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by Bill Gibron

26 Jul 2009

In Hollywood, career desperation can take on many forms. There’s the comedian who tries for drama, the failed thesp who hopes to find solace in a shift behind the lens. There’s the aging star who tries to go younger (or older), as well as the former frontliner who delves into the realm of solid supporting “character” work. Perhaps the most notorious example of fading celebrity anxiety, however, is the return to franchise form. Just ask Harrison Ford. While a mainstay of ‘80s/‘90s blockbusters, his draining fame and fortune saw him reprise his most iconic role - Indiana Jones - for a less than successful fourth installment. Oddly enough, the same thing has happened to La-La land novices Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. 

Remember when this duo was supposed to set the Tinseltown action empire on fire? How Diesel was pitched as the thinking man’s Neanderthal and when Walker embodied leading man qualities in a stuntman’s form? Amazing what a series of less than successful starring roles will garner. Eight years after the first Fast and Furious film made both men car geek gods, the duo have returned - along with most of the original cast - to flesh out their failing finances. Avoiding the auto erotica tenets of the previous titles, part three participants Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (screenplay) have decided to forgo all vehicular fetish to go moody and revenge-oriented - and it almost works. Almost.

When the heat gets too hot on his highway bandit enterprise, Dom Toretto breaks up his gang and heads undercover. Tragedy brings him back to LA. There, he learns that a drug dealer named Braga is responsible for his current pain. Without provocation, he decides to join the criminal’s gang of drivers and get some payback. Standing in his way, however, is old pal/nemesis Brian O’Connor. Now working for the FBI, he wants Braga as well. Reluctantly, they form a partnership which one again takes them into the street racing scene. As Dom’s sister Mia frets over the fate of both men, the bureau wants answers and they want them fast. Discovering who Braga really is, however, may be more difficult than maneuvering the back roads between the US and Mexico.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, Fast & Furious will end up fun and effective. This isn’t Shakespeare. No one will be looking at the expanded Oscar list come awards season for this film’s name to turn up. But when all you really want is a few high-powered action sequences, a simplified narrative that doesn’t play too dumb, and some solid work from an already comfortable cast, this most recent deposit in the fuel-injected franchise’s bank does deliver. Sure, Lin and Morgan want to make this all seem like the greatest tragedy known to man, to show Dom and Brian mulling over their fate in slo-mo statements of import. But this is one movie that doesn’t forget the flash - or put another way, the CGI aided automotive mayhem. Indeed, those looking for old school chrome on concrete chaos may come away disappointed.

This is nu-era F/X, green-screened heroics where our well-washed cast can sit idly back in the safety of the soundstage’s driver seat and look like they are facing almost certain death. An opening bit of mountain road piracy has a wonderful sense of authenticity - that is, until the computer-enhanced cliffs indicate a set of logistical impossibilities. In Los Angeles, Dom and Brian race two others through real traffic strewn streets. Yet every near miss or eventual collision comes straight out of a video game version of life. Nowhere is this more true, however, than in the two main “trips” across the border. Using a tunnel forged under a mountain, our highly modified cars careen back and forth between precarious rock walls. While it strives to be breathtaking, however, we suddenly start flashing back to the “realism” of the mining cart chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Granted, there is nothing wrong with these motherboard managed sequences. Modern audiences need much more bang for their buck less their already addled attention spans sputter and spin out. And the new DVD from Universal offers an entire second disc loaded with Behind the Scenes how-to. But when Quentin Tarantino put Zoe Bell on the top of a car and ran her around the California countryside in Death Proof, we could sense inherently how scary the cinematic stakes really were. Indeed, Fast & Furious could be called Grand Theft Autopilot. Lin knows that his demographic doesn’t care about truth. They want to see stuff smash up - and in as outlandish and outrageous a way possible.

And as for those actors returning to pick up a much needed bit of commercial clout? Fast & Furious proves why they were so highly touted in the first place - sort of. Walker gets the less flamboyant of the two roles. He gets to play rebel cop badass without having to damage either side of the badge. He also knows that co-star Diesel has more to lose than he, and skillfully lets most of their moments fall on those Riddick-riddled shoulders. As for the former bald beefcake, Dom remains a defining role. It allows Diesel to seem substantial without doing much more than holding a steering wheel and the sequences where he sits and broods bring a small amount of gravitas to the otherwise superficial proceedings. With Jordana Brewster back as Mia, and a few more familiar faces thrown in for continuity, this is a literal crowd pleaser - it knows who it’s playing to and exactly how to entertain them.

You too might find some minor amusement buried in all the gearhead rhetoric and mechanized machismo. The film looks good, offering a broader scope than most post-post modern action films, and Lin’s love of all things hip-hop transforms more than one scene into the latest “hos and bros” rap video. But it’s impossible to shake the air of business model dread here. Had Fast & Furious failed at the box office, it would have meant the end for Walker and Diesel. The former would have to find work in the background of otherwise high profile showcases, while the latter would be forced back to flesh out the possibilities within the Pacifier series. Thanks to some impressive ticket returns and a fanbase that clearly wants more of these motor sports, however, Dom and Brian will be back. So you see, sometimes, career desperation pays off. Like Fast & Furious itself, it’s almost never easy, but it can be satisfying in its own way.

by George Tiller

26 Jul 2009

Picture the following situation. You catch a bus to go home after a hard day’s work, pay the fare and take a seat. Suddenly there are sirens everywhere, a blinding flash of light, and a series of incredible jolts and accelerations. The next thing you know you’re stranded in an area of absolute desolation with death on the horizon.

Now while this is quite normal for American users of public transport, Britain is a green and pleasant land, so it’s a bit of a shock for the Doctor and his fellow passengers.

So what is the Doctor doing on a London double decker bus? It turns out he’s tracking a newly opened wormhole and the bus he was riding just drove through it. So now the Doctor and his fellow passengers are all stuck on the Planet of the Dead in a wrecked bus. Since there aren’t any Americans with public transport experience around, they are left to their own devices.

Luckily, the passengers turn out to be pretty resourceful. The better half of a sweet old couple from Brixton has psychic ability. There are two likely lads who start repairing the bus. And there’s a mysterious and aristocratic lady in a tight leather body suit who used diamond earrings as bus fare. She’s Lady Christina (Michelle Ryan), and has just stolen a very precious artifact from a museum. Half of the police in London were chasing her when she boarded the bus.

The London police may have their faults but they do know what to do when a double decker vanishes into thin air. They call in the normally hapless but always well intentioned folks at UNIT. UNIT is the United Nation alien rapid response team and this time they have a really good mad scientist, Dr. Malcom Taylor (Lee Evans), on staff.

All of this talent is going to be tested to the full as the Doctor has to cope with crashed alien spacecraft, a disgruntled alien crew, a rapidly growing wormhole and metallic, and planet chewing space locusts. Indeed, it’s a great show, which manages to duplicate some of the sense of joyful adventure from the old Tom Baker days. It’s the combination of the fast pace, originality and happy go lucky style that makes Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead one of the best adventures that any of the Doctors has had.

by Shawn O'Rourke

26 Jul 2009

When I was younger and just getting back to comics I had no real appreciation for Golden and Silver Age characters. I was a Batman fanatic and I had very little time, or money, for series like the JSA or Starman. I started reading the Justice League because my hero was part of the team but my forays into the DCU and its iconic history ended there. I erroneously believed that the JLA represented the full manifestation of the superhero genre (gimme a break, I was young!), and that old characters like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott were prototypes whose appeal had been replaced by cooler and more modern incarnations. It was through the help of more enlightened friends and gifted comic creators that I was able to learn the error of my ways and appreciate the legacies of the heroes that had come before and their continued relevance today.

One of the various books that accomplished my change in heart and perspective was James Robinson’s Starman, which at the insistence of my friend John I finally agreed to read. This series elegantly captures the beauty and the history of the superhero mythos in a way that is almost painful. Superheroes cannot thrive in a microcosm and this series brought new levels of enjoyment and awe as it broke open insular storylines and brought them into a larger more realized universe. While the series has many excellent examples of this feat, I think the best, and my favorite, is still Starman’s first team-up…

by Bill Gibron

25 Jul 2009

No matter the culture, no matter the country, politics is farce. It’s the crazed game playing of people so drunk on power that they don’t ever realize they’re regularly pissing themselves. It’s policy draw on deception, tricks and tactics merged with an infinite desire to betray. As the old saying goes, leadership regularly stifles the needs of a nation, compromising them by the mandate to maintain control. Toss in special interests, unlikely allies, regular scandals, and the freakish rarity of actually accomplishing something, and strange bedfellows are the least of its new world worries.

So it’s easy to see how this bi-partisan, bicameral back and forth leads to laughs. It, like most of its participants, is a no brainer. It’s also an arena that UK writer/director Armando Iannucci has mined before, most successful in his British sitcom The Thick of It. Now he’s turning that delicious debunking of the English government into a feature film - In the Loop - and the results are resplendent. Using the War in Iraq as a backdrop, and offering a multileveled look at the push toward invasion, Iannucci and his fellow screenwriters craft a burlesque so smart, so completely incapable of avoiding the truth, that it turns even the most meaningless events into a devious bit of double-edged détente.

During a radio interview, Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster deviates from the standard government “line” on potential conflict in the Middle East. Calling it “unforeseeable”, he sets off a firestorm both at home and abroad. The Prime Minster’s chief policy strategist, a gruff and crude enforcer named Malcolm Tucker, wants Foster’s bollocks on a platter. He sees nothing but irreparable damage from this disastrous quote.

Over in the US, Karen Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy, hopes to use the British as a means of uncovering a secret war committee seated by State Department snake Linton Barwick. With the help of General Miller, and a controversial position paper from her assistant Liza, Clarke is determined to stop the march to war. For Forster, just getting through the day without being terrorized by Tucker or undermined by new assistant Toby is a major accomplishment. When he steps into this fray, however, there’s no where to go but down.

Uproarious, bitter, and ever so slightly twisted, In the Loop revives our hope in art infiltrating and exposing the hypocrisies of life. It’s a foul-mouth free-for-all, a wicked assault on all that is proper and expected in the realm of Left/Right positioning. Loaded with both the driest of UK wit and the most excessive of crass curse word wizardry, this is a saber stabbed directly into the darkest heart of the sovereignty process, a blade soaked in the blood of dumb decisions, chest-thumping hubris, and the future lives of thousands of young men and women.

Using an Office like handheld approach, In the Loop places the audience directly into the meaningless mix of the political process. We are bystanders as positions are taken, alliances are forged (and quickly forgotten), and backroom dealings become front page news. Interlacing the need to remain territorial while inviting the like minded into their dominion, we see cat and mouse as a cutthroat enterprise, hands and asses slapped as readily as well honed daggers are aimed at the solar plexus. Sure, we’ve been there before, our post-Watergate world inundated with several marked social commentary spoofs. But In the Loop offers a take that’s so black, so clouded in mean-spirited cheek, that we forget how funny it all is.

Acting is crucial to getting this material across, and Iannucci recruits some former Thick accomplices - Peter Capaldi (as Tucker), Paul Higgins (as unhinged Press Officer Jamie McDonald), and Chris Addison (as new character Toby) - as well as bringing in new faces like Tom Hollander (as Foster), Mimi Kennedy (as Clarke) and James Gandolfini (as the jaded General) to man the mania. All work together in perfect harmony, making the ensemble element of this film function in a flawless and frisky manner. It’s interesting to watch Americans work within the very British mandates of In the Loop‘s sense of humor. You can see them wanting to arch and eyebrow or overplay a scene, removing the mischievous seriousness from the material. But Iannucci keeps them in check - that is, when he’s not purposefully letting them fly off the handle.

Indeed, Capaldi and Higgins are so good scatological outbursts that they provide a primer for how to turn vulgarity into convenient comic gold. They work their dirty mouths with untold energy and verve. Both manage the F-word, the C-word, and multicolored variables of same so well that you can’t wait for their next meltdown. From sexually descriptive assaults to position and philosophical battery, they become the lunatic yin to the more laid back, stereotypical stiff upper lip of the leadership’s yang. Hollander, who many will know from his place within the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is equally effective as the pawn placed directly in the middle of this erratic ego fest. While Addison’s Toby is slightly under-drawn, he is balanced perfectly against Anna Chlumsky’s amiable aide Liza.

While some will see the targets as easy and the marksmanship as hit or miss, there’s no denying how delicious In the Loop really is. It carves a hole within the absurdity that is modern day ideology and argues, rather effectively, that most decisions aren’t based on dogma, but dimwitted double-crosses. Like the moment in Oliver Stone’s W. when Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney explains the oil-based reasons for invading Iraq, what we have here is pre-determination bumping up against the paving of a path to get there. Unlike other films which try to make sense of the surreality, that balances real insight with outrageous antics, In the Loop simply goes for the throat. As comedies go, it’s razor sharp. It’s merely the players and their positions that are dull.

by Rob Horning

25 Jul 2009

Call me judgmental and intolerant if you must, but the Japanese guys (described in this NYT article, by Lisa Katayama) who have sex with body pillows with images of prepubescent cartoon characters stenciled on them in lieu of having relationships with human beings seem pretty pathetic. It’s like appliantology from Joe’s Garage. Judging by the NYT article, these men don’t seem mentally ill or neurologically damaged, like the people who get married to roller coasters, but instead seem pathologically ill-equipped to deal with adult sexuality. The way Katayama describes them is fraught with ontological confusion: “Nisan is part of a thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters. These 2-D lovers, as they are called, are a subset of otaku culture— the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and video games in Japan in the last decade.” What makes for a “real” relationship in these circumstances? Or is real just a gratuitous modifier here, like the word really. If these relationships are real, can there be a fake relationship? A non-relationship? If two living creatures are not necessary for a real relationship, than all the rules are inapplicable. Katayama continues in this vein in describing the 2-D lovers: “Unlike most otaku, though, they have real romantic feelings for their toys.” As opposed to fake ones? As opposed to only pretending to be in love with a cartoon pillowcase?

It seems a little too convenient to argue that the 2-D phenomenon is a bellwether for the future of human relations in the digital age, where most of our time will be spent starring at screens of various kinds. And let’s hope that that the Japanese “lost decade” of stagnation is not responsible for producing these men, as the U.S. could very well be entering a similar economic cycle. Katayama suggests that a crackpot, quasi-anticapitalist guru may be responsible for the rise of 2-D love:

The guru of the 2-D love movement, Toru Honda, a 40-year-old man with a boyishly round face and puppy-dog eyes, has written half a dozen books advocating the 2-D lifestyle. A few years ago, Honda, a college dropout who worked a succession of jobs at video-game companies, began to use the Internet to urge otaku to stand with pride against good-looking men and women. His site generated enough buzz to earn him a publishing contract, and in 2005 he released a book condemning what he calls “romantic capitalism.” Honda argues that romance was marketed so excessively through B-movies, soap operas and novels during Japan’s economic bubble of the ’80s that it has become a commodity and its true value has been lost; romance is so tainted with social constructs that it can be bought by only good looks and money. According to Honda, somewhere along the way, decent men like himself lost interest in the notion entirely and turned to 2-D. “Pure love is completely gone in the real world,” Honda wrote. “As long as you train your imagination, a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one.”

The logic here is pretty interesting. Since human love has become commodified and plastic, saturated with status implications (as though marriage hasn’t always been about status conservation; see Pamela by Samuel Richardson, among a million other examples), it’s better to love an actual manufactured commodity, a product. As though marketers never designed products to exploit the insecurities of isolated, alienated individuals (like Honda). Perhaps the idea is that a relationship with a product is always already compromised, so one can’t be disappointed or disappointing. And without responsibility to another person, one can indulge the logic of consumer capitalism—novelty for its own sake—to a much fuller extent in a more intimate corner of one’s psyche. Consider this lover of pillowcases:

“I was steps away from getting married,” he explained earnestly when prodded about his experience. “You have to make sure you don’t hurt a real person; you have to watch what you say, and you have to keep your room clean. In Japan, it’s not O.K. to like another person if you’re already with somebody else. With an anime character, you can like one character one day and a different character the next.”

These people are not resisting the effects of romantic capitalism; they are embracing them more completely. Romantic love began its migration to the center of the individual’s consciousness with capitalism’s advent in the 18th century or so, redefining the purpose of life for many as the ability to find a soulmate. Romantic love deeply ingrained competitive individualism and became the alibi for authorizing a certain righteous hedonism (expressed in the market through purchases) in the name of discovering who we really are.The 2-D lovers represent the completion of that arc; they have dispensed with the alibi and have moved directly to an open and virtually unashamed love for products instead of people. The complexities of reciprocal love among humans are too inconvenient and stressful, as the communal and civic responsibilities have proven to be for us (better to enact dyadic withdraw, enter the family cocoon, view neighbors suspiciously). A 2-D lover named Momo, the most disturbing of those mentioned in the article, puts it pretty succinctly:

“I don’t care if people understand or not,” Momo said. “I just want them to leave me alone. I don’t have any nostalgia for reality. I’m happy living in the 2-D world.”

I am deeply bothered and creeped out by the phrase: “I don’t have any nostalgia for reality.” It’s too easy to imagine a Matrix-like future full of Momos who want nothing more than to be left to their imaginary worlds and imaginary “real” relationships with cartoons, fueled by and sustained through a steady stream of special collector’s items mass-produced by various culture-industry concerns. It’s troubling that technology has been aimed toward making “I don’t have any nostalgia for reality” something a person would even find it possible to say. It has now become conceivable that one can comfortably opt out of reality—reject the construct of society altogether—without recognizing the consequences, namely the foreclosure of the possibility of any sort of social change whatsoever.

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