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by Rob Horning

30 Jun 2008

How interesting, really, are other people’s mixtapes? Am I just too self-centered? They seem specifically personal, often the product of a particular transaction between people at a particular moment in their relationship. So what is the appeal of Cassette from my ex, a site that recreates other people’s romantically swapped mixtapes for our vicarious consumption? (PSFK linked to the site recently.) At least with muxtape, the mixes are ostensibly prepared for general consumption. But what is the point of these music mixes that are more about a particular moment in someone else’s life and how music signified it to them? What good is that to us, someone else’s nostalgia? My own nostalgia is bad enough. I spent an hour one recent evening listening to an item from my high-school tape collection, King’s Steps in Time album. Life is too short to be revisiting that excrescence. (What is especially hilarious about that Rolling Stone review of King that I linked to is the fact that it is as about as uniformly negative as a review could be, but the album still warranted three and half stars. What do you have to do to get fewer than three? Record yourself murdering babies?)

Mixtapes, as I have understood and experienced them, are mainly attempts to impose the peculiarity of one’s own tastes on others and force them to recognize how special that taste is. In short, mixtapes are an ego trip; maybe only people with no ego about their musical taste can appreciate them. (I’m not one of those people, but I’m trying to be. I really am.) The benevolent motive of sharing cool finds is balanced against the less benevolent motive of competitive discovery—of scoring points by having a more eclectic taste, having a wider listening scope. When you have a lot of your identity invested in musical taste, distributing mixtapes is a way of manifesting that identity—a more significant gesture than actually talking to people, which doesn’t ordinarily afford as many opportunities to demonstrate musical taste. When you force someone to listen to your tape, it’s like you are forcing them to listen to your monologue of self. That this is sometimes cast as a romantic gesture tells you something about love among teenagers. To put this point in mixtape terms—cue Jim Croce’s “It’s Hard to Say I Love You in a Song” and follow it by Dobie Grey’s “Drift Away” (the song that features the immortal chorus: “Give me the beat boys that frees my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll,” which prompted a friend of mine to propose that I get so lost in his rock and roll that I would need a map or possibly a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way out.)

I suppose apologists could say that mixtapes serve as a new multimedia form of storytelling that incorporates and transforms other pop-culture works to make them something other that merely popular and generic—it transforms empty pop songs into the soundtrack to a quirky short story.  These intimate mixes, however, make us into voyeurs, and maybe that is the point—they are just another iteration of reality TV, of our impulse to sell out our memories for notoriety.

by Mike Schiller

30 Jun 2008

From Gamecock\'s Hail to the Chimp

From Gamecock\‘s Hail to the Chimp

Is it surprising at all that there are but 11 releases (ten if you knock off one version of Gamecock’s Hail to the Chimp) for the week of the American Independence Day holiday?  Probably not.  It’s one of the first full weeks that schools are out, it’s a popular time for vacations, and it’s all but ready made for outdoor fun, what with fireworks having to be an outdoor activity and all.  Just about the last thing on anyone’s mind is finding another reason to stay indoors, and maybe that’s a good thing.

For those who absolutely must get their kicks underneath the cover of the infinite-SPF protection of a roof and walls, however, there are a few goodies in this nearly-empty bag.  Hail to the Chimp is notable for being one of the few attempts at a “party game” (does Fusion Frenzy even count?) on the Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms, and if you’re not sick of election mania already, it might just be the thing for you.  The Wii is getting a pet sim called Purr Pals this week, which surely surprises nobody, and the PSP might have a hidden treasure on the way in the form of Fading Shadows a platformer for people who like puzzles in their platforming more than baddies.

Soo…we're drawing stars on jellybeans then. (From Atlus' Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)

Soo…we’re drawing stars on jellybeans then.
(From Atlus’ Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)

Atlus, however, comes through again with a big release for the summer season in the form of Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2.  The original Trauma Center was one of the benchmark releases for the Nintendo DS, offering up the opportunity to use the DS stylus as a scalpel, a brilliant move on their part, especially given how obvious it seems after the fact.  The second in the series apparently addresses the consequences of the first, and you’ll surely be taking on lots of difficult surgeries and finding body parts you never knew existed.  Is that a pancreas?  To the garbage with it!

So once again, three cheers for Atlus, still giving summer gamers reasons to rejoice.  The full (or all but empty, if you prefer) release list and a trailer for Under the Knife 2 is after….the jump.

by Bill Gibron

30 Jun 2008

You sometimes have to wonder if Disney knows what it’s doing. From a business perspective, the pick-up of Pixar was a no-brainer, the kind of slam dunk corporate decision that instantly made the House of Mouse the premiere CG cartooning co-op in show business without ever having to prove their own 3D mantle (isn’t that right, Chicken Little/Meet the Robinsons?). And thanks to the stellar output from the maverick animated moviemakers, Uncle Walt gained a crystal clear cash cow, and now has a series of family classics that match up alongside the pen and ink wonders from decades past.

So imagine one’s shock when a superlative sci-fi fable, the wonderful WALL*E, walked into theaters this week reeking of cutesy kid vid cloy. From the trailers and TV spots, one expected a kind of Charlie Chaplin meets Armageddon ideal, with just a little automaton love tossed in for good marketing measure. Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Disney decided the best way to sell this occasionally bleak, cleverly cautionary tale was by centering on the film’s action figure-able hero and avoiding any of the film’s second half space-satire. In fact, if you watched any of the media material, you’d never know that this film was really a sophisticated screed about humanity, nature, and the environmentally charged clash between the two.

Now, before we go any further, a SPOILER warning is in order. If you have not seen WALL*E,  and want all the plot twists and story surprises left intact, ignore the next few paragraphs. You see, in order to decipher Disney’s decision on how best to present this movie to the masses, the narrative has to be broken down and discussed. Sure, one could hint around and try to avoid outing the second and third act specifics, but in attempting to understand how a studio surveys its potential demographic, and reacts to same, learning all there is to know about this film’s fascinating premise is crucial to seeing where those so-called sophisticated suits may have dropped the ball.

When we first meet WALL*E, it’s against a backdrop of corporate America gone undead. Within a landscape strewn with Big -N- Lard hard-sell advertising and mega-mall come-ons, the last remaining Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class left on the desolate, decimated planet goes about its pre-programmed tasks. In service for nearly 700 years, our valiant little robot spends its days cubing up trash (and building unbelievable garbage skyscrapers), his nights picking through the various treasures he discovers as part of his duties. From extra parts for a little self-repair to more enigmatic objects like cigarette lighters and rubber ducks, the diminutive machine has slowly ‘evolved’ into something akin to salient.

Naturally this leads to WALL*E’s biggest dilemma - how incredibly lonely ‘he’ is. Throughout the opening of the film, we see unfathomably empty vistas, locales where nothing has lived for a very long time. During these scenes, our hero expresses his angst through two clever conceits. One is ‘his’ obsession with the musical Hello Dolly, and in particular, two key songs: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment”. One tune suggests the return of people to the planet, a celebration of happiness inside a realm ravaged by our own hubris. The other is a simple lament, a song of longing for a being that has learned to feel as part of its centuries-long purpose.

The other facet is his connection to his collection of scavenged relics. Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or Edward G. Robison’s Saul in Soylent Green, their existence is a connection to a reality no longer available. It’s archeological in nature, this kind of assemblage. But it’s also an act of desperation, a way for someone - or in this case, something - to find a means of making sense of the everyday grind. What WALL*E worships clearly argues for his passion for the human race, or at the very least, his longing for those who created the fascinating objects he spends his time toiling over.

Together with his far too cute cockroach friend (apparently, the last of his kind on a terrain that should be swarming with same), there’s a Boy and His Dog feel to everything. This runs in sharp contrast to the film’s second half. We learn that, eons ago, inhabitants of the dying planet took off in large spaceships, a five year mission of waiting while the Earth was being cleaned up. That such a short time ended up lasting 700 years is indicative of the mess we made, and WALL*E‘s pro-ecology message. This is further accented when EVE arrives, and finds a tiny sprout of a plant, the only green thing we see in most of the movie. The small vegetation becomes the catalyst for a space mutiny, a homage to HAL of 2001, and a true denunciation of what we, as materialistic consumer blobs, have literally become.

To fashion social commentary into a piece of speculative fiction is nothing new. Outside the Star Wars-ing of the genre, it’s the main reason sci-fi exists. But to add it into something that’s being sold as a G to PG rated family film, especially one from a company not known to expand the boundaries of the genre, is a marvel to behold. Some critics have complained about this material, marking it as too obvious within the spectrum of what’s being offered. And, granted, one is taken aback by the Idiocracy like lummox-ness of the space humans. It’s clear that Hollywood believes the suburban sprawl is a physical as well as a real estate predicament, and the instant-Internet-cellphone-socialization of the overweight lard-asses that use to be people is laughable.

But there is another element here, something that speaks to a growing disconnect from the viewership. By presenting the ship bound future citizenry as nothing short of out of shape sponges, absorbing any media mush that’s doled out to them, Pixar seems to be taking the same stance as Mike Judge did last year. Mocking your potential audience is never a good idea, and yet WALL*E stands to avoid many angry reactions because of its penchant for pretty colors and feel good philosophizing. In fact, one woman at a screening this critic attended sat blissfully back in her seat, ample belly overflowing with nachos and popcorn, and giggled uncontrollably at the sequences aboard the Axiom. That she could have been a live action extra in the film speaks volumes for the movie’s more subliminal suggestions.

And, of course, the film goes slightly conventional once in space. We have the same hero vs. villain ideal (since none of the humans know that they’ve been in space so long, the computers onboard have been following a Presidential mandate to remain away from the planet), and there are lots of clever - and merchandisable - robo-extras to keep everyone interested. Yet there’s a reserved darkness that overpowers the supposedly sunny ending. Even as the humans return, and see how worn their ancestral wasteland has become, they celebrate in optimistic glee. The parting shot of a valley overflowing with little sprouts means that - as usual - nature has found a way to circumvent man’s evil hand.

So again, the question becomes, did Disney serve the best interests of this film by selling it as something that it clearly is not? Well, let’s go to another screening reaction for some guidance. When the main character first appeared, a row of hyperactive kids who were sugared and soured by lots of concession stand treats, calmed down considerably, and started to mummer the robot’s name under their breath. All throughout the opening prologue, as WALL*E roved across the deserted cities and streets, the children reacted with wide-eyed (and occasionally open mouthed) awe. But after a while, after the first sandstorm and the threat that came from the peculiar, pessimistic tone, the wee ones began to balk. You could literally feel the crowd becoming antsy, wondering where their slapstick comedy caper went. It’s clear that anyone under 10 was feeling inadvertently ripped off - even if they didn’t understand why they felt so gypped.

WALL*E would eventually regroup and win them over, the Axiom material with its funny looking people and comic relief machines more than enough to wash away the taste of a post-title traumas. Yet in some ways, Disney couldn’t sell the film in any other fashion. Had they told the truth, fanatics and critics would have complained that the company had spilled the beans in an act of frantic disbelief. It would indicate a lack of faith in a subdivision that was purchased because of its undeniable winning streak. And then there is the focus itself. Would teens really come out to see a movie that seemed made for their grade school siblings? Would the die-hard futurist find the Disney/Pixar name a distraction instead of an advantage? Does WALL*E deliver the kind of dystopian spectacle that makes serious science fiction saleable?

The answer seems to be caught up in what movies have become since the advent of home video. On the one hand, something as flawlessly executed as WALL*E deserves the title “art”, and definitely defines the term “artform” in reference to animation. On the other, parents have relied on Pixar to be the preeminent digital babysitter for their easily entertained offspring. Their DVDs don’t sell in the billions because everyone’s a collector. Instead, movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo are the new best friends of a tech-spec species that’s forgotten how to moderate media input. Viewed as safe and harmlessly wholesome, a Pix-flick takes the place of education, morals, and parents. In their place is an endlessly rewindable window into bona fide brain stimulus.

But just like Ratatouille last year, WALL*E deserves better. Cars was probably the first Pixar film that flaunted the notion that kids were not the only reason to make computer generated gems. Its Route 66 nostalgia was founded in a Baby Boomer chic. But Brad Bird’s Oscar winning wonder plainly avoided many of the genre’s junk tenets in order to capitalize on character, narrative, and actual emotion. There is no rule that anthropomorphic entities need to be wise-crack pop culture riffing retards. They don’t have to have stunt voices, or be recognizable Central Casting types. No, ideas can be just as important as instant recognizability, and not every Pixar film has to be product as well. Sadly, this appears to be the exact opposite approach to what Disney is doing. Sometimes, you just have to wonder.

by Chris Barsanti

29 Jun 2008

During the expected pre-release hoopla leading up to the ultra-Disney-sized opening for the newest bit of Pixar CGI twee, Wall-E, director/writer Andrew Stanton swore up and down that the film was not supposed to have any sort of environmental message. In interview after mind-numbing roundtable interview (those modern stations of the cross for the entertainment industry to atone for their success), Stanton made it clear that it was a story about one lonely robot falling in love with another robot. Stanton told MTV News that the film was supposed to be “science fiction” and not “science fact.” That is of course true (unless the Disney Wall-E toy robot turns out to be much more intelligent than anticipated). It’s also the kind of statement that a creative person is almost honor-bound to make; one doesn’t sit down at the keyboard or show up to the set (or animation equivalent thereof) every day in order to make a statement. One wants to craft a story.

But, given the unalterably bleak vision of the future that Wall-Econtains, Stanton’s disavowal doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not as though one can simply take the film’s backdrop of devastation and either take it or leave it, as you could for, say, a sci-fi action film where a totalitarian future is nothing more than the excuse necessary to give its characters cool shades and a burning need to utilize high-tech weaponry at the drop of a hat. In Wall-E, the love story between the two robots only exists because of the dystopian vision that surrounds them. The two are inseparable, which is as it should be. One mark of great narrative art is that the setting, characters, and plot mesh together into a cohesive storytelling mechanism. So while Stanton was most likely telling the truth when he said that there was no “message” in the film, that should not be taken to mean that one can either take or leave the film’s quite loud and damning indictment of consumerism. That critique is just as much a part of Wall-E as is the moment when the two robots first hold hands. To say otherwise would be like claiming that the organized crime elements of The Godfather are really secondary to the main story, and quite beside the point.

Wall-E unfolds some seven centuries from now, when the Earth has undergone complete environmental collapse, a sort of fatal and global toxic shock. The planet is all dirt-brown vistas and dead cities, and not a living creature to be seen; like what one could imagine the world in Soylent Green looking like a few decades hence. Wall-E is a robot who’s spent untold centuries puttering around a poisoned Earth, busily compacting the mounds of detritus left by a big-box-shopping culture and turning them into neat little cubes that he then stacks into futuristic obelisks of waste. There’s no end of work for him to do, because as the film’s mostly silent opening makes clear, the humans that blasted off from the planet in 2100 were a frighteningly wasteful lot with plenty in common with those of us watching the film from cushioned stadium seating.

Amidst the rickety skyscrapers and crumbling overpasses, the film splatters everywhere logos for the ubiquitous, 7/11-esque Buy N Large corporation, which, prior to the human race blasting off into outer space in their cruise liner of an ark, seemed to have become the one-stop private/public business/government omnientity in charge of essentially all human activity. There are signs of elephantine big box stores with square miles of parking, and holographic advertisements still flicker up in Wall-E’s determined path from time to time. The message is clear and all the better for its utter lack of subtlety: This is a planet destroyed by overconsumption, aided and abetted by a sickening web of consumer-industrial-complex propaganda, where passivity is purchased by shoveling as much junk food and unnecessary purchases into humanity’s maw. Too much stuff for too many people who don’t need that stuff results in ecosystem-shattering levels of pollution and garbage; Earth is killed by shopping.

One of the perverse ironies of Wall-Eis that the surviving humans (there is no mention of what happened to all the people who couldn’t fit onto the admittedly huge Axiom cruiser) are then coddled into blob-like indolence by even more depraved levels of Barcolounger and Big Gulp-style creature comforts. Having been complicit in the destruction of the home planet, the human species on display in Wall-E is a swaddled band of babies, interested in little beyond the datascreens always plopped right in front of their jowly faces, much like the soulless entities inhabiting E.M. Forster’s prescient 1909 story “The Machine Stops.” It’s nearly impossible to behold these twin nightmares, the blasted Earth and the purgatorial shopper’s paradise of Axiom, and imagine that the film is anything but a clarion call warning of the environmental catastrophe to come. The fact that the robots at the film’s heart are more demonstrably human and brave than practically any of the homo sapiens lurching about, only proves the point more. This is not a species to be impressed by.

Another irony of Wall-E, and one that has rightly been widely noted in the blogsophere, is that the filmmakers participate quite avidly in the same consumerism that their film blasts away at with such heat. By dint of all the thousands upon thousands of plastic Wall-E and EVE toys that Disney will be trucking into the marketplace for this year and (they hope) many more to come, the Pixar boys become part and parcel of the same hypocrisy.

But, then, we all are, of course.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2008

One really does have to feel bad for the Romantic Comedy. It’s a genre that’s life support system is more or less irretrievably broken. Of course, part of the problem lies in the two categories it contains. By its very nature, big screen humor has been running on empty for almost a decade. Besides, it’s hard to find love inside a stratagem consisting of tawdry gross out gags and juvenile Jokes from the John. And then there’s the ‘Moon/June’ part of the picture. In 2008, we no longer comport to the ‘love and marriage’ ideals of relationships. Instead, like the rest of our overcomplicated lives, we want to micromanage affection, leaving it less like a sunny summer sentiment and more like an emotional wash. Leave it to this past February’s Definitely, Maybe to try and revive the flat-lining film style. That it almost works is a testament to the category’s - and creator’s - staying power.

Former political consultant turned ad executive Will Hayes should have a wonderful life. His career choice has found him working on high profile campaigns for former President Bill Clinton, and now he’s a big success. He’s also got a precocious little daughter named Maya who just adores him. But when it comes to his love life, Will is always on the losing side. On the verge of a divorce from his wife, he is confronted by his inquisitive child, her questions framed around his seemingly failed romances. Agreeing to explain his past, with one small exception (he will change the women’s names), Will begins by outlining his exploits, starting with college sweetheart, Emily. After he moves to NYC, he finds himself embroiled in elections, and an affair with the idealistic Summer. Finally, he hooks up with April, an ambitious copy girl who seems to challenge his very purpose. It’s up to Maya to put together the clues, and discover who her mother represents…and if there’s a chance to save her freefalling family.

All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood was convinced that the only way to make love stories truly work was to dress them up in outrageous, high concept fantasy. Unless you were Woody Allen, Tinsel Town thought you needed otherworldly help in creating something quixotic. Be it literally bewitched gals pining for a ‘mortal’ man, or angels desperate to connect with their humorless human charges, real people just can’t get together anymore. Instead, certain types - either freakishly fictional or meet cute manipulative - have to be devised, and then their escapes framed around a certain narrative device (frequently fashioned after an old school cinematic tearjerker) to get dates to dish out the dollars. Happily, Definitely, Maybe (new to DVD from Universal) avoids some of these pitfalls, instead hoping that a post-modern nostalgia guides the audience’s affections.

Thanks to the capable direction of Adam Brooks and a stellar cast including Ryan Reynolds as the put upon Will, Abigail Breslin as his daughter Maya, and a trio of charming fantasy gals - Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher - this fluffy piece of celluloid cotton candy has a tad more heft that your average heartstring strainer. By using the unique (if slightly wonky) narrative device of presenting all three ladies as possible partners, we get a much more viable view of how love and loss works. Even better, the political backing and time warp realizations (this is the early ‘90s, when grunge is still a novelty and Bill Clinton represents the future of America) aid in our sense of recognition. Unlike other RomComs that rely on ancient concepts of companionship to meter out their meaning, Definitely, Maybe tracks a more contemporary, quasi-ironic bent.

Most of this is done on purpose. As part of the full length audio commentary offered as part of the digital package, Brooks defends the whodunit like story structure, arguing that it helps sustain a focus as well as a certain likeability rooting interest in what is going on. One of the reasons the film functions so efficiently is that we see where Will made his mistakes, as well as the pain they caused. There is also the genuineness generated by Breslin. As one of the best child stars of her generation, she creates a kind of psychic sphere of influence, her perception reflecting our own take on the material. Through her, we sense the sentimentality in her father’s predicament, and hope for the genre-mandated happy ending.

Again, it’s the performances that support our attention. Reynolds, who can be a bit too jock cocky in his mannerism, finds a perfect balance between machismo and melancholy. Though he never comes across as lame, he’s definitely a leading man in training. As for his female co-stars, all create the necessary sense of boy/girl balance. Weisz in particular seems an expert at both the seduction and the send-off, while Elizabeth Banks’ Parker Posing could be toned down a bit. After an introductory sequence where she discovers the particulars of sex (it’s part of her school’s new educational regime), Breslin isn’t given much more to do. But thanks to the aforementioned openness in her expressions, we instantly forgive the limits.

Oddly enough, when viewed as a whole, Definitely, Maybe isn’t all that impactful. In fact, the reason Allen’s name gets tossed into the mix is that, with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, the American auteur managed to mix humor with heartbreak in a way that seemed to resonate on a more universal, communal level. Even those of us who never lived a day in an uptown loft understood the pleasures and problems his characters were going through. Brooks is clearly no Wood-man, but he’s also not one of the numerous hacks who hopelessly exploit the inherent value of a screen kiss to contemplate all manner of middling to miserable contrivances. There are a lot worse things for a post-millennial RomCom to be besides ‘enjoyable’, and yet that’s an apt description of this film’s pixie stick commerciality. It may not be a dense, delectable treat, but while it’s around, Definitely, Maybe is pleasant enough.

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