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by Steve Horowitz

4 Aug 2009

The Wanderlust music festival began right on time as the musical/performance-art circus troupe The Muytator hit the stage promptly at 9:00 pm. The Muytator include three drummers with full drum kits, a three horn rhythm section, keyboards, guitar, ex-Oingo Boingo bass player John Avila on bass, and assortment of dancers. The act’s loud funk/ska music and showy acrobatics energized the crowd, many of whom had attended the concurrent peaceful yoga festival at the site earlier in the day.

The two most notable aspects of The Muytator’s show were the use of fire and the sexiness of the dancers. These elements frequently combined in exotic and erotic combinations as the performers would twirl lit swords and balls of fire on chains while enacting ritualized love scenes that included plenty of bumps and grinds. Despite the volume of the music, the attention was almost always focused on the sultry, if a bit purposely sleazy, performers.

While the physical use of incendiary objects got things hot, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings showed how the power of soul can get things even hotter. The Dap-Kings began the performance with some tight instrumental numbers while teasing the audience about what was coming up ahead, before finally introducing Jones and turning the flames up a notch.

Jones went through her repertoire of songs from her first two albums, with crowd pleasers like “I’m Not Gonna Cry”, “How Do I Let a Good Man Down”, “My Man is a Mean Man“, and more, all the time strutting and dancing. She and the Dap-Kings were in perfect sync, starting and stopping on a dime, as Jones would go into a tirade about the kind of respect she expected after coming home from work or the behavior she expected from someone to whom she gave her love.

Jones encouraged crowd participation and at times the audience was so loud they drowned out the amplified Jones and her band. She also called up various members of the crowd onstage, as well as the dancers from The Muytator, and had them sing and dance along with her on the steamy love songs. Even with the improvisational nature of performing with others she had not practiced with, Jones never missed a beat or a note. The 53-year-old Brooklyn by way of Georgia singer said she was worried about not being able to keep up because the show was held in the mountains, but Jones’ energy never flagged. Jones and company played until after midnight to a satisfied audience.

 

by Chris Conaton

4 Aug 2009

Part 2:  My Thursday at Comic-Con ended with a movie screening, while Friday began with an epic, two-and-a-half hour Warner Bros. panel. The final movie presentation I saw during the convention was Saturday’s Iron Man 2 panel, which was a great way to finish the film section of the Con. In between there was animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and director Peter Jackson’s first-ever Comic-Con appearance.



Trick r Treat

I remember seeing trailers for this movie several times at Comic-Con 2007, but since then, nothing. Warner Bros. apparently had no idea what to do with this film, so instead of releasing it, they have opted to screen it at film festivals for a couple of months before shoveling it off to DVD in October. Comic-Con was treated to a full screening, though, and I’m happy to report that Michael Dougherty’s horror anthology film is quite a lot of fun. Taking place on Halloween night in a small Ohio town, the movie presents four separate-but-intertwining stories, each quite different. Familiar character actors abound, including Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, Tahmoh Penikett, and an excellent Brian Cox. Dougherty doesn’t skimp on the gore, but the film focuses equally on scares, making Trick r Treat a nice throwback to the anthology films of the 80’s (Creepshow, Cat’s Eye). It’s tough to figure out why Warner Bros. couldn’t market this- it’s a Halloween-themed horror movie with an iconic character, the sack-headed evil kid named Sam, that shows up throughout the film. Despite being an anthology, the movie should pretty much sells itself even though it isn’t a remake of a classic franchise.



Where the Wild Things Are

I haven’t read Where the Wild Things Are in decades and barely remember it, yet the extended scenes shown from Spike Jonze’s film inspired waves of nostalgia in me. The movie looks spectacular, and the decision to go with actual monster costumes instead of using CG appears to be a brilliant one. The interaction between the wild things and Max feels very real and visceral. Hopefully the full movie will turn out as beautiful as the footage shown at this panel.



The Book of Eli

Denzel Washington stars as a loner wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape, kicking much ass and trying like hell to hold onto the titular book. Gary Oldman is the bad guy who wants to acquire the book. But here in the world of Comic-Con, the trailer brought bigger cheers for Oldman than for Denzel. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes haven’t directed a movie since From Hell in 2001, so they have something to prove with this one. The most interesting tidbit to come out of this panel, though, was Gary Oldman’s admission that he expects Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film to begin production in 2010 for a 2011 release.



A Nightmare on Elm Street

This panel was sort of a mess. The clips shown from the upcoming reboot were heavy on a scene featuring a living Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) being chased and ultimately incinerated by the group of angry parents from the franchise’s origin story. Yet during the panel, the filmmakers stated that their movie was not meant to be an origin story at all. To top it off, they claimed that they have Robert Englund’s full blessing to reboot the franchise, despite Englund being on the record as very, very unhappy that he has been replaced as Freddy.



The Box

Director Richard Kelly has long been one of the worst guests I’ve ever seen at Comic-Con. Stammering and desperately shy in two previous appearances (for Donnie Darko and Southland Tales) Kelly was barely been able to put a complete sentence together in front of a crowd. Surprisingly, he was much more comfortable this time around, discussing his upcoming thriller The Box. Based on a Richard Matheson short story, the premise involves a mysterious man (Frank Langella), showing up seemingly at random at the house of Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) in 1976. He offers her one million dollars if she will just push a big red button on top of a mysterious box, thereby killing a total stranger somewhere in the world that she has never met. The trailer showed that there is a lot more going on in the movie beyond the box itself, with mysterious sci-fi elements popping up. But during the panel discussion, Diaz blurted out what seems to be a gigantic spoiler about the box’s origins, pretty much ruining the mystery for everyone in attendance. Nice going, Ms. Diaz.



Jonah Hex

This adaptation of one of DC comics’ lesser-known characters looks like it’s going to be a slightly off-kilter action-fest for the summer of 2010. Jonah Hex is a cowboy anti-hero, and the footage cut together for Comic-Con was heavy on gunplay and dynamite-based train explosions. Josh Brolin certainly has the look down as Hex and Megan Fox seems to be her usual eye-candy self, except that she gets to handle guns this time out. The footage did feature something I’ve never before seen in an action movie, though: an explosive sequence involving Civil War-era ironclad ships. The real highlight of this panel, though, may have been the film-school jerk who asked Megan Fox to make a celebrity sex tape with him and was subsequently escorted out of the room by security.



Sherlock Holmes

We were treated to an extended trailer of Guy Ritchie’s action film, as well as a scene that featured Holmes in a bare-knuckle fight, analyzing what his opponent is about to do in his head and planning in advance how to counter it. But the real highlight was Robert Downey, Jr., appearing in person to soak up the adulation from the Comic-Con crowd and being very funny and personable, to boot. When asked about learning martial arts for the movie, Downey replied that he was so good, “I could windmill through all of you here right now.”



The Pixar Panel

Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios head John Lasseter held court over a 90-minute Disney Animation panel that showed remarkably little of Pixar proper’s upcoming releases. They showed the opening sequence of Toy Story 2 in 3-D and talked about the upcoming double-feature 3-D re-release of the first two movies on October 2. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the 3-D effects, in fact, the only really impressive 3-D of the weekend was in James Cameron’s Avatar. They had nothing to show for Toy Story 3 yet, except to say the plot involved Andy getting ready to leave home for college and that the premise is about what happens to the toys when their owner truly grows up.



The Princess and the Frog

The footage shown from Disney’s upcoming return to hand-drawn animation was very nice. Lasseter discussed how he managed to talk many of the animators and staff from the ‘90s Disney hits back to the studio for this movie, which was pretty obvious from the look and tone of the film. It’s nice to see a lushly hand-drawn Disney movie again, but the result of all these returning animators, directors, and writers is that it doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new. So far The Princess and the Frog seems to be selling nostalgia for the early ‘90s and, just as importantly, the addition of an African-American character to the company’s mega-lucrative Disney Princess line of products. Speaking of Disney in the ‘90s, Lasseter also revealed that they are re-releasing Beauty and the Beast around Valentine’s Day, 2010, in 3-D. They showed the opening scene of the film in 3-D, and it was sort of like looking at a filmed pop-up book, with the animation dividing into several layers. Surreal and kind of cool, but not really convincing as three-dimensional.



Ponyo

Of all the geek-out moments I experienced during Comic-Con 2009, this was the biggest. Disney managed to get legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to leave Japan and attend Comic-Con to promote the North American release of his latest movie, Ponyo, on August 14. For an animation nut like myself, seeing Miyazaki in person was a big, big deal. He was soft-spoken and funny during the Q&A. My favorite moment went like this: Audience questioner- “Where do you get your amazing ideas from?” Miyazaki- “I wish I could remember.” Lasseter revealed that Disney is actually getting behind Miyazaki’s film this time around, putting Ponyo into 800 theaters. Really, that still isn’t great, but it’s a lot better than the 200 theaters Howl’s Moving Castle got or the few dozen Spirited Away had in its initial release.



9

Shane Acker’s post-apocalyptic CG adventure movie looks like it’s going to be unique and exciting. They showed a couple of extended action sequences and the animation is fluid and excellent. Producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov were on hand to help introduce Acker to the crowd. Burton explained that he wanted to produce the film so that he could deal with all the studio interference while just letting Acker focus on making his movie. Bekmambetov mostly sat silently, except for when he was asked about continuing his trilogy that began with Night Watch and Day Watch. His response, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” I guess having a big American hit (Wanted) means you don’t have to slink back to Russia and return to the franchise that put you on the map in the first place.



District 9

My God, Peter Jackson is so skinny now that he almost looks like a completely different person from when he directed The Lord of the Rings. He gave the Hall H crowd an update on where they were on The Hobbit: about three or four weeks from completing their first draft, after which they’ll turn it in to Warner Bros. for official approval. They expect to start thinking about casting by October or so. Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp talked about how they met, a little bit about their Halo movie adaptation falling through (but without any inside details), and their decision to expand Blomkamp’s short Alive in Joburg into a full-length movie. They showed a seven-minute series of scenes from District 9, which revealed some of the plot instead of just the basic premise that the trailers set up. Blomkamp also talked about a plot point that doesn’t really make it into the movie, that the aliens mostly operate on a hive system and that their queen has been killed. Without her they are sort of directionless and lack the initiative to get their ship fixed and leave Earth.



Solomon Kane

James Purefoy stars as the titular character, the Puritan swordsman from Conan author Robert E. Howard. Knowing that most of the audience was probably not aware of the character, the filmmakers cannily brought lots and lots of clips to introduce their film. It looks like a pretty hard-R action fest, with brutal violence and excellently choreographed fight scenes. Whether it will hang together as a full movie remains to be seen, but hopefully the positive reaction at Comic-Con will at least help them secure North American distribution.



Extract

Mike Judge returns to the workplace, albeit a factory setting, for the first time in a decade with this, a movie he called the “spiritual sibling to Office Space.” The clips shown were mildly amusing, but you get the sense that you have to see the full movie in context for Judge’s low-key humor to work. Also, Miramax apparently actively cut out some punchlines in the scenes they showed, which seems like a bizarre thing to do when you are promoting a comedy.



Zombieland

Director Ruben Fleischer admitted straight-up that he loves Shaun of the Dead and that he hopes Zombieland can live up to a movie that good and still bring something different to the table. The scenes they brought to the show, however, were a mixed bag. A funny fight sequence between Jesse Eisenberg and the (zombie) girl next door and a tense situation where Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson are double-crossed by a pair of young sisters were both positives. On the downside, however, is that the movie appears to have a pervasive voiceover from Eisenberg’s character which is supposed to be sardonic and funny but turned out to be pretty annoying, even in the brief scenes they showed.



2012

Moderator: “Roland (Emmerich), why do you hate the Earth?” Emmerich: “I don’t hate the Earth, I love the Earth, that’s why I always want to blow it up!” Maybe his answer was funnier in the original German that was running through the director’s head. And yet, I still want to see Emmerich’s latest disaster movie. An extended trailer showed the Sistine Chapel cracking, complete with crack running right between the fingers of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s painting, then falling and crushing hundreds of people in St. Peter’s Square. They also showed us John Cusack’s desperate attempt to save his family and outrun the earthquake that is sinking California into the Pacific Ocean. In a limousine. Which he does successfully by getting them all to a small plane that’s already waiting for them on a runway. It’s all completely ridiculous and yet also awesome and way more fun-looking than the year’s other over-the-top actionfest, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.



Iron Man 2

Spectacular. Unlike the first movie, Iron Man 2 isn’t coming out of nowhere, but it still looks amazing. Director Jon Favreau and his special effects people worked very hard in the week between wrapping principal photography on the movie and doing their Comic-Con panel. The five or six minutes they showed us actually had some good-looking flying effects and Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) using his energy whips. The real kick, though, was watching Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark doing his thing again. The footage opened with Stark testifying before a Senate subcommittee, being grilled by a Senator played by Garry Shandling. Other scenes included another encounter between Stark and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and a sequence with James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) and rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), debating about what sort of Hammer hardware to put inside the War Machine suit. And the clip ends with a shot of War Machine in action, shooting everything in sight. Favreau and Downey, Jr. were great in front of the crowd, too. An audience member asked them about working with Mickey Rourke, and Downey replied, “I thought I was eccentric!” Favreau chimed in, “We told Mickey his character had spent time in a Russian prison, and the next thing we knew, Mickey was in Russia in a prison, talking to inmates and doing research.”

 

by Rob Horning

4 Aug 2009

Though it is part of the conspicuous flood of hype for the upcoming film Julia and Julia, Michael Pollan’s article about cooking shows for last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a fascinating look at the way food and cooking are depicted on television and what that indicates about America’s relationship to consumption in general. A few things I found particularly interesting:

1. Pollan talks to a market researcher at the NPD Group, which is ubiquitous in stories about retailing in the business press.

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

I found it interesting that someone who is only interested in humans insofar as they are shopping would conclude that they are entirely fixated on convenience. The realm of retail is precisely where that potentiality in people is brought to the fore, rewarded, massaged. So it’s not surprising that the NPD Group won’t deign to measure an activity that runs counter to convenience, that it would prove “elusive.” So is the causality backward here? Does the market research and retail analysis start with an assumption of convenience as the desirable value (if that is the goal, then we can seem to solve our problems with shopping) and then impute it to human nature, as a way of shoring up what is an ideological tenet, not a universal psychological truth?

2. Rob Walker higlighted this paragraph, which jumped out at me too:

The historical drift of cooking programs — from a genuine interest in producing food yourself to the spectacle of merely consuming it — surely owes a lot to the decline of cooking in our culture, but it also has something to do with the gravitational field that eventually overtakes anything in television’s orbit. It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

The point is that commercial television’s main function is to make viewers into the sort of people who want to watch more and more commercial television. Any of its programs can be reduced to that agenda, ultimately, with the specific content of any show being something of a by-product, an alibi. As a free-flowing, ongoing form of media, television invites us to interact with it constantly; unlike other consumer goods it can refine the wants it satisfies in the process of satisfying them. Watching TV is like eating a meal that tastes great but makes you hungrier. To that end, television wants to provoke us to replace our concrete, direct activities with vicarious ones and demonstrate through its sensory manipulations that the vicarious experience (to paraphrase Baudrillard) is more real than real.

3. Nonetheless, I’m skeptical of this sort of argument: “You’ll be flipping aimlessly through the cable channels when a slow-motion cascade of glistening red cherries or a tongue of flame lapping at a slab of meat on the grill will catch your eye, and your reptilian brain will paralyze your thumb on the remote, forcing you to stop to see what’s cooking.” I suppose there has been a study where the brainwave or eyeball movements of participants are tracked and measured to demonstrate some correlation between pictures of food and limbic system activity, but nevertheless, I have a hard time conceding that humans are hard-wired for any sort of vicarious experience. Such explanations for the increasing amounts of vicarious experience in our lives seems to excuse various forms of media have interposed themselves into our lives and prompted us to consume images. And it seems imperative to investigate how the seemingly irresistible appeal of images is constructed and reinforced within the realm of images—how manipulation via images is a craft, an applied science. Our media are not neutral terrain that merely permit the unveiling of evolutionary mysteries; to what degree do they posit and condition those discoveries about the so-called reptilian brain?

4. Pollan suspects the appeal of cooking shows is that it vicariously fulfills our longing for meaningful work:

“You know what I love about cooking?” Julie tells us in a voice-over as we watch her field yet another inconclusive call on her headset. “I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

Television presumably undermines the way in which such satisfaction might have been integrated into our leisure time in the form of craft-based hobbies.

5. Television is part of the culture-industry program of deskilling our leisure, or rather removing life skills from everyday, nonwork life and transforming them into hobbies for the few. Cooking, as Pollan suggests, has become another front in that war.

We seem to be well on our way to turning cooking into a form of weekend recreation, a backyard sport for which we outfit ourselves at Williams-Sonoma, or a televised spectator sport we watch from the couch. Cooking’s fate may be to join some of our other weekend exercises in recreational atavism: camping and gardening and hunting and riding on horseback. Something in us apparently likes to be reminded of our distant origins every now and then and to celebrate whatever rough skills for contending with the natural world might survive in us, beneath the thin crust of 21st-century civilization.
To play at farming or foraging for food strikes us as harmless enough, perhaps because the delegating of those activities to other people in real life is something most of us are generally O.K. with. But to relegate the activity of cooking to a form of play, something that happens just on weekends or mostly on television, seems much more consequential. The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.

Chris Dillow made a similar point in this post about cooking shows. He blames deskilling on “the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money.” Not only is it an animating principle of capitalism, instrumental rationality, as the Frankfurt School theorists insisted, is the lifeblood ideology of the culture industry. (See “Enlightenment as Mass Deception”) It also animates techno-utopian celebrations of the efficiency of the internet for all sorts of social-cum-commercial functions. In general, instrumental rationality alienates us from process and fixates us on the end product, convincing us that the time wasted in enjoying processes for their own sake is wasted since there are so many cool products out there for us to be enjoying in that time instead. Why cook when you can spend that time online hurtling through blog posts and YouTube videos?

This paper by JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler about consumer deskilling and agribusiness probably has lots of interesting ideas on this point, but unfortunately it’s gated. The abstract, though, is promising; it sounds like an academicized version of Pollan’s ideas:

The prevalence of packaged, processed, and industrially transformed foodstuffs is often explained in terms of consumer preference for convenience. A closer look at the social construction of “consumers” reveals that the agro-food industry has waged a double disinformation campaign to manipulate and to re-educate consumers while appearing to respond to consumer demand. Many consumers have lost the knowledge necessary to make discerning decisions about the multiple dimensions of quality, including the contributions a well-chosen diet can make to health, planetary sustainability, and community economic development. They have also lost the skills needed to make use of basic commodities in a manner that allows them to eat a high quality diet while also eating lower on the food chain and on a lower budget.


I’m attracted especially by the suggestion that consumers are socially constructed to prefer convenience.

Here (pdf) is another paper on consumer deskilling vis-a-vis food, drawing on the paper cited above and Pollan. It focuses on deskilling, and the problems we face in trying to reskill ourselves (a process, by the way, that the Food Network blocks while seeming to facilitate it): “By gaining experiential knowledge of food, food preparation, appreciation of taste and quality, and increasing food literacy, one renders the range of products and services offered by the industrial food system as both useless and undesirable.” In other words, you set yourself against a massive institution that controls most of our access points to the food chain, which means you are in for an endless headache until you are prepared to embrace inconvenience as an ethic of its own.

by PopMatters Staff

4 Aug 2009

We slapped an 8 on Gomez’s latest A New Tide back in April. The band is still touring this fine record and they stopped by Conan O’Brien’s stage to play “Airstream Driver” recently. Ross Langager said of the song, “lead single ‘Airstream Driver’ rides metallic sustains and irresistible rhythm as Ian Ball’s teeter-totter melody flits ahead before charmingly lagging behind.”

by PC Muñoz

4 Aug 2009

“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974

The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.

You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.

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