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by Evan Sawdey

1 Apr 2009

Will someone please stop Patrick Daughters, please?

This man has done nothing but wonders since he appeared on the scene back in 2004.  A friend of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this former film student was brought in to helm the clip for the second single off of the group’s 2003 debut Fever to Tell.  The song was “Maps” and the resulting video was as quietly devestating as you would expect for such a fragile number: Karen O, standing on stage during a rehearsal, baring her soul.  A simple concept that was executed grandly. 

Yet Daughters is very much a “concept” director: he knows that visual medium should be used to excite and entertain, which is perhaps why his overstuffed clip for Feist’s “Mushaboom” appears to have ideas for at least a dozen different videos wrapped up into it.  Never once are his videos boring: his style is akin to that of a young Spike Jonze, wherein a clever concept can carry an entire video instead of just being nothing more than a simple sight gag.  When not putting Beck in front of giant studio sets or putting Feist (again) in a field of fireworks, he’s orchestrating ... war ballets?

His clip for the Department of Eagles’ “No One Does it Like You” is both simple an haunting, as dancers take the form of soldiers and ghosts, lightly swaying and sashaying as death surrounds them.  The cutesy-aspect of this clip is cut short during its final moments, when the dancer-soldiers are shot with real guns, with real (fake) blood pouring out of them, both sides uniting in heaven.  The sharp violence immediately counterbalances the simplistic costumes (the ghost is a white sheet, for pete’s sake!), and—yes—the very well-choreographed dancing.  Yet the best part?  The visual element actually enhances the song’s emotional content.

So, let’s raise our drinks again to Patrick Daughters: the man to soon usurp Michel Gondry’s throne.

Department of Eagles - No One Does It Like You

by Rob Horning

31 Mar 2009

Several months ago Tom Slee offered these “Theses on Netflix” (he modestly thinks that sort of title for a blog post is bombastic, but nothing could make me want to read something more—maybe if he called it a “manifesto”). By serving as automated filters, these systems make reviewers and critics somewhat superfluous. “While bad reviewers and publishers would not be missed,” Slee points out, “good reviewers and publishers are not only filters; they are also an active part of cultural creation.” That is true, but the critical debate often takes place far away from the marketplace and the popular audience for most cultural products. And online there are more critical voices to be heard then ever, albeit at varying levels of professionalism. If anything, we are encouraged to produce opinions, to help make automated recommenders work better, have more data to feed on.

The surfeit of opinions, though, and more important, the surfeit of culture, makes filters more necessary as the demands on our attention become overwhelming. If we are intent on consuming more of what is available, we have less time to participate in such staid, slow-moving endeavors as having a critical debate about one work. There’s too much pressure to move on to the next thing and broadcast an opinion about that. So our opinions will be pronouncements, and debate will perhaps become even more of an elitist activity, for those paid to conduct it in academia.

But the key point Slee makes in his theses, amid the recognition that these recommendation systems will become more and more central to cultural consumption, is that they are not neutral. They have the capacity to leverage small differences in initial popularity into huge disparities among works that may not be all that different when regarded objectively (assuming for the moment that an objective standard like that can be approximated). And more sinister, recommendation systems can become the disguise for payola-type schemes that make certain lucrative titles more visible. As Slee puts it:

Ownership matters. Given the variety of approaches, outcomes, and absence of clear “best” alternatives, and given the ability of recommender systems to shape the experiences of their users, there is ample room for ulterior motives to become embodied in the system. The incentives for the recommender and the recommendee may be different. The incentives for Netflix in a regime where they deliver physical DVDs (of which they have limited stock) may be to promote the back catalogue. When they deliver movies digitally (as they are about to) there may be no such constraint and they may be more tempted to promote existing blockbusters.

Slee followed up on this idea a few months later in this post, also with a great title: “Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche.” He draws on paper by Daniel M. Fleder and Kartik Hosanagar to argue that online recommendations do not lead us to diversify our cultural experiences. The ideology of the “long tail”—as Slee puts it, that “our cultural experiences, liberated from the parochial tastes and limited awareness of those who happen to live close to us, are broadened by exposure to the wisdom of crowds, and the result is variety, diversity, and democratization”—turns out to be something of a hoax. Even though their is a wider field of culture available online, recommendation services work to block most of it out, not open our eyes to it. The parochial tastes once nurtured in isolation were what gave us our distinct niches, our peculiar tastes—that’s why local music scenes were distinctive 50 years ago, but are entirely homogenous now that music is conceived and sold for national audiences. Our taste is more readily massified by exposure to the algorithms that average out the tastes of as many participants as possible. Along the same lines, Slee’s simulations suggest that we experience more diversity offline, whereas online we are subjected to “monopoly populism.”

A “niche”, remember, is a protected and hidden recess or cranny, not just another row in a big database. Ecological niches need protection from the surrounding harsh environment if they are to thrive. Simply putting lots of music into a single online iTunes store is no recipe for a broad, niche-friendly culture.

by L.B. Jeffries

31 Mar 2009

One of the most underappreciated and yet intrinsic parts of a video game is the tutorial. It’s our introduction to the game design, our means of learning to recognize the game’s obstacles, and frames how we’ll relate to the rest of the experience. An article at Openskies goes into the various tutorial techniques of games, which can range from just reading the manual to creating a full blown cinematic experience. When discussing the ultimate range of the tutorial it comments, “In order for learning to be effective, the lessons must move from the student’s short-term memory to long-term memory. The keys to this process are repetition, and practice that takes place at least 30 seconds after a technique has been demonstrated.” The article is concerned with applying game techniques to training simulations, but one of the issues their criterion raises is what exactly the game is teaching to the player. You aren’t just learning how to operate a system in a game, you’re assuming a role and engaging in conduct that represents it. The tutorial of a video game isn’t just explaining how to play, it’s showing us how we’re supposed to behave. How have games approached this?

The initial reaction of most games in the 80’s and 90’s was to simply give a very thorough manual and throw the player into the mix. Adopting a ‘Learn as you Go’ mentality, they often relied on cutscenes and exposition to explain what the player was supposed to be doing and then let them work out the mechanics as they went. The brick wall learning curve of the old Fallout Games is a prime example of this approach to teaching the player. The latest installment solved this issue by walking the player through each step of the game and having them make choices about themselves. You’re born and you pick what you look like, you wander about your play pen and pick your traits. For an RPG this constant process of making choices is important because this is the central theme of Bethesda’s games: choices. You start off with very minor, insignificant choices that have little consequence. As the tutorial progresses though, you start to pick between being rude or polite, which again have little consequence. But this expands as you grow older and choose between picking a fight and even saving a life all before leaving the tutorial. What’s intrinsic is that the game is focusing on you picking the role you play instead of handing one to you. Many freeform or emergent games suffer because the players are just unaccustomed to making choices. Consider Far Cry 2, whose tutorial involves little choice. The game simply cuts you loose in an enormous open space and reminds you that you can now approach everything however you want despite the very limited approach it just showed you. Bethesda’s approach is superior because they are teaching the player how to deal with freedom whereas Far Cry 2 still trains you by holding your hand the whole time. Getting the player to start thinking for themselves instead of waiting for orders is key in a good tutorial.

Other tutorials maintain dropping the player straight into the game and instead having the tutorial occur much later. In both Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness they rely on the confusion of being dumped into a combat situation with no inkling of what to do at first. A player can eventually put together the controls through trial and error, but the lack of a tutorial can often be an effective tool for creating a rare sense of fear in a game that helps establish the tone. Kane & Lynch and Beyond Good & Evil also opt for this tactic, but instead of fear it’s excitement they’re adding. Jade learns to attack and perform power moves in one huge boss battle right from the start while Kane is broken out of death row and fleeing through the streets. Both games swap out the ‘Explain then wait for player to show’ mentality, opting instead to impose a pressing sense of need for the ability. When Jade’s orphans are captured by the aliens, the narrative is creating a need for freeing them. The game then shows us how to fight in addition to setting the tone for Jade’s role in the game as savior. Kane & Lynch handles its own tutorial with a unique quirk by having the player be the one whose instructing their partner on what to do. The screen flashes how to perform the move and then they do it so Lynch can see. You then have to wait for Lynch to perform the same move. That’s key to getting into character as Kane, whose both the leader of the criminals he leads but also imperfect in his own way.

It’s easy for these narrative tutorials to get carried away as well. Both GTA IV and Persona 4 feature tutorials that well outstay their welcome. Since both games are enormous and feature huge numbers of activities and options, a tutorial that tries to go over every single detail is going to become lengthy. But no matter how much story or motivation you try to provide, the player is eventually just going to want to be cut loose and start playing. The best solution seems to be the one employed by Fallout 3, which would be equally bogged down if it tried to explain everything. You create a sense of curiosity and teach the player to explore their environment. Other tutorials will often abandon narrative and just use achievements to avoid boredom, such as Call of Duty 4’s rapid shooting range and completion times. If the game is simple enough, you can simply do like Mario 64 and have the tutorial be a series of optional signs if the player gets stuck. There isn’t any one particular formula to a good tutorial since game design and role can be communicated in arguably countless ways. Even the cutscene is a viable form of tutorial, as an article at Offworld points out about Valve’s approach in their latest games. The opening movie for Left 4 Dead may be just a grisly shoot-out with zombies, but it also outlines every monster and tactic in the game. The Witch, the blinking grenades, and the Smoker all appear and are defeated by the characters. The ‘Meet the…’ series of videos for Team Fortress 2 uses a similar approach. At the core of all of these tutorials is the foundation for any teaching session: enabling the person to grapple with the subject matter unassisted. The most successful tutorials are the ones that foster a sense of independence in the player that matches what the game design is offering.

by Bill Gibron

31 Mar 2009

In retrospect, it should be no surprise when major talents collaborate, clash and crash. With each one being a giant in their own particularly way, an attempted meeting of the minds becomes something akin to planets colliding. Nothing good can come out of it, with an artistic triumph a fading reality and the apocalypse a distinct possibility. So when it was announced that George Romero, fresh off his mainstream thriller Monkeyshines, would team up with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, fright fans were overcome with anticipatory joy. The notion of what were arguably the most talented of terror titans coming together to take on the schizoid fiction of one Edgar Allan Poe seemed almost too good to be true. And when they got the opportunity to finally see the resulting project, entitled Two Evil Eyes, there worst fears were mostly realized. Not only did the directors underperform individually, but there was a sense that neither brought their best to this anemic anthology.

Divided into two one hour films, Two Evil Eyes centers on the stories “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and the legendary Poe parable, “The Black Cat”. In the first tale, a gold-digging wife and her doctor lover concoct a plan to keep her terminally ill husband alive long enough to liquidate his assets. Using hypnosis, they get the man to do what they want. One day, he dies while in a trance, and the couple panics. They put the body in the basement freezer and wait. Suddenly, they hear sounds. Apparently, dying while under the spell traps the man between life and death - and there are “others” who want to use him to cross over. “Cat” offers a crime scene photographer who’s desperate to find a new direction in his life. His live-in girlfriend, a violin virtuoso, doesn’t make things any easier for the high tempered cad. In a fit of jealous rage, he kills her and walls up the corpse in their apartment home. Too bad he trapped her favorite cat in there with her as well.

As an experiment in narrative revision and reinterpretation, Two Evil Eyes (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) could be called a minor success. Romero takes the tale of a dying man and his eventual transformation into a “nearly liquid mass…of detestable putrescence” and turns it into a revenge narrative complete with double crosses, noir-like nuances, and a last act bit of splatter. Argento, on the other hand, drops so many Poe references into his work (his main character is named Roderick Usher, after all) that some of the story gets lost. Still, what we wind up with is a gory Gothic barnburner including witch trial impalings, freak show feral kittens, and a finale so anticlimactic it makes us wonder why the main characters even bothered. Again, there’s a feeling that both Romero and Argento overcomplicated their often potent macabre muse. Instead of following Poe to the letter, or merely updating him to the present day, there’s a real effort to rewrite the master, which may just be Two Evil Eye‘s biggest mistake.

Of the two, it has to be said the Romero’s has not aged well. At the time, his tepid retread of a dozen crime drama clichés just couldn’t come together, the ending sparking the most controversy with its decision to skip all the suspense and supposed plot contraventions to dive directly into grue. Today, it’s merely dull. Andrienne Barbeau, so good as the bitchy shrew wife from Hell in Creepshow seems low key and laid back, so much so that when she turns on the angst, she appears off kilter. Ramy Zada is not much better as the doctor. His line readings appear lifted from a soap opera and his love scene with Barbeau exudes little or no chemistry. Tom Savini, on hand to provide the mandatory autopsy level F/X, also underperforms. The frozen Valdemar couldn’t look more fake, and the finale feels excessive for excess’s sake.

Not that Argento shows any subtly. His film opens with an homage to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a dismembered body doing its best Black Dahlia impersonation as Harvey Keitel clicks off a frame or two. A little later on, a female head is shown sans teeth, jaw spreader exposing a mouth filled with hollow, bloody holes. Toss in the main story reveal, a surreal nightmare including a reference to fellow Mediterranean madman Ruggero Deodato, and various visions of animal abuse, and you’ve got one uncomfortable experience. Argento clearly has a hard time with his American actors. Keitel is given over to massive mood swings, playing it for laughs one moment, as loud as humanly possible the next. He’s matched in physical unattractiveness by Madeleine Porter, who gives new meaning to the term “washed out red head.”

In fact, in both cases our intrepid filmmakers fail to see the fright forest for the terror trees. They overindulge in details when the bigger picture is far more powerful. There are endless conversations in the Romero piece that do nothing except take up time, while Argento seems so Hellbent on squeezing a 90 minute movie into his allotted hour that many sequences are rushed. Subplots purposefully added don’t pay off, the inclusion of famous character actors like E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Kim Hunter doing little to lift the material. It’s not that Two Evil Eyes is bad. It’s a thoroughly watchable and occasionally entertaining experiment. But when viewing the creative convergence between the men behind Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, you really do expect more than acceptability. 

Of course, viewing in the film in the updated Blu-ray format reveals elements lost on previous home video releases (including Blue Underground’s own 2003 DVD presentation). The 1080p image is striking - facets both unnerving (Savini’s accomplished corpses) and unrivaled (Argento’s color pallet) brought to vivid life. As for the audio, this English only production also gets a revamp. The 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX all sound marvelous. Bonus features are taken from the Big Blue U’s original digital package. There are interviews with Romero, Argento, and Savini, as well as a brief snippet of Barbeau from the Document of the Dead documentary. Toss in a tour of Savini’s studio and the standard trailer and you’ve got a decent, if slightly derivative set of extras.

Oddly enough, Two Evil Eyes appears to be the tipping point in both Romero and Argento’s post-superstar careers. With The Dark Half, Bruiser, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the king of the zombies has struggled to remain relevant. His foreign counterpart has been a tad more successful, with both The Stendhal Syndrome and the final installment of his trilogy, The Mother of Tears, reminding fans of his previous penchant for greatness. Like Grindhouse, or New York Stories, the merging of masters is almost always a recipe for oversized expectations and unceremoniously dashed realizations. Two Evil Eyes should have been much more than it is. After all, we expect more than serviceability from such astonishing terror icons. 

by Sarah Zupko

31 Mar 2009

Legendary singer-songwriter Cohen struck out on his first tour in 15 years last year. The result is the compelling new live recording, Live in London, documenting those critically acclaimed shows. The album releases today and we have also just published a rave review, giving the record an 8. Adrien Begrand says: “From the opening salvos of the gorgeous, cabaret-tinged ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, it’s clear that he has not lost a step whatsoever, his resonant, cigarette-deepened baritone voice enveloping us, brilliantly interweaving with the dulcet tones of his trademark trio of background singers.”

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