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by G E Light

19 Aug 2009

The early greatness of Leeds’ the Wedding Present surely must be put down to the magical alchemy that occurs between the witty, contemporary, and yet somehow plainly colloquial songwriting of David Gedge and the blitzoid guitar attack of one Pete Solowka, who appears to be strumming a banjo on speed when he straps on his Fender SG. Unlike contemporaries the Smiths, this chemical interaction—Gedge is to Morrissey as Solowka is to Marr—is not quite so clear cut as Gedge also plays rhythm guitar. Formed as a serious band from the remains of the Lost Pandas, the Weddoes toured local clubs and pubs and issued several singles on their own record label, Reception, before hitting it big with notices and airplay from John Peel and critical acclaim for their debut, George Best.

The Reception Era

Their second Reception single “Once More” demonstrates the “shambling” C86 speedy guitar half of the Weddoes’ formula quite nicely.

by G. Christopher Williams

19 Aug 2009

So, I’d heard some good things about Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.  As a fan of the Western genre, I felt some desire to check it out, so I spent a few days with the game.  And, indeed, it is a pretty good game.  It is extremely pretty, handles some good standard Western themes (greed, revenge, struggles over domesticity and family) rather well, and has some good very good shooting mechanics.  The latter quality is to be expected, though, from an FPS.  After all, a shooter should be good at (if not exceptional at), well, shooting.

What had me baffled after my satisfactory encounter with Bound in Blood was why I hadn’t played the first Call of Juarez.  Well, I had played a bit of it, but by now, my experience was a hazy memory.  I knew I had rented it, and it was one of those games that I put in, played for an hour or two, and then had cursed the fact that I had paid for the 5-day rental instead of the 2-day.  But, all I really remembered was that I had thought that it was bad for some reason or other.

Having played through its prequel now, though, I decided to give the game another go (and even reluctantly went with the 5-day rental plan).  It took me only three days to complete the first gane, and I suffered for most of the 11 or so hours that it took me to get through it.

Unlike many of our expectations about film sequels, the fans of video games often do not necessarily have low expectations for sequels.  Very often improvements in graphics quality, new and improved mechanics, and overall higher production values for a game can mean that a sequel to a successful game title might in fact mean a better game than the first.  Certainly, the graphics, mechanics, plotting, and voice acting in Bound in Blood are all superior to the original Call of Juarez, which also certainly explains some of the pleasure that I found in the sequel as opposed to its predecessor.  However, a play through of the original also reminded me of why I had found the first game just kind of silly enough to turn off after just a few short hours.  Much of Call of Juarez is simply unconventional.  And not in a good way.

The most frustrating and, very simply put, outright wacky elements of Call of Juarez are largely found when playing the bits of the game dedicated to one of that title’s protagonists, Billy Candle.  Billy is an outcast Mexican-American orphan who is a bit of a thief, so in addition to wielding a six shooter in the game, he also does a lot of sneaking around and… jumping? 

Very early on in Call of Juarez, the player is introduced to Billy’s whip and trained to use it to snag overhanging branches to swing from cliff to cliff.  He also climbs around a lot.  Oh, and he has to jump… a lot.  I guess that locomotion is a fairly important detail in most video games, be it walking, running, driving, flying, or jumping.  Indeed, jumping is one of the staples of video gaming.  For example, you may have heard of a certain upwardly mobile plumber that has starred in a few games.  However, it is less of an essential staple in most FPS-style games.  While Mirror’s Edge attempted to make a go of hybridizing jumping mechanics with the first person perspective, its success in doing so is debatable.  Whether or not Mirror’s Edge was able to pull off the marriage of platforming with the FPS genre though, its efforts to do so are certainly a lot more successful in doing so than Call of Juarez was.  The inability to gauge distances easily without seeing your character on screen makes the large chunks of platforming in Call of Juarez... well… fall flat on their face. 

Part of the relative success of Mirror’s Edge at better platforming sequences, though, is clearly related to the focus and interest of the game and its designers.  It is a game about a parkour-style runner, and thus, a lot of effort went into working with this essential mechanic,a mechanic necessary to gameplay but also to the narrative of the game.  When one considers Call of Juarez, one wonders what exactly is the interest in wedding a Western narrative to platforming mechanics.  Doing a first person shooter that is a Western?  Makes sense.  As previously noted, an FPS is all about shooting mechanics.  Westerns are kind of interested in that kind of thing, too.  But, I don’t often see Clint Eastwood gingerly hopping from precarious perch to precarious perch in the Leone films.

That isn’t to say that there is no logic whatsoever to making Billy into a character that has to make quick and unusual escapes.  As I mentioned, he is a bit of a thief.  However, as both a gamer and an avid fan of the Western genre, it certainly was a surprise to me to find myself hopping around Mario-style in a game that advertised itself as a Western.  Part of my initial irritation at the game may be related to simple expectation, that this was not the game that I expected to play given the literary or cinematic genre category that it falls into (I would also be very surprised by witnessing torture porn gore in a light romantic comedy or a lot of skin in a children’s movie). 

But, given the focus of the genre itself, it seems that not a great deal of energy went into developing these, the worst parts of the mechanics of Call of Juarez.  For example, witness the way that Billy’s shadow hangs stiffly in the air when he swings from a tree branch.  It is as if no thought was given to animating poor Billy when he hangs from his whip because the player cannot see him and because swinging is such a minor element by comparison to the other FPS-related mechanics in the game. 

By the way, it is those mechanics, the shooting mechanics, that Bound in Blood does very, very well.  Improved concentration modes (when you get to slow down the pace of the game in order to gun down a room full of enemies because you are: just that fast), floating targeting reticles that snap to targets when blazing away with two guns, and increased accuracy with the slower but harder hitting rifles all make Bound in Blood‘s gun play that much more authentic in feel and that much more fun to experience, which is kind of what I expect in a genre associated with… gun play. 

Now, I don’t want to say that innovation isn’t nice sometimes (Sukiyaki Western Django is an often weird but interesting film for example), but I do want to say that sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.  There is a pleasure to be taken in conventionality when it is done very well, and it is often done better when the dominant experiences in a game are focused on at the exclusion of curious odds and ends that don’t necessarily suit the genre or, more specifically, the way that the gameplay complements that genre.  Bound in Blood does include some light swinging and sneaking elements (I suppose as a nod to the conventions of its predecessor).  However, these moments are blessedly brief.  Most of the impact of the new game lies in its adherence to the conventional elements of the Western.  The game is more an homage to the gun fight than scattered pieces of game play mechanisms that are all underwhelmingly accomplished.  Given the pride that the game takes in accomplishing what it is and doing it very well, I have to prefer the more conventional vision of the Western in this case.

by Rachel Balik

19 Aug 2009

The Little Dog Laughed appeared two years ago on Broadway to great acclaim, and was heralded as a tight and enthralling comedic endeavor and described as a play about the ills—and wonders—of the entertainment industry. It is undeniably an impeccably written show filled with the kind of lines that simply require straight-faced genuine delivery to illicit laughter. But often, it is the kind of laughter that comes when we recognize an important and uncomfortable truth, not necessarily something outright funny. With each actor fully utilizing the richness of these moments, the production of the Little Dog Laughed at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Cape Cod, directed by Daisy Walker, seemed to reveal as much about basic human nature as it did about the entertainment business.

The play, by Douglas Carter Beane, features cutthroat agent Diane, played with passion, enthusiasm and myopic devotion by Elizabeth Atkeson, who fears her client, rising star Mitchell, will destroy his career by failing to hide his “recurring case of homosexuality.” While in New York for an award’s ceremony, Mitchell becomes romantically involved with a young male prostitute, Alex, who has a sort-of girlfriend, Ellen (Stacy Fischer) but is, in reality, grappling with his own sexuality and falling very hard for Mitchell.

Much has changed politically and socially since the play first appeared on Broadway in 2006, and for that reason, Diane’s heartless insistence that homosexuality is a career-breaker is even more startling. Her character is also a lesbian, and her point of view is made all the more chilling because of Atkeson’s impeccable commitment to the whole truth of her role. Her seamless transitions between a woman who grasps the nuances of human nature better than Jung and power-hungry business without the faintest concern for another human provide the greatest elements of humor in the role. She never once tries to play funny, and is thus captivating.

As Mitchell, Robert Kropf, is so unassuming and charmingly tentative that we almost forget that he, and his character, are actors. His deliberations and waffling make it hard to judge him and make the moments when he jumps into “actor-mode” all the more chilling. The irony is that is Mitchell’s true self is as single-mindedly self-absorbed as Diane’s; his human moments are folly. He’s mirrored by David Nelson as Alex, who enters the stage smooth and aloof, and literally unfolds on a clear, visible and enveloping trajectory throughout the play.

Nelson’s ability to represent these changes both physically and vocally provides the play’s clearest arc, pushing him into the role of main protagonist by the end. He serves as perfect complement as Atkeson, who pulls the audience into her tornado of determination but refuses to budge for anyone or anything. Ultimately, her commitment, as misguided as it is, makes her the only character with integrity.

Under Walker’s direction, all actors make great use of the sleek, modern set, designed by Kevin Judge, which represents a hotel room, restaurants, offices, subways and a grungy apartment in Williamsburg. The hotel room is the featured section, and is done with perfect realism, down the to mini bar. Its vitality makes is easier to believe that two simple stairs downstage represent a subway car. Atkeson’s mobile phone headset, and her fierce concentration make us willing to believe she is New York, LA, on a side walk or a boardroom without much questioning. Overall, Walker has pulled together a remarkably tight piece of regional theater.

And perhaps the intimacy of the setting allowed for even more exploration of the plays nuances. It was consistently funny, but held sadness and sacrifice waiting in the wings at all times. The show’s ability to carry such complexity represents great achievement, commitment and talent from all involved.

by PopMatters Staff

19 Aug 2009

Various Artists
Beat Dimensions 2
(Rush Hour)
Releasing: 6 October (US)

SONG LIST
01 Dorian Concept - Be Tween
02 Nosaj Thing - FWD
03 Zo aka La Chauve-Souris - The Peacock Revolution
04 Low Limit -Turf Day
05 Danny Breaks & DJ Adlib - The Sound
06 P.U.D.G.E. - Reign Dancing With…
07 Dizz1 - Konotakosuke Yaro
08 Samiyam - Swamp Tarts
09 Mike Slott - Cadeting
10 Mono/Poly - Distant Form
11 Ras G - Crazy Alien
12 Dimlite - Ravemond’s Young Problems
13 Devonwho - Welts
14 Erik L - Soularp Suite Pt. 2
15 Kenlo Craqnuques - ZoÏd
16 Tiago - Babel Fish
17 Dalt Wisney - R2FUX
18 Fulgaence - Haggis
19 Exile - Super Robot
20 Busy - Ecliptic Armilla

Nosaj Thing
“FWD” [MP3]
     

by PopMatters Staff

18 Aug 2009

Lightning Bolt
Earthly Delights
(Load)
Releasing: 13 October (US)

SONG LIST
01 Sound Guardians
02 Nation of Boar
03 Colossus
04 The Sublime Freak
05 Flooded Chamber
06 Funny Farm
07 Rain on Lake I’m Swimming In
08 S.O.S.
09 Transmissionary

Lightning Bolt
“Colossus” [MP3]
     

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