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by Karen Zarker

11 Dec 2008

I can think of several people right off the bat who would delight in Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright’s chatty, earthy, diet-be-damned cooking show, and they’re all middle-aged or older, plump, and love to sit at my table and eat my food and drink my wine and talk, talk, talk—rather like Paterson and Wright themselves. Sadly for my guests, I won’t pluck dinner from the sand at the sea shore nor behead a wriggling eel nor putter about the environs in a motorcycle and sidecar and feed them with whatever I’ve found in markets and fishstalls, farmstands and butchers counters that day. But I wouldn’t turn down such an offer from Paterson and Wright to take over my kitchen, no matter what questionable fare was served up, no matter the mess left behind. These ambassadors of culinary Britain are witty, charming, and fearless in their travels, cuisines, and conversations. For those of us who cannot always live so well so literally, we can at least invite these ladies into our homes for a lesson or two in, among other things, cooking.


by Mike Schiller

11 Dec 2008

Well, this came out of nowhere. Imagine that Little Red Riding Hood grew up, hung out with Momo Taro (the “peach boy” of Japanese children’s stories), got some big guns, and made a habit of mowing down waves and waves of zombies with those big guns. If you can get your mind around that, and it somehow sounds appealing, then you’re halfway to loving Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ. The thing here is that even once you get past the “OMGWTFBBQ I can’t believe they went there” quality of the title, it remains engrossing and entertaining. It’s a top-down shooter a lot like old-school efforts like Commando and Ikari Warriors, but your movement is restricted to a range akin to a Game and Watch effort and your shooting is all done with the stylus. Still, it doesn’t feel like a restriction so much as it does a limitation, something that points out that you are the only one to blame when Little Red’s brain gets eaten by a zombie. Despite the heroine, it’s certainly not for kids, but teens looking for something off the beaten path will probably get more than just a kick out of it.

by David Pullar

11 Dec 2008

If you’re one of those diehard anti-consumerists who usually spends this time of year blaming Coca Cola for all things Christmas, it might come as a surprise to see a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?  Kathryn Harrison in the New York Times doesn’t think so, even if she enjoys author Les Standiford’s revelations about the origins of Scrooge et al.  A Christmas Carol one of those books that have become so idiomatic that most people have never read it yet quote it subconsciously.  As with most oft-cited, seldom-read books, the reality is somewhat different to the perception.

Dickens is one of the most sentimentalised authors.  Film and television adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and the like have defanged his social commentary.  His heroes have become caricatures of the “noble” Cockney poor in the public mind—in much the same way than Jane Austen has been reconfigured as highbrow Mills and Boon.  A Christmas Carol, while obviously a more fantastical book than Dickens’ regular work, was still grounded in the social issues and concerns of the day.  “Scrooge” may be an all-too-easy insult today, but the original character was a charged metaphor for a cruel and indifferent society—as well as disturbingly similar to many actual bosses.

It makes you wonder whether Dickens invented Christmas, or whether Christmas reinvented Dickens.  Even if A Christmas Carol is a shamelessly populist book (as was a lot of Dickens’ work), it was written at a time when Christmas as a holiday was starting to be reshaped.  It might have been commercially appealing, but it wasn’t commercially-driven in the way that, say, Four Holidays or Now That’s What I Call Christmas! are.  It certainly had a more complicated message than the usual “Christmas is a time to be nice to people”.  But our expectations of Christmas stories have shifted with time and we start to view Dickens and others as more of the same schmaltz.

Just as it’s tricky to imagine how Christmas was before Bing Crosby and Miracle on 34th St, it’s hard to think of A Christmas Carol without all the attendant baggage of the century-and-a-half since.  Perhaps the only answer is to forget everything you thought you knew about Marley and the other ghosts and read the story anew.

by Jamie Lynn Dunston

10 Dec 2008

Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator?  EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.  But is it enough? 

Judging from the pattern established by other Maxis/EA hits like the Sims franchise, Spore C&C will be the first in a long line of updates.  As with The Sims 2, Maxis has confirmed in a press release that they will employ a two-pronged approach to deliver additional building tools (in the form of “stuff packs”) as well as altered gameplay (in the form of “expansion packs”).  The first expansion pack, scheduled for spring 2009, will add depth to the Space phase. 

This delivery model will hopefully keep the game (and its accompanying online community) fresh and growing.  It will also keep the cash flowing into EA’s coffers, and this parts pack in particular feels more like a greedy grab for green than a bona fide attempt to refresh the gameplay.  Coming just two months after Spore’s initial release, the parts pack adds 60 new body parts, 12 new paint themes, and 24 “test drive” animations.  None of these additions alter the mechanics or difficulty of the gameplay, but are intended to give players more control over the appearance and abilities of their creatures. 

I strongly suspect that Spore’s upcoming expansion will be the first in a series of four expansions that will address each of the four phases of the game after cell phase.  Many critics of the game (myself included) felt that each phase merely scratched the surface of the genre’s capabilities, and I imagine that the expansions are going to offer Spore fans an opportunity to add complexity to the phases they like best without being obligated to spend money upgrading every part of the multifaceted gameplay.  Meanwhile—and this is pure speculation—now that a collection of creature parts has been released, expect to see additional stuff packs that expand the vehicle and architecture tool sets as well. 

After installing and playing with the Spore C&C for a while, I did feel that the game benefited from the greater variety of parts available.  Still, adding a few dozen body parts to the creature creation tools seems like a disappointingly simplistic approach to sparking creativity in the user community.  I couldn’t help but think back to a simpler time, when user-created content was an indie thing that required a fairly rigorous set of digital design skills but was completely and absolutely open-ended.  It seems to me that since so much of Spore’s concept revolves around a shared, creative community, limiting players’ creativity with a pre-set collection of materials impedes the growth of the fan base.  In other words, I think it’s a big, fat, hairy mistake. 

Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 56k dialup modems, there were games that were both fun and hackable.  Players would create their own content for their favorite games and upload it to fan sites, sharing among themselves free of charge.  Sure, you had to muck around with graphics editors and such, and the results were sometimes comically bad, but back in the early days of The Sims—and I know I am dating myself by admitting I can remember this—people just made stuff and shared it.  Independent programmers even made simple tools to help other people make stuff, and it was a labor of love. 

I mention The Sims specifically because, although there were many other mod-able games at the time, the large, creative community that emerged was an unforeseen consequence of The Sims’ open-endedness that took even Will Wright by surprise.  Later, the huge success of the fan community inspired Maxis to create tools like Creature Creator and The Sims 2’s Body Shop, which would theoretically allow more people to create more stuff with less effort. 

However, when the grassroots movement was absorbed by the establishment, as it were, Maxis wanted (and needed) to exercise control over user-created content in order to maintain their “T” rating.  In other words, bye-bye, nude skins and double-D-cup meshes.  By standardizing and controlling the tools, Maxis was able to limit inappropriate content, but they also squelched much of the creative open-endedness that was inherent in the first-generation, third-party tools.  Furthermore, they opened the floodgates for the less skilled, less devoted, and less innovative designers to create enormous truckloads of mediocre work.  In short, more people are now able to make stuff, but most of it is crap. 

Should Maxis give more control back to the players and create tools that allow users to generate their own custom body parts?  Is it worth having six hundred creatures that look like anthropomorphic genitalia if it means we also get a digital equivalent of the Venus de Milo?  For Maxis, the ability to control and regulate content is an important part of their business model, so it’s unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish that.  But it certainly would be interesting to see what would emerge if they did.

by Bill Gibron

10 Dec 2008

In the current climate of motion picture making, where does the soundtrack really stand? When watching a remarkable movie like, say, Revolutionary Road, do you care that the music behind Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is working, or that you can head on over to ITunes after the screening and download yourself a copy of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score? Do audiences really appreciate the supplemental CD of a film’s sonic sentiments, or are they just too busy buying into the prepackaged and programmed plotting to care much about the aural material surrounding it. Sure, there are rare instances when a movie makes itself so culturally significant (Titanic, The Dark Knight) that people will purchase anything connected to it. But what about the everyday effort? Do journeymen have any place in the merchandising domain, even when the do amazing work?

That’s the question facing the three soundtracks offered up for consideration as part of SE&L‘s recurrent recording roundtable, Surround Sound. This time, we see an upcoming family film, a current CG hit, and a usual independent offering getting positive notice, all threatening to have their composer’s sweat and toil trampled by a general public indifference. And what’s even more disheartening is that each individual offering is good - very good in some cases. But unless you have a cash register ringer so to speak (ain’t that right Miss Cyrus), few if any may become aware of your imagination and innovation. While it’s sad to say it, that’s the apparent state of the soundtrack biz. Anyway, let’s begin with an upcoming effort:

Marley & Me - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

For a relatively young man (37), Theodore Shapiro has had quite a unique career as a film composer. Getting his start on the MTV sketch comedy series The State, he quickly became the go-to guy for the entire Stiller/Wilson/Wain school of slacker comedy. Recently, he’s been involved in such high profile projects as The Devil Wears Prada, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. So it seems strange for someone working within such crazed crackpot canvases to take on a family-oriented animal lovers movie. But that’s exactly what Shapiro did when he signed up to provide the sonic backing for John Grogan’s memoir, Marley and Me. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the music speaks volumes for the artist’s ability to adapt.

For something with a sincerely sentimental premise (following the adventures of a family dog from adoption to death), Shapiro’s score for Marley and Me is surprisingly spunky. Acoustic guitars ring across jaunty soft rock ramblings. Oddball bossanova moves accent the film’s sunny South Florida locations. While some of the sounds here are meant to copy the fun-loving, mischievous nature of the title pup (“Off and Running”), or the mandatory movie passage of time (“Two Year Montage”), there is an inherent melancholy to the way Shapiro chooses his approach. This is especially true towards the end when we get several, sobering snippets (“When It’s Time”, “Boy and Dog”). Such sentimentality, however, is often thwarted by a big, rollicking rock-n-roll statement like “Heading Home” or the terrific title track. By constantly repeating certain themes, Shapiro ensures that we will be humming the main melody lines long after we’ve forgotten the film they come from.


Bolt - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 7]

At one time, animated films were almost always mandated to be musicals. Even if the characters didn’t sing the actual songs, studios put potential pop hits directly into their pen and ink adventures, the better to guarantee brisk soundtrack sales later on. All that stopped in the mid ‘90s, when studios like Dreamworks and Fox tried to take the artform in a slightly different, more snarky and non-singing, non-dancing direction. And that’s where it’s stayed, more or less. Pixar proved you didn’t need production numbers to sell tickets, and over the years, the slow death of 2D animation meant a limit on the number of Alan Menken/Elton John penned ballads. The latest from Disney, the delightful Bolt, doesn’t propose to change this approach. But when you’ve completely re-recorded an entire vocal performance to take an actress out, and to put a multiplatinum tween recording phenomenon in, you just know there’s going to be a couple of indirect aural references to such charttopper’s powerhouse skills. 

The mandatory Miley track aside (more on this in a moment) and the material from Ms. Jenny Lewis also initially forgiven, Bolt begins its run through several soundtrack stereotypes. We get the big bold action opening and stunt sequences (“Bolt Transforms”, “Scooter Chase”), the pastoral scenic sections (“The RV Park”), and the moments of humble heroics (“Where Were You on St. Rhino’s Day”). In between Powell, doesn’t waver. Everything is either bongo-driven road movie forcefulness (“Saving Mittens”) or a mix of light and soft (“House on Wheels”). As for the two actual songs on the CD, the Cyrus tune is accented by some intriguing help from co-star John Travolta on vocals (some of his strongest since Grease, or that early ‘70s hit “Let Her In”). It’s great to hear the actor working his vocal pipes again. Similarly Ms. Lewis’ track is unobtrusive and sweet, a tad too maudlin with a title that begs for creative reconsideration (“Barking at the Moon” - in a film about a dog…), but it does offer some nice cross-promotion possibilities for the House of Mouse, who is always looking for a way to maximize the return on their product.

Synecdoche, New York - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

You expect weird from screenwriter turned first time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman. The man practically perspires eccentricity. He’s quirky in bizarro world wackness. If his scripts weren’t strange enough, his public persona is a mixture of hermit, serial killer, and that way too smart kid in school who ended up sitting in his low rent basement apartment making wine all throughout college. While many feel the man is too meta for his own good, his most recent film has got critics both praising him while simultaneously scratching their more than befuddled head. To try and describe this movie’s premise is next to impossible. But it’s safe to say that the work of the equally idiosyncratic Jon Brion is borderline brilliant. Unlike the music he’s recorded for Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney, Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love) or select comedies (I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers), this is one soundtrack that’s in perfect sync with the director’s delusional genius.

As a score, Synecdoche New York is a uber-weird combination of old school composing, hackneyed homage irony, and just a tad too much stinging self-consciousness. Tracks have names that defy description (“DMI Thing From When She Was in the Kitchen”, “Someone Else’s Forward Motion (Posing as Your Own)”) and every once in a while Brion will step in and turn everything into a piece of pure instrumental bliss (“Piano One”). This is one musician who likes to mix things up, complex string pieces purposefully crashing into somber, almost ethereal New Age ambiance. Toward the end, actual songs are introduced, with “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” having a similar, lo-fi appeal. The last number, “Schenectady” sounds a tad too much like Sufjan Stevens channeled through Randy Newman. Still, for something meant to match with Kaufman’s crazed visions, Brion does a bang-up job.

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