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by PopMatters Staff

1 Aug 2008

Robyn Hitchcock
Bad Case of History [MP3]

Lykke Li
Breaking It Up [Video]


Lee “Scratch” Perry
Pum Pum [MP3]

These Are Powers
Cockles [MP3]

Brimstone Howl
A Million Years [MP3]

Takka Takka
Everybody Say [MP3]

Vampire Weekend
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa [Video]

by Bill Gibron

31 Jul 2008

For filmmakers, nostalgia is a double edged sword. Pick the right era, and audiences are with you and your cinematic wistfulness. Dress things up in the wrong period, however, and you threaten to alienate anyone without your fond memory set. This is the problem facing Jonathan Levine’s rap-tinged dramedy The Wackness. Celebrating the gansta days of the early ‘90s, a time frame foaming with post-grunge grooves and early Clinton optimism may seem like something worth commemorating. But all Sundance standing ovations aside, there is a central problem with this movie that makes it a rather unfulfilling journey down short term memory loss lane.

It’s the Summer of ‘94. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school. Over the next four months he intends to hang out, hook up, and deal drugs. Then, it’s off to college. Selling pot from a pushcart, he’s a neighborhood fixture. But when he sells some weed to ditzy psychiatrist Dr. Squires, he soon finds himself in indirect therapy. Turns out that Luke has several pending problems. His parents are constantly fighting over finances, and there’s a distinct possibility they will be evicted from their apartment. Even worse, his raging hormones have the young man desperate and dateless. But when he takes a sudden shine to Squires step-daughter Stephanie, it changes the dynamic between all three of them.

Stripped of all its summer swelter and hip hip revisionism, The Wackness is really just another in a long line of quirky indie character studies. Luke is the typical horny teen, unable to make sense of a life that reeks of insecurity (personal, parental, professional) while working his wannabe “wigger” poses. His pot-addicted shrink, Dr. Squires, is the typical ‘physician, heal thyself’ symbol of authority in need of its own intervention. His wife is nothing more than a tepid trophy, a used to be hottie who can’t quite acknowledge her newfound status as a ‘nottie’, while their daughter Stephanie is the kind of emotional cipher that only a small outsider film could champion. In mainstream Hollywood, this human user would be vamped up in Goth gear and given some kind of eating/mental/psychological disorder.

As a result, your enjoyment of The Wackness hinges on how well you cotton to these obvious eccentrics - or better yet, how you react to the actors trying to bring them to life. The cast is more than capable, especially Josh Peck, who seems hellbent to leave his Nickelodeon days in the dust. Through a thick haze of marijuana smoke, and a face overflowing with black culture epithets, he’s quite effective in a major mouth breather kind of way. Director Jonathan Levine obviously doesn’t care that his star spends most of the movie with his jaw agape, eyes transfixed on a future which is apparently playing out somewhere just off screen. To call it navel gazing would falsely give the ever-present gesture some direction. Like the movie itself, Peck is perfectly capable - it’s the ‘what’ of his actions that is up for discussion.

Similarly, Sir Ben Kingsley continues his odd downward spiral into career irrelevance by playing a psychologist who causes more insanity than he cures. Certainly, the director must dig seeing the artist formerly known as Gandhi macking on a waifish Olson twin (Mary-Kate, if you’re counting) and there are times when Squires resonates as an unlikely if unassuming life coach. But with just the slightest ‘Nu Yawk’ honk hiding his droll British-ness, and a wardrobe that seems lifted from a Miami Beach rummage sale, he’s all put on. We want to understand why this mad doctor still loves his wife, why his step-child’s virtue (or lack thereof) is so uncomfortable for him. There are layers of Squires that Levine will not let us in on, and it causes us to grow frustrated with this quaint quack.

The weakest link here, however, is Olivia Thirlby’s Stephanie. As an object of affection, she’s more ordinary than obsession. She comes across as spoiled and rather simplistic, hedonism without a context to enjoy such high living. Luke’s lustful stares may give us some meaning to their potential partnership, but the truth is that theirs is a relationship we can never support. She will clearly destroy him, and he will never ever achieve the kind of ardor nirvana he is looking for. The doomed nature of their pairing fails to provide the dramatics Levine is looking for, and when accented by Kingsley’s overprotective panto, The Wackness runs into a decided dead end. As the narrative meanders toward its perfunctory, all things must pass conclusion, we start to wonder why we wasted our time.

Clearly, Levine is looking at the ‘90s Big Apple through a pair of reflective rose-colored goggles. He sees New York as a Giuliani-inspired ghost town, a changing metropolis as a series of sweltering backstreets and out of frame ambience. Squires delivers the mandatory “this city is changing” monologue, hoping that audiences outside Manhattan actually care. It’s a lot like the graduated cameo appearance of true hip hop icon Method Man. Sporting a convincing Caribbean accent and looking every bit the pusher with a heart of gold, we want more of the authenticity he brings. But Levine isn’t really interested in perception. He believes his characters, and the four months they spend in vignette like exploration, will be enough to pull us along.

And for a while, it is. For those who still see the ‘90s as an integral part of their maturation, a generation now hitting their late ‘20s and tired of the world web weariness of existence, The Wackness will function like a patchouli-laced blast from the past. It will seem realistic even though it begs fantasy, and will sound authentic even if the constant slanging of the era grows Hella-tired, yo. But for older/younger film fans wondering if there’s more to this movie than sensimilla and shout outs to urban parlance, the answer will be underwhelming at best. As a study of personalities in fashionable free fall, this is one scattered, smoke-filled failure. While it has some intriguing elements, this backwards glancing bong hit will leave you hungry for less, not more.

by Mike Schiller

31 Jul 2008

Picking up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 for a playthrough, I was struck with an unflinching sense of déja vu.  “Schiller, you idiot, of course you’re feeling déja vu,” you say, “it’s the third game in a series.  Chances are, it has something in common with the first two Commando games, yes?” 

Well, yes, but those games are oddly not what Commando 3 reminds me of.

In fact, by the time Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 came out, I had all but forgotten about the first two Commando games, and why not?  They were released in 1985 and 1991 (as Commando and Mercs in America, and as Wolf of the Battlefield and Wolf of the Battlefield 2 in Japan), which means I’ve had plenty of time for my TV and game-addled brain to forget they ever existed as anything but a footnote to Bionic Commando, perhaps my favorite game of all time.  No, what Wolf of the Battlefield immediately evokes is a different Capcom franchise, one more recent, more immediate, and more…mediocre.

That franchise would be the Rocketmen franchise.

Obviously, it hasn’t been that long since I put down Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (probably) for good, which was fine with me given that its distinct (read: awkward) art style and oddly cumbersome shoot-everything-that-moves action were starting to grate on me a bit.  As such, it was an utter shock to find Commando 3 with a very similar, though thankfully devoted to two dimensions, art style in the cutscenes and a play style highly reminiscent of that belonging to Rocketmen.  You choose one of three different characters with varying attributes, and then proceed to run around with one analog stick and shoot in every direction with the other analog stick.  Along the way you pick up prisoners, hop into various vehicles, and cause a whole lot of mayhem.

On one hand, this sort of gameplay is a perfect fit for the style of those old overhead Commando games—the number of times I used to wish there was an easy way to run in one direction and shoot in another in Commando and Mercs is pretty much uncountable.  On the other hand, it feels like folly to release this thing so close to the release of Rocketmen.  All that’s going to happen is that people who consider themselves fans of this sort of game are simply going to get burned out on it.  Who’s going to want to play another overhead run ‘n gun after this?  Anyone?

On the bright side, the play mechanics in Commando 3 are a marked improvement on the Rocketmen style.  For one, it plays much faster—the control is crisp and the action is fast.  I’m also simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated by the fact that Capcom saw fit to bring back the original Commando‘s idea that putting secret areas in random places would be a good idea.  That’s right, in order to find all of the secret areas in the game, you pretty much have to toss grenades at every square inch of the map.  There are some clues floating around that mark certain spots as more likely to have a secret area hidden beneath them, but some of them just feel utterly random in their placement.  While I can appreciate the retro value of the randomly placed secrets, I can’t help but wonder if something involving a puzzle or a clever clue would be a more satisfying way to hide a secret.

Fans of this type of game who haven’t given Rocketmen: Axis of Evil a look yet will be in luck—Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is better, for a number of quantifiable reasons.  Still, Rocketmen wore out its welcome a little bit quicker than I’d hoped, and I imagine that Commando 3 will do the same.  Of course, downloading Commando 3 offers access to the Street Fighter 2 HD open beta, so there’s value added on top of the fact that it’s a better, if still flawed, game.  If you’re a fan of Commando and/or Mercs, you’ll probably have a good time with the third entry in the series; if you’re simply an overhead run ‘n gunner who’s starting to get a little burned out on your genre of choice, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

by Rob Horning

31 Jul 2008

Megan McArdle linked to this paper published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. The upshot of it is something that we all intuitively take for granted, namely that the degree to which we enjoy what we taste in food is bound up with what we think that food represents culturally. If we think vegan cookies represent righteous earth consciousness, and we are similarly righteous, those cookies are going to taste better to us, regardless whether or not they are actually vegan. (McArdle points out the opposite case, when people reject vegan food only when they know it’s vegan. I tend to fall into that camp; I don’t want to endorse that ideology at a gut level, though I have been known to eat—maybe even enjoy—a Planet Platter or two at Souen.)

Part of this is what is called the assimilation effect—our brains make food taste like what we expect it to taste like based on previous experiences. But our expectations are also a matter of ideology. To a perhaps large degree, we consume the ideas symbolized by the food, not the actually sensual qualities of it, and what we taste is affected by our feelings about those ideas. Furthermore, we may consume certain representative foods as a means of experiencing the ideas—of participating in them in lieu of thinking them through, or of deepening our attachment to them and making our believing in them feel like something. The products may no longer merely symbolize the ideas and emotions with which they are associated, but may instead stand as the gatekeepers to them—access to such emotions and ideas are controlled by access to the associated goods (e.g., you can’t be a real football fan with tickets to the games and an RV to tailgate in; you aren’t going to feel healthy unless you are eating the products associated with health in the public consciousness.)

The questions at the heart of this is what allows us to replace the sensual qualities of food with symbolic ones, and why it occurs. Here’s how the researchers put it:

individual preferences are not independent of culture (Fieldhouse 1995; Rozin 1996). If innate taste preferences were the sole driving force behind food choice, then few would persevere with unpleasant tastes such as coffee, beer, or chili peppers (Germov and Williams 1999; Matlin 1983). Rather, foods and beverages are experienced in a sociocultural context. For instance, the first time a person experiences the taste of beer, it would likely taste unpleasantly bitter. However, consuming alcohol at restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, and parties is generally considered a social experience, which provides positive reinforcement of the taste of beer itself (Germov and Williams 1999). In this way, a preference for beer is acquired through repetition that is driven socially and culturally rather than biologically. Thus, one’s evaluation of the taste of a food or beverage stems from both an objective process (in which the inherent properties of the item stimulate taste receptors and engender a positive or negative sensory experience) and a subjective process (in which society creates a particular impression of the product, to which individuals then react). This subjective process is not yet fully understood.

They posit the two forces working in unison to constitute our tastes, but it seems plausible that the objective process is being supplanted by the subjective process, that the balance is shifting. Do we instigate this subjective process as a way to derive more pleasure from food? Do we do it knowingly as a means as shoring up our place in the social hierarchy—“I’m going to be the sort of person who enjoys pinot noirs and capers”? Or are we persuaded to do it by marketing, which may be the primary force that associates the foods with ideas in the first place? (Though by no means is it the only one; the ordinary coincidences of life and various cultural traditions of course give foods resonance. But a consumer society is distinguished by the dominance of advertising discourse, by its centrality in disseminating cultural symbolism.) The authors point out, “Among other implications, the framework implies that the positioning of a brand (in terms of image) may influence marketing success as much as a product’s objective taste, because the image affects how consumers experience the taste.” That seems pretty self-evident to me. The objective taste of something has almost become an alibi for enjoying what we really want from a branded food—the opportunity to participate in the fantasies promulgated by the advertising, to belong to a group of like-minded consumers, to experience the vague feelings connected to the good, to project our identity through the brand as a symbol. Coca-Cola is like battery acid in a can, but I still find myself enjoying one now and then, despite how much it hurts my stomach. So this kind of consumption harms me physically, but am I compensated by the nebulous, hard-to-articulate psychological pleasures I get instead? Or is the psychological damage deeper, masked from me, to manifest later as an inability to access unmediated pleasure, or as an addiction to certain rituals of consumption? Once I’ve had a Coke and a smile, does it get harder to have the latter without the former?

But it may be pointless to complain about the process by which our values get bound up with what we eat. It may simply be inevitable that we express our political choices and self-concepts deliberately through what we choose to eat (the “self-congruity theory”), even though how food actually tastes is politically and culturally agnostic. This creates a crevice in which marketers can insinuate themselves.

The taste of food alone is not powerful enough to create the kind of brand allegiances that can be made profitable. But could advertising be systematically denigrating the importance of what food actually tastes like (something no amount of advertising can ultimately affect), with our consequently suppressing our ability to register sensual stimuli? I’m haunted by the notion that these symbolic ideas that have been attached to the things I consume have kept me from ever really tasting food. One of the goals of advertising as a system (as opposed to individual ads) may be to accomplish that suppression—to encourage us to distrust our own senses (make us insecure about what we experience as pleasurable) in favor of cultural messages. (Advertising’s other systemic goal, as I’ve argued many times before, is to promote a sort of free associational illogic in place of rational chains of cause and effect. These two goals seem related, perhaps reducible to the same thing.)

by Christel Loar

30 Jul 2008

Live from Abbey Road show seven (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) has an incredibly diverse line-up this week.  Cheers to the show’s staff for presenting Modern American mainstream pop next to what’s been called the new Celtic soul sound and classic British hard rock to create another eclectic episode.

Matchbox Twenty‘s Paul Doucette admits at the outset to being “a dork for the Beatles”, and imagines he’ll have every nook and cranny of Abbey Road’s studio one committed to memory before the band finishes its session! The entire band goes into the details behind the creation of the track “How Far We’ve Come” (off of 2007’s Exile on Mainstream) before launching into an incredible live version of it. It’s the balance between these bits of trivia and the live performances that Live from Abbey Road really gets right.

In addition to rehearsals and performances of “I Can’t Let You Go” and “Bright Lights”, Matchbox Twenty pulls out its Lennon and McCartney cover. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is something the band “tacked on” to “Bright Lights” because the two songs shared some elements, but add-on or no, it’s a beautiful bit of homage.

The Script is a trio from Dublin that includes former studio musicians, had a single of the week in the UK and toured with last episode darlings the Hoosiers. These interview clips give an interesting, detailed background on the first song too. “We Cry”, it is explained, is a song that came from walking down one of the meanest streets in Ireland and wanting to express to its inhabitants the idea that, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. The song itself, as well as the performance shown here, is brilliant. The Script’s other performance, “Man Who Can’t Be Moved” is a gorgeous love song so perfectly realized that if I wasn’t watching it, I wouldn’t believe it was recorded live.

Joe Eliott starts Def Leppard‘s segment by explaining how the industry has changed so dramatically since the 1980s. When Def Leppard began, bands had five albums in which to prove their staying power, often not breaking through until the third or fourth. In the ‘90s, however, the standard procedure became to cut a band if its second release wasn’t a million-seller. He theorizes that there’d be no Def Leppard if there hadn’t been a third record (which was, by the way, Pyromania!). And that would be a shame, as the band makes quite clear as it fires up “Rocket” from 1987’s Hysteria.

The band members give their all on a cover of “Rock On” and it’s amazing! Then, they play a new one called “C’mon C’mon”, from this year’s Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, and it’s not only good, it’s a prime example of rock and roll in top form. At one point during the interviews, Elliott is saying that they all saw Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Queen growing up, and guitarist Viv Campbell states matter-of-factly “Rock and Roll was a religion back then. It was something that you focused on and it changed your life.”

As the world has become increasingly focused on “product” and “the next next big thing” it’s lamentable to watch those beliefs dying out. No worries, though. Some say the old ways still yet survive, and with musical diversity like what’s shown each week on Live from Abbey Road, I predict a re-awakening!

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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