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by Colin McGuire

13 Aug 2009

I currently work at the night desk of a small-town newspaper. Various arguments regarding journalism these days center around the notion that small-town newspapers aren’t as affected by the many budget cuts, firings and all-around sea-change most bigger-marketed newspapers seemingly have to take on each day.

Many argue that, because of the small-town flare that can showcase in depth local coverage better than a bigger paper that is based far away from these particular small towns, the smaller-market newspapers have a better chance of surviving, or, at the very least, not having to shoulder the burden of job loss that most major dailys have been forced to deal with for what has turned into a long time.

Part of that snuggly, warm feeling small-town newspapers can give a reader has always been the comfort of one Pauline Phillips, or, these days, her daughter, Jeanne Phillips. Those two women have been responsible for writing the daily “Dear Abby” columns that have become an absolute staple in most every newspaper across the nation, and, in fact, nearly 1,500 papers worldwide.

That said, as part of cutbacks at the particular newspaper I work at, we have been told that in order to save money, we will publish our final “Dear Abby” column Friday, making way for a less-expensive, dumbed-down version of an advice column from a different outlet, set to be published in Saturday’s edition.

Wow.

“Do you know what this is going to do?” I asked my publisher when she broke the news a couple weeks ago. “People are going to go mad. This is the one thing almost everyone turns to when they pick up a newspaper. It’s been that way forever. You might not read the sports. You might not even read the council stories. But you always read Abby.”

“I know,” she said. “But I’d rather have to cut columns than people. And really, we have no choice.”

She’s right. I certainly can’t complain about having the ability to live another day in the world of newspapers while many other, much more talented journalists ponder what it is they are now going to try and do with their lives. But that doesn’t mean this news comes easy. Aside from the crossword puzzle, I can’t imagine anything else that has been as much of a staple in newspapers for such a long amount of time.

I mean, come on. Where else can you get tales about a 15-year-old girl who is afraid to ask her crush to the upcoming dance? Or about how awkward it was at dinner when a mother-in-law burped so loud, it awoke a sleeping cat? Or how about the times when those bastardly cheating husbands slip up and get caught by their wives, forcing the women to make that awful decision of weather or not to stick around for the kids?

It’s going to be sad to see Abby go. In fact, I, myself, may even turn to other newspapers simply to check in on whose life Ms. Phillips is saving now. As for the rest of our readers? Here’s hoping this move doesn’t drive too many of them away. Many of our customers tend to be older, so now that the comfort of that long-lasting advice column won’t be there, one has to think our phones will be flooded. And here’s hoping most other newspapers don’t have to resort to this. It’s a move that is bold, yet understandably necessary, and, with that said, a little bit unsettling as well.

Yes, it is better to cut columns than people, but now that changes such as this have worked their way into smaller markets, one has to wonder how much longer it will be before the columns run out.

by Matt Mazur

12 Aug 2009

Lubezki is one of the finest working cameramen in the business. He has worked with the reclusive Malick previously on The New World, one of the most beautiful films to just look at in recent memory, and is also responsible for the auteur’s upcoming The Tree of Life, which is rumored to be coming out this year (but we’ll just have to wait and see…).

by PopMatters Staff

12 Aug 2009

We’re huge fans of Florence and the Machine’s debut Lungs, dropping a 9 on the album last month. The U.S. release is coming this October, but there’s plenty of video action in the meantime, including this new one that our own Emily Tartanella said has a “haunting menace” about it.

by Bill Gibron

12 Aug 2009

The current slump in RomCom success shouldn’t be a surprise. Hollywood, hopeless for what to do with their latest up and coming starlets, seems sold on the notion of putting each and every one into as feeble a fake wish fulfillment fantasy as possible. It used to be, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts got all the feel good guy/gal scripts. Now, Tinseltown churns them out with unconscionable regularity. In fact, the only thing that differentiates the multiple takes on this material is the artistic approach applied. Sometimes, the standard is used. In other instances, attempted invention leads to lameness. Look at the three soundtracks being discussed today as part of Short Ends and Leader‘s standard Surround Sound update. Each one proposes to be a witty, warm look at the neverending battle between the sexes. Instead, one is dull, another dumb, with only the third doing something both unique and novel.

It’s a difference that’s actually reflected in the musical accompaniments to each effort. When it comes to Mychael Danna’s backdrop for the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s celebrated sci-fi weeper, it’s all clichés and sonic commonality. On the other hand, Aaron Zigman’s work on the Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl stereotype-a-thon reeks of the kind of onscreen schizophrenia the movie - and its mannered characters - seem to suffer from. Only the brilliant Marc Webb deconstruction of the entire genre gets it right. By relying on moan and groan gods like Morrissey and Regina Spektor to make its point, the sonic setting perfectly reflects the differing dynamics between each one of these 500 days - give or take a few. 

Of course, it’s all a matter of taste. Some may actually enjoy Danna’s drippy, droning accompaniment, while there will surely be listeners who ingest one sample of Summer‘s syrupy alterna-pop and want to strangle the songwriters. Music is a difficult discussion point, since it’s so personal to each individual. Still, when graded on a scale as to how successful it is as part of an overall motion picture package, the judgment becomes a little easier. What’s clear is that, in the world of man/woman destiny, slow and stead is really just tedious and mindless, while up tempo and inventive translates into a far more intriguing aural experience. Of course, there is always one confusing case among the easily identified. In this situation, the “ugly” truth title may be more than applicable.


The Time Traveler’s Wife: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 3]

The notion of being “unstuck” in time, Billy Pilgrim in your personal, physical, and emotional well-being, may seem like an odd idea for a romance, but apparently, Audrey Niffenegger nailed it when she created her bestselling story of Henry and Claire. He’s the man who can’t stay settled in one era for very long. She’s the young woman who has loved him ever since she was a child. Together, they learn that such a speculative fiction foundation can only lead to heartbreak, tragedy, and the soul-searching passion that comes with both. So now it’s up to composer Mychael Danna to capture that ethereal element in his score for the film. Sadly, what he turns in is so rote and routine that it could be the backdrop for any motion picture experience, not just one dealing with mostly magical elements.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front - Broken Social Scene should be embarrassed for their appalling cover of the Ian Curtis/Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Rendered dirge-like by the multi-member collection, it’s literally unrecognizable, only the identifiable lyrics in the chorus giving away the origins. By the way, it does nothing for the scene between actors Eric Bana and Rachael McAdams. Why director Robert Schwentke decided to include it is baffling. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it’s equally weak. Danna delivers a lightweight set of cues, each one using the typical orchestral facet of symphonic seriousness to what is often confusing and quite boring as depicted. Tracks like “In the Meadow”, “Do You Know When”, and “How Does it Feel” are featureless, while additional moments like “Five Years”, “Who Would Want That”, and “I’m You Henry” lack legitimate spark. Indeed, the whole score feels limp and lifeless, adding nothing to the work it supposedly projects.



The Ugly Truth: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

What do you do when you’re an uptight TV producer who can’t get laid? Why, you turn over your labored love life to a Neanderthal talk show host who believes keeping women barefoot and pregnant is actually way too good for the gender, that’s what. Indeed, the entire set up of this underwhelming Katherine Heigl starring vehicle does a disservice to all women everywhere while championing the kind of crude, rude comedy that Judd Apatow and the gang have made profitable over the last few film seasons. That it was conceived by a group of gals is unconscionable - kind of like Arthur Zigman’s way too zany sonic complements. This is a musician who has taken the notion of variety being the spice of life to unheard of, heartburn-inducing extremes. One moment, the soundscape feels like a frothy feel good romp. The next, it is diving into tunesmith territory better reserved for oddball BBC programming.

Like a series of bad speed dates, the score for The Ugly Truth indeed runs the gamut from space age bachelor padding to intentional sonic quirk - and then back again, just in case you didn’t get the point the first few track times around. For Zigman, who has crafted the backdrop for films like The Notebook, Bridge to Terabithia, and the last four Tyler Perry films, really does throw everything he’s got at the mixing board. There are moments of sly Euro-whodunit drowsiness (“Abby and Mike Rant”), unintentional indie navelgazing (“Who Would I Love”), pseudo sexual swagger (“Get the Stain Out”) and a strange Footloose meet foot race accent (“Frowny McFlaccid”). Along the way, Motown gets referenced (“Right this Way”), we are treated to more introverted introspection (“Goodnight Then”) and there are moments when the music is barely audible (“The Ugly Truth”). Such a scattered approach may seem sensible, considering how all over the map the movie is, but as a showcase for Zigman’s skills, the results here are equally unnerving.



(500) Days of Summer: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 8]

Some might call it a reinvention. Others will honor it with the tag “deconstruction”. However you view it, commercial creator/music video man turned feature film director Marc Webb has taken an interesting script from Pink Panther 2 scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and turned it into the first RomCom to speak directly to the Twitter generation. Dealing with a failed architect who now writes greeting cards and the saucy secretary who has just moved to LA from Michigan, Webb works in short, sensational bursts, taking the title of the film literally. We spend individual moments with our wannabe lovers, seeing how passion grows, philosophies conflict, and when fate no longer fuels the flame. It’s a realistic if highly stylized look at relationships, and it’s all couched in a backdrop brimming with indie-rock resplendence.

This is indeed a definitive love/loss mixtape, from the sonic sensation of The Smiths (“There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”) to amazing tracks from Regina Spektor (“Us”, “Hero”), the Doves (“There Goes the Fear”) and Mumm-ra (“She’s Got You High”). Granted, Meaghan Smith’s take on the Pixies playful “Here Comes Your Man” is rather dreary, though her performance definitely tries to elevate its effectiveness, and the inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel (“Bookends”) argues against the collective’s anti-folk sensibilities. Still, “Bad Kids” by the Black Lips and “Sweet Disposition” by the Temper Trap work well, and old school hits like “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates match effortlessly with contemporary kitsch from France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni (“Quelqu’un M’a Dit”). Sure, there are perhaps better songs to select, especially given the material’s sense of individualized eccentricity. But like the movie it mimics, the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack proves that all Moon/June/Spoon romances don’t have to be the same.

by G. Christopher Williams

12 Aug 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the curiously moralistic approach that Grand Theft Auto games take towards drug use.  In response, my colleague L.B. Jeffries pointed out that, perhaps, Rockstar doesn’t find drug usage as an activity for the player to be all that reasonable.  While Jeffries point seemed to be that GTA‘s grotesque nature as a game that allows us to do things that we normally wouldn’t think of doing (stealing cars and murdering innocents) is in direct contrast with the realistic notion that drug usage is something that the average person with a moral compass might still plausibly do, nevertheless, his point got me thinking about the “active” nature of the crimes committed by the player in GTA as opposed to the passive presentations of the protagonists of these games.

There is a bit of a disconnect in any open world game between choices that the player makes as he or she inhabits a character and the choices that that character makes in the storyline that evolves in the plot of the game.  While there are many examples of such problems, I remember reading a message from a GTA player in a forum once that reported that that player always drove as carefully as possible when playing Vice City while his kids were in the room because he didn’t want them to see him casually mowing over innocent bystanders.  Such a player choice is obviously fairly antithetical to the decisions made by Tommy Vercetti throughout the game as he destroys the lives and properties of many innocents that get in his way on his way to becoming a criminal overlord.  The morality of the character in essence changed when actively being directed by the player from what is was when being passively viewed through cutscenes.

Such disconnects, though, might serve an interesting purpose in this particular series, however, since the activities that a player can engage in might make the character that they are playing extremely unsympathetic, and thus, undesirable characters to want to play as again.  What I mean by this might be clarified by my recent experiences reviewing another open world game, Prototype.  Unlike many other reviewers as my review indicates, I actually liked a fair amount of a number of the elements presented in Prototype.  However, one thing that I really didn’t like was the protagonist, Alex Mercer.  I had trouble with the game initially because of this general dislike.  Largely, I was a bit disgusted with the choices that I had to actively pursue in order to “be” Alex.  Since the character in that game feeds off of others as a means of fueling his superhuman powers and maintaining his own health, I was brutally murdering just about anyone that was close at hand.  To make matters worse, as I passively witnessed the way that Radical Entertainment chose to portray this character in cutscenes, I didn’t feel any better about Alex.  He seemed like a man largely indifferent to others.  As a rather stoic personality in the Clint Eastwood vein (but lacking some of the clever one liners of an Eastwood cowboy), he also lacked any recognizable personality traits that might make up for this heartlessness.  He wasn’t funny or charming or really anything more than a moody, brooding bastard occasionally growling out “tough” (but unspired) one liners.  My general distaste for Alex and the ferocity of the brutal killings that I was participating in by “being” him almost led me to turn off the game early on.

Ferocious and brutal behavior is not a strange idea to any fan of the GTA series, and yet, characters like CJ and Niko remain generally well liked.  Much of their likability depends not on player generated choices (after all, GTA allows the player some pretty grotesque choices throughout the game and does make murder and theft requisite activities if the player wants to complete the major story arc of any of the games) but instead on reshaping how the player views the character through the passively viewed sections of these games’ plots.

To return to my discussion of drug usage for a moment, San Andreas contains a passively received anti-drug theme by pitting the player against bad guys that represent drug usage, like Big Smoke, in the story missions and showing CJ turning down Officer Tenpenny’s offer of a hit from a bong in one scene.  The player is never asked if he or she would like CJ to turn down that hit or if he or she wants to free CJ’s hood from the tyranny of dope dealers.  Playing the story requires such decisions be made for us and also reshapes our views of CJ in light of other more reprehensible choices that the player might make at other times in the game.  CJ’s decisions to protect his family are not ours, but they make him seem much more human and humane than our other decisions may have made him seem.  A strung out pothead like the game’s Ryder is somewhat hard to like, but CJ depite his criminal behaviors at least evidences some self restraint, making him appear a bit more noble than his fellow thugs.  Additionally, CJ is often funny and almost inevitably charming whether we as the player guiding him are or not either of those things.  A little humor and charm go a long way in making a criminal and anti-hero likable.  Just ask Han Solo.

With the upgraded combat mechanics of the game, Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more effective killers in the series’s history, and GTA IV may be the most murderous game in the series with many more missions oriented towards assassination than the other criminal activities of prior games.  Nevertheless, Niko is a very sympathetic character because players are witness to his intentions in making himself over into an assassin through the cutscenes.  Of particular note is Niko’s murder of the minor mobster, Vlad.  Because Niko’s motivation and his relationship to his victim is spelled out so clearly in the mission in which the player is required to kill Vlad (as seen in previous scenes, Vlad has been a jerk to Niko throughout their prior interactions, and he is screwing Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend), offing Vlad becomes an action that may not be pretty but is at least comprehensible and seemingly not the act of a sociopath.  Niko isn’t killing Vlad as casually and indifferently as he might when you are playing him and simply running down a jaywalker, he has a legitimate beef with him and a beef that reveals his concern for a loved one.

Admittedly, the story missions in GTA IV do allow the player to make some moral choices that effect the plot (most notably, decisions that concern killing or sparing several individuals).  However, these moments tend to be fraught with more ambiguity than the Vlad episode (should Niko get revenge against a guy who betrayed he and his fellow soldiers years and years ago?), and they are once again offset by our knowledge of the scripted elements of Niko’s character.  And once again, they are also offset by the personality that Niko derives from scripted experiences like when he goes bowling or drinking with friends that indicate a bit of a sense of humor and a humble kind of charm (I defy anyone not to crack a grin, the first time that they hear Niko declare to a bowling buddy “I may not be great at life, but I bowl like an angel!”).

I think that because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in “their” storyline (I’m looking at you Bioshock and Prince of Persia).  Nevertheless, what the lovable thugs of GTA demonstrate is that sometimes a little scripting goes a long way in simply making our “selves” into someone that we can actually like.

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