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by Bill Gibron

19 Feb 2009

It’s bandwagon jumping time, and since Hollywood is about ready to hand out its own brand of bewildering backslapping, the nearly three-year-old SE&L figures it too can champion its own choices for award winners. Oscar might have the hoopla, the bags of swag, and all that staggering star power, but what the newly christened SEALS have is something the Academy can never boast – artistic integrity. Granted, the gray hairs in the group sometimes get it right – can’t argue with all their choices, Crash aside – and it’s possible that these new prizes will clash with conventional thinking. But when it comes right down to it, if Blockbuster Video, MTV, and The National Rolling (Down a Hill) Association can declare their preferences for the year’s trophy-deserving best, why can’t we?

That being said, we have to set up some guidelines. First and foremost, as joking Johnny-Come-Latelys, we will avoid the already nominated Academy entries. If it has already been pointed out by Oscar, we will let the Gold One have his glory and simply move on. After all, nothing smacks more of Tinsel Town tonsils to tushy than agreeing on who they feel deserves Best of Year recognition. Secondly, we will try to mine the ENTIRE previous 12 months in film. We won’t skip over efforts from January or March just because most of the cachet pictures wind up playing between November and December. And finally, this isn’t a competition. Other choices may be mentioned, but the SEALS don’t play the nomination game. Either you’re a winner, or you’re not.

So, without further ado, lame jokes from a PC host, or an interpretive dance number based around the choices for Best Song, here are the 2009 SEALS:


Cloverfield Best Film

The idea sounds hokey, when you think about it. A giant alien monster attacks New York City, and a group of spoiled 20-something yuppsters capture the whole thing on a handheld video camera. It’s like The Blair Witch Project mixed with Godzilla. But thanks to the production input of overseer J.J. Abrams, the brilliant direction of Matt Reeves, and the amazing CG work that turns the Big Apple into an even bigger catastrophe, we buy every intense minute. Certainly you can nitpick the notion of an escaping group of friends playing everything to the camera, but the rollercoaster results definitely speak for themselves.





Michel Gondry - (Be Kind, Rewind) Best Director

Of all the filmmakers in 2009, Gondry had the hardest job (well, perhaps second to Matt Reeves making a monster attack on Manhattan seem viable and believable). He had to take well known works of modern pop culture memory - RoboCop, Ghostbusters, Driving Miss Daisy - and covert them into the surreal “Sweded” versions within his masterful love letter to the VCR. Then he had to balance those obvious spoofs with the story featuring a sense of community and shared cinematic sentiment. He even managed to make both Jack Black and Mos Def loveable and lamentable at the same time. He definitely earned his accolades on this one.





 

Jason Segal - (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) Best Actor

It’s always hard to strike out on your own, especially when you’ve been successful as one of the ‘FoA’ (Friends of Apatow). But with Sarah Marshall, Segal suggests that he’s always been an original comic voice just waiting for a chance to be showcased. He’s remarkable in this role, literally baring it all to play a decent guy dumped by a demanded, TV star diva. We definitely feel Peter’s pain as he goes through the breakup, making his eventual hook-up with hotel clerk Rachel that much more satisfying. And then there’s the amazing finale featuring a puppet opera take on Dracula? With Segal singing? Priceless.







Elizabeth Banks - (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) Best Actress

Banks was the “It” girl of the last 16 months. She was in Fred Claus, Definitely, Maybe, Meet Dave, W. , Role Models, and The Uninvited. But none of these roles captured her true performance personality and outer/inner beauty better than her turn as Miriam “Stinky” Linky. Her no BS approach to life matched effortlessly with an ever-present vulnerability, and the look on her face during her love scene with co-star Seth Rogen is enough to break one’s tragic, tender ticker. Miri makes for the ultimate gal pal - sexy, smart, sensible, spontaneous, spirited, and oh so very special…kind of like Banks herself.






Craig Robinson - (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) Best Supporting Actor

In a movie filled with funny people, in a narrative that needs both an audience window and a sense of streetwise sense, Robinson fulfills all roles - and then many, many more. He gets many of writer/director Kevin Smith’s best lines (“Her name’s Bubbles.”) while maintaining the kind of cautious perspective that give the narrative its zing. His domestic scenes with costar Tisha Campbell-Martin are sensational, encompassing everything we need to know about Delaney in five minutes of ferocious infighting. With equally great work in The Pineapple Express, this was definitely Robinson’s year.






Rosario Dawson - (Seven Pounds) Best Supporting Actress

Granted, some may see her as the co-star in this Will Smith weeper, but by applying the proper definition to the term ‘supporting’, we can see that Dawson both determined and defied description here. She’s the heart and soul of a film that’s supposed to feature its far more famous leading man, and she carries us through the convolutions that turn the story from sentimental to almost indecipherable. As an example of sexy seriousness or serious sexiness, she’s both eye candy and a strong emotional core - and that’s the perfect complement to an often confusing drama.






Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - (The Pineapple Express) Best Script

The stoner comedy needed a cleverer comeback. Harold and Kumar just weren’t going to make it. Leave it to the Apatow crew to reinvent the genre while brining something new - read: action-packed firepower and crime thrills - to the mix. Director David Gordon Green, best known for his slow ensemble dramas like Snow Angels and All the Real Girls steps up and redefines his career with his work here. But its Rogen and Goldberg, last seen giving Superbad it’s profane polish that deserve the most credit. They managed to find a way to make both the weed and ass kicking work and work well.






Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired Best Documentary

While his latest bid to throw out the warrant against him has so far failed, the famed Polish director still has this movie to vindicate his cause. No, Polanski doesn’t deny having sex with an underage girl (he does claim it was consensual). His problem lies with the judicial system of ‘70s California, a cabal conspiring to teach the famous - and infamous - a legal lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. With the help of a media that actually insinuated Polanski bared some blame for the death of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson clan, we witness justice perverted for the sake of personal fame.







Igor Best Animated Film

In the feast or famine arena of animation, you’re either on your way to Oscar Gold (Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E, Waltz with Bashir) or scraping the part of the bottom of the barrel where fellow films like Space Chimps and Fly Me to the Moon lie. That makes picking a decent title here rather tough. Igor, however, definitely eases said pain. It’s a peculiar little effort, part Mad Monster Party, part standard CG effort. Thanks to the character design and voice acting, we forgive most of the flaws. And when compared to crap like Delgo and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, it’s positively inspired.






 

Let the Right One In Best Foreign Film

Something is definitely wrong with the Swedes. Instead of picking what it perhaps the best vampire film of the last three decades as their official Oscar selection, they go with some nepotistic choice from a filmmaker last acknowledged by the Academy for 1971’s The Emigrants. Huh? Anyway, this brilliant little effort, taking the entire bloodsucking mythos and boiling it down to a story about the struggles of adolescence is ten times more moving than most horror films and about a billion times more inventive than that sloppy tween-romance shite known as Twilight. If you want good foreign fright, this is the movie to see.






The Spirit Best Guilty Pleasure

Samuel L. Jackson in full Nazi regalia! Scarlett Johannsson as a half serious, half sketch comedy creation, providing the perfect real world balance to the visual’s overreaching hypereality. Frank Miller pulling out all the stops as he tries to mimic the work of others who’ve better interpreted his neo-noir graphic novels. This and many more reasons make the update of Will Eisner’s comic strip crime fighter a true culpable delight. Better than “so bad, it’s good”, this is the kind of filmed failure that’s so unbridled in its desire to drop dead and implode that, instead, it becomes a kind of crazed masterwork.





by Christian John Wikane

19 Feb 2009

2009 is shaping up to be busier than 2008 for Cyndi Lauper. Following her Grammy nomination for the acclaimed Bring Ya to the Brink (2008) album, the tireless LGBT activist has a book, movie, and concert tour in the works, in addition to establishing a foundation named after her chart-topping hit from 1986, “True Colors”. Amidst all her projects, she found a moment to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
It’s not a new movie – I think it came out in 1999 – but I just loved it. It was called Joe The King.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Huck Finn.

3. The greatest album, ever?
I can’t pick just one.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.

5. Your ideal brain food?
Edamame.

by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009

If there’s one thing Rockstar Games knows how to do, it’s get its product noticed; anyone who’s been following the rollout of their just-released expansion to massive 2008 hit Grand Theft Auto IV knows that such a maxim even applies to downloadable add-ons. 

What Rockstar has here is a news brief from “Weazel News”, the fictional news station dreamed up for the Grand Theft Auto universe.  It functions well as a trailer because it sets up the story of the add-on in a fairly unconventional way. Where it slips is in the bookended news flashes, whose juvenile brand of sub-Onion humor simply exists to make teenage boys guffaw and their moms gasp in horror. Granted, this sort of “shock” humor is par for the course when it comes to Rockstar, but at least they’re presenting their game in a way that sets it, and them, apart.

by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.

The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…

...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.

While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.

This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.

What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.

Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).

Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.

Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.

What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.

Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.

by David Pullar

19 Feb 2009

For what sounds to most like an extraordinarily arcane issue, parallel importation of books is generating a lot of concern among Australian authors.  In fact, many of them are being driven to rhetorical heights unscaled in their regular work.

In submissions to the Productivity Commission review, Kate Grenville warns about becoming an “impoverished and stunted society” and Gary Disher forecasts a loss of local flavour to “cheap mass culture from overseas”.  Matthew Reilly’s heavily underlined and italicised submission warns that parallel importation is “tantamount to legalising copyright piracy”.

What is it that has made them so worried?  What is parallel importation?

Like many English-speaking countries, Australia has copyright rules that protect the local publishing industry from cheap overseas editions.  Essentially, publishers have 30 days following international publication of a book to release a local edition, after which that edition is the only version to be sold in Australia.

There are moves afoot to remove this rule, allowing importation of books from anywhere in the world—the philosophy being that people do it via Amazon anyway and in theory it would make books cheaper.

On the other side of the debate, local authors are concerned that this will make Australian books uncompetitive price-wise with overseas works, that it will relegate local publishers to mere importers and that their books will be swamped in the market by remaindered foreign editions for which they receive no royalties.

In reality, both the promise of lower prices and the threat of local industry collapse are likely to be overstated.  Australia allowed parallel importation of CDs ten years ago and while this has led to some discounting, most new CDs are still in the range of $25-$30 (US$17-$20).  Regarding the feared consequences, Australian music is just as successful as in the 1990s, if not more so.  The rise of labels like Modular, with their global-impact roster of artists such as Cut Copy, shows how little difference the end of protectionism has had.

Making a living as an Australian writer is hard and maybe it’s about to get harder.  Perhaps the protection of the local sector has fostered any number of brilliant authors who might otherwise have given up their career for something more lucrative.  But as with too many public debates, the argument is verging on shrill.

The track record of protected cultural industries is not good.  Australia’s film industry had a taxpayer-funded golden age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but over time fell into a rut of making mediocre films perpetuating the same national stereotypes.  Much our subsidised arts scene is irrelevant to average, or even culturally-savvy, Australians.  Australian music is in a healthy state, but this is hardly the result of years of mandatory Australian content on the radio stations that simply pick local imitators of mainstream US acts.

The fact is that there will always be a market for good books and good writers.  For generations, Australian writers have struggled with the small size of the local market, the need to connect with overseas audiences and the frequent necessity of moving overseas to chase success.  Yet authors keep coming along, telling stories people want to read and making a living (or at least a part-time wage).  To attribute all this to a single element of copyright law is simplistic.

There may be no need to fix something that isn’t broken, but I suspect that any change won’t stop Australia from giving the world exceptional writers.

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