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by Nikki Tranter

2 Oct 2009

Today caps off this year’s Banned Books Week, the one week wherein reading rebels celebrate their right to read whatever they desire. The American Library Association runs the campaign to bring awareness to those books frequently challenged in school, libraries, and retail outlets, and promotes intellectual freedom in those sacred book places.

In 2008, 661 titles were disputed somewhere in the United States, titles including The Prince of Tides, The Lovely Bones, and even Winnie the Pooh. Sex, violence, race relations, and ani-Christian messages are the reasons most cited when books are challenged or stolen from schools and libraries. The good stuff, of course.

This article at NYTimes.com mentions a case in which a Maine patron stole It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health from his local library due to its “amoral, abnormal contents”. The patron is to be tried for theft. (Abnormal?)

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

At this point in the critical game, does Pixar and its premiere franchise, Toy Story, really need defending? Do you really need another writer waxing in a wholly self indulgent manner about how John Lasster and his love of all things play produced the impetus for a literal cavalcade of creative genius? One would imagine that anyone under the age of 20 would have these movies memorized, repeated VHS to DVD viewings cementing an unquestionable love for Woody, Buzz, and their gang of kid-friendly tchotchkes. Now the latest hi-tech craze - the better than real life gimmick known as 3D - is being used to reintroduce the classics to a brand new under-aged demo. Frankly, it’s unclear whether these technological marvels need further scientific sprucing up. They were already so great to being with.

By now, the plots of both films are more or less rote. In Toy Story, Woody the cowboy grows concerned that his place as favored amusement will be usurped by clueless spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear. While trying to one up each other, they both wind up in the clutches of the cruel next door neighbor, the vicious bully Sid. In Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by a collectibles geek who wants a complete set of the Wild West character’s merchandise to sell to a museum in Japan. Buzz, along with a few of Andy’s other playthings, set out to rescue their friend, unaware of the dangers, and dilemmas, they will face along the way. Each movie is made with the utmost of care, both brimming with imagination, adventure, and sequences of show-stopping visual acumen. The first effort is quaint in its wistful nostalgia. The second amplified everything to new levels of emotional heft.

It’s hard to hate what Pixar did with these two films. Even in light of their far more accomplished masterpieces of late, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 contain the creative genes that spawned a very special family film empire. Without the experimentation and push to better their craft, without the various miracles uncovered in both approach and artistic accomplishment, there wouldn’t have been a Finding Nemo, a Wall-E, or an Incredibles. Pixar has always used its short films and features as a way of improving the platform, of defining new ways to render tricky real life elements like hair, fur, and human faces. Toy Story shows these initial baby steps, from Andy’s awkward façade to Sid’s scary demon like designs. While the toys are captured in near flawless finery, the rest of the narrative facets feel like works in progress.

Toy Story 2 is where it all came together, however, from the cartoon concept of people to the discovery of sympathy and strong emotional ties. The cowgirl doll Jessie gets a solo sequence (the song “When She Loved Me”) so touching, so unbelievably moving in its one special Summer loveliness that it almost threatens to overwhelm the entire movie. That’s the power of Pixar, the undeniable strength they’ve managed to tap into throughout the last decade or so. That’s why they’ve gone ten-for-ten in the masterpiece department. And yet it’s crucial to understand Toy Story and Toy Story 2‘s role in such reverence. Had they not been hits, had audiences believed that CG was just a fad that couldn’t completely kill off their love of hand drawn animation, we might not be having this discussion. Indeed, many studios have tried to duplicate Pixar’s opulent eye candy approach, but the results have been more Robots than Ratatouille.

That’s because movies like Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are about more than fanciful visual wizardry. This is a company that has always believed in character first, narrative second, and the spellbinding strategies of dimensional drawings last. That’s why this two week special engagement rerelease and the recent news that next year’s Toy Story 3 will be in 3D may give purists pause. After all, like anytime a classic gets fiddled with, adding something that was there are the start suggests a desire to second guess history. One thing needs to be clarified up front - nothing has been done to these films in general. No “new shots” have been inserted and old techniques haven’t been “updated” to match the undeniable smoothness and splendor of films like Up. No, all that’s been added is another dimension, a depth of field and sense of scope that definitely accents the novel nature of this presentation.

But the question remains - is it necessary? Some critics seem to think that any improvement, even with the complete support of the filmmakers themselves, is some form of cinematic sacrilege. Of course, arguments over original intent tend to fall away when the actual director is doctoring up their seemingly “imperfect” past project. But in the case of taking Toy Story and Toy Story 2 into the realm of 3D appears like a clever commercial ploy - and not much more. There is no way the realistic feel of the cinematic experience can be recreated on home video - there is no HD way to bring the Real system to your living room - and the two color approach is just as lame as it was when horrors were uncovered in a ‘50s wax museum. So the only way to experience this new Pixar ploy is to plop down your dosh for a double feature. Even with the wonderful Intermission material (complete with jokes, trivia, questions, and basic Disney brouhaha), the ends don’t necessarily justify the means.

That’s because the 3D is only a minor upgrade onto what are already considered cartoon marvels. Both films don’t need additional bells and whistles to work - they got by marvelously without the newfangled filmmaking stunt. Sure, this past Summer’s sensation Up introduced the world to Pixar plus another dimension and the results were resplendent, and when you first see Andy’s room, artifacts strewn about in a perfect tactile reflection of a real child’s playground, the added element works well. Somewhere long the line, however, the need to spruce up every old work of wonder may outweigh the true necessity for same. When viewed through such cynical prisms, the Toy Story double feature feels like a profit making plot. When passed through a more aesthetically pleasing set of sensors, the movies maintain their magical, mystical quality - technical tweaks be damned. 

by Tyler Gould

2 Oct 2009

If I were a sentient scarecrow and I were so ineffective that crows had no qualms about perching on my shoulders, I would probably be knotted with anguish and existential despair. The delightful Maxwell Sorensen-directed video for the title track from These United States’ Everything Touches Everything depicts a more devil-may-care farm appliance, who chooses instead to throw caution to the wind and rock out with his sworn avian nemeses. The song is big, both in its chunky, delicious chords, its finger-mashing treatment of the piano, and its unbridled enthusiasm, as the band sings, “it is breathtaking just to be here”. The video could not be more fun. It just couldn’t.

But wait, there’s more! These United States have just announced a bunch of tour dates with Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, which you can find after the jump.

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

It seems odd, given the immeasurable popularity of his Office sitcom (both in its UK and USA variations) that Ricky Gervais is still not a major movie star. Oh sure, he’s been in several motion pictures, playing bit parts (Night at the Museum 1 & 2), extended cameos (For Your Consideration) and unfairly overlooked leading roles (Ghost Town), but for the most part, audiences see him as a TV type guy and that’s about it. Even a recent HBO stand up concert revealed a side few in his fanbase have seen (and let’s not even mention his status as an ‘80s pop star, okay?). Perhaps all this will change with his newest big screen effort, The Invention of Lying. Co-written, co-directed and starring Gervais, it’s perhaps one of the slyest religious satires since Monty Python’s Life of Brian. No, really.

Religious satire, you say. Indeed, what ads and trailers don’t tell you about the plot is that Gervais’ character, a screenwriter named Mark Bellison who lives in a world where nobody lies, becomes an unlikeable backhanded messiah. Everyone is this peculiar parallel universe is brutally honest, almost to the point of being abusive. Still, it’s how everyone lives. Mark is about to be fired from his job, his 13th Century stories about the Black Plague unable to compete with the far more popular films of star scribe Brad Kessler. He’s also having a hard time finding a girlfriend. One particular young lady who he’s obsessed with dismisses his intentions by citing their genetic incompatibility. Still, he pursues Anna because of his own need to feel special and wanted.

Eventually, he is fired. Out of work, out of money, and with no place to stay, Mark discovers an unusual fact about his social situation. If he makes up something that isn’t, if he lies about life, he can fashion it into whatever he wants. Another incident suddenly skyrockets him into the realm of religious icon, since everyone now believes Mark knows what happens after we die. Thus Gervais takes what could have been a very one note comedy skit idea and twists it into a commentary on faith, conformity, the universal fear of dying and the thoroughly ridiculous nature of organized belief. Within 20 minutes or so, the entire lying dynamic is explored, Mark vying for sex and success with equally unusual results. Then a tragedy takes us out of the sketch comedy motif and directly into something that sends a clear message about God, his prophets, and those who base their life on such traditional “tall tales.”

And again, it’s interesting how no one would know this from the previews. It’s as if Universal, well aware of the reception previous films critical of religion have received, is purposefully avoiding any mention of “the Man in the Sky”, and yet it’s this material that gives The Invention of Lying its verve and long lasting narrative drive. We are curious what will happen once Mark is made messiah, interested in where Gervais and co-conspirator Matthew Robinson will take the story next. We get nods to Moses, the Ten Commandments, evangelism, and the entire interpretation/re-interpretation of teachings that drive so many forward thinking individuals to question belief in general. Toss in Mark’s continued quest for Anna, he weird friendship with fellow “losers” Louis CK and Johan Hill, and a couple of standout dramatic scenes, and you wind up with something that will confuse most, aggravate some, and thoroughly tickle a chosen, clued-in few.

Indeed, there are other elements at play here that many may not see. There is racism in the honest world, the successful shying away and separating themselves from those outside their level of personal triumph and aesthetic. Instead of using some manner of mean-spirited epithet at their targets, the rich and beautiful coin common terms like “loser”, “fatty”, and “biological inferior”. It’s incredible to see the same ludicrous lines of delineation expressed in a world where, supposedly, there is no pretense. Indeed, Gervais seems to be suggesting that, no matter what, truth or lies, honesty or abject deceit, people will still single each other out for incredibly specious reasons. Similarly, when the religious material kicks in, the myth making and false idolatry really undercut the more meaningful elements of personal faith. Religion has really never looked so ludicrous.

Such substance definitely helps get us past the movie’s main flaw - its saggy superficiality. Not of content, mind you, but of character. As our lead, Gervais’s Mark is completely fleshed out, complicated without being dense, likeable while doing some fairly insensitive things. But as for the rest of his cast, they seem unable to find a third dimension. Jennifer Garner’s Anna is so intent on being upwardly mobile - both financially and biologically - that she really has no other personality beat, and Rob Lowe’s smug, snide Brad Kessler was just summed up with those two words. From Jeffrey Tambor’s film boss who’s too cowardly to fired someone to Hill’s singular suicidal tendencies, many of the main players in this otherwise winning farce are as one note as the proposed premise. And yet somehow, even despite himself, Gervais gets it to work - and he does so by risking the alienation of his audience.

Like Mike Judge when he called out his viewers as a bunch of ‘fat retards’ in Idiocracy, The Invention of Lying casts a critical light on the gullible and the guileless, the narrow minded and the unquestioning. It calls out the converted and makes fun of those who still believe that God created the Heavens and Earth. Indeed, in a world where only the truth can be told, how does religion begin or take hold? Unless there’s some fact-based pronouncement that everyone can clamor for and cling to, Gervais argues it can’t exist. Only in a situation where lies trump reality can such an allegorical idea truly flourish. After all, faith is based on belief without seeing, and this goes directly against a situation where seeing is everything. As a work of subversive satire, The Invention of Lying is clever and cutting. As a challenge to all those who still supplicate to a “higher power”, the smart cinematic reality may be too tough to take.

by Tyler Gould

2 Oct 2009

Built to Spill have already given us a sample of their upcoming album, There Is No Enemy, but now they’ve made the whole dang thing available on their MySpace. The real deal will hit stores on October 6th.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Red Baraat Blows Hartford Hall Down Celebrating the Festival of Colors (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Red Baraat's annual Festival of Colors show rocked a snow laden Hartford on a Saturday evening.

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