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by David Pullar

21 Jan 2009

Six months after it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I’ve finally managed to read Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.  When I first came across it, I had no particular interest, suspecting it of being overlong and a little pretentious.  Over time, I began to question my snap judgement and I’m thoroughly glad I did.

A Fraction of the Whole is big, it’s true, but not excessively.  Despite involving two separate narrators and spanning forty-something years and three continents, it maintains a remarkable cohesion.  That’s probably because narrators Jasper and Martin Dean, the father-and-son duo at the novel’s centre, are far more alike than either would like to recognise.

Attempting to draw but one theme out of the book (and it’s stuffed full of the things) is a challenge, but it’s probably the power of inheritance and the difficulty of escaping its influence.  Sure, that’s two themes, but they’re closely related. 

Jasper commences the novel as a young man, imprisoned for reasons unknown.  At a loose end, he begins to reflect on the curious legacy of his father Martin and Uncle Terry, Australia’s most hated and most admired man respectively.  We’re not initially told how this eccentric rural family managed such notoriety, but it all comes out in Toltz’s discursive and rambling narrative.  If Jasper is a little bit prompter as an autobiographer than Tristram Shandy in reaching the event of his birth, it’s still a long way into the book.  There’s a lot of family history to cover.

The picture that emerges is of an intelligent boy completely denied a chance of normality by a brilliant but unhinged father.  Martin Dean’s equally strange childhood has left him conflicted by powerful urges—a tendency to megalomania and an overwhelming cynicism about the entirety of human endeavour.  Jasper is really just trying to stay out of trouble.

Toltz’s creations are brilliant.  They are true to life, unpredictable and likeable in spite of their visible failings.  Subtly, Toltz is nudging us towards the question “Is normality all it’s cracked up to be?”

The dysfunctional Deans’ abnormality often looks like good fun.  They create publishing scandals, build mazes, join the criminal underworld, break hearts and have their hearts broken in return.  There are precious few “ordinary” people in A Fraction of the Whole and they’re not nearly as fascinating.

While creating a portrait of a family, Toltz almost accidentally assesses a half-century of Australian history.  There’s our love of outlaws and “larrikins”, our obsession with sport and our tendency to cut down achievers or “tall poppies”.  There’s also our uneasy place in the world—both our fear of cultural inferiority and our fear of refugees in leaky boats.  It’s a lot to cram in, but Toltz manages it easily.

For all my scepticism about literary awards, there’s often good reason for their selections.  A Fraction of the Whole is an amazing achievement.  Spending time with the Deans and their skewed view of the world will make your life a little bit richer.

by Sachyn Mital

21 Jan 2009

After being postponed a week due to snow, the NEXT Music Charity Concert Series (in support of Big Brothers and Big Sisters) at Rack ‘n’ Roll in Stamford kicked off January 16th with a performance by Jukebox the Ghost. While the name Jukebox the Ghost doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the trio’s infectious songs got the patrons grooving whether they came to see the band or were just there shooting pool. Having been likened to Ben Folds, Jukebox perform similarly fun, piano-driven indie-pop that gets fans enthusiastically clapping and dancing along with the music and their nuanced lyrics. The D.C. based band even contains a Ben, the lead singer Ben Thornewill plays piano, and is accompanied by Jesse Kristin on drums and Tommy Siegel on guitar.

After Chris Bro, a DJ on 107.1 The Peak, made his concert series introduction, Jukebox the Ghost took the stage encouraging the mixed audience to draw closer. Several girls, who seemed a bit too young to be in a bar, appeared to be loyal fans of the band (or perhaps of boys in a band). And then there were folks intrigued by the sounds of the warm-up piano-tinkling who pulled away from their billiards table to listen. Jukebox performed several songs off their album Let Live and Let Ghosts, as well as a couple of newer ones. The second song, “Hold it In”, got people clapping along to the particularly catchy piano melody punctuated by Ben’s “whooo”-ing. “Victoria”, which might lyrically hint at a Ben Folds song with its inclusion of the word ‘bitch’, had even more people shaking to its drum stomp sound.

Before the encore new song of “Nobody”, Jukebox dove into an enjoyable rendition of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumber/Carry that Weight/The End” - a song whose broad familiarity appealed to a good many in the bar. This Ben and the band engaged the crowd all night, cracked jokes with each other, noted the irony that they had only one song about a ghost (and home foreclosures) and gave a spirited little shout for Obama. If one is comparing the studio tracks to the performance, a lively concert from Jukebox the Ghost is much more satisfying. Demonstrating their admirable spirit, Jukebox’s first show of 2009 earned them many new fans—they have an auspicious future ahead.

by Zeth Lundy

21 Jan 2009

On tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Costello brings together Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and John Mellencamp for an old-fashioned songwriters’ circle, the kind that Rosanne’s father, Johnny, used to host back in the day. (Indeed, at one of those Cash-helmed circles, Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee” for the first time, as he remembers at one point during the episode.) This format is slightly different than the first seven episodes in the series, as it focuses more on performance than discussion—a total of ten songs are performed over the course of the hour, by far the most songs featured on an episode of Spectacle yet.

by Arun Subramanian

20 Jan 2009

The narrative attempts of the Need For Speed titles have always felt a little unnecessary.  In general, the racing genre doesn’t require any plot to make racing fans want to drive.  But for the past several years, Need for Speed titles have been clearly influenced by The Fast and the Furious films, and as such, it is not surprising that similar story elements have made their way in.  This is not inherently bad.  However, the execution of these elements in Need For Speed Undercover is particularly lackluster.  Leaping over the uncanny valley direct to live action territory gives the the cutscenes a distinctly campy quality, making it difficult to feel invested in either the plot or your character.

It’s not as though that should necessarily matter, of course.  For games like this, it’s all about the driving.  Much can be forgiven in the face of solid and fun core driving mechanics.  Arcade-inspired racing physics can be intensely fun, and in fact they seem to be the bread and butter of the Need For Speed franchise.  But in Undercover, the AI implementation and relative speed of your car versus the opposition in some of the events serve to make parts of the game far too mindlessly easy.
There are certainly a number of things that Undercover does well.  The Cops ‘n Robbers online mode is certainly fun, if not entirely original.  The overall sense of speed delivered by the game can make it quite a visceral experience as well.  Further, the actual driving mechanics are well-realized.  Unfortunately, Underground makes a number of missteps.  While some, like the previously mentioned easy difficulty and poorly realized cutscenes, are a function of developer choice, others seem to have been due solely to a lack of testing and polish.  The reviewed PS3 version had frequent framerate and clipping issues that make it feel as though it was rushed to market.  The fact that the game is being released for an amazing ten distinct systems indicates how hard EA is pushing the title, and as such, it’s not entirely surprising development efforts were spread thin.

Still, none of Undercover‘s problems are enough to sink the title outright.  Really, the problem that Need For Speed Undercover faces is that Burnout: Paradise has significantly raised the bar for this kind of game, and accomplished the open-world mechanics and online experience with more polish and flair than is on display here.  It offers a superior experience in almost every way meaningful to the genre.

What makes this interesting is the fact that, though the two franchises were developed by different studios, they are both published by EA.  In a sense, then, EA is openly competing with itself, given that racing fans only have so many dollars, and while one of their racing franchises is critically acclaimed, the other is content to be competent but mediocre.  For die-hard fans of the Need for Speed franchise, or those that focus most of their gaming on racing titles, Undercover can be enjoyable.  But for gamers who spread their tastes across a variety of genres, there are simply better racing games to be played.

by Bill Gibron

20 Jan 2009

Vision is hard to come by in today’s ‘crank ‘em out and count the pennies’ Hollywood. Bankability and commercial viability often trump things like talent, imagination and artistry. Why make something daring when you can make dollars. There’s also a strange synchronicity between the two completely competent business extremes. Sometimes, a filmmaker has to trudge away in demographically determined limbo in order to get his or her chance to stand up and shine. Such is the case with Darren Lynn Bousman. Best known for turning the sensational suspense thriller Saw into a practical, money-making franchise, many dismissed him as a genre journeyman - capable of creating gruesome, horrific terrors, but not much else.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when, after leaving the lucrative series, Bousman’s first feature ends up a Grand Guignol Gothic musical featuring a cast including Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton. Entitled Repo!: The Genetic Opera, this morbid modern take on the classical artform stands as one unique, spellbinding experience. Developed by composers Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, it began as a stage play. With Bousman’s support, a 10 minute financing “trailer” was cobbled together and taken around. When Lionsgate, the beneficiary of the filmmaker’s Saw support, gave the greenlight, it was an uphill struggle to get the film made, and then recognized. Now available on DVD, this ridiculously creative repugnant roadshow lives up to every ounce of its wild-eyed ingenious promise.

In Bousman’s more than capable hands, the not too distant future is a grim landscape littered with corpses. A plague has struck the world’s population, turning once healthy organs into failing blobs of flesh. Enter GeneCo and their genetically engineered replacement parts. Thanks to endless advertising, the work of company symbol/songbird Blind Mag, and the relentless pursuit of profit by founder Rotti Largo and his inauspicious children - sons Luigi and Pavi, and fame whore daughter Amber Sweet - everyone now has a second chance at life. But there’s a catch. Organ transplants are expense and most people must finance their necessary surgery. Make all your payments, and everything is fine. Miss one, however, and one of GeneCo’s Repo men will come calling…scalpel in hand.

From such a complex set up, Repo! then takes a traditional approach to its main narrative thread. Dr. Nathan Wallace is Largo’s foremost legal assassin, a man with a past he is trying to escape. His inquisitive teenager daughter Shilo longs to learn about her late mother, the blood disease that is killing her, and the reasons for GeneCo’s sudden interest in her well being. When Rotti finds out that he is terminally ill, he must determine who will inherit his corporate kingdom. But with Luigi’s outsized temper, Pavi’s perverse addiction to changing his face, and Amber’s overall obsession with surgery (and the illegal painkillers that make it all so easy to endure), he can’t see his own family running the business. Instead, he looks to Wallace, his late wife, and their frail offspring to continue on his legacy. But there’s a catch…

From the moment it begins, there is no denying one fact - this is a true opera. Almost all the dialogue is sung, and Smith and Zdunich avoid presenting a collection of pop songs for meatier, more intricate sonic structures. Repo! uses specific themes, repeated motifs, and other obvious classical tricks to take us into a world of heighten emotions and outrageous individuals. The last act denouement, set within the title arena, plays like a Puccino snuff film. Bousman relies on his actors’ talent to take us into an existence overflowing with of rotting death, familial backstabbing, and Marilyn Manson macabre. Such studied voices as Sorvino, Brightman, and Skinny Puppy’s Ogre are matched well by vocal novices like Alexa Vega, Ms. Hilton, and the always insane Bill Moseley.

Casting is crucial to this film, something Bousman discusses at length as part of the DVD’s available commentary track. In the detailed discussions offered, the director goes out of his way to praise each participant for their bravery and commitment to the project. Even without this information, such singular determination would be obvious. Sorvino and Vega are particularly effective, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Stewart Head equally good as Shilo’s dad and Rotti’s main Repo man. Perhaps the most unsung hero of the entire piece is co-writer Zdunich, who essays the ethereal role of narrator/necromancer The Graverobber with a kind of instant onscreen magnetism that studio suits simply die for. One imagines he’ll be taking up residence in some casting agent’s reserve list before long.

With amazing performances, awe-inspiring visuals, endless reams of invention, and a true talent behind the lens, Repo!: The Genetic Opera should be a masterpiece, and it is…up to a point. Even the bloodletting and organ grinding add to the film’s overall feeling of scope and spectacle. No, the one element that feels slightly out of place (and less so once you’ve experienced the movie a second time) is the music. By avoiding the instant hook, the sing-along melody, or the instantly recognizable riff, the aural side of the production becomes initially awkward and obtuse. Tunes like “17” do stand out immediately, but it takes a while to get into the unique and sometimes struggling joys of “Chase the Morning” or 21st Century Cure.” Perhaps the best moment occurs when Brightman belts out the beautiful Italian aria “Chromaggia”, complete with requisite emotion. It brings the fascinating finale to an utter standstill.

The most memorable element of Repo!: The Genetic Opera however remains how startling impressive and visually imaginative it is. You have literally never seen anything quite like the images Bousman puts on the screen. From the corpse-strewn catacombs with their twisted limbs of agony to the freak show finish which seems lifted from an arthouse interpretation of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” video, this is pure cinematic showmanship from someone who understands the medium implicitly. Had he not had the success of the Saw films, one wonders if Bousman would have ever seen his fabulous fever dream come to fruition. Chastise them all you want, but those poster children for torture porn allowed something like Repo!: The Genetic Opera to see the light of day. The movies are much better for it.

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