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by Bill Gibron

28 Jul 2009

Along with their French, Japanese, and American brethren, the Italians were instrumental in bringing Golden era motion pictures - and all their phony, studio-bound ideals - up to date. With their naturalistic, neo-realism and aesthetic earthiness, they did as much as the New Wave and exploitation to help cinema “grow up”. Of course, once international audiences got a taste of their wares, commerciality took over. Soon, Mediterranean moviemakers were catering to the box office just as much as their Hollywood hucksters. By the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Rome was the center of a mainstream movie machine that could indulge major players like Fellini, Pasolini, and Leone as well as numerous genre underlings. It was the classic battle between art and artifice, with the latter often taking profit point.

Sergio Martino and Elio Petri represent such minor, if still important, mid-period engineers. The former found fame creating cruel, nasty “giallos” - crime thrillers based on the popular yellow-covered Italian pulp novels. Such efforts as Case of the Scorpion’s Tale and Your Vice Is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key rivaled Dario Argento for the title of king of the category. The latter was an Oscar nominated (for 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) radical, using his Communist party ties and strident beliefs to front-load films like The Lady Killer of Rome and We Still Kill the Old Way with alienation and surreal social commentary.

A perfect example of both men’s filmic modus operandi comes with Blue Underground’s release of Martino’s Torso and Petri’s The 10th Victim. While wildly divergent in both story and style, they’re also indicative of the men who made them and the culture who gave birth to their individual ideals. The first film is a typical “killer on the loose” exercise, Martino’s obsession with naked, nubile college girls overpowering what is, often, an intense and suspenseful nail-biter. The last 30 minutes are particularly effective. Petri’s future shock schlock, on the other hand, is all SCTV spoof fodder. From the outrageous fashions to the less than hidden anti-media agenda, this revamped version of The Most Dangerous Game is like a retro Running Man meshed with a Cinzano ad.

Yet both films are also time capsules as well. For Petri, the mid ‘60s were certainly swinging. Arthouses, long responsible for embracing the foreign film and its many marvelous auteurs, was giving way to an everyday hipster dynamic. One could walk past the numerous downtown marquees of Anytown, American and see offerings from all over the world. This meant that star power as well as story was important, and The 10th Victim gave known international icons Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress safe haven to look and act fabulous. She, decked out in the latest Milan couture, he, sporting a bad blond dye job and ever-present shades, play a prickly game of cat and mouse set against the most modern - at least for 1965 - of ultra-chic urban backdrops.

Andress’ Caroline Meredith is the latest “winner” of The Big Hunt, a worldwide television phenomenon which sees participants act as “assassin” and “victim” alternately, each pursuit played out for points, profit, and a chance at retiring a decathlete (one who successfully completes 10 missions). She is only one victory away from earning said title - and the $1 million prize that goes with it. Mastroianni’s Marcello Polletti, on the other hand, is a shady womanizer who, while equally triumphant in the game, can’t seem to hold onto his money. He’s always broke, and desperate for ways to earn additional endorsements. When the mega-computers in Geneva set them up against each other, it’s not long before passion, and the possibility of a huge advertising payday from a Chinese tea company, comes their way.

All dystopian visions should look as groovy as The 10th Victim. While Petri makes sure to pontificate now and then (the whole subtext about the Hunt solving world war and man’s natural tendencies toward violence get lots of jaw time), this is really just pretty people playing against a quirky, crazy quilt backdrop. We can never quite figure out Marcello’s marital status and his oddball obsessive girlfriend seems too unstable to be part of this meticulous killer’s interpersonal life. When he takes to the streets and cityscapes of modern Rome, Petri provides enough intrigue to keep us interested. But this is a movie that suffers from being severely dated, the high tech elements employed (handset-only dial phones, big ass blinking light computers) creating an aura of absurdity.

Still, there’s a real chemistry between Andress and Mastroianni, a tension that literally beams off the screen. The whole “are they or aren’t they in love” question appears easily answer, and yet Petri plays around with plot twists, mostly to the detriment of his designs. Visually, The 10th Victim looks slick and yet slightly stunted, as if creativity and imagination eventually gave way to budgetary concerns and limited production capabilities. We never really get the sense of the future. Everything looks like Rome circa 1965, with just a couple of technological tweaks here and there. While we sense where the story is going from the beginning, the movie tries to have it both ways, undermining our expectations while fiddling with the finale to violate the cinematic tenets of the “fourth wall.” While interesting, Petri attempt at satire merely comes off as stiff.

It’s similarly strange filmmaking fixations that also deflate Martino’s Torso - and in this case, it’s female breasts that get the best of this otherwise effective foreign slice and dice. Suzy Kendall is an American exchange student in Rome, matriculating amongst the majesty of - and the murders surrounding - an old college campus. The police are baffled by the killer’s ID, the only clue being a red and black scarf found at one crime scene. As coeds are being picked off one by one, Kendall and her crew head off to the country to escape the panic. Naturally, the maniac follows them to this remote cliff-side villa, where he systematically murders and dismembers everyone - everyone that is except our heroine. Taken lame with a sprained ankle, she is left to fend for herself, miles away from the nearest possibility of help.

So overloaded with red herrings that even Scandinavians would find it excessive, Torso is not the most complicated of whodunits. About an hour into the narrative, the identity of our villain is nothing more than a process of elimination. In essence, take whoever’s left alive, subdivide out the possible motives, and make with the Holmesian deductions. The answer, sadly, will seem pretty obvious. That doesn’t mean Martino can’t have a little frisky fun getting to the conclusion. If you like Me Decade ladies unclothed and submission, this movie is your ticket to titillation. Female mammaries are featured so often that they almost become a plot point. Similarly, Martino does his slasher genre best to handle every death from the killer’s bloody perspective. As the knife blade threatens another topless honey, it’s all so gratuitous and sleazy.

But then the director stops selling skin and offers a final act worthy of his macabre maestro status. While Kendall is recuperating in the isolated estate, she inadvertently comes across the killer using a hacksaw on her dead college friends. We watch in horror as (implied) vivisection occurs, realizing how deadly the stakes truly are. For nearly 25 minutes, Martino maintains the air of dread, Kendall looking for a way out as our psycho comes closer and closer to discovering there is one more potential victim. It’s a brave and quite brilliant twist on the standard fright film mechanics. Usually, it’s all last girl chases and proto-feminist fisticuffs. Torso, however, simply puts our heroine in harms way and then slowly turns up the suspense.

Of course, to modern audiences raised on gore, splashy F/X, and a heightened sense of cinematic spectacle, movies like Torso and The 10th Victim will seem quaint and slightly archaic. While dealing with the typical genre notions of sex and violence, each gets filtered through a particularly idiosyncratic cinematic vision. Of the two, Martino’s is more potent, if only because of the conventions he is embracing/flaunting. For Victim, Perti’s intentions are often damaged in the execution. Everything looks good, but it often plays like a trial run for the actual sci-fi statement to come. In the grand scheme of foreign cinema, and Italian filmmaking specifically, neither movie is definitive. Instead, they represent the coming commercialization of the once mighty Mediterranean artform, the end of an era that was as influential as it was inspired. Sadly, neither adjective fully applies here.   

by Omar Kholeif

28 Jul 2009

Recently dubbed the new “princess of Pop”, Rolling Stone has said that Lady Gaga is on the verge of being the “defining Pop Star of the year”, and earlier offered her the cover of the coveted annual Hot List Edition. The honour is arguably a well-deserved one, considering that the singer’s ‘80s flavoured dance songs have been smash hits across both sides of the pond—helping secure the former cocaine-addict a devoted fan base.

Personally, it isn’t Gaga’s music that I find most intriguing. Rather, it is her dramatic rise, and her unabashed obsession with fame and her penchant for discussing it. Surely, the title of her first album, The Fame professes this explicitly, while Brian Hiatt’s report in RS reveals that the young starlet is a workaholic, who is devoted to the continued rise of her stardom. These musings were interspersed with quips by Gaga who regaled readers with stories about “kissing girls” and how she “doesn’t look like the other perfect pop singers”, i.e. she aims to surprise with her lack of convention.

Pop music aficionados will note that there is nothing particularly fresh about Gaga’s approach. We all know how Madonna exploited the minds of the MTV generation, and that her sole intent at the time was (arguably) to usurp convention, through reinvention.

by L.B. Jeffries

28 Jul 2009



We all know what you’re wondering about these two games. Which is better at making that number on the scale go down? Out of the three articles I’ve read comparing the differences between Wii Fit and EA Active, the weirdest idea they’ve seized on is the PR meme that EA Active is a ‘Western’ game. To paraphrase, thanks to its sweat inducing exercises it can satisfy our cultural expectations for exercise far better than the stretches and few exercises of Wii Fit. An easier distinction is a mechanical one between the two games: the Wii Fit knows its limits. I’ve played both games (my unflattering Wii Fit review) and despite the extra sweat EA Active gives me, it’s still inferior to the Wii Fit. Obviously a lot of this boils down to my personal opinion, to give a “Western” review neither has made me lose weight, but mechanically EA Active just reaches beyond what the motion controls can really do.

From EA Active

From EA Active

Let’s start with the basic comparison. EA Active generates the majority of its calorie burn by running in place mixed with physical motions that provide a mild workout. By and far the largest edge EA Active has over Wii Fit is the pre-arranged workout program so that you’re not always clicking around different exercises. It’s also cheaper and refrains from calling you fat any time you weigh yourself. Its biggest problem is that it relies almost exclusively on the motion controls for all its exercises and it’s very, very picky about how you use them. This is due to a technical limitation of the Wiimote: it cannot detect where the device is located in relation to its previous location, just its current position. Angling the device, shaking it, or aiming at the screen can all be picked up but just raising it up and down or left to right won’t be sensed. The consequence is that you have to very precisely angle the remote for each step in a workout. A shoulder raise means starting with the Wiimote pointed down. Raise arm and angle to show that you’ve moved, then point the Wiimote upwards once you’re fully extended.

From EA Active

From EA Active

This becomes a problem for two reasons. First, in order to create some kind of resistance to all this moving the game comes with a band that you have to keep looped into your hands for certain exercises. Holding a Wiimote while carefully angling it AND keeping the band in your hand is less than ideal. Often the game won’t sense a motion and will patiently wait for you to do something that you’ve already physically done before making you do the entire exercise all over again. You end up pointing the Wiimote around while struggling to keep your grip on the giant rubber band you’re standing on. If you’re like me, you’ll also get disappointed very quickly with how weak (and easily broken) the rubberband that the games come with is in terms of traction. Upgrading to a stronger and more resistant band is not something I’d recommend though. While fidgeting with my Wiimote position my grip slipped on the stronger band and it knocked the living s*** out of me.

In contrast, the Wii Fit is a lot of stretching and mostly inadequate strength exercises mixed with ineffective organization. Unlike EA Active which tries to not rely on the Balance Board, Wii Fit uses it extensively. The game is able to quasi-follow player motion with the balance sensor so that your position is, if not perfect, at least in the right ballpark. And that’s about it. The thing that Nintendo grasps about their console and peripherals is not making them uncomfortable to use. Yoga stretches work well and several of the strength exercises are good. Of particular merit are the push-ups and ab exercises, which EA Active completely lacks. Although it’ understandable that EA Active doesn’t have yoga poses, not having any stretches whatsoever is irresponsible. If using one of these things is the only exercise a person has gotten in years, they are going to need to learn proper stretching. The problem with Wii Fit is that you can’t effectively link any of this stuff together. My Wii Fit workout consists of clicking on each Yoga and strength exercise once until I hit the thirty minute score. Compared to EA Active, which repeats each workout and ups the reps, Wii Fit is wildly ineffective.

There is also the question of the BMI system. Wii Fit will weigh you and inflate your Mii to match your body. This is a bit depressing and it gets worse as the weeks go by and you realize that losing weight is not as easy as it seems. Every week that little white board will ask you why you haven’t lost weight and you’re forced to remember the food, the beer, the skipping exercises, and all that sitting around as well. EA Active completely removes this feature and instead just tells you how awesome you are all the time. The fact that my avatar in EA Active is a fit looking guy no matter what further removes any actual reflection of how healthy I am. Say what you want about insulting video games, but at least the Wii Fit is being honest with you and helping to raise awareness about your health in the long term.

From Wii Fit

From Wii Fit

Neither game particularly gets their fitness trainers right. Wii Fit makes you interact with a squeaking white board while EA Active mixes real-life videos with avatars. Although the Wii Fit girl is actually really pleasant to hear and work with, the game insists the male instructor randomly take over workouts. This could be a personal thing, but I find the male instructor in Wii Fit to be creepy in a “Let me watch you work out” kind of way. EA Active is odd in that you spend most of the exercise routine staring at your avatar instead of the instructor. Instead of the balance board’s dots and meters to show you where the game thinks you’re positioned, your avatar acts as the feedback. The problem is that this isn’t particularly precise. I can see exactly how off I am with the bars and graphs of the Wii Fit, but the avatar in EA Active just reflects that I’m not doing it right without showing me why.

In the end, the problem with either game’s workout is the same. No weight means no proper resistance which leaves you with stretching or moving in place. Realizing this, Nintendo made Wii Fit into a Yoga game with a few decent strength exercises that comfortably stays within the boundaries of the technology. EA Active instead tries to use a rubber band that can work around the Wiimote to solve the resistance problem with mixed results. You can’t really get a good resistance with the band going because of all the crap you’re holding, so most of the exercises are little better than lifting your arms up and down anyways. The ones that make you sweat mostly consist of running or jumping in place, which almost always ends with you wondering why you don’t just go outside. What EA Active fixes about Wii Fit, the ability to combine exercises so you actually get a decent workout, will supposedly be solved by Wii Fit Plus. If someone wanted to beat out either game, they’d need to a release a Wiimote with attachable weights to get a real advantage.

by Rob Horning

28 Jul 2009

I really wanted to get with the zeitgeist and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this summer. But at page 236, in the middle of a unparagraphed stream-of-consciousness passage about a melodramatically veiled woman smoking crack with an improvised works, I couldn’t take it anymore. I may be a victim of our short-attention-span society—and part of why I wanted to read the long, long, novel is that it seemed to run counter to our growing preference for “the short, the sweet, and the bitty,” as Tyler Cowen says—but I kept feeling I was expending a lot of effort on the book with virtually no reward.

It’s not that I don’t read long books—I’ll happily plod along through Trollope’s triple deckers, and in graduate school I worked mainly on the novels of Samuel Richardson, whose Clarissa clocks in at 1,500 pages in the Penguin edition. I just don’t have patience for long, incoherent books. Infinite Jest seemed like pointless jigsaw puzzle; unlike Pynchon’s books, in which there seems to be so much interconnection between the various threads and so many resonating levels of meaning criss-crossing through the text that it’s almost overwhelming but always compelling you to work at holding it together in your mind, Wallace’s book just seems to dump a bunch of confusing stuff in your lap and hope that you are too disoriented to recognize that it’s not interesting.

I kept wishing I was reading the Cliffs Notes version of Infinite Jest that put the action in the right order and explained what all the stupid abbreviations stood for. It didn’t help that the novel is preoccupied with several things I just have little interest in reading about: high-school tennis, boarding schools, the self-defeating behavior of drug addicts, the city of Boston—it sounds dumb, I’m sure, but I would have kept reading a little longer if it was set in Philadelphia.

by Bill Gibron

27 Jul 2009

Does anyone really care about the romantic comedy anymore? Does anyone see the once burgeoning chick flick genre as anything but a placeholder for the current actor or actress du jour? This year alone we’ve seen He’s Just Not That Into You, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Proposal - even the bro-mantic farce I Love You, Man. Currently at the box office, two competing titles offer a sharp contrast in content and approach. One is all studio system stumbles. The other is indie iconographic.

The Ugly Truth, starring wannabe starlet Katherine Heigl and 300‘s Gerard Butler, hopes to take the cinematic category into ruder, cruder Apatow territory. It thinks ladies letting lose with genitalia specific quips is new and novel. And on the opposite end of the spectrum both creatively and commercially is Marc Webb’s wonderful (500) Days of Summer. Offering cinematic cool kids Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a vignette oriented effort, it spins the entire structure of the he/she courtship into something more closely akin to life. As a result, while the mainstream Truth continues the genre’s tragic downfall, (500) Days finds hope among the hokum.

The biggest problem with The Ugly Truth, aside from the basic elements of entertainment value (a severe lack of same) and humor (ditto) is in how it portrays people. Heigl’s character is an uptight TV producer who’s so anal and obsessive in her life - interpersonal and professional - that she can’t get a man. It’s not a question of looks, or putting herself out there. Her personality reeks of the uber-feminist, the callous career gal who wants it all and yet has no friggin’ realistic idea how to get it. And all she wants, oddly enough, is a dick.

Into her stunted life walks media darling male chauvinist oinker Butler. Offering advice that would give cavemen the creeps, he’s all about the bimbo. Shake your moneymaker, he argues. Treat men like butt-scratching demigods. Play up their insecurities and downplay your smarts. Objectify yourself and the guys will go ga-ga…and you know what, it works! Heigl uses Butler as a kind of revisionist Cyrano, guiding her into a relationship with a dopey dreamboat doctor. A couple of musical montages later, and our heroine realizes that she doesn’t want the passable pretty boy. Instead, she craves Butler’s Neanderthal machismo - and what it’s packing down below. One big shout down later and its kiss, kiss…coitus

Typical of the way current Hollywood treats love, Truth turns personality into cartoons, women and men both forced into farce for what someone thinks is a meet-cute comedic design. When Heigl “accidentally” wears a pair of vibrating panties to an important business dinner, you just know those suckers will eventually go off. Similarly, when Butler gets “busy” with a couple of Jell-O spelunking bikini babes, you quickly realize his level of commitment. No matter the muddle backstory given to both, the decent guy dimensions of his relationship with his nephew or her stark realizations over her own insecurities, we wind up with pawns played clumsily toward a check lifemate closure.

(500) Days on the other hand, starts out with a premise that many used to the old formulas will find disconcerting. Deschanel plays a love object who doesn’t believe in the first part of the tag. She’s a recently relocated secretary who sees relationships as the foundation of a strong friendship. But romance and true feelings of affection are just hyped-up Hallmark greetings. She’s not above said sentiments - she just doesn’t think they exist. Gordon-Levitt, however, is hopeless. He pines and spoons, worshiping such antiquated conceits as “love at first sight” and “the soulmate”. Sure, life has led him a little astray, a failed career in architecture resulting in a job writing greeting cards, but for someone who believes in the whole “roses are red” ridiculousness, said occupation seems more than apropos.

Webb, who directed music videos before making his big screen debut, presents their on-again/off-again dating game in fragmented, randomized sequences. One moment, we are at Day 45 and seeing the start of something sexual. The next, it’s Day 210 and Deschanel is showing signs of tuning out. From the initial (Day 1) meeting to the (Day 400) possible parting, each 24 hour cycle is decisive, offering the piece of a puzzle which argues for the success, or collapse, of such human endeavors. Gordon-Levitt may be an impossible romantic, but he’s also a post-modern realist. If such a fairy tale ending doesn’t happen, it’s not really the end of the world. It will hurt, but that’s what life is all about. But it’s definitely not something a musical montage will remedy.

Aside from obvious elements like a genuine sense of humor, a glorious Smiths-ccentric soundtrack, and a pair of likeable 20-something stars, (500) Days also differs from The Ugly Truth in one significant way - it’s not afraid of failure. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt may seem perfect together, but life doesn’t always give Prince Charming his proposed royal Miss. Indeed, the strongest statement made by this movie is that, unlike the “destined to be” dumbness of Heigl’s stuck up bitch bowing to Gerard, not all “perfect matches” are same. Sometimes, the flowery language of ballads and sonnets is just that - bullshit. Only in Hollywood could two polar opposites pretend to fall freely into something akin to ‘happily ever after’. In the real - if still slightly mannered - world of (500) Days, boy does always end up with the girl, perhaps, because they do really need to.

Of course, when you’ve got the major backing of the Tinseltown studio system behind you, your wish fulfillment message is going to make the bigger mainstream splash. This past weekend, The Ugly Truth took in a little over $27 million. Released in over 2880 theaters nationwide, this is seen as a strong opening for Heigl and her burgeoning A-list movie career. (500) Days of Summer, however, has earned a paltry $3 million in its two weeks in theaters. Granted, it recently expanded to 85 venues, but one can hardly call it a solid success - at least, not right now.

If there was any real justice in the movie making business model, Truth would be rejected as the flimsy star vehicle whimsy it is, while (500) Days would top the charts and champion a whole new category of clever, confident “realistic” romantic comedies. Like Woody Allen did back in the ‘70s with the sensational one-two punch of Annie Hall and Manhattan, guy meets gal doesn’t have to be cliché meets commercial crassness. Human beings can and do fall in (and out) of love, and sometimes, watching them do said is entertaining and endearing. The Ugly Truth reflects its unattractive moniker flawlessly. (500) Days of Summer, on the other hand, offers promise to a genre that, for the most part, is desperate, dateless…and almost dead. 

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