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by Mike Schiller

15 Jun 2008

It’s hard to say whether anyone’s actually marked their calendars for anything that’s coming out this week, save for the somewhat anticipated (not to mention a little bit dreaded in some circles) Guitar Hero on Tour for the Nintendo DS.  Yes, it’s Guitar Hero; yes, it looks as though the DS peripheral will actually be somewhat functional (though it still looks a bit like a hand cramp waiting to happen); and yes, the track list could be worse.  Still, every look at this week’s releases inspires gravitation toward a different release, something that’s making itself known on both major portable systems this week.  You know what I’m talking about: It’s none other than Space Invaders Extreme.

Acid trip color schemes also help.

Acid trip color schemes also help.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that updating a classic game with modern graphics and color palettes and then slapping the word EXTREME on the title is more than a little bit tacky.  Still, everything I’ve seen of Space Invaders Extreme is that it will be the exception to the rule.  Rather than an uninspired update, you see, Space Invaders Extreme looks like a re-imagining of the entire concept of Space Invaders.  Not only are you a little ship at the bottom of the screen blasting away at wave after wave of 2D sprites, you’re fighting organized waves, sprites that flip from 1D to 2D (like Super Paper Mario minus one dimension), and a few giant invaders.  All of it is in front of a new musical backdrop that actually manages to incorporate the in-game sounds to create a tapestry of noise that just feels right.  The early impressions that I got from it were that it was like Space Invaders meets Lumines, and I don’t know how a combination like that can possibly fail.

Not only that, but Space Invaders Extreme even has a peripheral of its own, the “Taito Paddle”, which you can use to guide your ship.  It also works with the newly-released Arkanoid DS.  Take that, Guitar Hero!

I'll admit it: I'm kind of looking forward to this tiny monstrosity.

I’ll admit it: I’m kind of looking forward to this
tiny monstrosity.

Elsewhere, it’s a pretty quiet release week, as most of the gaming community tries to recover from the behemoth release that was Metal Gear Solid 4.  Wii owners get Rock Band (huzzah!), PS3 owners get Fatal Intertia (whoopee?) and the gamers that simply won’t let go of the PC are the recipients of a little thing called The Political Machine 2008, which is unfortunately not a remake of The Incredible Machine with a bunch of obvious metaphors.  In this one, you get to be a campaign manager, which would surely have me drinking brown liquor out of the bottle in a matter of days.  This edition has Obama, Clinton, and McCain as candidates. 

What are you looking at this week?  Leave one in the comments and let us know.  The full release list (and a trailer for Space Invaders Extreme) is after…the…JUMP!

by Lara Killian

15 Jun 2008

This week I finished reading Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger (2005). It’s worth the read but the first Zusak I’d recommend is definitely The Book Thief (2006). These books are two completely different animals.

image

The protagonist of I am the Messenger is called Ed Kennedy. Ed is a good-for-nothing 19 year old taxi driver who is well on his way to making nothing of himself somewhere in Australia. He has several friends who are good for not much other than playing cards, drinking, and sniggering their way through a bank robbery. Things get a little weird, however, when it turns out that the bank robbery was planned with Ed in mind. Someone wants to turn wishy-washy Ed into a hero.

Playing cards start showing up mysteriously, one at a time, for Ed to find. Aces. And there are short lists written on them, like clues he has to figure out. Suddenly, Ed has a purpose, and luckily though his purpose is far-fetched and frankly bizarre, it manages to drive the novel through a series of odd characters, each of whom need something from Ed. He manages in every case to solve the puzzle of what these people need in their lives.

Several of the characters, like a teenage girl who runs barefoot at dawn, and the elderly owner of a decrepit, old fashioned movie theater, are downright beautiful. Other encounters are less savory, like the abusive rapist or the two angry teenaged brothers who constantly beat each other up. In every situation Ed must figure out how to help these strangers move on with their lives. And in the end not only does Ed sort out his own purpose, he helps his three stagnating friends find out that life is worth living as well.

Zusak handles violence as well as beauty deftly. His simple, elegant observations about the world of the novel are a pleasure to read. Ed’s journey from general layabout to unlikely guardian angel is proof that with good intentions anyone can make a difference in the life of a child, or a stranger, or a close friend.  It’s no wonder that I am the Messenger won the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year award in Australia.

by John Bohannon

15 Jun 2008

While Friday was on point, Saturday left thousands exuberant and others –- well, a little bit pissed off by the end of it all. Notoriously the day for everyone to put their lives on the line for consumption of drugs and one heavy dousing of alcohol, this was the year to do it if you were planning on it -– the weather lay overcast above the throng of thousands in their finest.

Mastadon

Mastadon

To kick my ass in to gear, there was no other possible way to start my day than seeing Atlanta metal gods, Mastodon. There were times during this set I thought the entire tent was going to come crashing down while the bass-heavy notes were shaking my insides left and right. That could also have to do with the fact that I ended up in a mosh pit unintentionally (two mosh pits so far at Bonnaroo, it’s the beginning of a new era) and ended up with a handful of blood smudges on my wonderful white shirt from those that had a little more anger pent up than me at the time. Premiering new songs (hopefully from the upcoming record they are working on with Brendan O’ Brien) and spending time backtracking their catalogue –- there was no evidence of disappointment at this show. It’s possible that because I’m in a somewhat newly acquainted metal stage in my life that Metallica and Mastodon up to this point had been the most successful shows of the weekend. It’s also possible that these audiences are finding a new appreciation for the genre while they usually aren’t exposed to it in this environment. Mastodon fan or not, you left this show fucking shook up -– and it was beautiful as can be.

Shortly after, I had quite the change of pace over at Cat Power –- when her usual anxiety ridden self makes the most awkward stage movements of anybody since Ian Curtis. That’s just fine though, considering her voice is so damn sultry that one can’t help but swoon (not to mention she is one of the most extraordinary looking humans on the face of the earth). That’s not to mention she always puts together one of the most killer bands in the business, featuring backing bands that perfectly compliment her voice. I think it’s the only way she can really perform nowadays, considering her famed solo performances never quite went off without a hitch. [Download Cat Power set]

Cat Power - Tracks of My Tears

Lying in a hammock in the VIP area while taking in some of B.B. King’s stellar set was next on my list of priorities. Playing to a crowd that really felt like winding down, King brought em’ on home and layed it down with the usual showmanship that included call-and-response style conversations with his band and the audience. The man shows no signs of slowing down with age, and this performance put the fact that he has a record coming out in the fall on my radar.

B.B. King

B.B. King

Bonnaroo’s still relatively new Somethin Else’ Tent (named after the classic Cannonball Adderley record) highlighted New Orleans this year -– charging a $5 entrance fee for donations to the revitalization of the city taken down by Katrina. The thing that absolutely blows my mind is that Ivan Neville’s Dumstaphunk, a band full of artists from the ol’ bayou with the Neville stamp, was the damn giddiest I had been all weekend from an artist. Maybe packed with 150 people, everyone from the front to back got together for a common cause of funk and danced in the tent-formed-New Orleans style club. Anyone associated with the Neville family never fails to deliver the funk.

Sigur Rós

Sigur Rós

While I tried to muster up the strength to make it to Pearl Jam, it just didn’t quite happen. A long night was ahead considering Sigur Rós and Kanye West were scheduled to play back to back with late night sets, and chances were, my ass wasn’t sleeping. I was a bit apprehensive about how a Sigur Rós set would go over at Bonnaroo –- but other than a few technical difficulties, it was as close to perfect as it could get. Experiencing them in this environment, as odd as this sounds, the band finally felt human. After the technical difficulties, it broke down the audience between performer and audience, and made the whole thing a much more intense, emotional experience. They’ve changed their show for the new record, and have abandoned the giant screen for a more regal, straightforward approach, which could also help breaking down the aforementioned barrier. Everyone was dressed in their best attire and a horn section joined for cuts off their upcoming record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The new tracks, such as “Gobbledigook”, transfer beautifully live –- and in case you were wondering -– they make them just as epic as the previous tracks. It’s absolutely wonderful to see them head in a new direction, and it works for em’ –- the set felt completely organic and inspired.

This however, could not prepare us for what the hell Kanye was about to pull. Scheduled to come on at 2:45 AM, he finally took the stage after stalling, in Kanye fashion, until 4:15 AM. The glow in the dark tour seems like a totally watered down version of 2001: A Space Odyssey and was cheesy as get out -– but you pretty much had to go into the set not expecting too much. There was rumors spread that Daft Punk was going to show up (of course, untrue) and people seemed ultimately let down as the sun was coming up at the end of West’s set.

At the end of it all, everyone was a bit pissed off –- but what the hell else were you going to do at 5:00 in the morning, go back to your tent? Kanye’s show was of epic proportions, and although cheesy, that man’s confidence is arrogant, yet empowering. Anyone who can still be that big and attract that many fans at 5:00 in the morning, has some clout, and rightfully so. Pissed off or not, people stayed and are still going to buy his records -– so at the end of the day he wins.

So as I make my way into another day of Bonnaroo, Saturday remains another success, and Sunday may wrap up on the best festivals in its seven-year history.

by Bill Gibron

15 Jun 2008

There is a fine line between realism and the ridiculous. Put another way, when dealing with ethnic archetypes, it is easy to confuse truth with a tendency toward cultural insensitivity. Comedy is frequently guilty of such random racial profiling. Tyler Perry, for example, paints his portraits of African Americans in the broadest, most brazen strokes possible. On the one hand, his leads are usually troubled professionals plowing through personal problems direct from a soap opera’s story session. On the other, he relies on crass, sometimes crude social stereotypes to get that all important laugh - no matter how cheap or overbroad.

It’s the same tiring tightrope act that a movie like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (new to DVD from Universal) must maintain. Initially, audiences need to be engaged beyond a borderline black face burlesque, actors standing in for the senseless slander of the past. Yet there is no denying that, within said pigeonholes, some small amounts of truth exist. After all, fact is the reason that most farce works. It’s all about recognizeability. Luckily, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee understands this all too well. He takes his simple story about a family reunion (already a tired cinematic setup) and finds a way to work both truth and a BET comedy club mentality into a marginally successful, frequently funny outing.

When we first meet the title character, he’s a successful self-help guru, a media-made Dr. Phil type with a supermodel girlfriend and a lonely, disconnected son. Returning to the family home for the first time in years, Roscoe will have to face a few daunting demons from his past. His brother Otis and sister Betty still enjoy picking on him, and a long standing rivalry with adopted cousin Clyde remains bitter (if slightly unbelievable). Of course, once he steps onto the familiar Georgian soil, all the old issues reappear. His father remains aloof, his mother loving but unable to forge a lasting bond between the two. Similarly, Clyde’s conceited nature manages to transcend Roscoe’s La-La Land fame. And then there’s the high school sweetheart who still seems smitten with the man she once loved.

It has to be said that, for all its over the top tendencies, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins remains grounded in a way that saves it from outright racial disparagement. White audiences may wonder why Lee is allowed to flaunt seeming insensitivity the way he does, and at least two of the characters here - Betty, and the casually criminal relative Reggie - apparently push the boundaries of African American truisms. But as a director, the man behind Undercover Brother recognizes two things: one, casting will save you from even the most questionable artistic approach, and; two, wit mixed with even the wildest premise, if handled properly, always succeeds. Though he occasionally loses his funny business focus, Lee remains right on both accounts.

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins has one of the best casts in a recent comedy, everyone from name star Martin Lawrence to supporting players Mo’Nique and Cedric the Entertainer proving their movie star mantle, while reliable names such as Michael Clarke Duncan, James Earl Jones, and Margaret Avery smooth over the rougher, racially charged edges. The story does skate around some quasi-controversial questions, however. Betty is viewed as a horny prison whore, using the Bible as a means to get “busy” with the local jail population. Reggie regularly steals, swindles, and smokes his way to pseudo-shiftless Southern comfort. While Duncan’s Otis invests the movie with a solid sense of responsibility and honor, Cedric’s Clyde continues the corrupt closet con artist elements the narrative claims to avoid.

Yet Lee keeps things concrete and likeable - at least most of the time. There are physical comedy elements that go way overboard in both their shtick and sensibility, like the time when Roscoe and Clyde literally destroy the family home while fighting. There is also an extended foot race sequence where the concept of sportsmanship is tossed out the window for bigger and bigger slapstick set pieces. If it weren’t for the actors involved, this would all grow tiresome and trite. But since the director establishes character early on, and finds a way to avoid most of the clichés inherent in his otherwise clockwork plotting, we forgive these indulgences. In fact, Lee is so skilled behind the camera that he paints purveyors of such purposeless pratfalls - like Perry - as the pretenders they are.

As part of the DVD, we see how carefully Lee constructed his comedy. Many of the deleted and extended scenes show where editing was required, while the outtakes argue for the ample improvisation skills of the entire cast. In the Making-of material, everyone seems really proud of being involved in such a stellar company, and we get the distinct impression that no one involved feels their race is being marginalized or attacked. Indeed, one gets the feeling that a good way to judge the inherent insensitivity in a film is to gauge how intentional the portrait really is/was. In this case, Lee looked to his past and the people he knows as a means of managing what some might consider an otherwise quasi-offensive screed.

Of course, this is all a matter of perspective. To the audience to whom this movie speaks loudest, claims of racism would be rejected outright. Similarly, anyone familiar with the burgeoning genre of urban comedy realizes that exaggeration and caricature are occasionally needed to help foster a sense of shared experience that many in America’s minority class openly embrace. In fact, while Judd Apatow walks away with all the cinematic humor saving accolades, Lee clearly deserves a place with the category’s rebirth. While no one is claiming that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a masterpiece, it does prove that humor doesn’t have to de-evolve into hate to be witty and pointed. Indeed, as long as you have clear characters, and actors who can handle the necessary nuances, you should have something solid on your hands - and that’s exactly what this winning effort is.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jun 2008

We often forget how much actual art there is in the art of animation. Not so much skill or filmmaking acumen, but genuine, painstaking personal craft. After all, the genre is built on the drawing, the pen and ink providence that, through motion, constructs an aesthetically pleasing perception of the world. It’s what the Great Masters strived for when they put oil to canvas, or chisel to stone. It’s also what directors and illustrators focus on when they put cells to celluloid for that all important imitation of life. Yet sometimes, concept transcends creativity, leading to something both revolutionary and retrograde.

Such is the case with Lawrence Jordan. Having been involved in making his “cartoon collages” since the ‘50s, the bay area maverick has seen both his Victorian styled stop motion cut outs and meditative live action tone poems celebrated as intense, inspired, and most importantly, artistic. Now, Facets Video has compiled a four disc DVD box set celebrating the man’s career. Entitled The Lawrence Jordan Album, we get two sets of animation, and two additional collections of standard cinematic statements. Yet once viewed, it is clear that there is nothing “typical” about what this inventive, sometimes irritating auteur has to offer.

Disc one takes us through the most typical of Jordan’s work, with pieces ranging from 1961 (“Duo Concertantes”) to 2004 (“Enid’s Idyll”). Following themes typically built around particular classical compositions, the 10 presentations illustrate the main muse that the filmmaker follows. The second DVD delves into the other side of Jordan’s passion. Known as “The H.D. Trilogy” (based on the poet Hilda Doolittle and her long form elegy “Hermetic Definitions”) this trip through Italy, Greece and Britain serves as a statement about aging gracefully, and vitally, through a world seemingly ignorant of its history. Disc three returns to the careful collage style, the trio of films following similar pattern. The final DVD delivers seven more live action efforts, including the stellar “Sacred Art of Tibet”.

Together, these films tell a compelling story, the implied narrative centering on an idealist locked in a battle between the suggested and the sensible. The first few films argue for a man exploring the very limits of a certain set agenda. As the gorgeous tones of the “Gymnopedies” or “Moonlight Sonata” play, Jordan juxtaposes images from ancient tapestries and etchings, old world wonders manipulated in such a way as to suggest Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam without a sense of humor. Certain constants resonate throughout - the crying, all seeing eyes; the escape implied in the hot air balloon; the grace of the human body; the undeniable beauty in nature. When combined with Jordan’s seemingly random approach (objects fly in and out of frame with minimal reference to anything storied or purposefully plotted), one gets the impression of an effervescent vision inspired by too many dreams and not enough drama.

Yet Lawrence Jordan’s scattershot stratagem can be very effective. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor’s lyrical ballad about the seemingly supernatural events that occur to a sailor as he heads home, benefits from this wide open imagination approach. It’s a masterstroke to take the arc poetics the material provides and provide some manner of visual association. The other animations of Disc three follow a similar pattern. “Sophie’s Place” does try to intimate a centeral location and person, but the boundaries of such an idea are pushed, and then broken, time and again. Similarly, “Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass” gives us man (in the form of old Hollywood stars) vs. nature, the ephemeral and the exacting in close quarters combat.

Yet it’s his live action work which resonates deeper. The “HD Trilogy”, for example, explores elements that, even today, many filmmakers fail to bother with. Acting as a stand-in for both Doolittle and the poem’s complex protagonist, actress Joanna McClure depicts aging sensuality with frank openness and abject honesty. There are times when she appears frail and fragile. In other sepia toned lights, she sizzles beyond what her beauty pageant betters could ever accomplish. As the material turns contemplative and more insular, Jordan investigates the intimate. McClure bravely responds with nude scenes, self-reflection, and a last act sequence where all we see is her philosophical face, mind lost in deep thought. Some may see this trip through Italy and Greece (with a side trek through the cemeteries of London) as an extended travelogue. Sadly, they are missing the major point of this material.

The last disc is not so deceptive. Here, Jordan provides what some might consider straight forward documentaries. Of course, his clash of images style remains real and intact. Some of his subjects are fairly obvious. “Views of a City” looks at a burgeoning metropolis through the various reflective surfaces within, while “In a Summer Garden” and “Winter Light” are vistas captured in a self explanatory form. Perhaps the best example of what Jordan can accomplish with both his fact and fiction conceit is the vibrant “Sacred Art of Tibet”. Using a voice over that explains the various deities in the country’s religion, the filmmaker manipulates the material, double exposures and camera tricks creating an epiphany like look at the psychedelic dimension of faith. It stands as a fascinating piece.

In fact, all ‘facets’ of The Lawrence Jordan Album stand the test of time and post-modern temperament. As with any overview, the sudden sandwiching of movies that were never meant to ‘play’ together can be off putting. One sees patterns purposely avoided thanks to the displacement of years, and it causes a kind of fault the artist is far from guilty of. In fact, if one takes this box set as a gallery exhibit, a chance to view Jordan as a whole and not just a singular selection of one or two works, a prescience evolves. There is humor of the grotesque here, anatomical models dancing like chorus girls in a cheap vaudeville revue. Similar, Jordan applies a dream logic even more specious than David Lynch’s psyche scarred scenarios. Yet there is no denying that what he forges is, as Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press referred to it as “pure film”.

Indeed, The Lawrence Jordan Album could be subtitled “A Primer on the Language of the Artform”. Like a grammar guide required of school children to understand the fundamentals, and the tenet bending nuances, of writing and the resulting literature, this complicated creator reveres the rules, only to then break them with radical regularity. It’s the perfect amalgamation of what many in creativity already know - you’ve got to perfect the basics before venturing out into the unknown. With their spinning orbs, buried pagan symbols, understated purpose, and overdone calculations, Jordan’s work joins the ranks of other fringe finery. He may not deserve a place among the mainstream, but to understand the normative, one needs to know his formidable flights of fancy. They help put animation, and its internal element of art, into proper perspective.

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