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by Rory O'Connor

30 Oct 2009

In an age where so many genres and musical ideas get mashed together, the Raveonettes are unique in how singular their vision and how unabashedly they practically wear their loved ones on their sleeves.  But, as it turns out, they are none the worse for it.  In fact, it is the paradox created by this pulling from the past and channeling it into something that radiates an effortless cool, metallic, almost futuristic feel, both in presence and sound—which may ultimately be their most magnetic quality.

by Nick Dinicola

30 Oct 2009

Whenever a critic of the gaming industry starts to decry the level of violence in games, the response is generally the same. It’s standard to point out that violence in games pales when compared to the more explicit violence and gore in movies. While that may be true when comparing a game like GTA IV (the mass media’s favorite whipping boy) to a movie like Hostel, it doesn’t hold up for games versus movies in general. If we go by gallons of blood spilt, games are more violent and gory than movies by a longshot. But what’s the real effect of all this violence? A little blood is realistic, lots of blood is scary, but the geysers that often fly from enemies in games is cartoonish. The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke. Any message or deeper meaning the game might have is lost because no one takes it seriously.

Gears of War 2 is a prime example of this sideshow gore. It embraces violence as one of its selling points but also tries to be serious at times. When we chainsaw a Locust in half, the camera rotates slightly giving us a better view of the chainsaw cutting into our enemy; blood spews out and splashes all over the camera to emphasize the very bloody nature of this kill. A lot of care and attention to detail went into this short scene because it’s important, it’s our reward for getting in close for a kill. We could have shot at the alien from the relative safety of distance, but instead we chose to get in close where we could have been easily flanked or killed by a single well-placed shotgun blast or been punched and cut in half ourselves. The violence has been embellished to the point of ridiculousness, and that’s why it works as an entertaining reward.

It’s interesting that the most emotional scene in the game is completely bloodless. When Dom finally finds Maria, his missing wife, she steps out of a tiny cell looking normal and healthy. They embrace, and when the camera pulls back, we realize that we’re seeing her through Dom’s eyes, and in reality, she’s nothing more than an emaciated skeleton that is mentally dead. But there’s no blood. There are scars on her face, we can see her bones through her skin, but no blood is presented in the secne. Gears of War 2 embraces bloody mayhem as it’s chief attraction, but the lack of it here suggests that this scene is not supposed to be enjoyed, this scene is meant to be taken seriously. But it doesn’t work.

Gamers make fun of the Maria subplot in Gears of War 2 because that single moment of seriousness is out of place in the game. It really is a powerful moment, but when surrounded by ultraviolent fun, it alone can’t grab the player’s attention and make him care.

Where ultraviolence helps make a message clearer is in parodies. Madworld and No More Heroes are two of the most violent games on consoles, let alone on the Wii, and both have embraced their cartoonish ultraviolence by becoming cartoons. They parody other violent games by exaggerating other aspects of the game, the art style, boss fights, and characters to the same extent as the violence. In this context, the ultraviolence seems normal, but being normal in these kinds of over-the-top worlds serves to showcase how out of place it is in purportedly realistic games.

Games must learn restraint before they can be taken seriously, however, “restraint” doesn’t just mean less violence. Bloodless violence is common in games rated anything but M, and this kind of violence is often seen as childish, as the removal of something graphic in order to make it more appealing to a younger audience. So to avoid this unwanted label and to make themselves immediately stand out, M rated games tend to go to the opposite extreme but end up looking just as juvenile. It’s then up to that player to actively try and get over his immediate preconceived notion that these games are just over-the-top mindless fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little ultraviolence, but not every M game has to embrace it to the degree that’s currently popular. Everything in moderation.

by Tommy Marx

29 Oct 2009

The phrase “no homo” (signifying that the user isn’t gay) is used often in music now, especially in heavily auto-tuned rap cameos appearing in otherwise generic pop songs, but it still makes me laugh every time I hear it. Most of the time, the words are used after either the most innocuous of statements (“the light turned green, no homo”) or after the most unabashedly gay statements (“I enjoy having lots of sex with men, no homo”). Either way, the phrase makes no sense.

Cam’ron, Lil’ Wayne, and Kanye can protest all they want, but in my experience, most men don’t worry whether something they say might be misconstrued as sounding gay. And if a man actually said something “gay” inadvertently, most of them would laugh it off and promptly forget about it within two minutes. It’s just not something your average guy, regardless of orientation, worries about.

Let’s be brutally honest, shall we? When someone says “no homo”, it usually translates as “Omigod, did that sound gay? ‘Cause I’m not gay! I have never placed ads on craigslist looking for hot man-to-man loving, those magazines hidden underneath my sweaters in the bottom dresser drawer actually belong to my sister, and I have a girlfriend in Canada that I have major sexual intercourse with all the time!”

My suggestion? If you’re worried something you’re about to say (or rap on a record that will be heard by millions and last forever) could be taken as homosexual in nature, find a different way to say it that doesn’t require you to explain your sexual orientation in a suspiciously defensive manner. And if you ever decide to peek out from behind the door and take baby steps into the open, here are a few one-hit wonders that are, in fact, homo and aren’t obsessed with staying in that narrow closet you prefer.

by Bill Gibron

29 Oct 2009

While the comparison has been made before, the passage of time has confirmed it as fact: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the Beatles of sketch comedy. True, similarities do stop at content and culture-shaping impact, but there are a few undeniable facts that link to two UK phenomenons together. Both came out of Britain to conquer the world, forever changing the way we look at certain artistic styles and creativity. Each used their distinctive personalities and divergent interests to shape their approach, and the final results remains relevant even 40 some years later. There’s even the same sentiment toward a “reunion”. With the death of a significant part of each outfit, bringing them back is just never going to happen.

And so, like the Fab Four, it’s time to cement the remaining members place in history. It’s time to tell the truth, Anthology style, to pour on the context and explain away the misinformation - or in some cases, create a few new myths along the way. Recently, IFC Films presented the stunning, six part overview of the group’s founding and immeasurable success that followed. While far from definitive (even at nearly five and a half hours, it still skips by many of the more important aspects of their origins) it still represents a massive attempt at explaining away Python once and for all. In that regard, A&E is releasing two separate documentaries on DVD, a pair of features that, in their own way, supplement and support the Almost the Truth take on Monty Python. While The Other British Invasion does repeat some of the same stories and anecdotes, it argues for its place as part of the overall sketch god Bible.

The first offering, Before the Flying Circus, is the best. It covers the boy’s formative years, from Eric Idle’s 12 year stint in an authoritarian English boarding school to the awkward physicality of a young John Cleese. Terry Gilliam was a BMOC A-student in Minnesota while Terry Jones and Michael Palin showed an early love of the theater. Because he is no longer here to speak for himself, Graham Chapman’s switch from doctor to performer is handled in a perfunctory is pleasant manner, and we get nothing on unofficial “seventh” member of the troupe, actress Carol Cleveland. While a few of the same faces show up (Palin’s old school chum who introduced him to cabaret, UK comic icon Ronnie Barker) and a few more make an exclusive appearance here (most notably, David Frost).

As with Almost the Truth, happenstance seems to play a great part in the Python’s evolution. We get the impression early and often that many of the opportunities provided to the fledgling superstars literally fell into their lap. No horrific tales about waiting tables, working in a factory, or slogging away in an insurance office before the “big break” arrived. No, once they entered University and took up residence in the Oxford/Cambridge theatrical societies, it was graduation, TV shows, and eventual world domination. Of course, the gang would argue differently, though it is odd to see how someone like Gilliam went from Occidental College to a national humor magazine (Help! ) to Python while having no set career path. Apparently, talent trumps even the most rudimentary of individual struggles.

Throughout, it’s the stories that sell us on Monty Python’s lasting legacy. We hear how certain partnerships took shape, how the guys bounced ideas off each other while staunchly supporting their own vision. Unlike Almost the Truth, which set up the various battles inside the situation (Jones had the notion of constantly breaking down barriers, while seasoned performer Cleese was convinced the group was prone to repeating itself), this is a prologue, a primer in preparation for the real story behind Python’s astonishing success. If you’ve seen Almost the Truth, Before the Flying Circus will function as a fascinating fill in the blanks (why no mention of the seminal Complete and Utter History of Britain, IFC?). Together, they take us to the moment when a group of English jesters carved up the court of international satire.

The second feature, Monty Python Conquers America, is more of a tribute than an actual narrative. We get dozens of doting celebrities - everyone from Hank Azaria, Carl Reiner and Luke Wilson to Judd Apatow and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone - expressing their appreciation for what the group did for post-modern humor. In between are clips of classic sketches as well as input from various PBS personalities, all of whom marvel at how an initially unsuccessful show (at least in US) became perhaps the most important comedy series ever.

The Pythons also offer their two cents, suggesting that much of the hoopla came not from the show itself, but from the otherworldly success of the Holy Grail film. Of course, Almost the Truth took three hour long episodes to cover most of this material, meaning we get less factual analysis and more famous fawning. Still, as a glimpse into how their peers felt (and still feel) about the Flying Circus, Conquers America is an indispensible indication of the group’s lasting impact.

One of the best bits here, however, is reserved for the DVD bonus features. Found on the Before the Flying Circus disc, “Animated Gilliam” allows the now famous filmmaker to comment on the four distinct cartoon opening he created for the series. While some of his reminiscences are rather obvious (“I was clearly thinking about sex then”), he does try to decipher the mystery behind some of the faces, and feet, used. The other extra is taken from an old PBS vault copy of an episode in which the opening sketch “A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party” was presented. Later cut from UK versions of the episode (the BBC felt it was blatant political pandering and pulled it), this “Silly Walk” like effort is very funny indeed (a version of it appears live during the Hollywood Bowl ‘concert’).

As with the lads from Liverpool, history and its various clueless contrarians have tried to rewrite the truth about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Some dismiss it outright, claiming it’s dated and fails to deliver on its overhyped, overexposed promise. A few will take it further, acknowledging the group’s importance but then pointing out how others did it better and more bravely. Still, there is an undeniable truth that even the most notorious naysayer can’t deny - like The Beatles, the efforts of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam endure. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the most important comedy series of the post-modern era. It really doesn’t take a definitive documentary (or set of same) to prove that. The continuing laughter speaks for itself.

by Bill Gibron

29 Oct 2009

In the domain of movie music, there are several standard maxims. Romantic scores must be syrupy and weepy. Dramatic attempts can combine a little of both while maintaining a certain aura of seriousness. Comedy can be crazy, confused, cocky, cheeky, or a specialized combination of both, and action films mandate a certain over-adrenalized approach to sound. Last, and almost always least, horror has to be hackneyed, giving into specific aural contrivances that someone is convinced scares the bejesus out of the dread demo. Certain subgenres have their own unique rules as well, while those unsure of how to proceed typically toss the Billboard Charts at the backdrop and hope the combination of hits and cinematic histrionics gives the viewer the necessary sonic structure.

Call it composer cliché or stereo-typing, but in general, Hollywood rarely deviates from the formulas that have found success in the past. It’s even true for periods of time, the era cementing the auditory approach - and lo the filmmaker who fudges with that motion picture paradigm (right, Sophia Marie Antoinette Coppola?”). This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound delves deeply into the realm of redundancy, looking at three soundtracks who mimic their main theme (the ‘60s, fright, and the comic book superhero) to a fault. However, as we soon learn, there is really nothing wrong with embracing the obvious, especially when you have the talent and tenacity to perfect the particulars. Indeed, when you run the risk of revolution and attempt to reinvent the type (a Batman musical???), the results can sometimes be more laughable than the chestnuts you’re avoiding. 

Taking Woodstock: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

When Danny Elfman was tagged by Tim Burton to create the songs for his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, many wondered how the former rock and roll radical would re-imagine what was already a seminal storybook experience. After all, who could ever forget the sinister Oompa-Loompas and their morality tale tunes about excessive TV watching and brattish behavior. Oddly enough, Mr. Oingo Boingo went for a more overall atmospheric approach. Instead of giving the characters a single melody to work with, he composed different tracks for the different visitors to Wonka’s wonderfully weird factory. Perhaps the most memorable was the ‘60s psychedelia inspired piece for the uber-spoiled Veruca Salt. As day-glo pop art backgrounds throbbed and pulsed, actor Deep Roy mimed the telling lyrics, creating a Byrds-inspired belittling of anyone as spoiled as she. Now take that Peace Generation perspective and multiply it by 20 and you’ve got Elfman’s work on Ang Lee’s universally dismissed (and little seen) Taking Woodstock.

By its very nature, a movie centering on the “Three Days” of communal hippy consciousness-raising would be filled with sonic references to the era, and for the most part, Elfman covers all the bases. We get faux Hendrix riffing (“Titles”) and fancy folk nods (“Elliot’s Place”, “At Ease Men”), all the while, fuzzy electric guitars sneak in to accent the ambience. Most of the tracks here are mere snippets, the melancholy of “Welcome Home” barely making itself known before it slowly fades away, while “Life Goes On” and “In the Mud” suffer from the same brevity issues. The longer form numbers work much better, the excellent “Groovy Thing (Office #1)” sounding like a Summer of Love outtake, while “Woodstock Wildtrack #1” is a nice bit of acoustic atmosphere. Elfman repeats themes and melodic sequences here and there, giving the entire score a unity and cohesiveness that mirrors the mindset of the original concert attendees. While the film was unfairly ignored during its brief theatrical run, at least the music remains.

Trick ‘r Treat: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Horror movies typically get stuck with the same old sonic statements - jagged, staccato strings, sinister choirs, the neo-religious hymnal overtones. When they don’t however, when the macabre moviemaker strives for something unique or different, they usually run into the same aural stereotypes - death metal, manic hard rock, or even worse, weepy shoe-gazing junk. So what does one do when they are making the quintessential homage to all things Halloween, when they are purposefully trying to invoke all the dread, terror, and mischief of the holiday in 18 ethereal tracks? Well, if you’re Douglas Pipes, working on the soundtrack to Michael Dougherty’ demented labor of love, Trick ‘r Treat, you don’t avoid the clichés - you embrace them as fully as the film does. Indeed, the best part about both the feature and the music backing it is that both understand the beauty in the hoariest of horror archetypes, and both monopolize them to the hilt.

The psycho orchestra leanings are there from the “Main Titles”, followed quickly by brief tone poems that set up characters (“Meet Charlie”), relationships (“Father and Son”), and situations (“To the Quarry”). By the time we get to the eloquent, eerie “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”, we believe in the power of old school scoring. The compositions here are meant to evoke a mood, to prepare us for moments we already expect from the genre while giving in to their decidedly archaic charms. This is especially true of later tracks like “Laurie’s First Time” and “Old Mr. Kreeg”, where the storyline and sentiment merge flawlessly. As the closing theme reminds us of the glorious edge-of-your-seat experience we’ve just gone through, we suddenly see why so many of these compositional truisms continue to be practiced: they work, and when done with reverence and respect, none work better.

Green Lantern: First Flight: Music from the DC Universe Animated Original Movie [rating: 7]

Who would have thought that the comic book super hero would suddenly turn into the steely action man for a post-millennial age? At one time, only geeks and true DC/Marvel connoisseurs championed the funny book idol as an expression of ultimate power and destruction. Now, he (or she) has become the benchmark for motion picture machismo, requiring other genres to mimic its superhuman happenstance. It’s even taken root in the medium’s ‘animated’ cousin. Once, cartoons used to be about mild entertainment and selling products. Now, even the most marginal title has to crank up the cinematics and become something larger than life. This is particularly true of the otherwise ordinary origin story for Hal Jordan, otherwise known as the second of multiple Green Lanterns. Starring in the pen and ink production First Flight, we witness the arrival of the power ring, the introduction of arch villain Sinestro, and composer Robert J. Kral’s attempt to provide an intense backdrop to what is essentially the beginning for a future franchise (or a warm up for an eventual big screen debut).

Kral has been here before. He’s worked wonders for other animated titles like Batman: Gotham Knight and Superman/Doomsday. Even though he’s mainly known for his work on TV shows like Duck Dodgers, Angel, and Miracles, he has a unique way of mixing classical with contemporary to bring a cross generational approach to the score. It’s obvious from the moment Track 3, “Labell’s Club” comes on. Before, we have the standard hard driving orchestration that amps up the scope toward something (“The Ring Chooses Hal”, “Hal Meets the Laterns/The Flight of Oa”) close to epic. From then on, anything goes, from more chase scene stylings (“Going After Cuch”, “The Corps Fight Sinestro”) to moments of sublime subtle significance (“Brutal Attack/The Fate of Kanjar Ro”). All the while, Kral keeps one foot in tradition, never letting technology or electronic tweaks destroy what is meant to be an auditory celebration of right over wrong, cosmic morality over insufferable evil. With the thematically similar “Green Lantern Pledge”, we are ready to sign up to fight the good fight. 

Batman - The Brave and the Bold: Mayhem of the Music Meister: Music from Animated Television Show [rating: 6]

Okay, now this is just plain weird. No, not the premise for this continuation of the Caped Crusader franchise. In fact, the concept of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego teaming up with other members of the DC Comic Universe is not a bad one at that. What’s surreal here is the idea that Batman would battle a villain who uses showtunes as a way of controlling people’s minds. The plan - get the cowl-wearing vigilante to help him launch a communications satellite to melodically brainwash the world - and we get the actual songs with which he intends to do it. With music created by Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanic, and Kristopher Carter, and lyrics by Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, we get the Broadway version of a beatdown, complete with power ballads and earnest expositional exercises. Neil Patrick Harris is the only actor who could sell some of this schmaltz, especially the lilting “If Only” and the dopey “Drives Us Bats”. With help from other example voice actors like John Di Maggio, Grey Delisle, and Tom Keeny, what should be stupid succeeds - if only barely. In fact, the whole project seems bound and determined to fail, until you hear it. Then you realize it could work - and then it more or less does.
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