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Monday, Mar 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-03-17

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and guess that when you look at this week’s list of releases, there’s going to be one game that sticks out: Rainbow Six Vegas 2 releases this week, another entry in the inexplicably successful line of Tom Clancy games.  Ubisoft has gone ahead and said that Vegas 2 will be the last entry in the Vegas line of Rainbow Six games, but it’s hard to feel any sense of climax or finality when there will be more Rainbow Six games.  There will be more acronymical Tom Clancy games (GRAW, RSV, GRIT, SCDA, and so on).  We just won’t be slinking around casinos anymore.


So what’s the real star this week?


Condemned 2 looks like it’s at least as visceral as the somewhat overlooked first installment, even though Greg Grunberg isn’t involved this time around (because, I mean, Greg Grunberg.  That guy’s been excellent since at least Alias).  There’s a free ad-supported PC dance mat game that’s finally hitting wide release this week called Dance! Online, and the production quality is actually pretty impressive for free software.  You can use your keyboard, too, in case breaking a sweat isn’t your thing.


Still…Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword.  Have you seen some of the previews for this thing?  I always end up seriously impressed when a developer takes the Nintendo DS and makes it do things it was never meant to do, and Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword makes that underpowered little DS look almost PSP-ish.  The cinemas look true to the classic original, the gameplay looks innovative (swordfighting with a stylus is always good), and it’s a Ninja Gaiden game, so you know you’re going to be giving your DS the finger and throwing it at walls at some point.  This is a good thing for you, because you need a challenge, and for Nintendo, who will profit from all of the new DSes you have to buy because your old ones are in a thousand pieces on the sidewalk outside your house.


Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Diary Girl, a password-protected diary/PDA for your DS, which actually allows voice chat, which in turn means it has at least one leg up on Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  To this I ask: when do we get Diary Boy?


The scheduled releases for this week are after the jump.


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Sunday, Mar 16, 2008


It’s said that confession is good for the soul. Of course, this assumes one has a conscience worth redeeming. It’s clear that not everyone would benefit from such acknowledgments or affirmations. To do so would reveal their own inner weakness and sense of corrupt complicity. Such an individual is Briony Tallis. For almost 80 years, she has hid the secret of her atrocious actions, of a decent man wrongly accused, a heartsick girl horribly hurt, and a love unable to fully flower. She’s finally decided to write about it - her last novel. She calls it Atonement, for that’s what it’s meant to do. But even in the act of contrition, she can’t allow the truth to dampen the forced fanciful mood.


You see, back before Hitler invaded Europe, the Tallis clan lived a life of privilege. While son Leon hobnobbed with his school chums in London, daughters Cecilia and Briony spent the summer heat in the country. While Briony, the youngest, entertains herself with writing and secret passions, Cecilia appears directionless - that is, until those moments when servant’s son Robbie Turner shows up. He’s been favored by the family, sent to school on their good graces (and money) and welcomed in their home as a quasi-equal. He adores Cecilia. She’s just realizing her own emotional and physical attachment. A scandalous note, the arrival of a young chocolate merchant, and a night of horrific sexual misunderstandings lands Robbie in jail, Cecilia devastated, and Briony defiant. War only deepens the already substantial wounds.


Once you’ve gotten past the Hallmark greeting card pronouncements, the post-modern Merchant Ivory archness, and that all important ‘twist’ ending, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s famed tome - also called Atonement - is a very good film. It has a lot to say about perspective, the mind of the writer, the way life and art co-mingle and cloud each other, and how point of view plays with our interpretation of the facts. This is definitely a film that needs to be seen more than once. The initial viewing is required to get all the tricks and ambitions out of the way. Subsequent screenings then unlock the real value here - in performance, in period, and in predicament.

In the story of the Tallis family, McEwan (via Christopher Hampton’s masterful screenplay) gives us the standard British class struggle stained by accusations of rape and the rising tide of World War II. As usual within the genre, smallish events play out amidst one of the grandest of backdrops. There is an epic quality to Atonement, something director Wright strives for in his shot selection, compositions, and showboating cinematic flights of fancy. While a single continuous take of the beach at Dunkirk is meant, in the filmmaker’s words, to show the pointless loss in combat, it’s also there to argue for the situations unreality and the man’s lens skill. We would never get a chance to see such a panorama from our normal vantage point. Indeed, Wright appears obsessed with the big picture all throughout the film.


On the newly released DVD version of the film (containing deleted scenes, minor Making-ofs, and a wonderful audio commentary), the director explains that there is a lot of such motion picture sleight of hand present. He admits that many of the story’s key narrative moments -  Briony’s confession to the police, her later trip to visit Cecilia - have enough pragmatic questions and logistical plot holes to trip up his tale. It’s not because of McEwan’s book. It’s just that audiences are so accustomed to such sordid situations in our proto-progressive life that we just don’t buy into things the way Brits of the late ‘30s do. Yet thanks to technique and other directorial skills, Wright believes he’s overcome such flaws.



For the most part, he’s correct. We don’t really mind that the factual situation cannot possibly place Robbie at the scene of the supposed crime. We also don’t question why the victim, teen Lola Quincey, would feel so easily shamed by what happens. She does come across as practically begging for such physical attention during the opening scenes. Robbie also is a rather inactive accused. He seems resigned to the fate of stable boy railroaded by the hoi polloi. There is bitterness later on, but it seems centered as much on his own inability to save himself more than actual anger at those who clearly wronged him.


And then there is Briony. Like the Bad Seed mixed with society mandated meanness, this horrible little villainess remains one of Atonement‘s strongest sticking points. When we first meet her, she appears spoiled and sullen. When Robbie gives her the fabled note, her manic instinct is to violate its privacy and read it. When she catches her sister in a physically passionate embrace, she turns even more dour and determined. Finally, when circumstances show up and offer her a chance to play judge and jury, she easily condemns, doing so without a lick of ethos, or remorse. It’s all friendly finger pointing and pleasantly destroyed lives. As she grows, none of this nastiness moderates. Instead, the older versions of Briony appear like victims, wondering why the rest of the world can’t forgive their otherwise unfathomable motives.


But she’s not the only one stumbling block in this otherwise efficient film. The last act denouement, the plot point moment of clarity that many completely involved in the story have been waiting for, arrives with a whimper, not a scream. With proper SPOILER ALERT warnings in place, we discover that Robbie died of an infection while waiting to leave Dunkirk, and Cecilia dies during the Blitz. It’s a depressing way to end their tale, something our narrator, Briony, admits. So she cleans things up, gives them the justice the audience believes they deserve and colors the tragedy with hints of daydream world accessorizing. During these scenes, Wright argues for the movie’s main perspective - that of a guilty party trying to pretty up their path toward damnation. But since we don’t like Briony to begin with, her attempt at redemption falls flat.


So do some of the director’s more ambitious accents. Water is a strong subtext in the film - from Cecilia’s fountain dive to save a cherished piece of porcelain to her last act fate in the London underground. It’s where Robbie believes Briony’s motives lie (he remembers a fake drowning that supposedly proves the young girl’s jealous crush) and the distance between himself and his love and salvation. Yet Wright is too obvious in his imagery. We get the point long before he’s finished making it. And then there are the oddball dream sequences and sections of camera manipulation. Robbie’s battlefield vision seems pointless, and a middle act trip into fantasy (he hallucinates his mother washing his feet) is just superfluous. While it might create tone or mood, it seems to drag us away from the main action.



Again, on a second viewing, one can clearly forgive these indulgences. Atonement becomes something different when given a second chance. Knowing what happens, we can watch how Wright sets it up, how he hints and prepares us for what’s to come without giving everything away. The acting also stands out more clearly, especially James McAvoy’s turn as Robbie and Keira Knightley’s work as Cecilia. The first time through, we are still getting a handle on these characters, trying to figure out their motivations and their position. Subsequent involvements provide the passion and the complexities that appeared to be missing. In some ways, such a statement sums up Atonement quite well. It’s a good movie given over to initial bouts of incompleteness.


Of course, Briony never does pay. Her confession is half hearted, her desire for a happy ending she could not personally provide a combination of selfishness and subterfuge. We never once get the impression that she cares about what she did to Robbie and Cecelia, and even in her weakened, enfeebled state, she comes across as defiant in her decision. It may seem like a brave move to champion such an irreproachable shrew, to give her the last word and the way it’s to be presented, but that’s how Atonement works. By finally confessing what she did, we are supposed to see Briony as human and humble. But unless you give this film a second (or third, or fourth…) go round, you may miss that message all together - if it’s there at all.


 


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Sunday, Mar 16, 2008

Photos and Text: Mehan Jayasuriya



If you happen to loathe trends, folk-based psych-pop is probably close to the top of your list of dislikes. Luckily, Brooklyn’s Woods have a novel enough approach to the sub-genre to keep things interesting. Using all sorts of analog trickery, the band crafts a thick haze of echoing voices, ringing guitar notes and wispy atmospherics. One member of the band devoted all of his attention to a tape deck plugged into a series of effects pedals; meanwhile, the drummer spent more time banging on guitars with his drumsticks than drums. And tying it all together were the condenser mic-filtered vocals, echoing in the distance like an old AM radio.



Tagged as: photos, sxsw, woods
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Sunday, Mar 16, 2008

Photos and Text: Mehan Jayasuriya



On Saturday night, a South by Southwest reveler could have been seeing GZA split a bill with Okkervil River. Or, he or she could have been seeing a solo set from Kevin Shields at a small venue. There was even an outdoor party where NOFX and the Breeders co-headlined on dueling stages. But as far as I’m concerned, the true spirit of South by Southwest was hidden away in a back room at Mohawk, where a lineup of DIY bands played for a handful of enthusiastic fans and sold 7"s for gas money. Here we see Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls, who played a set of Sarah-esque, sing-along friendly twee-pop.



Tagged as: photos, sxsw, vivian girls
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Saturday, Mar 15, 2008


The aesthetic life of an artist has long been a cinematic source for stirring characterization. The connection between the gifted and the disturbed, the obsessive and the purely passionate has fueled many a motion picture portrait. From printers to sculptures, singers to writers, the ways of the skilled and special tend to juxtapose the socially acceptable with the personally profound. The result is a story centered in individual conceits, but decided via universal facets and germane generalization.


The gorgeous, luxuriant silent classic The Dragon Painter (new to DVD from Milestone Film and Video) wants to tell the tale of an eccentric wild man, a true master of form and shape who cannot break from his own internal strife. Vigilantly seeking a princess who he believes transformed into a mythic beast, we soon learn that it’s sorrow and desperation, not love and happiness, that fuels his most stunning, original work.


When we meet Tatsu, played by renowned early era Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, he is a dervish, a man literally lost in the wilderness and frantic to find the woman of his dreams. The locals all consider him crazy, talented but far too unstable. When a surveyor runs across the artist’s work, he knows just what to do. Seems noted master illustrator Kano Indara is looking for an apprentice to carry on his name. Until Tatsu, no one was capable of taking up said mantle.



After a rocky introduction, the two become teacher and student. Tatsu even falls for and marries Indara’s daughter, Ume Ko, believing she is his missing paramour. But happiness starts to stifle our hero. He can no longer paint, and has the urge to do little or nothing. Heartsick, Ko decides that drastic steps are in order. To save her husband, she may have to sacrifice herself.


Shot in the glory of a turn of the century Yosemite National Park and featuring a humanized, non-stereotypical portrayal of Asians, The Dragon Painter is a stunning visual and emotional achievement. A mere fragment of the justifiably legendary work done by Hayakawa during the early part of the past decade (he was one of the first Japanese performers to control his image and his output in Hollywood), this concise deconstruction of muse and the many ways it can be crushed/cured stands as something rare indeed. Beyond its humanistic approach and use of location, aside from the subtler acting and sporadic special effects, this is one of the most tender, telling depictions of affection ever captured onscreen. The minute our hero sees Ume Ko, the look in his eyes says everything.


Indeed, what one has to remember about The Dragon Painter is that it was made in an era when refinement and delicacy were far from motion picture mandates. Performances were still pitched right to the rafters, the result of so many theatre types entering the industry. Even worse, minorities were still mocked, relegated to humiliating places as racially insensitive comic relief or outright ethnic criminals. Here, under the insightful direction of William Worthington, the mainly Japanese cast (only master Kano Indara is played by Englishman Edward Peil Sr.) shows great restraint and even greater cultural compliance. There’s no buck toothed bigotry involved. In fact, many have called Hayakawa the Asian Valentino for his slow burn and smolder in films like this.



Such a magnetism is indeed present in every frame of The Dragon Painter. The story is purposefully simple, the better to allow our lead to shine. There are tinges of Barrymore and Fairbanks in Hayakawa, a suave and debonair demeanor that hides a turbulent inner fire. During the opening sequences, when Tatsu is running around the mountainside scribbling feverishly and acting unhinged, we see the method behind the actor’s purposeful madness. Our hero is not really insane, just heartsick. He so loves his lost princess that it turns his existence into the singular service of creation.


There is just as much power in the moments when Tatsu is no longer capable of painting. Watching the look on Hayakawa’s face, the devastating loss of power and skill is depressing. It’s a testament to his talent that we feel his waywardness and disillusion. The performance never oversells or overdoes the drama. Instead, director Worthington keeps the takes short and sweet. This allows these moments to resonate with an intensity that comes from the work onscreen, not the essential language of film. In the end, when the denouement is delivered and we see the purpose of Tatsu’s pain, we feel the same sort of epic uplift the movie depicts. It’s part of The Dragon Painter‘s profound magic.



It’s a shame then that Hayakawa is not as well known as his silent superstar brethren. If Milestone has anything to say about it, this dynamic digital package will change all that. Along with a nicely restored Painter, the company also includes another of the actor’s more accomplished works. The Wrath of the Gods, is a 60 minute movie from 1914 that offers an old Japanese parable with some intriguing miniature work. Subtitled The Destruction of Sakura-Jima, this tall tale of a cursed family, an old volcano, and the interracial marriage that could mean the death of everyone, has it all - old school melodrama, lynch mobs, and a literal fire and brimstone ending. Hayakawa is Lord Yamaki, almost unrecognizable underneath pounds of heavy make-up. Yet his presence helps propel this film along, helping a modern viewer appreciate the otherwise overwrought narrative.


Similarly, there are a series of DVD-Rom extras (essays, explanations) which help highlight Hayakawa’s significance. One of the easiest to get a handle on is the five minute short featuring Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray. Here, our star is reduced to playing a stereotype - in this case, what appears to be a Chinese railroad worker. While there is much dignity in the dopey interplay between the actors, this is the kind of role that actors of his ethnicity were frequently relegated to. Sometimes, it was all that they had. That Hayakawa overcame such intolerant typecasting (he eventually had his own company making his own movies) suggests how important he is to the history of Asians in Hollywood.


During the middle section of the movie, when Indara is questioning Tatsu about his work, the subject of the title creatures comes up. Looking over one of the many landscapes he creates, the master is curious. “Where is the dragon here?” Indara asks, pointing to a charcoal sketch of a lake. “There.” Tatsu argues, “He’s sleeping under the water.” As with all art, interpretation is clearly in the eye of the beholder. But what goes on inside the artist is equally important, and it’s this note that drives The Dragon Painter. A life in service of specialness - be it to a canvas or a camera - can often be clichéd and cruel. But thanks to the amazing work of Hayakawa and the rest of the silent film community, it’s not formulaic or flat. Here, it’s a revelation.


 


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