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SOOO, I couldn’t decide what to deign “game of the week” this week, so we’re going with co-winners.

First up is the obvious one, the one and only seriously high profile release of the week.  Out in advance of the uber-anticipated updates to the Street Fighter franchise is the first of a few steps toward reinvigorating the recently dormant (aside from TV tie-ins like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto) fighting game genre:  Soulcalibur IV.  The reason I’ve been a bit hesitant toward this is that much of the most noticeable pre-release publicity for the game has centered upon the gravity defying, spitting-in-the-face-of-physics size of the female fighters’ breasts (particularly those of Ivy, whose battle gear cannot possibly be comfortable).  I’m not sure this is a good thing, unless you’re a Rumble Roses fan.

Still, it’s tough to deny the draw of a sequel to a game that can still boast one of the very few 10.0 scores on IGN.  The original Soulcalibur honestly ranks right up there with Street Fighter II in terms of playability and fun, and even if the sequels haven’t been of the same, um, caliber (ha), they’ve at least been worth a play or three.  Perhaps the publicity boost behind number 4 means that there will be a quality boost to match.

Also, Darth Vader and Yoda are involved.  So there’s that.

The other game, and the one I’m more likely to buy, quite frankly, is Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.  I wish I could count the number of hours I’ve lost to the original Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, despite the fact that I’ve never spent more than five minutes on the game at a time, and also despite the fact that all of my practice has not changed the fact that I really kind of suck at the game.  There’s an utterly addictive quality to the whole thing, perhaps due to the fact that “just one more game” is only a couple of minutes worth of a commitment, perhaps due to the simplicity of the whole thing offering the sort of play that always feels like you could (and probably should) have avoided the one enemy that killed you.  Geometry Wars 2 is adding a bunch of cooperative modes and new boards to play, and early screenshots have indicated that the level of chaos is at least that of the first, so…that’s 10 more dollars down the intertube.

Fans looking for the next RBI Baseball might want to give MLB Power Pros a look for the Wii…so far, it’s been well-received, and the style and simplicity of it might invite back some old school baseballers that can’t deal with the simulation-like nature of most modern baseball games.  I’m also positive that someone out there is doing backflips over the release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI for the PC, but I still haven’t managed to make myself excited about the well-established, long-running strategy series.  Maybe when XII comes out, I’ll be swayed.

The rest of the releases (and two trailers!) are after the jump.


“You ought not to do that.”

The first time I ignored her because, frankly, I couldn’t believe someone would be speaking to me. A complete stranger, just off the plane.

“I say, you really ought not to be doing that.”

The second time I ignored her, because, although I now appreciated that a complete stranger was speaking to me, a complete stranger, I had no idea what she was saying. Swedish not being a part of my linguistic repertoire.

“You see . . . “ she, now switching to a version of English—(proving that she wasn’t simply a deranged crackpot reciting gibberish in my direction, but, rather was a multi-talent, with an aim to communicate, and quick on the up-take)—“it really isn’t . . . safe . . . to leave your bag sitting by itself like that. It simply is

not

safe.”

 


In American culture, when we think of classic soul, chances are the names that pop into our heads are among the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, and many others from Motown, Stax, and various labels around the country. In Brazil, the two names you are most likely to hear when talking about soul music are the recently popularized in America, Jorge Ben (thanks to the likes of Dusty Groove and the Tropicalia resurgence) and the virtually unrecognized Tim Maia.

If any were to be compared to the westernized soul sound, it would be Tim Maia. Although don’t get me wrong, his recordings were undeniably Brazilian. Unlike Jorge Ben though, Maia was able to mix these westernized elements into his brand of crooning soul that later developed into some of the funkiest sounds in the Western Hemisphere (much like Marvin Gaye’s development, in fact).

It’s important to look at Brazilian music not only as a melting pot of Bossa Nova, Samba, and its many traditional elements, but also as a nation that was able to take elements from African traditional music and put their own spin on it. Maia is one of the masters of Brazilian soul music, and if I spend my entire life dragging his presence to America, then so be it. It’s a worthy cause.

It only took 10 days. Less than two weeks. It remains a stunning accomplishment. It took Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 16 days to get there. It took the overly hyped third Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith 17. Even Spider-Man 3 had to wait 19 days to pull in such scratch. But the superhero phenomenon which is The Dark Knight crossed over the $300 million mark this weekend, cementing the film’s place as 2008’s biggest cinematic story. No one could have predicted such a response, especially for a 150 minute drama that’s more serious than spectacle. Add to that the messageboard concerns over the film’s dark quality and downbeat ending, and the suggestion is that something significant is happening here that just doesn’t occur with your standard popcorn flair.

One thing is clear - Hollywood hacks who think material must be dumbed down and homogenized for audience consumption are probably rethinking said position (and looking for work, hopefully). The Dark Knight is indeed a savvy, smart thriller, built more out of a model similar to the crime epics of Coppola, Mann, and Scorsese than the cut and paste product of your typical comic book adaptation. Co-writer/director Christopher Nolan took some major risks with the material, keeping the danger palpable and the characters complex. As a result, there was a real possibility that this film would not click with crowds. And with the already sizeable returns for other superhero movies this summer (Iron Man and Hancock making the most monetary noise), there was a real risk of something akin to also-ran status

But $300 million big ones speak for themselves, and Knight shows no signs of letting up. It is still a watercolor work, something everyone it talking about in reverent, must-see terms. Granted, the Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger may be a bit premature (a nomination is not out of the question, but let’s not hand the statue over to his family just yet), but it is clear that this will be a movie remembered come awards season. But the biggest question, as always, is this - what does this level of success mean for everyone involved? What does earning such a vast sum so quickly signify for the studio? The comic book company? The individuals in front of and behind the camera? For that, we’ll need to do a little above the bottom line analysis. Only then can we see if there’s anything other than triumph for all involved. Let’s begin with:

The Studio - Warner Brothers
After the debacle known as Speed Racer (the audience’s fault, not the film), Warners really needed this sort of monumental result. It helps make that major misstep in marketing seem like nothing more than a business model blip on a high return radar. The studio has been lucky like that as of recent - backing Will Smith’s Christmas hit I Am Legend while taking a drubbing for failures like The Invasion and 10,000 BC. Of course, the real challenge will come when the subject of a third installment is breached. Does the studio rely on Nolan to continue his winning ways, or will they balk and pull a Schumacher out of thin air. Either way, their upcoming releases (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Watchmen) seem to suggest more pluses than movie minuses.

The Source - DC Comics
With Marvel making all the news during Summer’s inaugural months - both good (Iron Man) and not so (The Incredible Hulk) - the comic rival really needed something like this to settle the score. With such underperforming efforts as Constantine and Superman Returns, it was clear that Nolan and his take on the Caped Crusader would make or break the company’s cinematic fortunes. Now, with $300 million and counting, DC has a real reason to smile - and the accolades just keep coming. Last week, the long awaited teaser trailer for Watchmen finally hit the ‘Net, and along with the highly praised Comic-con panel, hinted that 2009 might be equally successful for the catalog - both critically and commercially.

The Writers - Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
If there is any justice in the business of show - and there usually isn’t - Chris and his brother John will become the script doctors du jour of a failing Tinsel Town talent pool. Let’s face it, if Akiva Goldsman can claim an Oscar (and the literary omniscience that seems to accompany it) for his work within the genre, the Nolans should have a rec room full of accolades. The one consistent thing about the product they present is how smart, substantive, and cocksure it really is. When characters speak, they do so in assertions that seem perfect for the situation they are facing. Even better, the dialogue resonates in ways that come back to complement the conservation’s true intent. If Chris decides to drop directing for a while - that is, until the right project comes along - he and Jonathan could clean up in the screenplay polishing department. 

The Director - Christopher Nolan
If he didn’t already have carte blanche from the film’s critical reaction, the man behind the Bat’s recent success can surely write his own ticket anywhere in Hollywood now. While there have been hints that he will go back to his inventive indie roots (more Memento than Insomnia, one supposes), it’s clear that Nolan can claim any commercial project he wants. Even better, he’s proven that, within the right framework, audiences will sit through even the most serious, complex entertainment. If he chooses carefully, he can cement his status as one of his generation’s guiding cinematic lights. And of course, there’s always the third installment in the Caped Crusader’s saga to fall back on should he fail. Given his amazing track record so for, that doesn’t seem very likely.

The Actors
Christian Bale
Bale has already proved the impact of a multimillion dollar opening weekend - he was accused of assaulting his mother and sister before the British premiere of The Dark Knight, and even the tabloids have taken his side. Of course, the personal scandal may be nothing more than old school family dissention fueled by sudden financial success, but this is one actor who really doesn’t need the money to make his mark. He’s already keen to revisit the Bruce Wayne saga again (as long as Nolan is behind the lens), and he’s signed on to play another heroic icon - John Connor, the man behind the human rebellion against the machines in the new Terminator film(s). His resume from the past few years is so impressive, that it’s hard to imagine he ever struggled. Hopefully, his success as the Caped Crusader only broadens his potential performance horizons.

Aaron Eckhart
Eckhart has been an indie idol for so long that it’s hard to remember when he was the one getting the push for mainstream leading man status. Remember his turn in the disaster flop The Core? Of his solid work in Erin Brockovich? Returning to smaller projects surely helped his acting cred, but he still needed a breakout part to produce a kind of casting clarity he will surely have now. His amazing working as Harvey “Two Face” Dent delivers that knockout blow. On equal par with the work done by costars Bale and Ledger, Eckhart elevates his spurned and scarred District Attorney into something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. His arc is so fully formed, and his transformation within it so authentic and real, that when he goes on his last act spree, we sigh at the inevitability of it all - and marvel at how this underrated performer pulls it off. 

Heath Ledger
The saddest element of Ledger’s untimely death isn’t the fact that he’s not around now to enjoy the universal praise his eerie work as the Joker is receiving. Nor is it the fact that he won’t be around for the inevitable big money payday once the next installment comes calling. No, what’s most disturbing about Ledger’s passing is that, with this undeniably diabolic characterization, we realize just how much talent we as film fans will be missing out on. No one could have predicted that the sweet, vulnerable man from Brokeback Mountain or The Brothers Grimm had this much menace in him. Even better, his work as the clown prince of chaos leaves a lasting legacy that, in essence, could have tainted the actor forever. If one has to go out - and there is never a rhyme or reason for doing so by your own hand - this unbelievable blaze of glory surely brings things to a clean, karmic conclusion.

The Franchise
This is perhaps the hardest question for the entire post-modern Batman movie. For those who’ve not seen the film, this SPOILER will probably be an unwelcomed bit of advance information, so perhaps you should simply skip this paragraph. Otherwise - having taken the advice of newly appointed Commission Gordon, the Caped Crusader has decided to accept the blame for the many deaths caused by Dent. Instead of a hero, he will become a renegade - or even worse, the stuff of social nightmares. By becoming the bad guy (indirectly, that is), the entire mythos takes a tantalizing turn. Nolan has said that he spent all his creative wealth making this version of the comic book hero, and may not have an answer as to where it goes from here. Between potential villains and likely storylines, there is a lot of uncertainty present, that’s for sure. But where there’s a will - and a big pile of cash - there’s a way. And as they proved this time around, as long as there is true talent involved, anything is possible.

While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.

With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.

When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.

Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.

This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.

This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.

When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).

With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.

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