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by Bill Gibron

9 Sep 2009

Nine
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottilard, Penelope Cruz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Fergie
Opening: 25 November 2009
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Leave it to Daniel Day-Lewis to flummox fans. After winning the Oscar for his bravura performance as a wily turn of the century oil baron in There Will Be Blood, the unconventional actor has now jumped headlong into Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical take on Fellini’s 8 1/2. That’s right, it’s a singing and dancing Day-Lewis who’ll be helping the Chicago helmer bring this baffling tuner into obvious Academy attention. And as the ladies in the fictional filmmaker Guido Contini’s life? Well, we have none other than Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson, and Sophia Loren. There’s over seven little gold statues among the cast alone. While some fear that Marshall is a one hit wonder (the Chicago follow-up, Memoirs of a Geisha, was less than successful at the box office), the talent involved should pull him through. Should.

by Ashley Cooper

9 Sep 2009

Since first coming onto the R&B music scene in 2005, Trey Songz has created many hits. His first two albums, ‘I Gotta Make It” (2005) and ‘Trey Day’ (2007) had numerous singles such as “Girl Tonight”, “Just Gotta Make It”, “Last Time” and “Can’t Help But Wait”. The latter song gave Trey Songz a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and also affirmed that Trey Songz is one very promising R&B artist.

Now Ready is released, and is currently #2 on Amazon’s R&B Sales Charts, and #3 on iTunes Album Sales Charts. The album features the hit single “Successful”, featuring the rapper Drake, as well as his take on Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You”, “One Love”. Trey Songz has also announced that he will be touring with the official BET Live! 106 & Park Tour along with R&B acts Mario, Day26 and Sean Garrett. Tour information can be obtained from his official website, but the dates are as follows:

September:
29th- Los Angeles, CA- House of Blues
30th- Anaheim, CA- House of Blues

October:
2nd- Las Vegas, NV- TBA
5th- Houston, TX- House of Blues
6th- Dallas, TX- House of Blues
8th- New Orleans, LA- House of Blues
9th- Atlanta, GA- Tabernacle
11th- Myrtle Beach, SC- TBA
12th- Charlotte, NC- Fillmore
13th- Baltimore, MD- TBA
15th- Kansas City, MO- TBD
16th- St. Louis, MO- The Pageant
18th- Detroit, MI- TBD
19th- Chicago, IL- House of Blues
20th- Cleveland, OH- House of Blues
21st- Indianapolis, IN- Egyptian Room at Murat
29th- Orlando, FL- TBD

November:
11th- Washington, DC- TBD
12th- Boston, MA- TBD

by G. Christopher Williams

9 Sep 2009

This discussion of the Prince of Persia contains major spoilers regarding the game’s conclusion.

Despite their often thuggish and brutal behavior, a few weeks ago I wrote about how the characters that we play in video games are still often made sympathetic to us through various narrative techniques that sometimes conflict with player choice.  While Niko and CJ of the Grand Theft Auto series do some terrible things while we control them, both characters’ rough edges are often softened by scripted cutscenes that give these characters justification for their bad behavior or that just simply show that they are not altogether bad.

What I would like to consider this week is a character whose reputation has suffered as a result of a slightly different and less static narrative technique that also attempted to reveal more about the protagonist of a video game, the Prince of Persia.  Much like the rapscallions of the GTA series, the Prince seems to have been largely conceived of as an anti-hero.  Much like Aladdin, the Prince emerges from the tradition of the rogue as hero.  The charming and rebellious bad boy has much going for him in the way of generating audience sympathy that can be found in other characters like him.  Unlike the bad boys of GTA and other crime sagas, characters like Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, or just about any character ever played by Cary Grant, tend through their own wit, charisma, and good looks to offset any negative feelings about their possible character flaws or even criminality.  Charm, it would seem, masks a host of vices.

Certainly, the latest re-envisioning of the Prince of Persia plays into this persona of the bad boy, especially as such characters normally relate to a female love interest (a perfect vehicle for demonstrating qualities like charm).  Like Han Solo and Princess Leia, Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann, Peter Joshua and Regina Lambert, the Prince’s general charm is in part communicated to the player through the witty verbal cut and thrust that he and Elika take part in over the course of the game.  Nothing says sexual chemistry more than a little verbal violence.  We tend to forgive little boys their attacks on girls after all because we know that in reality it just shows that “they like ‘em” and that seems to be the case with most of these man-boys.

While some folks may criticize the relative cleverness of the non-stop give and take between the Prince and Elika, unlike many video games, it certainly reveals more about these two characters and how we are intended to perceive them than games often do.  Usually, video game characters seem to go mute when a cutscene ends and actually playing as them begins.  While this is usually because they aren’t working with a partner, the partnership between the Prince and Elika is one essential to gameplay (as the Prince serves as the vehicle for moving around the world of the Prince of Persia while Elika’s powers keep him alive) but also to characterization—one of the easiest ways that a writer can develop a character is by showing an audience what they act like around others.

Despite efforts to build the Prince into a likable rogue, the Prince has taken a real beating as a much beloved protagonist largely do to the final decision that he makes somewhat independent of the player’s control at the close of Prince of Persia.  The gameplay and plot of Prince of Persia are driven by the goal of saving an unnamed kingdom by healing its corrupted landscape.  When the Prince and Elika (and the player) finally manage to succeed in healing the “fertile grounds”, the Prince and the player is confronted with the uncomfortable truth that Elika, whose resurrection caused the corruption that plagues the land, must also die to make right the unnatural balance that was created by her previous return to life. 

Interestingly, Ubisoft did not choose to present the Prince’s response to Elika’s death as a final dramatic and unplayable cutscene.  However, despite the seemingly participatory nature of the game’s epilogue, the player is not actually given any choices about how the Prince might choose to respond to Elika’s death.  If the epilogue is played through, the only thing that the player can do is walk Elika’s body out of the temple that she has sacrificed herself in and destroy several trees that represent the lifeblood of the land.  As a result, the land once more is corrupted by shadow, and Elika is returned to life.  The Prince has chosen love over salvation.

The conversation  provoked by this unusual and exceedingly romantic conclusion is varied.  Some (as I myself do) feel that this is a reasonable conclusion to the Prince and Elika’s story.  Every indication of the Prince’s feelings for Elika as they verbally parry and thrust through a complex dance of sexual antagonism and anxiety indicates to me that a legitimate sexual chemistry and ultimately love is being developed between the characters.  It may be that I have seen too many episodes of Moonlighting, but this formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other because they actually really, really like each other has apparently conditioned me to view much literary and cinematic romance in this way.  Additionally, the rebellious qualities of the Prince suggest something of the Byronic hero or the Satanic Hero.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost who felt that it was “better to reign in Hell then serve in Heav’n”, the Prince chooses to resurrect what he desires rather than save a world.  Thus, I feel like this final decision is consistent with the character (and, truth be told, I kind of favor the Byronic expression of the hero over the blandly noble heroes of other literature myself).

However, given that saving the world is the focus of so many games and certainly the goal that the player has been led to believe is his or her own of over the course of this game, it is, perhaps, unsurprising and very understandable that many players find themselves to be very much in conflict with the Prince’s decision.  Those that might want to choose a more noble outcome or see the Prince as a potentially less selfish character might reasonably disagree with this conclusion.  To further rub salt in the wounds of players that might feel that saving the world is a more noble and sacrificial choice to make then to save the woman that they love, the game asks the player to make this choice right alongside the Prince, to become complicit in this more “Satanic” option. While the player controls the Prince at this moment in the game, he or she can only take actions that revive Elika and corrupt the land, there are no alternative actions (barring making choices outside the boundaries of the fictional world itself) that might allow the Prince and player to maintain an uncorrupted kingdom.  As Iroquois Pliskin puts it in his review of the game from December, 2008, Prince of Persia  “presented the player with the one of the few real ethical dilemmas of the holiday season: turn the console off, or finish the game?”

That Ubisoft seems willing to force the player into enacting a choice that they may or may not agree with and allow the player’s will to come into direct conflict with the will of the character that the player has inhabited for hours strikes me as a brave from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.  Not only do they risk making the Prince an unsympathetic character by making the player overtly complicit in his less than noble decision to embrace his own needs and desires over those of the “greater good”, but the conclusion of Prince of Persia invalidates everything that the player has been doing throughout the game or in playing a game at all.  One of the most satisfying thing that adding narrative components to video games has done for gaming is in providing a conclusion, a stopping point that allows players to know that they have succeeded in their goal, that they have “beaten” the game.  However, that this goal is the result of achieving various lesser goals throughout the game by testing their acumen at the various tasks of the game (in this case, running, jumping, fighting monsters, etc.) suggests that taking all of those minor actions are worthwhile because they achieve that victory condition.  The frustration that may arise from playing Prince of Persia may lie in the fact that the value of the actions necessary to “win” the game are all erased at the game’s conclusion.  It is as if the board that the game is played on has been suddenly swept and the 10 or 12 hours needed to complete the game were unnecessary.  The land is under the spell of Corruption and nothing has changed as a result of a laborious effort. 

The near absurdity of the reversal of the the effort of playing a game is sure to aggravate players who are accustomed to being told that playing results in achievement and winning.  The interesting thing about Prince of Persia is that it challenges the value of the work of play itself.  That the Prince makes the decision to invalidate his work in saving the world might be acceptable but that the player is forced (barring turning off the console before the narrative completely concludes) to invalidate their own work alongside him might make it easy to begin to hate this guy.  It also raises the question, though, since we have acted alongside him, do we have to hate ourselves for wasting all this time?

by Bill Gibron

9 Sep 2009

There are very few visionaries left in Hollywood, with even fewer arriving every day - and with good reason. It’s not easy pitching your quirky, esoteric product to a group of suits solely interested in the bottom line. Today’s business model is about money, not the mind’s eye. Not matter how artistically pleasing or aesthetically sound, you just can’t stay completely true to your muse and not face some strong commercial (and career) backlash. That’s why Shane Acker’s story is so intriguing. After an Oscar nomination highlighted his beautiful, baroque animation approach, filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov championed his jump to feature films. The result is 9, a stunning, if narratively stunted exercise in optical bliss and plotting hit or miss that could have been better if it wasn’t so basic. 

As one of nine living burlap puppets in a desolate, post-War environment, our title hero hooks up with the rest of his reanimated brethren: 1, a despotic leader; 2, a kindly sage, 3 and 4, twins who work in an information archive; 5 whose one eyed façade hints at the horrors in this frightening new domain; 6, who sees prophecy in the images he draws; 7, a female fighter with more nerve than other of her kind, and 8, a lumbering bodyguard to 1’s stern leadership. Together, they must figure out what happened to the human population while stopping a massive factory-sized machine from creating destructive devices bent on bringing about their own demise. Eventually, 9 uncovers a secret about why he’s alive, and the power that such a status holds in bringing humanity back from the brink of utter extinction.

9 is the kind of movie that breaks your heart. It shows so much promise, but then wastes it on the same old fuddy duddy future shock storyline. After all, how many times do we have to sit through a “man vs. machines” parable where our arrogance and technological drive leads to our eventual undoing. Sure, director Shane Acker dresses it all up in World War I/II paraphernalia, the Nazi/Fascist overtones carried throughout with sledgehammer like subtlety. True, the tone is not child friendly, but geared more toward the Goth guy/gal and geek mentality. And yes, the voice work is absolutely amazing, everyone from Elijah Wood (as 9) to Crispin Glover (6), John C. Reilly (5), and Jennifer Connelly (7) spot-on in their delivery and demeanor.

But that doesn’t make the mechanical monster mash any newer or more novel. 9 constantly reminds the audience of The Matrix (especially in the look of its villains), The Terminator (in it’s A.I. gone gonzo themes), and numerous other examples of the speculative type. Along with an equally schizophrenic spiritual message - more on that in a moment - we are stuck following formulas that would barely work at all if not for Ackers amazing artistry. Indeed, the one thing that saves this proposed CG epic is the jaw-dropping production and character design. Whenever the story starts to lag, whenever the references become too recognizable or obvious, Acker delivers a robot or wide reaction shot that will absolutely floor you. He crafts vistas that take your breath away while populating them with particulars of equal optical excellence. Like the best kind of magician, 9 misdirects you from the misguided man behind the curtain to visual splendor that steals the show.

Still, we are stuck with narrative facets that don’t feel right. The whole “soul” situation makes little or no sense, the ability to trap such an enigmatic ideal in a tiny doll appearing counterproductive to the rest of the story’s set-up. In fact, it feels like a cheat, a way of showing audiences that, in the end, the human race will be saved. It doesn’t help that each of our nine leads are locked into caricaturist confines - champion, coward, iron fisted ruler, deliberate dreamer - making their path to the planet’s repopulation sketchy at best. And Acker never really explains his sci-fi rules here, something that is imperative in making this material work. Clearly, he was busier with the nuts and bolts of the film’s look than in trying to make everything in his wistful wasteland work in a literarily sound way.

And yet 9 defies you not to be moved by its visual acumen. Acker is clearly a genius in combining ideas, using a clever combination of the Victorian and the high tech, the junkyard and the completely foreign to forge a unique and memorable ideal. Sure, his puppets are nothing more than your standard sell-through figurines, but the rest of this rotting world has a perverse polish all its own. The villains here are undeniably evil in their cobbled together terror tenets. While the story never knocks us out, the action sequences and attention to detail certainly do. By the end, when we’ve wandered over from battles to matters of belief, the contrasts become more obvious. We need the bad to shore up the good. Without it, the treacle takes over, and the result is something that never quite feels new, even with all the up-to-date aspects of its approach up on the screen for all to see.

With an inferred demographic who will find this frequently flying way over their grumbling gradeschooler heads, it’s hard to see 9 becoming anything other than an obvious cult classic. Those who adore it will excuse the lack of narrative nuance, while others in the cinematic sect will worship individual elements like they are sure signs from God himself. One thing is for certain - Shane Acker has a seemingly boundless imagination that can salvage even the most simplistic, standardized sci-fi plot. 9 could have been a true animation masterpiece, the kind that rarely come along outside of a place called Pixar. Instead, it wastes a lot of creative energy on a concept that’s been before - and frankly, outside of the CG eye candy involved, better. 

by Rob Horning

9 Sep 2009

In the past few posts I have been trying to get at ways in which the fantasy of perfect markets can be deployed ideologically, used normatively to shape people’s thinking and aspirations, how we assess how reasonable our behavior is when we attempt to be “objective”. Here are some more propositions:

1. If the laws assume a particular institution, subjects will conform their thinking to accommodate the institution in that mandated form.

2. If attempts to legislate a rational market into existence occurs, to simplify governing and entrench advantages already embedded in the status quo, then people must be forced to become homo economicus, must habitually restrict self-knowledge to cost-benefit analysis.

3. Perfect markets imply an ongoing process of equilibria being found. A chief way of trying to legislate perfect markets into existence is to try to force equilibrium, mandate it as a norm.

4. Market rationality is not merely the presumption of calm, omnipotent calculation in an instant. It also incorporates the assumption that we are always arbitraging as equilibrium are coalescing—this activity is presumed to fashion the equilibrium, but only after certain already-favored parties have already taken advantage of the imbalance in the process. This exploitation can then be popularly conceived as justice, as inevitable, as harmful to impede.

5. In an economy with alleged, presumed or mandated perfect markets, timing is what is always at stake. We exploits the discrepencies on the way to equilibrium, and who suffers the equilibrium as fait accompli. This is matter of how information and the opportunity to act on it is distributed. The advantages of timing—the arbitrage opportunity—tends to disappear from the macro view, hiding any exploitation or injustice.

6. All of this is an elaboration of the observation that the useful fiction of efficient markets can be used as an ideological tool to browbeat people and curtail freedoms, and also to hide actual imperfections pertaining to timing. It’s an ex post facto alibi for unfair outcomes.

//Mixed media