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by Bill Gibron

4 Nov 2008

It’s safe to say that Hollywood has finally figured out the family film. Not in a good way, mind you, but in an instantly profitable paradigm which guarantees coffers of cash either before or after the mandatory DVD release. While some might question the callousness of such a statement, the truth is that more of the major studios are sinking their dwindling production pot into films that fill up the G to PG-13 arena. While live action fare can’t really compete (only High School Musical and Hannah Montana have proven that humans can put butts into stadium seats), animation remains king. And not just any cartoon concept, but the sparkling techno geekiness of computer generated imagery.

Over the last year, the town of Tinsel has released several 3D titles. There was Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Fly Me to the Moon, Space Chimps, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Igor, and Horton Hears a Who. While few passed the patented quality assurance, there were those - Panda, Wall-E, Horton - that rose above the creative din to avoid the genre’s curse. Indeed, ever since Pixar proved the viability of motherboard made entertainment, a motion picture blight has risen up inside the world of animation. Another example of it arrives this Friday, 7 November with the release of the unnecessary, uninspired sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.

It’s a talent pool temperament that’s tainted everything from the shrill Shrek (and his two and counting sequels), the rusty Robots, the icky Ice Age efforts and the mindless Madagascar. Of course, such criticism hardly matters when said group accounts for several hundred MILLION dollars in box office returns. Yet to argue that money equals quality is a lot like stating that volume equals pitch. Just because a film rakes in an unconscionable cavalcade of currency doesn’t mean it’s a categorical classic. In the case of these CG slurries, the exact opposite seems to be true. The more money they bring in, the more mediocre and strident they seem to be. Malcolm McLaren had it right - cash from chaos.

Take Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. As franchise fodder goes, it’s a brainless combination of everything that made the first film so stiff with an amplified idea of how to repeat said achievement. This isn’t art, it’s pure commerce draped in an undeniable coating of focus group faith-based marketing. The pre-planned pleasures in the story are so obvious they shimmer. As the four main animals from the first outing discover the pros and cons of returning to their native land, the audience it treated to dim satire, punch lines that bang into each others like tweeners at a Jonas Brothers concert, and a gorgeous amount of visual splendor spoiled by obvious overacting from a cast who seem to base their performance level on the number of zeroes in their residual checks.

Clearly, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was made with the intent of keeping children’s tiny synapses engaged so as not to allow for any questioning or concern. Yet the film goes so far as to offer up two additional ideals that seem to have no place in such family-oriented entertainment. The first is fairly obvious - violence. This is a very vicious film. Alex is seen as a helpless lion cub, then when kidnapped, his heroic father chases the poachers until a huge gun barrel dislodges a round right into daddy’s…earlobe. While no blood is shown, the character carries the missing piece/scar around the rest of the film. Equally concerning are the sequences with Mort the Mouse Lemur. He is seen trying to enter an airplane, mid-air, and then after he survives the eventual crash, he is chased by a shark that can apparently live outside the water for inordinately long periods of time.

And it goes on. There is a battle between Alex and a muscle-bound lion, another time for the critters to take on a band of desperate (and hungry) tourists. All of which brings us to Nana, the “feisty” old lady from the first film. A short slapstick sequence originally, she is fleshed out here, given to fits of Jason Voorhees like punishment and a Lord of the Flies mentality that just doesn’t mesh with the movie’s lighter tone. It’s hard to support such outright hostility, especially when it’s really not delivered for comic effect. Imagine, if you will, that Yosemite Sam finally managed to get his stubbed up paws on that “rascally varmint” Bugs Bunny…and then spent 45 seconds beating the ever lovin’ stuffin’ out of him. No wit. No physical comedy shtick. Just an endless beat down. Nana gets two chances at this throughout the course of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. How nice.

But perhaps the most disconcerting element here is the weird sexualization of the animals. Gloria, the feisty female hippo, spends the majority of her journey through the veldt pining away for a partner. Not a soul mate, or a friend, but a big time booty call. She eventually gets the big eye from a new character called Moto Moto. During a late night rendezvous which sounds suspiciously like a hook up in a Chubby Chasers chat room, the two give new meaning to the concept of disturbing double entendres. From the glamour shots of our hefty heroine poising provocatively to Moto making like Fabio and flexing his flab, it’s the grade schooler equivalent of watching the foreplay in a particularly disturbing animated porno. Even a strange shot of our lothario’s butt managed to draw audible gasps from the standard screening audience.

All of which begs the question - how, exactly, is this family fare? Are we to assume that Walt Disney, the man who started the entire feature length animation craze, would approve of putting such content into his films? Sure, Bambi’s mother died, and Pinocchio was threatened by the biggest whale his pen and ink posse could create. But would the man behind the House of Mouse condone random acts of senseless brutality? Or maybe Dumbo’s mom should have received a last minute conjugal visit before she was carted off to her mad elephant cage. Certainly it’s an exaggeration to see these sequences as anything more than minor reflections of their more mature counterparts, but they also suggest something desperate about the continual cannibalization of the CG genre. Hollywood usually gets the family film right - at least when it comes to the preprogrammed manner in which they make these movies and money. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is either a fluke, or something to be wary of in the future. Perhaps, it’s a little of both. 

by Jason Gross

4 Nov 2008

- The FCC has leveled a series of hefty fines against the networks and assorted radio broadcasters in the last few years for content which they have deemed inappropriate.  What’s your opinion on the effectiveness of these fines and the presumptive problems that they’re trying to solve? Are there better ways to address these issues than these fines?

- Another issue that the FCC has been wrestling with is media ownership and how many outlets one company can own in a broadcast market.  Chairman Kevin Martin has been pushing for a relaxation of ownership rules arguing that the media landscape has changed so much (especially with the Internet) that these rules must change also.  The opposing viewpoint is that this kind of consolidation means that fewer independent voices are available and only a few companies will decide what we see and hear in the media.  Which viewpoint do you subscribe to and why?

- Do you believe that the current rating system for movies and labeling system for music releases is adequate?  Why or why not?  Ideally, how should such uniform standards be decided for every community in this country?

- NEA funding has been a hot button issue for decades now.  Do you believe that the NEA serves an important purpose for this country?  If so, what should that be?  If not, why would you end it?

- The RIAA has pursued a campaign of lawsuits against web users that distribute copyrighted music material on the web.  Do you believe this is the right course of action and that it has been effective?  Why or why not?

- Do you believe that this is a real or imagined link between violence in media (movies, music, videos) and real violence crime itself?  If so, what is the government’s role in taking action against this problem?

- Currently, many schools are doing away with music programs to meet their budgetary needs.  Should it be a priority to reverse this trend?  If so, how would you do so?

- Musicians who sign contracts with record labels almost never receive any health care or benefits as part of their package.  Do you believe that government should push the labels to include that as a standard part of artists’ contracts?  Why or why not?

- What are your thoughts on cultural exchanges with other countries?  Do you think it’s right to have the State Dept. sponsor American musicians touring overseas?  Also, what’s to be done about the current difficulty that foreign musicians have in obtaining timely travel visas to tour America?

- The recording industry has been asking Congress and the FCC to implement measures to have radio stations pay royalties for music that they play.  Should radio broadcasters pay royalties to recording artists when they play their music on the air?

by Christian John Wikane

4 Nov 2008

Brooklyn-based soul chanteuse Maiysha headed uptown over the weekend to perform at the Get Out the Vote drive hosted by Congressman Charles B. Rangel in the plaza of the Harlem State Office Building on 125th St. in New York. Hundreds of voters took the “A” train to hear community leaders and musicians lend their voices to a pre-Election Day celebration in support of Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to win the Presidency on 4 November.

Maiysha treated the audience to two tracks off her debut album, This Much Is True (Eusonia, 2008), including the reggae-sway of “U.S.H.” (“United States of Hysteria”) and the album’s first single, “Wanna Be”. In the next few weeks, Maiysha will travel to her native Chicago for another round of promo dates before the New Year.

by Rob Horning

4 Nov 2008

It’s hard to write about anything serious while waiting for the election to be over. My hope is that Obama wins convincingly, the Republican party becomes even more reactionary and Palinesque, and the sensible conservatives form their own third party, so that there can be grownup debate in this country again about issues. It seems like U.S. politics in general, perversely enough, would be well-served by a real far-right party (just like they have in such countries as Austria and Germany and France) where wackos can gather, lodge their petulant protest against reality, and stay out of the arena of meaningful politics. As it is, they are muddling the picture when there is a great deal to do. America needs serious policy debates about the economic intervention and foreign policy, and we can’t afford to waste time with nitwit nationalism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and race hatred.

Anyway, more of that later, I’m sure. In the meantime, I thought this post from the PsyBlog, about the way weather doesn’t actually affect mood, interesting. The post cites two studies that suggest the correlation between mood and the weather is almost negligible, which raises the far more interesting question of why we believe the weather is so significant.

Denissen et al. (2008) suggest that we may be responding to a culturally transmitted idea that weather affects mood. Effectively we think the weather has significant effects on our mood because everyone else thinks and says it does.
We may also pay a disproportionate amount of attention to a very small number of people who really do have what has become known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). These people report that their moods are very strongly associated with the weather. While it might be assumed that this connection is the same for everyone: winter = sad, summer = happy, the data collected by Denissen et al. (2008) doesn’t support this. Instead it suggests there are just as many people with SAD who become sadder in the summer and cheer up in the winter. But for the vast majority of us there is no effect.

This pattern of mutual social reinforcement probably has something to do with it—a consequence of people ceaselessly and needlessly talking about the weather—though it certainly doesn’t feel this way when we are in a good mood, and we want to ascribe it to something. We want the weather to be for us alone, to reflect our tremendous significance to the world. We never feel so important, perhaps then when our mood and our milieu seem to magically coincide, as if the climate has been specially contrived just for us.

As someone who dislikes sunny days and enjoys a good mist, these findings are reassuring, though perhaps I should be upset that something special and contrarian in me has had its basis in fact threatened. There’s nothing special in being inured to the sun.

It’s probably more convenient to blame the weather rather than what is really causing a down mood, since you can’t expect to do anything about the weather, so you can remain passive, thereby reinforcing one of the primary traits of down moods. Possibly, weather-mood connections are established not in response to actual behavioral changes but ahead of time as a kind of moral imperative—it’s sunny so you should want to go outside and enjoy it. You should feel glad you have this opportunity to get more done in the world. My aversion to sunshine actually has more to do with weather bullies than the sun itself, though the UV rays are no good for me either.

by Lara Killian

4 Nov 2008

When times are tough… hit the library.

In an economic downturn, it totally makes sense that individuals in communities are turning more frequently to the convenient (and FREE!) resources their local public libraries offer.

Trouble is, libraries aren’t immune to economic crises. Libraries around the US are cutting staff, closing branches, and reducing their hours. Last week the American Library Association (ALA) requested an emergency cash stimulus of $100 million from Congress.

The ALA argues that now is the time when it is most important to make sure that everyone has access to the free resources that can help people help themselves.

A news item at the Library Journal website notes:

While public libraries depend heavily on local property taxes to maintain operations, increased foreclosure rates, lower home values, and fewer sales have sharply reduced available funds, forcing libraries to cut services and hours.

Will Congress realize that public libraries are providing job-hunting and financial-information-seeking Americans with important resources in troubled times?  Will US lawmakers come up with the equivalent of 1.4 percent of the massive 700 billion dollar bailout package to help keep these libraries afloat? It might be time to form a backup plan in case your local Internet source gets closed down – how far away is that other branch, again?

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Moving Pixels Podcast: Unearthing the 'Charnel House'

// Moving Pixels

"This week we discuss Owl Creek Games's follow up to Sepulchre, the triptych of tales called The Charnel House Trilogy.

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