concerts at the legendary Town Hall.

The unassuming Vernon was charming and comfortable in the storybook auditorium, regularly dispensing self-deprecating quips about the band’s name (“I still can’t pronounce it”) and their undersized repertoire (“This will be our last song because we’ve played them all”). He actually never finished explaining why he’s “not that into encores” because an emphatic fan cut him off, pleading woe is New York this, financial meltdown that, blah blah blah, keep playing! Impressed with the guy’s candor he had no other choice. But his personality by no means outstripped nor compromised the gentle but passionate demeanor of his songs.

With three supporting players and singers Vernon’s set opened with an a cappella refrain, though wavering intonation hindered its potential. Evolving into the recognizable guitar intro of “Flume”, its measured pacing and Americana structure echoed Jeff Tweedy.

Vernon performed some tunes from an upcoming Bon Iver EP entitled Blood Bank. “Beach Baby” showed no extraordinary promise while the title track was the fieriest I’ve heard yet from Bon Iver.

In general, Vernon took advantage of his multi-tasking ensemble, utilizing a battery of drums and drummers to either generate throbbing, explosive beats (“Skinny Love”) or propel a cathartic climax with complete audience participation (“The Wolves”). At other times various percussion instruments added textural accents to Vernon’s verdurous falsetto and Mike Noyce’s accompanying ethereal guitar sounds (“Blindsided” and “Creature Fear”).

Thankfully by show’s end their four-part harmonies were coalescing nicely. This was a great thing as they ended the night with an un-amplified a cappella cover of Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools”. Result: gorgeous.

Opener The Tallest Man On Earth—visually a knockoff Swedish rockabilly—restlessly paced the stage, only pausing at his microphone to sing songs with playful wit and lucid abstractions. His lilted rhythm guitar and intricate picking were a sturdy counterweight for his take on the grizzled, gravely, creaky vocals of Dylan.

by Bill Gibron

14 Dec 2008

Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the new DVD from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.

For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three men she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Greek Isle locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.

At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Special Edition DVD) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.

Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of a DVD extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.

Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis. During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).

No matter the wealth of added content extras or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.

Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.

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