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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.


Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 


Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match the magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.


No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.


It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.


And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 


If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.


Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.


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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008

Spontaneity got me to Good Reading. A rainy Thursday, no commitments, why don’t we go for a drive? I was quite sure Benalla was, ooh, maybe 45 minutes from my house. Perfect driving time—not too long, and just far enough to make getting there seem like a real adventure.


So, I’ve never been good with distance and driving, and the trip took nearly two hours. Oops. Good thing the Benalla countryside is lined with gorgeous yellow canola fields, each one more brilliant and full than the one before. It’s a peaceful, scenic drive. Well worth the few extra kilometres on the clock. 


I found Good Reading almost straight away, the big, yellow “BOOKS” sign out the front practically unmissable. You know, you go to secondhand bookstores long enough, they all start to blend. Each arrange sections differently, each overprice in their own way, the store owners either want to converse about every little thing, or just stick to their knitting. I prepped myself for the exciting, yet same old, world of books.


What I found at Good Reading was very nearly an entrance into The Neverending Story. This bookstore was like none I’d even been to: the ceiling-high shelves, the paintings, the little calligraphy notes marking genres, the catacombs that continued to wind and bend so that by the end of the walk-thru, every possible type of book has been encountered, in bulk. Good Reading is not simply a book store, it’s an archive, and everything’s for sale.


I didn’t ask to take photos, so while the white-haired woman at the counter was helping a customer to find updated road-map books, I snuck in a few snaps.


Surprisingly, I only spent about $60. And then cursed the $15 I spent on dinner, because there was just so much more I wanted. I have now created a savings fund specifically for my next visit.


There’s something to be said for random trips through the country. Try it… you might come home with some books.


Good Reading, 22 Bridge Street, Benalla, 3672, Victoria, Australia


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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Natalie Walker
Pink Neon [MP3]
     


Over & Under [MP3]
     


Backyard Tire Fire
The Places We Lived [MP3]
     


Rodriguez
Sugar Man [MP3]
     


David Grubbs
An Optimist Declines [MP3]
     


The Donkeys
Nice Train [MP3]
     


Hacienda
She’s Got a Hold on Me [MP3]
     



Tagged as: mp3
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Monday, Aug 25, 2008

The late Gene Siskel once said that if filmmakers want to remake a film, they should focus on the junk. Why update a classic, he argued, when there are so many b-movies and unsuccessful schlock efforts to choose from and improve on. He had a point, of course. There’s no need to make another Casablanca, or Citizen Kane - not when there are hundreds of lamentable horror titles and uneven exploitation outcasts to pick through. In a clear case of “be careful what you wish for” however, novice screenwriter Zach Chassler and outsider director Jeremy Kasten have decided to revamp Herschell Gordon Lewis’ neo-classic splatterfest The Wizard of Gore. Unfortunately, the duo completely forgot the reason the original film was so memorable.


By 1970, things were changing quite radically within the grindhouse model. Sexploitation was blurring the line between hard and softcore, and filmmakers were trying to find more rational, realistic ways to incorporate violence into their drive-in fare. One of the last purveyors of unadulterated gore was Lewis, the man responsible for starting the cinematic trend in the first place. In the early part of the ‘60s, his Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) became the benchmark for all arterial spray to come. But by the end of the decade though, he had dissolved his successful partnership with producer David Friedman, and was trying to make it on his own. Hoping a return to serious scares would increase his profile (and profits), he made The Wizard of Gore.


It was kind of a homecoming for Lewis, and not just because he was going back to his straight sluice roots. No, at one time the director actually ran a Grand Guignol style nightclub in Chicago, and the premise for Wizard mimicked his showmanship experiences perfectly. The plot revolved around a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) whose blood drenched act gets the attention of a local TV reporter named Sherry Carson. Along with her boyfriend Jack, they attend Montag’s macabre show. In between tricks, the conjurer calls up young women from the audience, hypnotizes them, and then puts them through all manner of gruesome tortures. After it’s over, the girls seem okay. Later, they end up dying just like they did onstage.


In both its approach and execution, the original Wizard of Gore is a sleazy, surreal treat. It uses a shoestring narrative thread that allows Lewis to indulge in his ever increasing bits of brutality. The splatter set pieces are rather inventive, including a human hole punch and a tasty chainsaw attack. While the mystery of what’s happening to these young girls is part of the plot process, Wizard would rather spend the majority of its time watching Sager overact. A longtime associate of Lewis’, this on-set jack-of-all-trades in gray sprayed hair is pure ham as our perverted prestidigitator. His line delivery would be laughable if the actor wasn’t trying to take it all so sincerely. Together with the red stuff, the 1970 Wizard is some goofy, grotesque fun.


So how do Chassler and Kasten update the material? What do they do to try and breathe new life into an old hat horror show? Why, they create one of the most confusing plots ever presented in a fright film, and then populate the confusion with several quality genre names and a few naked Goth gals. If you look closely you will see Jeffrey Combs as The Geek, Brad Dourif as Dr. Chang, and former child actor Joshua John Miller (Homer from Near Dark) as coroner’s Intern Jinky. The main casting offers Bijou Phillips as a mystery girl, Kip Pardue as the publisher of an underground paper, and the fantastic freakshow that is Crispin Glover as Montag himself.


Doing away with the investigative reporting angle, the updated Wizard uses the seedy and subversive LA fetish scene to fashion a narrative involving Edmund Bigelow, a trust fund baby who uses his considerable cash to live like it’s the 1940s every day of the week. He dresses in period garb and outfits his large loft with era-specific items. He even drives a classic roadster. One night, he takes new gal pal Maggie to see Montag, and both are immediately taken by the magician’s presence and performance art atrocities. Soon, Edmund fears that the “victims” he is seeing each night onstage are winding up dead in real life. He seeks the advice of Dr. Chang, as well as best friend Jinky. He soon learns, however, that things are far more complicated (and corrupt) than he could ever have imagined.


As revamps go, the new Wizard of Gore is not without its charms. The aforementioned actors all do a wonderful job of delivering definitive turns within a very unfocused and often unflattering set-up. Glover is given the most leeway, and his “audience vs. actuality” speeches are delivered with almost Shakespearean verve. He doesn’t quite steal the movie from the others, but there would be little reason to revisit this material had Glover not been sitting at the center. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, with Ms. Phillips and Mr. Miller earning special marks. Pardue, on the other hand, is just so strange as our purported hero Edmund that we can never get a real handle on his potential guilt or outright gullibility. Toss in some decent F/X and you’ve got a chance at some wonderfully wanton thrills.


But the shoddy script by Chassler, or perhaps the scattered interpretation of same by Kasten, lets this remake down time and time again. Stumbling over into spoiler-ville for a moment, we are supposed to understand that Montag is merely an illusion, a symbolic slave to the Geek’s murderous desires. While he’s onstage racking up the bodies, the horrific hobo with a taste for blood is using a hallucinogenic fish toxin to brainwash audiences into seeing something else - the better to go about his splattery serial killing in the back. Edmund’s propensity toward violence has made him the Geek’s latest target - he will replace the old Montag and continue on the duo’s deadly work. Naturally, our hero outsmarts the villain, deciding to take control of the show - and the slaughter - all by himself.


Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with this kind of plot repurposing. In the original Montag was just a madman, using the power of mind control and post hypnotic suggestion to destroy pretty young things. Here, Chassler and Kasten want to overcomplicate things, tossing in scenes blurring fantasy and reality so regularly that we loose track of the timeframe. Bijou Phillips is supposed to be an important catalyst to all that’s happening, and yet she’s introduced in such a clumsy manner that we never understand her overall importance. Even Dourif, who uses reams of exposition to remind us why he’s crucial to the outcome seems adrift in the filmmakers’ fixations. From the 1940s focus (which gets old very quickly) to Edmund’s constant cracking of his neck (a byproduct of the fish toxin) there are repeated elements that will drive viewers to distraction.


Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new Wizard of Gore is the lack of…well, gore. Of course, the new “Unrated” DVD reportedly solves most of that problem, but at the expense of what, exactly. Why was the original edit so devoid of actual grue? Surely, the MPAA was a concern, but the set up seems more interested in dealing with Edmund’s growing dementia (and addictions), the full frontal nudity of the Suicide Girls, and the on again, off again trips into inner space than blood and body parts. Lewis only used his premise as a means of delivering the disgusting. In The Wizard of Gore 2007, the offal is the least of our concerns, and that’s not the way to approach any old fashioned splatter film.


And so the redux legacy of The Wizard of Gore sits somewhere between old school corner cutting and post-modern meddling. The original version delivers in the vivisection department. The new movie fumbles the all important garroting. In fact, it may be safe to say that, in some fictional film lab, where the best aspects of otherwise incomplete entertainments can be sectioned out and sewn together, a 70/07 Wizard amalgamation could be formed that offers both valid plot points and solid putrescence. Until that time, we are stuck with two competing if competent cinematic claims. One uses blood instead of baffling narrative to win us over. The other decides we care more about the psychological than the slippery. In either case, The Wizard of Gore deserves better. Apparently, Mr. Siskel’s advice has a few unforeseen filmic flaws to be worked out. 


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Monday, Aug 25, 2008
It's getting near the end of the month, bills are starting to come in, and L.B. thinks up a bunch of bizarre schemes to make money.


The expense of video games has always had a tenuous relationship with what the consumer is purchasing. Sixty dollars is no small amount of money and it’s not unreasonable for a gamer to expect quite a bit of bang for their buck. A game needs to have a great solo experience, fun multi-player, generate a lot of playtime, and appeal to a wide audience to garner much critical acclaim these days. Hell, it had better jump through hoops and entertain the whole family for that kind of cost. Yet some games are definitely worth that kind of money. The sixty dollars you pay for Call of Duty 4 is going to be repaid tenfold when you go online and get absorbed into the matches. Like buying a set of golf clubs or a croquet set, you know this is a game you can play over and over again. There’s long term value in that, there’s a sense of getting your money’s worth. But for a game that’s purely single-player, that’s trying to give a tight plot and precise experience, it’s much more difficult to justify the cost. Sixty bucks for a game I’ll play once or twice is asking a lot. In a consumer culture where I can rent a series for a monthly fee or buy a long book for a few dollars, it can be hard to justify the sixty dollars for a plot-heavy Third-Person game. How do we make video games that are just about the stories work for the consumer?


 


The biggest solution going on right now is downloadable content and episodic game formats. TellTale’s Sam & Max games are doing well financially and have even been breaking into the green on metacritic. At ten bucks to download and averaging about 3 to 5 hours of gameplay, that seems like a fair deal. It’s just the right length for a lazy afternoon or spread out over several days without putting my wallet into a world of hurt. It makes the story flow a lot better as well; a game that runs ten hours suffers because the narrative ends up lagging somewhere. Your favorite book or movie still adheres to a basic formula of introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, and resolution. But when a video game tries to apply that formula, it usually stalls somewhere because it has to drag one of those elements out. You’ll spend five hours on the rising action, only to blister by the climax and have the resolution be a two minute pop song. Episodic content isn’t just a good value for a game, it’s better suited to keeping the narrative flowing properly. Portable games have also been adopting this style, with the average level or episode taking about 15 minutes to an hour to beat. This helps people who play in quick bursts on the subway, but you can also see how, inadvertently, portable games tend to have better story pacing.


 


But how can we use this design to maximize the income of a Third-Person game? Sam & Max uses a lot of great concepts like the season pass or the full season purchase, but I can’t help but wonder if the economic model is at its full potential yet. If episodic games are going to be as appealing as T.V., you’d need to distribute the games episodically for free for a limited amount of time (to get people hooked) and then recoup on advertising and season passes. As flash players become more powerful, the lucrative options of this model will soon be a reality. Little downloading, minimal hardware demands, and the necessity to stand out amongst the competition should all help drive narrative games into new and creative territory. Consumers have consistently shown their willingness to play a free game in exchange for seeing an advertisement, but people are just now beginning to offer more complex games in this model. Why not play a commercial during the load time between games? Or do as Rainbow Six Vegas did and fill the world with in-game billboards and ads. With companies producing prototypes like this for Flash 10, it’s only a matter of time before this is feasible. Graphically complex episodic games could find a home in a few years when my web browser can produce graphics as cutting edge as consoles today. But is there a chance for more? If including multi-player can expand the value of a product, what other options could be given to the player?



One of the most interesting things to come from gamer culture has been the mod community, and it might be in the best interest of developers to embrace that community more fully. Why not throw the gates wide open and actively try to make creating games with the engine as easy possible? With so many brilliant mods and games coming out from the likes of RPGMaker or Garry’s mod, by letting people make outside games and hosting them on your server you could get no-risk content. Work out a licensing agreement with people who make good games, divide up the revenue, and suddenly you’ve got an army of potential narrative games to offer your consumer. I don’t mean just leaving the door unlocked, this is about making in-game tools easier to use for the player. Software that lip synchs, incredibly easy animation tools, and editors that even my grandma could use. Furthermore, you don’t even need to hand people a blank slate. You would include all the in-game art and animations and consistently add new ones as you create a larger body of work. It would be a huge boost to the Machinima scene as well. Naturally, anyone who downloaded all of this and tried to make money without the owner’s consent would be subject to legal measures. People would still be able to distribute their work for free, but perhaps by offering to sponsor a good game with professional voice work and editing you’d give them an incentive to work with you. If narrative games are eventually going to migrate to the internet to reduce costs, it is not enough to just start posting brilliant narrative games. Developers must continue to innovate in multiple fields to stand out.


 


There are plenty of other applications for video games that could generate revenue. What about a Victoria’s Secret catalogue that uses the Unreal 3 Engine to let people have their customized avatar try on clothes and see how they look? Architects already use game engines to demonstrate their designs to potential customers, why not let people check out hotels or explore national parks before they even make the trip? A lot of this article has turned into speculation and wild business proposals, but it’s important for those who enjoy plot heavy Third-Person video games to be mindful of the economics going on. It’s very hard for any story, no matter how brilliant, to get much of a chance when the gamer has spent a fortune on it. All that cynicism and irritation melts away when you’ve only spent ten or twenty bucks on the game. In those kinds of conditions, the plot is given a chance to really shine. Short of the game being perfect in every regard, would we even notice the ‘Citizen Kane’ of games after it ripped us off sixty bucks?


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