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by L.B. Jeffries

22 Oct 2008

It’s something of a personal fantasy (and subject of a blog post meant to be posted in 2 weeks) to begin pushing video games into relevancy by having them discuss topics besides escapist fantasy. Different games have struggled with this in different ways. My now excessive knowledge about World War 2 aside, most games opt to attain relevancy by discussing emotion or philosophical debate. Braid’s sense of the futility of pursuing goals, Planescape: Torment’s questions about human nature and how our conduct reflects it. Or, as the Global Kids Media Initiative has done, you can just set the game someplace important. Like New Orleans, the day after Katrina hit.

It’s always interesting to play an educational or informative game because you immediately recognize that their goal is not necessarily having fun. Instead, it’s fun with a side of vegetables. Video games, by their nature, are more engaging than watching a film or reading a book. I actively absorb information given because there is a chance it’s relevant to play. I pay attention to what’s going on because something dangerous might hurt me. Whereas a game solely about fun or accomplishment will fine-tune that into generating a sense of reward by delivering chunks of plot or quaint jingles, an educational game is instead using all of these elements while slipping in bits of information about a topic. You learn inadvertently as you progress, although there have not been too many games that delivered a true melding of these goals.

In that regard Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City succeeds with a good mixture of dialogue in a standard platforming game. Certain people that you speak to will give a mission of delivering bottled water or first aid. Others will relate a true amazing story about the aftermath of the storm, such as Jabar Gibson’s hijacking of a school bus and shuttling survivors out of the city before F.E.M.A. arrived. Your character is a survivor herself, re-experiencing the storm through a dream as she rushes around saving the people she wishes she’d helped during the actual events. Each level is set to a timer that is gauged by the setting sun, which creates a real sense of conflict as you realize that you can only help so many people per level. Some survivors must be abandoned in order to help yourself. And as you progress to each level, the broken levies take their toll and the waters slowly rise. The final person you rescue, your mother, is revealed to have passed in the storm at the very beginning of the game. It’s a clever analogy for drawing in people who were not personally involved in Katrina themselves: our dreams of helping the survivors during the disaster carries on into today. The website provides more information and suggestions on what other can do to help after you finish the game. It takes about fifteen minutes to play through and will leave you knowing more about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina than before you started playing.

by Vijith Assar

22 Oct 2008

I’m a latecomer to what is arguably New York’s most hyped band at the moment, and despite a perfectly competent set of delightfully incompetent messy punk-lite, there’s just no way they could have possibly lived up to the hype. Guitarist and lead singer Cassie Ramone riffed around as much as she could get away with in less than two minutes while sandwiched between fuzzy washes of guitar and equally fuzzy harmonized vocals. Whether the latter was deliberate or an unfortunate casualty of the house sound system, I can’t say; that’s one of the perils of the lo-fi world. Drummer Ali Koehler was the most intriguing of the bunch, head down and appendages smashing away with just a hair more precision than the tunes seemed to demand, sometimes able to drive things forward against all odds but sometimes overcome by the tangled power chords. I’d probably have found the apparent on-stage jitters perfectly charming were it not for my nagging suspicion that they’ve had a little too much buzz for a little too long for them to be genuine. I guess it’s not fair to hold the band members responsible for the weight of expectation here, but I was underwhelmed. Maybe it’s my fault for waiting so long to get around to them. I had the same problem when I finally went to see Shrek.

by Jason Gross

22 Oct 2008

If you like classical or rap music or both, you should also be disgusted to hear stories like this where a judge ‘punishes’ an offender for playing loud music (usually rap) by having to listen to classic music.  Sad to say, this ain’t an isolated incident.  Classical music is also being used in certain London subway stations to root out antisocial behavior.  What’s the message here?

The same idea’s at work- supposedly, classical music will wipe out criminal urges.  Any studies to prove that?  Who cares?

What it’s also saying is that classical music is something forced on you if you’re bad.  If you listen to rap, your punishment is that you have to listen to classical?  Classical music has enough problems with getting through to more people and not having it made synonymous with discipline.  Or how about using classical music to drive away people in subway stations?  Again, what kind of message is that sending?

Of course, classical music can be blasted too.  Beethoven’s Fifth makes a nice ear-bending experience, not to mention Wagner (I recommend “Lohengrin”). Is there gonna be any punishment for that?

Another reason that this kind of short-sighted policy doesn’t make sense is that it assumes that only miscreants hate classical music.  In the case of the stupid judge, why did he have to pick classical music to teach the offender a lesson?  If you want to be functioning member of society, does that mean you have to like classical music?  Does it also mean that rap is necessarily bad and needs to cleansed out of you with classical music?  What would the hip-hop orchestra called dAKAH have to say about that?  And for the UK subway stations that play classical, what if I’m not a miscreant but I also don’t want to hear classical music while I’m waiting for my train?  Tough luck I guess…

What it comes down to in both cases is that classical is considered the ‘civilizing’ music but it also comes off as being imposed on you whether you like or not.  Not the best way to get people to appreciate the music.  It also stinks of condescension, saying that ‘we can rehabilitate you with classical music’ or ‘we can drive away all the baddies with classical music’ or ‘no one civilized would be turned off by classical music.’  For the court case, it also makes the assumption that rap music has to be countered by something ‘more civilized.’

by Bill Gibron

22 Oct 2008

Of all the media oddities to come out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the shift of horror toward the underage set has to be one of the most unusual. During the height of Ike era paranoia, EC Comics and its founder William Gaines were vivisected by a government looking to blame juvenile delinquency on anything other than absentee parenting. So ‘funny books’ got the call. And yet, as peace and love started permeating the counterculture, terror took up residence in the child’s sphere of influence. By the start of the ‘70s, Scooby-Doo, the Groovie Ghoulies, and dozens of local late night shock showcases were keeping the wee ones enthralled by day and awake at night. Perhaps the weirdest offering in the bunch was a tribute to Universal’s monsters made with marionettes. That’s right - a musical comedy cavalcade about the creepy known as Mad Monster Party?

Under the tutelage of renowned kid vid giants Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (responsible for, among other things, the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) a process known as “animagic” - read: stealthy stop-motion animation - was utilized to bring to life a wide variety of crazy creatures. In the tradition of Art Clokey and George Pal, the Rankin/Bass formula found unique ways to accent what was standard storytelling. While they would eventually branch out to pen and ink offerings during the course of their amazing career in entertainment, their puppet-based fare is most fondly remembered. Yet in a strange way, Mad Monster Party? remains one of their more elusive offerings. Long available on the home video format, the dated diorama deserves a contemporary revisit, if only for it’s unique design and what it says about the state of dread in 1969.

When Dr. Frankenstein decides to retire as head of the worldwide monster federation, he believes his nephew, mild mannered milquetoast Felix Flanken, would make a good replacement. He sends out an invitation to all the known nasties of the macabre - Dracula, the Monster and his Mate, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and his darker doppelganger, Mr. Hyde), the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon - and when they arrive at the doctor’s castle, they learn the disquieting news. A human? In charge of monsters? With the help of Francesca, Frankenstein’s sexy secretary, they plan to get rid of the outsider once and for all. Then they can fight among themselves for the secret to the doc’s anti-matter formula, a brew capable of destroying the world. Of course, love steps in and screws things up.

From a narrative standpoint, Mad Monster Party? is incredibly schizophrenic. On the one hand, it offers up tons of slapstick comedy and bad macabre puns. Dr. Frankenstein (voiced with standard aplomb by Boris Karloff) utilized bats as his carrier “pigeons”, and there are lots of Flintstones-level sight gags involving typical terror stereotypes. But then director Bass places the nightclub cackle of comedian Phyllis Diller directly into the mix, providing her with lame one-liners that trade on her then well known marital distress with a hubby known as ‘Fang’ (she plays the Bride of the Monster, more or less). It’s an odd fit. Then you have the faithful rendering of the fiends, thanks in part to the artistic input of Mad Magazine‘s (and EC legend) Jack Davis. Noted for his malevolent work in such mythic titles as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, his cartoon take on the title terrors is unsettling.

And then there is the overall storyline, which sees Frankenstein looking to give his world-destroying secrets to his nerdy nebbish of a relative, Felix. Voiced to sound like a combination of Jimmy Stewart and Thurston Howell, III, this main plotpoint takes a while to get going, and once Bass puts the dork in harm’s way, the material grows labored. In fact, a lot of Mad Monster Party? feels like someone’s misguided idea on what is entertaining. The songs are sappy and almost always slow down the film’s forward momentum (the exception - Phyllis Diller’s showstopper about horror-based matrimony) and the pace is slightly problematic. Of course, in our short attention span society of 2008, a 90 minute plus puppet show would seem excessive and self-indulgent by any standard.

Thanks to the clever character design and attention to terror traditions however, Mad Monster Party? becomes an intriguing, idiosyncratic curio, a gem that no longer shines so brightly. It poses more questions about the individuals behind the scenes and the proposed demographic than it finds ways to frighten the audience, and when taken together with the surreal songs and physical shtick, it’s enough to make one’s brain bubble over and burst. Unlike other Rankin/Bass pieces which set a tone early and rarely deviate from same, this all over the map movie gives the impression of trying too hard. Clearly, it wants to be faithful to the source, to stand up for the fiends that pop culture has embraced and make them meaningful. And yet there is an irreverence and illogic that keeps things distant (like when the much maligned villain “It” shows up, only to look like a hairless King Kong).

Still, as a symbol of when the shivers were sold almost exclusively to the prepubescent crowd, Mad Monster Party? is gangly, goofy fun. The “animagic” process may pale in comparison to something like A Nightmare Before Christmas, and yet Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass came up with some inventive, imaginative visuals - especially when you consider the technological and budgetary limits in place. Perhaps the best way to describe this pleasant peculiarity is that it’s endemic of the entire post-Doody direction children’s programming took during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. On the one hand, you had Sesame Street trying to make education entertaining while Saturday morning was just discovering its ability as a powerful marketing tool. Feeding fear to kids was nothing new, but Mad Monster Party? painted it in oddly adult ways. It remains a silly standout today.

by John Bohannon

22 Oct 2008

This is what CMJ is all about: A band I’d been hearing about for a few years that hadn’t really captured my attention… until now. Jagjaguwar’s Parts and Labor are bound to make an extremely lasting impression going into 2009. Their sound was dense and intelligent, not banking on a bunch of imitations to create a solid sonic aesthetic, but based on noise built around brilliantly written songs. That’s the problem with a lot of the so-called “noise” bands today. They don’t stand for anything. Their sound is shallow, but Parts and Labors’ sound had depth—and there’s a clear demarcation between the two.

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Double Take: 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (1969)

// Short Ends and Leader

"The two Steves at Double Take are often mistaken for Paul Newman and Robert Redford; so it's appropriate that they shoot it out over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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