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by Jason Gross

13 Jul 2008

It’s nice to see classical writers support their own in the face of constant downsizing at newspapers across America: the The Music Critics Association of North America did in this posting at Poynter about the desperate situation.  Good for the MCA but why don’t we hear from other writers groups like the Jazz Journalists Association or the… wait a minute, what ARE the other music journalist associations out there…?

by Bill Gibron

13 Jul 2008

In the ‘80s, when the slasher film was all the rage, there was no real need to be different. The set-up and fright formula mandated a kind of carbon copy creativity. Just find yourself a haunted setting, a group of teenage rowdies, some random sex and drug/alcohol abuse, a moralizing murderer, and a last act denouement that provided a basis for the bloodletting, and you had a coattail cash box. Of course, as the genre grew, so did the number of mimics. Before long, the desire to be derivative killed the category. Now, nearly 30 years later, we’re seeing a kind of slice and dice revival. Too bad then that the lessons learned way back when are no longer part of film language rote. Instead, movies like Steel Trap appear destined to repeat this kind of horror movie’s many mistakes. 

It’s New Years Eve, and seven partygoers in an abandoned skyscraper get a call to join another shindig. This one is very exclusive, and promises lots of thrills. So rock star Wade, celebrity chef Kathy, advice columnist Nicole, her entertainment attorney boyfriend Robert, TV exec Pamela, former child star Adam, and his coke whore arm candy Melanie all find themselves involved in a nursery rhyme filled game of life or death. You see, a masked killer is stalking each and every one of them, unflattering nicknames indicating the slayer’s possible motives. One by one, the guests are murdered, the cat and mouse means of destruction providing a high level of anxiety for those still on the “list”. Unless they find out who is behind the crimes, and why they want them dead, they will never escape this Steel Trap.

Steel Trap is the kind of film that substitutes creepy locations for plotting, and the slightest smatterings of gore in place of anything suspenseful or scary. To call it derivative would avoid its obvious attempts at being different, and yet this is nothing more than the standard slice and dice from 20 years ago, dressed up in a decidedly uninteresting set of the emperor’s new clothes. Give the killer a hockey mask instead of a bland black disguise, and lower the average age of the victims by at least one generation, and you’d have something akin to Friday the 13th: Jason Goes High Rise. While the DVD cover art (the film is currently available from Dimension Extreme, the Weinstein Company and Genius Products subdivision) suggest something like Saw or The Cube, there is nothing remotely inventive or puzzle boxy about this title.

First time feature director Luis Cámara, who co-wrote the movie with Gabrielle Galanter, would disagree with such an assessment. As part of the full length audio commentary offered in the digital presentation, he makes it clear that he finds his narrative rather inventive and particularly adept. He’s not foolish enough to believe he’s made some manner of classic, but there are indications that at least he sees beyond the simplistic elements being employed. The Making-of material provides minimal insights, mostly geared toward location issues and production problems. Indeed, it’s hard to hate on a film that tries so hard to be so unique and inventive. But Steel Trap tends to set itself up for such ridicule, even when it’s providing some minor moments of macabre.

Take the character of Nicole, for example. As played by Julia Ballard, this heartless witch is an unbearable presence, almost from the very first moment we meet her. Unfortunately, she grows even more grating as the storyline continues. It doesn’t help that our actress maintains a whiny, self pitying persona throughout. Ballard had never been in a movie before this, and it really shows. In fact, if you look at the female characters and discern who is annoying and who is mildly acceptable, some ‘killer’ clues can be gleaned from the otherwise repugnant red herrings.

Not that the men are any better. Thankfully, machismo man-ass Adam is killed right away. A little of his snow-snorting lothario goes a very long way. Sadly, rock God Wade is a minor deity at best, and Robert only exists to keep us from concentrating on those scream queening babes. Of course, a little well honed gore could cure a lot of what ails Steel Trap. Let the offal flow and we fright fans will forgive a great deal. The small amounts of claret offered, however, do little except aggravate. In fact, when juxtaposed against the cornball dialogue, this could be a bad b-movie from a time before terror grew a brazen backbone. Slack scares like this were a dime a dozen back when passion pits ruled the dread domain.

Cámara has to bear most of the blame. He is constantly using his camera like a scalpel, cutting into scenes with a quack butcher’s abandon instead of actually applying some nominal mise-en-scene. This is especially true of his murder sequences. Characters are caught by our villain and then…they’re forgotten about while we travel over to a couple of minutes of mindless exposition. Another glimpse of an upcoming death, and it’s back to more conversational stalling. We don’t feel any sense of urgency in what the director is trying to deliver. Instead, his plot plods along without a single significant reason to keep us glued to, or even going for, the edge of our seat.

It seems clear that, in an arena where the unoriginal and plagiaristic are typical examples of filmmaking fad gadgetry, Steel Trap is a slight horror effort. It’s professionally helmed and evocatively shot, but looking good is a far cry from actually being good. Instead, Luis Cámara deserves credit for the try, if not the win, and the slasher genre revival seems destined to sputter and die instead of building on some far more provocative European examples (Inside, for one). Macabre seems to be the one cinematic staple that can survive numerous subpar illustrations of its assets and still come out clean. Steel Trap isn’t about to chance that sentiment, but it won’t be bolstering said fear factors any time soon.

by Bill Gibron

12 Jul 2008

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a boon for serious science fiction. Thanks in part to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, allegorical speculation would rule the cinematic landscape until the movies visited a certain War plagued galaxy far, far away. These films used ideas and characters, not cutesy robots or genre-bending action sequences, as a way of getting their point across. Sometimes, they were preachy and unbearable. At other instances, they became the language for all cinema to come. In the case of 1974’s Phase IV, the consensus is clearly divided. On one side are the devotees who appreciate its ecological bent and entomological realism. On the other are critics who decry its smart bug set-up, snickering all the way to its less than crystal clear conclusion.

Of course, the man in charge was perhaps the wrong choice for such a project. Saul Bass was never known as a filmmaker. His title credit sequences for such major motion pictures as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo set a standard that, even today, remains unmatched. But aside from a few short films, he had never made a feature before Phase IV. There have been controversial debates over his involvement in the work of Hitchcock (including claims he actually directed the shower sequence in Psycho), but nothing here indicates such a skill set. Instead, this future shock look at nature run amuck is a great deal like Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. Science overwhelms suspense, with occasional bouts of illogic and endless talking juxtaposed alongside brilliant miniature cinematography.

We learn that, as part of some cosmic anomaly (which may or may not be alien driven), Earth is under the influence of certain “phases”. These shifts cause the ant population in particular to rapidly evolve, developing language skills, a hive mentality, and an ability to design and execute geometrically complex structures. Scientists James Lesko and Dr. Ernest Hubbs are sent into the desert to study the creatures, to learn why they are acting so strangely, and hopefully develop a pesticide that will kill them. While farmers like Mr. Eldridge refuse to leave their land, others have taken off to friendlier environs. Of course, the ants won’t tolerate anyone getting in their way. Eventually, all that is left are Lesko, Hubbs, and the Eldridge girl, Kendra. It appears that the super intelligent insects have plans for them as well.

It’s easy to see why Phase IV captivated audiences 30 years ago. With its amazing bug footage, and psychobabble scripting, it’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (an obvious influence) taken into Twilight Zone territory. Thanks to the competent work of everyone behind and in front of the camera, and the ambiguous nature of the narrative, it’s the kind of free associative freak out that drove the counter culture crazy in the waning days of the post-peace protest age. Since Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy have to do almost all the heavy lifting here, they become the most important component of the film’s success. Without them, all we’d have are ravishing views of insect interaction, various luminescent species of ant vying for the crown of best acid trip accoutrement.

Of the two, Murphy is more misplaced. He gets in the swing of things early and often, but frequently ventures out into “hey dude” territory - especially when Lynne Frederick’s nonentity Kendra shows up. He’s clearly intended to be the love interest, but there’s so much outdated computer chaos going on that there’s little time (or chemistry) for romance. Davenport is the major mad scientist, the man who finds himself taken in by the charge he’s been given and unable to control his fits of ego. When he starts raving toward the end, the result of a badly infected bite and too little sleep, he sounds positively potty. But for the most part, he’s the yin to Murphy’s yang, the faux scholarly cement that keeps the entire film from unraveling into nonsensical silliness.

Thanks to Bass’s belief in the mostly silent ant material, sequences where we as an audience have to piece together the reasons behind the bugs’ unusual behavior, Phase IV has an inherent mystery about it. There’s no real attempt at unraveling the nature of the various changes, just that after each one, the insects get more aggressive (and successful) in their attacks. The various sand mounds make a startling impression, including a collection of monoliths that look like statuary singers keening skyward. And this was all done in the days before CGI and complicated physical effects, the result of painstaking nature photography. It’s spellbinding to look at.

For many fans of the film, the only way to enjoy it was to find an out of print VHS version, wait for some obscure cable channel to rerun it late one night, or pray you could find a MST3K fan who owned a copy of the series’ initial days as a local Minnesota UHF broadcast (they tackled the movie with their typical in theater commentary satire). Now, thanks to Legend, the Paramount cast off has been picked up and polished off. While the lack of any supplemental features is disheartening, the nice DVD transfer, capturing the original theatrical aspect ratio, is a marvel to look at. While purists have balked at the lack of the entire print (supposedly, there’s a longer version of the movie out there with extended bits as part of the 2001-style ending), this is an excellent version of Phase IV.

While the concept of super intelligent insects usurping man and his place of power on the planet seems laughable, Saul Bass and the bravura camera work of Dick Bush make Phase IV a worthy addition to the second tier section of ‘60s/‘70s sci-fi. Sure, it has its flaws, and frequently finds itself bogged down in ancient technological minutia, but for every hackneyed hole-punch moment there’s an engaging scope enhanced by the film’s visual wonders.  Saul Bass may not have saved serious speculative fiction from its soon to be blockbuster ways, but his exploratory insect opera has a right to be considered among the category’s many major accomplishments.

by Mike Schiller

11 Jul 2008

Hey, didja know there’s a Wii version of Hell’s Kitchen coming out this year?  It’ll even have a virtual Gordon Ramsay berating you after every misstep (though the unfortunate ‘T’ rating ensures that Ramsay will be a bit toned down from his TV self; I don’t think you can tell someone to “f(beep) off” and keep a ‘T’ rating…unless, of course, Ubisoft decides to fix this by inserting an audible beep where the “uck” would be, in keeping with the TV show, which would actually make me unnaturally happy.

That said…who else thinks Gordon’s devilish (ha) good looks have kind of gone down the drain in his video game rendering?  He looks a little bit more like a clean-cut Nick Nolte (with oddly wavy hair) than himself in this screen, and while his mouth is contorted in rage, his eyes scream indifference.  Also, his right cheek is in danger of falling off his face.  That’d be a nasty surprise in a plate of risotto.

Still, I have to play this game, if only for the fact that I keep dreaming up features like character customization, implemented for the sole purpose of hearing virualRamsay shout inappropriate things like “what’s wrong? Can the munchkin not reach the pot of boiling f(beep)ng water?!”

by Rob Horning

11 Jul 2008

In Technology Review, Bryant Urstadt has an interesting article about the potential for advertising on social networks. Obvioulsy, Facebook’s flubbed Beacon program, which notified member’s networks about the stuff they were doing on other internet sites, has raised suspicions that users may demand better privacy protections, but this doesn’t seem to correspond to the generational cohort’s general eagerness for indiscriminate online sharing. You would think people will eventually embrace something like Beacon, because it makes them seem like theya re so famous and important, their every mundane action must be tracked and reported. Maybe they are savvy enough not to be flattered by automated attention, and I’d probably just be creeped out if some friend of mine told me, “Hey, I saw you went online and bought a new pair of New Balances.” But then, I’m not of the generation whose members are supposed to be preoccupied with their own notoriety. But perhaps no one wants to be recruited without their consent and without recompense into an endorsement campaign. I’m sure if Beacon credited Facebook users a few cents for every time it blasted out a user’s shopping activity, more people would be eager to opt into it.

As Urstadt notes, “The problems with social-network advertising revolve around three main issues: attention, privacy, and content.” The privacy issues include not only the mining by advertisers of the personal information you supply to facilitate your social connections, but also, as with Beacon, the use of that personal information—some of it collected passively as your online activity is surveilled and logged—as leverage to persuade others. People may not mind being targeted thanks to information they supply—in fact that can often be somewhat flattering (though I don’t feel particularly important when Amazon sends me emails recommending books for me to buy). MySpace is going full steam ahead with “HyperTargeting,” which seeks to show you ads that you’ll find relevant based on the information your online activity makes available:

In 2007, MySpace launched its HyperTargeting system, which scans users’ profiles for information about their interests and demographics. It sorts the profiles into 10 rough categories—such as sports and entertainment—that are subdivided into more than 1,000 narrower categories, such as baseball or a specific film. (E-mail and personal messages are currently not scanned at either Facebook or MySpace.) Says Adam Bain, president of the Fox Interactive Media Audience Network, “People are essentially hand-raising every single day on MySpace and other social-media sites. What we want to do is take that and put it into easy-to-buy segments.”

Since these ads are more likely to be relevant, users, so the thinking goes, are far less likely to be turned off by them. (The danger is that the social networking experience will become so unpleasant that users will abandon them altogether—that MySpace, Facebook etc. will go the way of AOL and that nice cluster of advertisment targets will be dispersed to the winds.)

But it is a different matter when your personal information is not being used to target you but to target your friends—this makes you into a collaborator, an informant, part of the panopticon administering distributed surveillance in our postmodern dystopia. The temptation for advertisers and the networks themselves to take advantage of this possibility, to use you for your connections, may be impossible for them to resist.

Urstadt also highlights the problem of “content adjacency,” i.e., what the ads are placed next to, which can be unpredictable, as users frequently change the content they supply. Companies don’t want to be perceived as sponsoring some webpage full of neo-Nazi slogans and Prussian Blue videos, for example, though Facebook apparently performs a lot of “user content moderation” according to one of its spokespeople. Content adjacency is obviously a problem for advertisers, but it’s also problematic for content providers—I’m always surprised to see how this blog is contextualized by the ads, and how what I’m writing about is at times trivialized and my authority potentially undermined. The same would certainly happen for the cool-conscious, if attracting the right sort of ads on one’s profile pages could be brought into play as a mark of distinction. Advertising always has the potential for calling into question the credibility of what it appears to be sponsoring. Perhaps you really are trying to be very authentic in your profile—the presence of ads, which are generally oblique and often intentionally misleading in their presentation of information, undermines that authenticity and makes it seem like you are posturing too. The ads create a climate of persuasion, affecting all the discourse that is near it. Rather than mount a futile fight against this, users are likely to assume that the pages are advertisements for themselves and present their information accordingly, with the intent of convincing viewers of something about themselves rather than merely being. (It seems like this is generally true already. One doesn’t just exist within the virtual world of the network; one instead develops a profile and a network and then grooms them.) The social network then becomes a place where one can acquire no experience directly, where one cannot simply be in the moment and taking in events. Instead one is always positioning, repositioning and posing, and collecting people’s responses. In other words, it’s a place to revel in self-consciousness.

An unrelated question. Who is dumb enough to do this: “Chamath Palihapitiya expects Facebook to generate revenue by selling a variety of such services to users. The site has rolled out a “gift” program, in which friends spend real money to “give” friends virtual items, such as an image of a box of tissues with a get-well note.” This makes even less sense to me than spending real money to trick out your Second Life avatar. This seems like conspicuous waste par excellence, however, with an audience roped into the transaction by definition. So maybe it will really take off.

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Fave Five: Alpine

// Sound Affects

"Australian sextet Alpine's newest album is a fantastic expansion of their joyous pop sound, but two members give us five records apiece that helped define their unique musical identities.

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