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Monday, May 12, 2008

In his upcoming book, Buying In (which I plan to review more thoroughly in a few weeks), Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, discusses protest brands: brands consumers latch on to to try to flaunt to the world that they are indifferent to brands or too knowing to subscribe to them. His main example is Pabst Blue Ribbon, the lousy beer that has become a staple for a certain breed of hipsters. It’s likely that the beer’s popularity has a lot to do with its being the cheapest option in bars too cool to stock Miller or Bud, which is precisely Walker’s point—PBR seems like an alternative to the majors not because it is a substantially different product but simply because the makers don’t advertise. PBR has a vaguely authentic-seeming legacy, so its name resonates and allows consumers to attach their own sets of meanings to it while still tapping into the reach that national brands seem to have. According to this view, co-opting a brand is sort of like seizing control of a radio station or something; but really it’s a matter of consumers doing the marketing for a company that can’t afford to—this way they can broadcast their belonging to a “creative” niche. Walker argues that brand owners are doing this deliberately, masking their overt marketing efforts and instead doing “murketing” that recruits consumers in doing the meaning making for them. Since there was a void where the national message for PBR might have been, consumers were able to fill it by making the beer signify a rejection of the brands that advertise heavily. It’s one way of rejecting the fog of hype we live in (as this n+1 essay details) without simultaneously foreclosing the chance to participate in our culture—which is made up primarily of brands and whatnot. Of course, the protest brands are parasitic and derive their resonance from the mainstream brands; thus, protest brands are a kind of extension of the mainstream brands and don’t really do much to undermine their strength.


Having once experimented with smoking moribund brands of cigarette (Tareytons, L&Ms, Larks), I could relate to this, though eventually I became a Marlboro smoker (in the soft pack only; still needed some distinction) before I quit. And when I read this BusinessWeek article about Li Ning, a fledging Chinese athletic-shoe brand, I had a twinge of the same feeling that had me smoking Tareytons. Athletic shoes are much like beer and cigarettes in that for all the supposed qualities that separate the various makes, they are, for most ordinary consumers, indistinguishable beyond the branding. So they are a fertile field for a nascent protest brand, as no one will get confused and think you chose the protest brand because its goods are of superior quality.


The important thing for a would-be protest brand is to be a brand with some scope—it needs to be recognizable on a broad scale in order to bear the message. That’s why identity-conscious anti-brand folk seem to find it insufficient to protest brands by simply using nonbranded goods. There needs to be an idea, a focal point—a name, a logo—around which a community can coalesce, something others can copy (or maybe just something we could imagine others registering and possibly copying if they thought we were cool) when they understand and appreciate the message a person has used a brand to communicate and want to send the same message about themselves. The unavoidable presence of advertising and brands in the public sphere make us feel deeply that brands are part of an internationally recognized language of self-fashioning that we need to be speaking. Otherwise our identity-making gestures will likely go unheard, and alternatives for garnering public recognition—for publicly communicating a sense of ourselves—are not so obvious as brands.


So consider Li Ning’s logo:


Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it. This blunt, clumsy appropriation for me signals that the company is not trying too hard to be original, that it knows it will be seen as a copy-cat and basically doesn’t care. It hasn’t made a fetish of its own fictitious independence from the brands that already exist.

Li Ning makes no bones about admiring its bigger rivals. Its gleaming corporate campus near Beijing, complete with indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, and a climbing wall, seems like a page out of Nike’s play book. Ads feature the slogan “Anything is Possible” (which the company launched before Adidas came out with “Impossible is Nothing,” but long after Nike’s “Just Do It”). And its logo is strikingly similar to the Nike Swoosh. “They just dusted off a Nike marketing plan, took bits and pieces, and said, “Voilà!’” says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike China executive who runs Shanghai sports consultancy Zou Marketing.


The article calls Li Ning a paper-tiger brand, because it is trying to use the Olympics and non-Chinese endorsees to foster the illusion that the brand has greater international reach than it actually does to appeal its national market. It wants the same credibility Nike has in the eyes of its domestic market.


But these same moves may give it a reverse appeal internationally. The aura of not caring about aping established brands seems a good one for a protest brand, which after all is supposed to allow its consumers to demonstrate a knowing superiority (that verges on irony) to the desperate cool seeking of straightforward brands. Openly proclaiming “We’re a lame knockoff” somehow mitigates the fact of being a lame knockoff. Wearing the lame knockoff brand proudly has a similar effect with regard to the identity one is trying to display: “I don’t care what people think of me. I am going to wear these shoes that say just how little I care.” Or “I don’t need to try that hard to distinguish myself with brands. I’m going to take this lame brand and invest it with my credibility.” And wearing Li Ning serves the fundamental purpose of saying, “I resist and reject all the marketing of the big athletic-apparel companies. I don’t need their cachet to feel good about my sneakers.”


At the same time, Li Ning is obscure and novel enough to make its wearers seem exotic. At this point the brand’s consumers can feel like innovators, discoverers rather than followers. You can’t wear Nike without feeling somewhat like a follower, unless you are doing some counterintuitive rationalizing. In order to wear Nike in a hip anti sort of way, you must make the case to yourself that its ubiquity has made it invisible. You can signal an indifference to brands by selecting the überbrands, trying to suggest a laziness that led you to pick the most widely available option.


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Monday, May 12, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-05-12...
This is Pop.  You pop bubbles.  I guarantee it's more fun than it sounds.

This is Pop.  You pop bubbles.  I guarantee
it’s more fun than it sounds.


Oh, I know, WiiWare is out this week, but I already posted about that at length.  Given the list of WiiWare releases, LostWinds certainly looks like the one to get (though Pop is a nice surprise for WiiWare release day)...I certainly know what I’m doing when I get home from the day job today.


So…is there anything that’s not WiiWare worth picking up today?  Well…you fans of Narnia-related stuff are in for a treat, as you get a game to go along with your movie this week.  Released for pretty much every major system (except the PSP, oddly), Prince Caspian looks just about the same as any other movie-related game this week.  Hudson’s releasing Deca Sports, which actually seems kind of fun, not to mention that it’s the first Wii curling experience available, which may make it a must-buy.  Come on!  Curling!  Who doesn’t like curling? 


Atlus's Drone Tactics.

Atlus’s Drone Tactics.


Still, the DS looks like the software platform of choice if you’re not into downloadables this week.  For one, Myst is finally making its way off the PC.  I mean, it only took 13 years.  Still, I have to give this week’s cookie to Atlus, who is abnormally active for this time of year.  Do you like bugs?  Do you like robots?  Do you like tactical warfare?  If you answered yes to the previous three questions, there is no way that you will not like Drone Tactics.  Honestly, it looks like a can’t miss formula on paper, as you get to customize your little bug things to your hearts content and sic ‘em on (presumably) evil robot bug things.  Okay, I honestly have no idea if the thing will be any good, but Atlus + Robot Bugs + Turn-Based Strategy should = AWESOME.  I hope that equation holds.


The full list of releases and a Drone Tactics trailer are hidden after the jump.  CLICK IT:


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Sunday, May 11, 2008
David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble.

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?


Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).


Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?


Tagged as: david lynch
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Sunday, May 11, 2008


In one week, we critics will know for sure. The time frame is ten days for the rest of the moviegoing rabble. Barring any cosmic collision or other Earth shattering event, the fourth (and hopefully, final) installment in the chronicles of one ‘part-time’ professor Henry Walter “Indiana” Jones, Jr. PhD will finally unfold. It’s been an astounding 27 years since the original Raiders of the Lost Ark redefined the popcorn action movie, setting up a series of like minded entertainments that would come to dominate the ‘80s. In between there have been two sequels (Temple of Doom in 1984, Last Crusade in 1989) and a TV series outlining the archeologist’s earliest exploits.


And now, a mindboggling 19 years since the last motion picture wrapped up the man’s myth quite nicely, reputation ruiner George Lucas and his blackmailed partners in crime Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, are reviving the series for one last shot at…well, some kind of glory. Given the god awful title of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the top secret project has seen its far share of controversy. From Ford playing the character at his advanced, AARP-like age (he’ll turn 66 this July), to the pre-production hoopla over the hiring - and unexpected firing - of writer Frank Darabont (who handled similar chores for the property when it was on television), fans have prayed that none of Mr. Star Wars Prequel’s pedestrianism transferred over to this title.


As of today, all signs point to pathetic…or at the very least perfunctory. The trailers have taken the original movies’ mystique and washed it in a veil of forced nostalgia. It wasn’t until recently that we actually got to see parts of the plot, and the From Russia with Love meets Apocalypto vibe isn’t fooling anyone. Now comes the first major death blows - anonymous early reviews on websites like Ain’t It Cool News. Spielberg and company are livid, publically complaining that the first “official” showing for critics won’t be until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays Cannes on 18 May (the same day it screens for other media outlets around the US). Yet somehow, secured to a surreal policy revolving around blind bidding and state’s rights, a few exhibitors have seen the movie - and their opinion is not pretty.


In general, most believe the film won’t match the hype, that obsessives who’ve languished over their VHS/DVD copies of the trilogy will be greatly underwhelmed by what’s onscreen. They point to the well-hidden plot (more on this in a moment) and over-familiarity with the material as weak points, while giving marginal praise to what Spielberg and his capable cast do behind the camera (though Shia LaBeaof suffers the harshest words). While it represents the smallest majority of those who will finally establish the critical consensus on this highly anticipated summer stock, it’s clear that, at least out of the starting gate, Lucas’ decision to reprise this franchise is meeting with high expectations and less than satisfied reactions.


And then there is the storyline. Without going into heavy spoiler territory (and if you want to walk in completely unaware, skip this paragraph and move on), Dr. Jones is a now a WWII vet, compelled by the Soviet government to find the legendary Crystal Skull. Apparently, it’s actually part of an alien skeleton (located in Area 51 - how original) and once returned to its rightful resting place, it provides a source of great power. LeBeaof plays a character named Mutt Williams, who may or may not be Jones’ son, and Marion Ravenwood is back as well. The trailer promises Ama-zombies, jungle car chases, and the standard stunt physicality that made these movies so memorable.


Clearly, any return to this character and these movies creates an almost impossible level of fan frenzy. It’s the reason that Temple of Doom consistently remains the least loved entry in the franchise. Of course, coming on the heels of the brilliant masterpiece that is Raiders, it’s not hard to see why. But as with most one-sided perspective, forged out of personal want more than medium needs, a sequel must suffer through the classic cinematic Catch-22. It has to provide more of the same while being different enough to warrant its existence. It has to recapture the old magic while making new, retelling the same story with the same characters while bringing a freshness to both.


It’s a dodgy motion picture paradigm, one that few filmmakers have ever successfully maneuvered. Peter Jackson may have won an Oscar for The Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Rings epics, but many look at The Fellowship of the Ring as the franchise’s best (good luck with those Hobbit prequels, Guillermo). Similarly, The Matrix may have redefined the artform - at least for a few years - but the subsequent slam bam revisits created more hatred than holiness. Spielberg himself, perhaps the only director capable of capturing lightning in a bottle more than once, has been reluctant to revisit his oeuvre. Over the course of 24 feature films, he’s only been involved in four sequels - the three Indiana Jones films, and a Jurassic Park repeat.


Of course, he’s the only director who could pull this off. While marginalized by minds who think it’s easy to make sharks suspenseful, flying saucers fascinating, aging white men heroic, or animatronic extraterrestrials believable, he stands as one the greatest auteurs of all time. While his participation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed obvious, a lot had changed in his career since Dr. Jones and his Dad rode off into the sunset nearly two decades ago. Armed with a couple of Oscars, and more than enough industry and commercial cred, going back to this already established property seemed antithetical to his own career needs. Of course, imagine the uproar had Lucas left him out of the project all together, or worse, decided to direct it himself.


Perhaps that’s why everything has felt a little forced since the very beginning. The fourth film was announced a couple of years ago, and comments by Ford even indicated the ticking time clock bomb hanging over everyone’s head. While age is never a major issue in Hollywood (the biz will reconfigure any narrative to meet what they consider to be profitable demographic designs), having someone your grandfather’s age play a rough and tumble man of action pushes the boundaries of believability. The early pre-reviews don’t criticize Ford or his performance - they leave most of the vitriol for Master Shia - but with his sagging star power and paltry box office returns, Indie isn’t innocent either.


As the time clicks away to the planned press screening, as both sides gather ammunition and prepare for a fight, as the turnstiles twist and the money starts rolling in, only time will dictate the final legacy for the Indiana Jones franchise. If this movie makes scads of cash (outside the critical accord), you can bet that the suits will be slobbering for more. If it fails to attract an overwhelming financial windfall, this may be the man-myth’s last hurrah. Whatever the case, it may be time to gear down the rabid love for the series to something more realistic. Sadly, like the serials that inspired them, the time may have long since passed for this particular product. 


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Saturday, May 10, 2008


Film fans look to DVD for one thing mostly, and that’s contextual clarity. We want to understand the artistic decisions made, to get close to the production and feel the organic flow of filmmaker and star, script and screen time, each element adding its own particular aroma and spice to the overall cinematic stew. More times than not, the medium leaves us wanting. The powers that be spruce up a failing film with lots of EPK bells and whistles, but end up giving us any real making-of means. Then there are the instances where a multidisc special limited edition box set experience goes overboard, providing insight wrapped in more minutia than any brain can handle. The perfect DVD experience is one that explains itself while also letting the film do an equally fine job complementing the conversation.


For example, The Great Debaters has issues, as both a movie and as an example of the home theater format. On the product side, this two disc collector’s edition from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company uses historical perspective and cast/crew interviews to highlight the already present subtext involving race, region, and the reality of the times (the 1930s). Missing, of course, is a commentary from star/director Denzel Washington discussing any aesthetic or pragmatic decisions. Equally absent is a justification for all the fact fudging that goes on in the narrative. Wiley College and its students did defeat a prestigious school in 1935 as part of a speech competition. It was not Harvard, however, but the University of Southern California. And to this day, there are issues with the event itself, since it may not have been “officially” sanctioned by any national debate organization.


The story offered is satisfying, if occasionally stilted. Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on Wiley’s debate team. At 14, he’s a protégé, attending school where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett).


He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams. Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Part of the problem with The Great Debaters is that’s it’s an amazing true story tempered by a series of scattered ambitions. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. There’s the inherent human interest, a group of compelling characters, many hot button historical pitfalls, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of ethnicity and skin color, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


Yet Washington’s turn both before and behind the camera is awfully shallow. He takes a story that should soar and reconfigures it as a stodgy, over-simplistic pile of preaching. It could also be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. While the DVD gives producers a chance to argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact, the truth is that it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university President - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. As a DVD, it misses a golden opportunity to put all our personal qualms to rest. Instead, it continues to tow the motion picture party line. This makes both formats solid, but that’s all.


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