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by Bill Gibron

30 Sep 2009

There’s no true middle ground with The Wizard of Oz. Either you love its overflowing sentimentality and sugar-coded Technicolor dreamscape or you despise its sugary, saccharine schmaltz. You beam whenever champion child star Judy Garland belts out “Over the Rainbow” or run in terror during those ominous opening strains. It’s hard to be ambivalent, the movie’s moxie making it difficult to ignore its earnest desire to entertain and yet it’s that very hyperbolic happiness that drives many modern audiences to dismiss the movie as antique, artificial, and aggravating. Well, perhaps Blu-ray can help turn the tide. After seeing the sensational 70th Anniversary edition of the film, fully restored to a high gloss HD sheen, few will ever view it as an amiable artifact from a bygone era. Instead, it will be seen as the masterpiece it is.

Everyone knows (or should know) the story by now - little Dorothy Gale, desperate to save her dog Toto from the evil clutches of local busybody Miss Almira Gulch, runs away from home, leaving her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and handyman Hunk, Hickory and Zeke to worry about her. Thanks to the wise words of flim flam man fortune teller, Professor Marvel, she decides to return. As a twister descends on her Kansas farm, she is caught up in the maelstrom. Her house is blown into the whirlwind, ending up in the merry old land of Oz.

There, she meets the Munchkins, learns that she’s killed the Wicked Witch of the East, and has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the local wizard and get back home. With advice from Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, she heads to the Emerald City. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow who’d like some brains, a Tin Man who lacks a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who’d love some courage. She also incurs the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, an equally evil woman who wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. It just so happens that Gilda gave them to Dorothy for safe keeping.

So what if it doesn’t follow the classic L. Frank Baum book to the letter? Who cares if then superstar Shirley Temple lost the lead to up and coming MGM diva supreme Garland? Does it matter that Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man, but then begged producers to give him Buddy Epson’s role of the Scarecrow? Or that the future Jed Clampett would eagerly change parts with his co-star, only to suffer a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the make-up and have to leave the production permanently? Outside of what’s up on the screen, the missing musical numbers (including the oft cited “Jitterbug”) and multitude of creative coincidences only increase the films legacy and longevity.

Indeed, many of the stories surrounding the making of this amazing movie are just as compelling as the film itself, and Warner Brothers has seen fit to fill out this astonishing four disc set with as many of them as possible. There is so much added content here - early silent film versions of the Oz stories (including one helmed by Baum himself), TV movies based on the material, documentaries and full length features discussing the film’s creation and lasting impact, as well as numerous critical, scholarly, and specialty (F/X, music) overviews - that we get wrapped up in the history. About the only thing not addressed here are the numerous urban legends and conspiracy theory rumors surrounding the final product.

And what a magnificent movie it is, a true endeavor of the human spirit that seems to resonate through every pore of your being down deep into the very core of your sunny, sated soul. It’s almost impossible to watch Garland, in her first major starring role, and not fall in love with her cherub cheeked cheeriness. When she cries, it’s like Heaven itself is weeping, and when she sings, the angels step aside so that her gorgeous voice can eclipse the very power of song itself. She is matched well by Bolger, Jack Haley (as the Tin Man), Margaret Hamilton (as Gulch and the Wicked Witch) and Henry Morgan (as the kindly Wizard himself). Burt Lahr’s Lion might be a bit much for those not familiar with such scenery chewing vaudevillian shtick, but his buoyant personality is so pervasion you simply stop carrying and start laughing.

The look of the film is also a supporting superlative, a day-glo dimension of plastic, paint, and imaginative persuasion. The opening sequences with their sepia tone nostalgia set us up for the sudden explosion of rainbow brightness. Munchkinland is so eye-popping a spectacle that it’s almost impossible not to be moved to tears of happiness and the various locations created for the film resonate with real authority and artistic power. Though Victor Fleming finds his name on the top of the director’s credits, myth tells us that as many as five other filmmakers had a hand in the final cut. You’d never know by looking at the lyrical vistas and stunning production numbers offered. It’s all so perfect and cinematically sublime.

From a special effects standpoint, The Wizard of Oz was also ahead of its time. This is 1939 after all. Several scenes, including most with Margaret Hamilton’s Witch are wonderful in their sense of supernatural intrigue. The times when our intrepid heroes interact with the omniscient Oz also offer excitable “how’d-they-do-that?” eye candy. From the costumes and careful make-up designs to the overall Golden Age of Hollywood sheen, you would be hard pressed to truly age the film. Indeed, when they invented the term “timeless”, The Wizard of Oz was probably part of the defining determination. And now Blu-ray has turned it into something even more magnificent.

This new transfer is awe inspiring. You can actually see the carefully created burlap sack lines in Ray Bolger’s face, painted on in a slight suggestive manner so that the rest of the fabric façade blends right in. When a close-up captures Lahr’s lion head, you’d be hard pressed to find where the appliances end and the human being begins. From details so crisp you can read the wording on various Oz documents and decrees to a field of poppies so ripe and red you can also smell their poisoned pleasantness yourself, there has never been a better version of The Wizard of Oz available on home video ever. If The Matrix made VHS consumers beg to switch over to the new digital domain, the Blu-ray of this classic will convince to make the leap into the new 1080p format pronto.

Even better, seeing The Wizard of Oz this way, in the most flawless and fleshed out way possible, should provide enough ammunition to cynical and smug of their anti-Dorothy sentiments. Unlike other mandatory motion pictures declared treasures by time, unclear consensus, and endless obsessive tirades, Oz maintains its long term defensibility for one important reason - it works. It entertains. It soars. It splashes across the screen in big fat sugar frosted hugs and emotionally honest kisses. For nearly two hours, we are whisked away to a world where no one is unloved, everyone is caring, and the dreams of a little girl find their final resting place in a small Kansas farmhouse among family and friends. Who needs winged monkeys when you can discover that there’s no place like home? That’s why The Wizard of Oz endures. That’s why it is one of the greatest films of all time. 

by G. Christopher Williams

30 Sep 2009

Yeah, I know.  Sex sells.

Indeed, when I teach advertising analysis as an exercise in practicing interpretation and evaluating rhetorical techniques in my freshmen composition classes, I often have students that astutely point out this phenomenon.  I do like to point out that selling a product via sex, though, can be a relatively more complex process than that two word phrase might otherwise imply.  Once we begin comparing advertisements targeted at different types of audiences (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women), it generally becomes apparent that this sales technique depends on some interestingly different expectations of how those audiences want their sex served up that may reveal some differences between expectations along gender lines or that might reveal some stereotypes that we have about sexuality and gender.

Evony: The very definition of subtlety

Which brings me to the weirdly sexed up and, what appears to me to be, the overly simplistic and badly marketed Evony campaign.  I should note that a number of other folks have spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the topic of Evony and its marketing.  I suppose that the fact that Evony has generated as much conversation about its ads as it has does indicate that at least the ads themselves have been successful in getting the game some attention and that it is probably largely related to its extremely straightforward and audacious “sex sells” mentality.  That the game has had much less virtual ink spilled about the game itself, however, may indicate the campaign’s relative lack of success at getting folks to actually play the game.  The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.

I should mention, though, too, that a lot of this attention has drawn some charges against Evony that go beyond mere marketing issues.  In one of the rare reviews about the gameplay itself over at the Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming news site, Ark’s Ark, a columnist called Arkenor has observed that Evonycontains in game text that bears a suspicious similarity to the text of games from the Civilization series.  Additionally, Arkenor notes that a piece of software called iEvony that is downloadable from the Evony web site “just wants all your instant messenger login details so it can send messages to people on your behalf.”  He suggests that this is part of Evony‘s additional layers of less overt viral marketing.  Nic, a writer for The Big Critique web site, makes similar claims that “this game ripped off its graphics and descriptions from other games [and] includes new software that raises privacy issues.”

With that bit of warning concerning the potentially less obvious aspects of the possible shadiness of Evony aside, though, I am frankly still just baffled by the way that Evony has been sold to gamers.  As the information that Arkenor’s article suggests, Evony is a simulation game in the tradition of Civilization, a fairly hardcore economic management and combat simulation that has no clear connection beyond a medieval theme (and that theme does not even emerge in all of its ads anyway) to the game itself.

Evony is a little less sexy in person

What I am trying to get at here is that while a lot of games try to sell themselves on sexual content, those games usually also contain some element of sexual content.  I just published a piece last week about “The Bodies of Lara Croft and Rubi Malone” that in part defended the representations of these female protagonists of the Tomb Raider series and Wet.  However, I would not ever claim that either Lara or Rubi are not highly sexualized characters in games that in part are selling themselves on that sexuality.  Indeed, as I observed in my recent review of Wet, the game is in part interested in sexuality as it emerges in the exploitation cinema stylistics that it apes. If Wet contains some sexy images, well, it is game that is in part about the topic of sex.  However, unlike Tomb Raider or Wet, Evony is a less than sexy game.  It is a sim.  And it is certainly not some sexy sim.

In that regard, I really don’t understand how the PR minds that are pushing Evony expect to maintain a player base for this game when it simply isn’t offering what it’s advertising.  Sure, it will garner attention and some hardcore sim players like sex, too (hard to believe I know), but those looking for sexual content are going to look away pretty quickly from this game, which ostensibly intends to make money on in game purchases made to enhance this otherwise freeware style of game.  When the money gets made through the play of the game, you better hope that the user is actually there for the game.

This might sort of be what the game is about

Now, the marketing of the game initially was considerably less sexually fixated.  Instead, early ads seemed to play up the medieval themes of the game with an image of a knight brandishing a sword and the like.  Frankly, if that wasn’t doing the trick for luring in players either, I can understand why.  The image is not especially eye catching (it’s a fairly generic bit of art), but this early iteration of the ad campaign shows the same slightly off target marketing of the current one.  The single image of the knight might imply an action-oriented game moreso than a simulation or strategy game to a gamer, so any player that might click on the ad might similarly be disappointed with the game that they are actually getting and might not hang on long enough to drop some virtual coin on it.  It isn’t the clearest representation of the product.  It touches on theme, but theme isn’t the only selling point for a game.

It also begs the question of where ad space is being purchased in any case for these games.  If banners for Evony are showing up on sites frequented by strategy and simulation fans, the confusion of the imagery with what kind of game is being sold might be less problematic than it is on a site with a broader gaming audience.  Gamers get signs like medieval themes and swords, they may not associate that with simulation, though.  As I understand it, Google has added features that aid advertisers (and maybe consumers) by targeting ads towards Google users’ search interests, but the Evony campaign hearkens back to the mystification of advertisers during the 1990s about how to use the web to advertise.  During that era, many advertisers seemed to think that getting any ad space on the kinds of sites with the biggest hit counts during that time period, largely sites about video games or that might feature pictures of Cindy Margolis was a good idea, even though, the 18 to 35 male, computer nerd demographic that frequented those sites might not be the best group to market your fabric softener or gardening tools to (selling Cheetos might have been a more sensible bet).  I also maintain that just because you are targeting gamers, that you might realize that there are more specific venues to target the right kinds and that if you do know that your banners will be showing up on a general gaming site that making your message about what your game is much less ambiguous helps a lot.

In other words as an advertiser, you might do well to attempt to play up the nature of your game to an audience that actually wants to play that kind of game.  I promise that there is a whole audience out there that really wants to play a good economic sim with interesting combat options and tricky decisions about resource management.  You might just want to tell them that your game contains those elements.  You could also probably throw some sex into the mix if the game contains it, but curiously enough, people feel ripped off when they don’t get what they seemed to have been promised.  In the end, the more specifically targeted audience (that doesn’t feel misled) is the most likely group to spend some money on your game and tell their friends about it.  All this might seem really obvious: be truthful about what you are advertising, sell to the right audience, etc.  But recall how “obvious” the idea that “sex sells” alone is supposed to be.

Evony: Desperate much?

Finally, what advertisers might need to learn is that gamers might best be understood by what their name implies, those who like to play games.  As the legendary flop, BMX XXX succeeded in demonstrating, just slapping some pornography on top of a game about BMX tricks is not a sure fire way to get product flying off the shelves.  Gamers interested in BMX tricks might first and foremost be more interested in playing a really well designed game in the genre.  Not that gamers don’t like sex, but maybe it should make sense to include sexuality when it is appropriate and, well, sensible (bikes and strippers, wha?).  Additionally, it might even be worth considering how the audience (be they male or female, straight or gay) might respond to sexual imagery in terms of the plot, themes, and gameplay itself and not simply assume that sex is the sole reason that anything can or will ever be sold to the public.  Quite honestly when I look at the ads for Evony, they look more like a satire on sex in advertising than anything else.  Frankly, a game that satirized advertising sounds more interesting to me and might justify an advertising campaign this absurd.

Maybe I’m wrong, though, and Evony‘s marketing campaign has led to its publishers and developers making money hand over fist.  If so, though, why do they look so desperate to me?

by Kirstie Shanley

30 Sep 2009

Creating a live performance full of win, French-Finnish duo The Dø could have easily entertained an audience of thousands.  Olivia Merilahti was electricity personified.  Flipping her long lustrous hair, coming up to the tip on the stage and leaning into the audience were two of her frequent rock moves.  Dan Levy chose to engage the audience with his sudden floor kneeling.  But despite the sense of developed chemistry between he and Merilahti, it was she who truly stole the show.

It’s both an interesting and unusual combination for a band to be part French and part Finnish, though it worked for folk band Mi and L’au.  The Dø have a much different performing ethos than that duo, however, with a live sound deeply rooted in pop and rock.  In concert Merilahti’s lyrical delivery came off similar to the album, for the most part, but with an emphasis on the faster-paced songs overall.  She could easily play to the most enticing melodies and riffs while keeping her lyrics perfectly on target.  The presence of a live drummer maintaining a fantastic sense of timing throughout also helped.

On their 2008 album,  A Mouthful, a visceral shift in moods occurs over its 15 songs—even among the singles.  While songs like “Tammie” and “Aha” have an energetic drive to them, “On My Shoulders” is as melancholic as it is beautiful.  “Song For Lovers,” “Searching Gold,” and “When Was I Last Home” are simply sentimental songs rather than dance tracks.  Making the album increasingly diverse, it ends on a very raw and turbulent note with “In My Box,” which serves as a stark contrast between both the more stripped down intimate songs and those that feel like instant pop hits.

The Dø’s nearly hour-long set began like their album does with the aptly named “Playground Hustle.”  Some of the samples in that song, as well as “Queen Dot Kong,” seem reminiscent of those used by Solex from The Netherlands and certainly add to the flirty appeal of both tracks.  In contrast, “At Last!” was full of vivid longing, especially the way Merilahti tends to emphasize her words. 

By the third song the band abandoned the album order, switching to “The Bridge is Broken” which came off as an edgy lament.  “On My Shoulders” had a similar tone as Merilahti repeatedly asked, “Why would I carry such a weight on my shoulders? Why do I always help you carry your boulders?”  It’s impossible not to hear her cry without sympathizing.  Her accent, and the way she stretches out certain syllables over others, tends to make her sound even more tortured and anguished. 

Perhaps the best song of the night was the one not sung in English: “Unissasi Laulelet.”  It contained guitar parts memorable enough to match Merilahti’s wondrous vocals.  It’s undeniable how well the band kept up their presence and energy throughout the set no matter what they were playing—a night that, at times, felt as rough as it did playful.  Dangerous mood swings would be more common at The Dø’s shows if they just weren’t so satisfying to relish in every minute.

by Jennifer Cooke

30 Sep 2009

Every few years I wonder “What ever happened to Alice Donut?” The Brooklyn band has been around since 1986, putting out 12 albums and countless singles while it did what all good punk bands did back then—toured its ass off all over the world. Led by vocalist Tomas Antona, the band has spent the majority of its career on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, and if any band could personify Biafra’s off-kilter take on music and the world in general, it would be Alice Donut. Just look at some of their album titles: Dork Me Bangladesh, The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Over a decade before emo made the mile-long song title faddish, Alice Donut gave us a little ditty called “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. (Take that, Fall Out Boy!) If Alice Donut didn’t exist, Snakefinger from the Residents would have had to invent them. And they’re back with a new CD, Ten Glorious Animals.

After a long hiatus following their 1996 breakup, the band reformed to release Three Sisters in 2004 and Fuzz in 2006. They occupy that murky grey area of one of those stalwart bands with no real commercial success in over two decades of playing, but sufficient fans dotting the globe to make it worthwhile to persevere. It is a subject that plays out in their lyrics, as Antona and his band mates wryly accept their lot in life on the track “Shiloh”: “Gonna get famous and rich / Got a gig with the Unsane / And 7 Year Bitch.” They know they aren’t going to be the next Green Day, and they’re cool with that. As guitarist Michael Jung said in a 2007 interview, “We weren’t in search of hand jobs or castles. There’s all kinds of popular success. Look at Tom Waits.”

by Thomas Hauner

29 Sep 2009

Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of bossa nova, literally (her father is João Gilberto,) performed an intimate and kittenish early set at The Box to celebrate the release of her tenth studio album, All in One.  While much of the setlist dutifully revolved around the new material (“Bim Bom,” “Cancao de Amor,” and “The Real Thing”) Gilberto indulged fans with hits from Tanto Tempo, like “So Nice” and “Samba de Bencao.”  It was, after all, an evening “only for the really close ones” as Bebel put it.  In between doting on her fans and praising her four-piece backing band Gilberto relished the role of sultry siren, inspired, no doubt, by the venue’s alternate use as a burlesque club.  As the double entendres multiplied, Gilberto had the crowd in the palm of her hand by the time she sang her new single, “Chica Chica Boom Chic.”  Despite her flirtatious tone Gilberto’s voice was calm, controlled, and plush, epitomizing the very delicate yet relaxed precision of bossa nova itself.

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