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by Lara Killian

22 Dec 2008

During my holiday travels this year I’ve made a concerted effort not to tote around superfluous reading materials; instead I’m relying on friends and family to provide recommendations and the short-term loan of their favorite fiction.

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Last week while visiting a friend in southern California, Aimee Bender’s debut volume of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1999) came highly recommended. Short stories normally leave me cold, as I prefer text I can sink my teeth into and characters that need more than a few pages to be fully revealed. Bender’s stunning prose however deftly sketches out her central characters in satisfying depth and generally shakes up common perception of the limitations of the short story genre – by denying them completely.

From a librarian who seeks to feel an emotion other than grief by entertaining her male patrons in the back room, one after the other, to a mermaid and an imp who masquerade as teenagers but yearn for someone to really understand their identities, Bender presents one surreal world after another. The emotions of the characters and their frequent dissatisfaction with life’s hardships emerge in unusual ways, often with a heady dose of poignant eroticism. Bender’s prose is lyrical and smart, and the 16 stories in her first collection a joy to read, even when discovered a decade late. They’re still fresh and intelligent, and it’s a delight to come across a short story author who can paint tales with such cogent brevity.

by Rob Horning

22 Dec 2008

When I cast about for a possible silver lining to the recession, I continually return to the idea that it could at least destroy ephemeral trendy fashion outlets as consumers retrench, hold on to things longer, and focus on spending for necessary goods. The NYT article suggests I can’t even hope for that.

In one of the darkest holiday shopping seasons in decades, perhaps it is fitting that a retailer has been given new life by vampires.
While sales at most stores plummeted last month, the teenage retailer Hot Topic enjoyed a 6.5 percent gain, thanks mostly to brisk sales of gear inspired by “Twilight,” the teenage vampire movie.
As the nation’s retailing landscape has deteriorated, Hot Topic is one of a handful of chains that seem to be coming out ahead. The most obvious winners are discounters like Wal-Mart Stores and BJ’s Wholesale Club, which are helping American families trade down to cheaper merchandise. But another, more surprising group of beneficiaries has emerged: niche chains that cater to teenagers and young adults.

Because the crisis has mainly impoverished those with tangible assets and the former ability to rack up debt, it has left teenagers largely unaffected for the time being. With the deflation currently coursing through the economy, they may even felt relatively enriched.

Youth-lifestyle marketer extraordinaire American Apparel, for example has continued to thrive:

Marsha Brady, creative director for American Apparel — which in November had a 6 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year — said the key to its continued success in this economy is its demographic: young, single, urban creative-types accustomed to living on a shoestring.
“They hear about the stock market but stocks are something their parents worry about,” Ms. Brady said. “They don’t own anything. They rent. They’re not really facing foreclosure or falling property values. If anything they’ll just get another roommate or move into a cheaper rental. It’s not utter devastation to their cores.”

In other words, teenagers and “kidults” are too stupid to see how the economic trouble affects them and are most likely to continue wasting their money as they always have. It’s only when the kids’ allowances or trust funds are affected that American Apparel might see some red ink.

But it’s not as though it’s irrational for youth-culture consumers to behave this way.The largest worry in the lives of these “creative types” is not retirement savings or anything so banal; it’s being cool in the eyes of one another. Often. coolness is actually their only asset, which is sad, since that is one of the few things that remains more volatile than the current stock market. For companies like Hot Topic, which trade on that volatility and thrive on it, that paucity of assets is the essence of their business model. They can harness the inevitability of aging, or the uncertainty of nascent friendships in a dog-eat-dog social environment, to forge an engine of profitable insecurity that leads consumers to overvalue the significance of coolness. Such companies have every incentive to undermine the possibilities of consumers escaping from the youth ghetto and developing other kinds of value, more productive forms of human capital.

 

by Jason Gross

22 Dec 2008

As I’m seeing other writers and music fans pile up on top 10 lists for favorite albums, something occurs to me about these lists.  If you name ten albums, what about everything else that come out this year?  Did you only like ten albums?  Probably not, especially if you’re a music nut.  But a list of ten limits you and makes it easier to tally for the publication involved.  For my own list of ten, albums that didn’t make the cut included Paul Westerberg, Girl Talk, Lil Wayne, Martha Wainwright, Lucinda Williams, TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, Okkervil River and Mavis Staples and I loved those records as well.  I just didn’t happen to love them as 10 other albums.  And even after that, there are about 40 more albums that I liked.  But none of that gets heard- you’ll just yoked to 10 records and that’s it.

This is a shame because not only does it make you the writer look short-sighted about many great releases that came out but you also don’t get to tell other people about this and maybe turn them on to some releases that they hadn’t heard about.  The 10 album list sometimes lets you include reissues but even then, you’d have to squeeze out some new albums to make room for them on your list.  I counted almost 50 reissues/compilations and archive albums that I’d recommend but there’s no way I could squeeze that on a list of 10.

The only way out of this is to find someone else online (i.e. your own blog or a zine) to post your full list of goodies.  That gives you a chance to really say “here’s what I liked,” instead of “here’s a cropped, abridged version of some of the stuff I liked.”

To some people, this might look like your ego’s going crazy but I say that we should have more talk about music and not less.  Even if we can’t learn about great music we didn’t hear about otherwise, we can at least find kindred spirits who also liked the music that we liked.  For anyone who dug albums by Harry Taussig, Byetone, Popguns, Truckee Brothers, Hybrid Kids, Derby, Raglani, Capstan Shafts, Goldmund, Pat Todd, Fannypack, the Knux, Absentee, Clark and the Heavy, I’m with you.  And if you didn’t hear about any of ‘em, please go and find out about ‘em, OK?

In the spirit of putting my moola where my tonsils are, I posted my full list of fave ‘08 music at the Ye Wei blog.

by Mike Schiller

22 Dec 2008

Know what I’ve been doing this weekend?  Well, while I really wanted to be playing all the latest games and delivering some top-notch journalism action to you, the readers, I was actually shoveling and snowblowing all damn weekend.  As with any major snow event, the coverage on CNN starts with Buffalo, so go ahead, follow the link, and feel sorry for me.

How is this relevant?  Well, as it turns out, shoveling your driveway would be more productive than paying much attention to this week’s release list.  The Wii’s putting out a couple of games on WiiWare, but I’ll be honest, they’re both dwarfed by the release of Phantasy Star IV on the virtual console, one of the better Sega Genesis RPGs out there, but still dwarfed by Phantasy Star II.  Those who picked up Phantasy Star II back when it got “Virtual Consoled” are probably still working on it anyway, so it’s hard to recommend another huge classic RPG download.

I suppose if you’re a new-release junkie and you just have to pick up something new, Mystery P.I. is a decent way to kill some time.  It’s an expansion of an online release which is basically a big Where’s Waldo experience, and the take-home versions for the DS and PC look to be more of the same.  Want to give it a go?  There’s a one-hour demo download of the New York edition of the game, which may well be all of it you need to play.  I had fun for my hour, and I’ll also be OK if I never see it again.

Moving Pixels is going to be quiet for a while after this, so enjoy your holidays, all.  The full release list is…well, it’s right here:

Nintendo DS:

Dreamer: Horse Trainer (23 December)
Dreamer: Puppy Trainer (23 December)
Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


PC:

Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)


Wii:

Fun! Fun! Minigolf (22 December, WiiWare)
Phantasy Star IV (22 December, Virtual Console)
Tiki Towers (22 December, WiiWare)

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2008

The Coen Brothers remains the most predicable unpredictable artists in Hollywood. You can be guaranteed that the minute you think you have them pegged - post-modern nostalgists, retro Hollywood revisionists, kings of meta-mainstream quirk - they turn around and surprise you. They move so easily between genres, exploring film types and formats that should be overly familiar (crime dramas) or elusive (black comedies) to work. And yet here they are, following up their Oscar winning take on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men with another brilliant slab of their slightly surreal satire. Burn After Reading may be second tier Coens at its core, but when you’re dealing with the pair of talents this massive, average remains outstanding.

When he’s demoted to a desk job, CIA field agent Obsourne Cox decides to quit, and simultaneously blow the lid off the bureau with his tell-all memoirs. His wife, Dr. Katie Cox, has been having an affair with tacky Treasury man named Harry Pfarrer and she wants a divorce. Her paramour, on the other hand, is too busy playing the Internet field to commit. Meanwhile, a pair of oddball gym employees - personal trainers Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke - stumble across the CD with Osbourne’s “secrets” on it. She wants plastic surgery to recapture some of her youth. He just wants to help. So it’s time to extort some cash. When Pfarrer finds out that someone is sneaking around, trying to blackmail the Coxes, he takes matters into his hot headed, horndog hands. While Chad and Linda think everything is simple and straightforward, they are unaware of the involvement of forces both friendly, and fiendish.

There is nothing more satisfying than seeing A-list actors working without a safety net of familiarity, and Burn After Reading (now available of DVD from Focus Features) offers such precarious performance pleasures. Where else but in a Coens comedy would we find a sheepish CIA agent, a mean-spirited (and incredibly selfish) Treasury representative, a plastic surgery obsessed gym employee, her dimwitted co-worker, and a series of ancillary individuals who accent and expand on each one and the main players. And when you consider the cast the brothers bring on - Oscar winners George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, along with Academy nominated accomplishes Brad Pitt and John Malkovich - you just know you’re in for a rollicking good time. And indeed, Reading lives up to its reputation. It’s fast, witty, weird, unexpected, grim, clever, and above all, expertly made.

Clearly, the Coens see Washington DC and all its blatant bureaucracy as the stuff of comedy gold. Yet unlike their How to Sort of Succeed in Business By Being a Butthead send-up The Hudsucker Proxy, the US government never loses its War on Terror sheen. This is a post-modern mess of incomplete policies, overtired executives, and a bottomless pit of possibilities when it comes to covering up the flaws in same. The battle between Malkovich and his superiors, Pitt and McDormand and the various glass tower threats, and Clooney and his own innate and ever-growing paranoia are a joy to behold. These stars sink their teeth into the script, wringing laughs out of lines that would seem like nothing but standard federal doubletalk without their efforts. Yet the Coens aren’t beyond moving into areas both uncomfortable (Clooney’s crass sex addiction) or unexpected (the last act bursts of violence) to up the ante.

Indeed, as the Making-of material included as part of the home video release, we see a group of highly paid, often praised professionals clearly working within the confines of a cinematic stage of one-upmanship. Pitt and Clooney are the two biggest clowns, their Oceans 11 - 13 familiarity responsible for more than a little of the onset rowdiness. But Swinton and McDormand are not beyond being goofy. Each one has a history with various members of the cast and crew, and the links allows for a looseness and a camaraderie that clearly shows up onscreen. The Coens make it clear that they like to work with actors in a “theater company” style approach. They have faith they can pull off the differing roles being assigned to them, secure in the knowledge that they are the rights ones to realize their aims.

All throughout Burn After Reading, such strategies clearly complement the narrative. As with many Coen films, the McGuffin-esque element at the center of the story - the CD with all the supposed secrets - is really just a catalyst for conversations, confrontations, and calamities. It allows the inner facets of everyone’s personalities to become manifest, to make the desperate even more frantic, the clueless even less enlightened. This is especially true of Malkovich and his cronies. In a post-millennial world where America has lost its international espionage touch, the bumbling, Keystone cop kind of way these officials flounder around, looking for answers, is just one of Burn After Reading‘s many resplendent charms.

Just be aware that this is Coens coasting at its very best. We’re not talking about literal masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, or Fargo. It’s not even the clever cult epics of films like The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou? Instead, this is proof that, when not dealing with ideas outside their control (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), the Coens can come up with a quasi-classic, even in their sleep. It was decades before the duo was finally given the credit they so richly deserved. Amazing how, in one fell awards season swoop, they went from outsiders who were lucky to get financing to auteurs with outsized expectations from both audiences and critics. Burn After Reading is clearly not their best. But even in a lesser state, the Coen Brothers are still astonishing.

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