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by Bill Gibron

24 Mar 2009

Filmmakers are funny people. The movies they make are a lot like their children, and as with most good parents, they are reluctant to consider said offspring anything other than perfect. Even when their big screen brat runs around shrieking like a reject and shows as much brainpower as an inbred hillbilly homunculus, they put their aesthetic arm around their pointed little profit margin and kiss the box office boo-boo until it’s all better. In the grand pantheon of blind bat guardians, Lexi Alexander has to be the most baffled of them all. Throughout the comical commentary track she shares with cinematographer Steve Gainer, she tries to convince us that Punisher: War Zone is one of the best, most faithful comic book adaptations ever. Even if she’s right (or partially so), she’s still playing Mom to one mess of a motion picture.

After his family is killed by a mob hit gone wrong, Frank Castle, also known as vigilante crime fighter The Punisher, decides to go on a one man criminal killing spree. Taking out mafia families one by one, he’s responsible for hundreds of deaths. The police turn a blind eye to much of his activity because Castle can do what they legally and Constitutionally can’t. His current target is the Russotis, including the clan’s Narcissistic lieutenant, Billy. A stand-off in a glass factory leaves Castle with undercover cop blood on his hands, and the bad guy with a face full of deadly shards.

After some botched plastic surgery, Billy becomes “Jigsaw” and devises a plan to get back at the dead officer’s family and the man who mangled him. Freeing his insane brother James (otherwise known as “Loony Bin Jim”) from the asylum, they seek out the wife and daughter of the downed agent. All the while, Castle’s guilty conscious over the killing has him trying to help the wounded widow and child. Rallying his weapons expert Linus “Microchip” Lieberman, our street savor gets the arsenal necessary to take out these monsters once and for all.

With the Marvel imprint MAX as her constant mantra, and a bubbly personality that betrays a wealth of pre-release publicity on her “happiness” with the film’s final cut, listening to Lexi Alexander wax warmly about the movie she supposed abandoned over “creative differences” is reason enough to give Punisher: War Zone a spin. This is a filmmaker who can excuse away anything, from wooden performances (“this is exactly how the character acts in the comic”) to blowing off half of an old lady’s head (“it’s great”). There is no denying the fact that if you like bullets and lots and lots of them, this version of the second-tier antihero will definitely satiate your ammunition jones. More poorly aimed artillery rounds are expended here than in an entire season of a ‘70s crime drama. Utilizing the stylized approach to atrocity made famous by Hong Kong and indie Hollywood, Alexander tries to paint a graphic novel vista loaded with pain, anger, and wall-to-wall violence. What we get instead is the firefight equivalent of a gang bang.

Granted, this is a lot better than the Thomas Jane joke that Jonathan Hensleigh made out of the material. So Lionsgate has to be thanked for getting their head out of their horror films long enough to realize a new direction was needed. But what should we make of the reports circa July of 2008 that claimed Alexander was kicked off the film for delivering a blood spattered send-up of all things gun and gun-like. Obviously, arguments over the dollar sign differences between an R and a PG-13 rating were part of the process. But nowhere on this DVD do we hear about the supposed spat. It’s important to note, however, that the disc carries over the original theatrical cut of the film. Anyone hoping to get their hands on the “Unrated” brains and body parts edition of the title will be very disappointed indeed (if one even exists, that is).

That being said, Punisher: War Zone can be called a groveling guilty pleasure. It’s not in the same league as The Spirit, or Crank, or Ultraviolet, but it’s just bugnuts enough to find a place in the less discriminating facets of your movie loving logistics. As our corpse grinding “good” guy, Ray Stevenson puts on his best Brit glower and gives the Queen’s English the heave-ho for lots of guttural grunting. He’s matched in UK jive by the paisan paltriness of Dominic West’s Jigsaw. So stereotyped he might as well be eating dinga-magoo off the back of a bearded Italian grandmother, he gives the entire Mediterranean a bad name. About the only actor surviving this surreal shoot ‘em up is Percy Wetmore himself, Doug Hutchinson - and to hear Alexander tell it, he found his inner psycho all by himself.

As for the rest of the digital package, we are once again fooled by the so-called “two disc” tag. The second DVD is reserved for a downloadable copy of the film only. Talk about a big shrug of the shoulders. Elsewhere, we get the standard EPK material, puff pieces on casting, make-up, behind the scenes scuttlebutt, and that incredibly cockeyed alternate narrative track. When you consider that Alexander and Gainer get a chance to, more or less, “set the record straight”, the rest of this material is meaningless. Still, it’s fun to hear actors who basically know better explaining the motives beyond earning a big fat paycheck.

And you have to remember that, no matter the good/bad karma, no matter the kiss and make-up quality of this presentation, no matter the lack of butts in seats or total disrespect from critics (Rotten Tomatoes has this at 25% and dropping), what matters in the end is the movie. Fans have spoken, and they seem to like that Alexander mimicked the pen and ink publication they loved so well. For those outside the comic cult, this will be some hard media mindlessness to swallow. Sure, there’s a lonely Saturday night out there somewhere just waiting for you to rent this title and take a break from using your brain, and if you’re in the right mood, you may actually enjoy yourself. But don’t be fooled by Alexander and her unrealistic mother and child reunion. This is one cinematic kid that deserves a good spanking.

by Rob Horning

24 Mar 2009

Ordinarily I confine my Hipster Runoff commentary to this blog, but this post, an apparent reaction to the environment of desperation at South by Southwest, thick with media consultants and other assorted douchey brand-management types, warrants further attention. It’s an elaborate recognition of the fact that bands don’t have to worry about making music so much anymore; they need to generate internet memes.

In our modern world, 99% of ‘bands’ could be defined as groups of people who created a myspace page and uploaded 1.5 songs. These people have no vision of the modern landscape, and do not understand what it takes to grow into a ‘band worth following.’ While the ‘live performance’ is eventually a critical element in a band’s rise to prominence, there is a game which can be played on the internet to achieve success.
Your band must invade the Perception Economy. Your Band must no longer be a band. Your band must be a meme. A Meme Which Generates subMemes. These memes must be compelling, intriguing, and interesting enough for people to ‘follow’ or at least think that you are ‘worth following.’

If Twitter is the hot medium, in other words, than content producers of all stripes must change their output to accommodate it. People need to be able to “follow” what they are doing without having to devote more than an instant of their time. Relative to memes, songs are cumbersome. And music has never determined which bands are important to know about—instead there are certain bands whose names circulate as currency with no regard to their music. This has always been the case. I’ve found that the best thing about not trying to be up-to-date with pop music is that I’ve lost touch entirely with those sorts of bands; I know there are such bands as MGMT and Grizzly Bear but feel no need to find out what they sound like or confirm that they suck just as much as I expect them to. I’ve moved on to a different status hierarchy, I guess. But memeification, as Carles, the proprietor of Hipster Runoff, depicts it, is a good way of conceptualizing how the shifts in the music hierarchy have accelerated, asymptotically approaching realtime, where memes would be instantly outdated the moment they are broadcast online.

Carles augments his argument about memeification with several charts, parodies of the sorts of things marketing gurus presumably present during actual conferences at SxSW. He diagrams, for instance, the “music memeosphere” and details it with this account of the cultural food chain:

  * BAND GENERATED MEMES - These are units of information which are generated by the bands themselves. Bands with more creativity and personality tend to create the best memes. However, bands have been successful being ‘cryptic’ and ‘weird’ in recent years. The bigger your band is, the less you have to do to create a gimmicky meme that people want to follow. The MP3 is pretty important, but not always as important for certain bands.
  * THE TASTEMAKING MEME AGGREGATING & CONTENT FILTERING SERVICE INDUSTRY - These have replaced magazines and the radio as the optimal sources for music. These services & openly-biased news/meme sources are meant to build trust with consumers. Whether it is an algorithm to filter new music, a team of bros who love music writing about new bands, or just some bitter ass hole who ‘couldn’t make it as a band’ and decided to ‘cultivate influence’ any way he can, these are all providing a service to consumers. They all work together. While it may seem that they are covering ‘different niches’, they all sort of balance eachother out.
  * MUSIC MAGAZINES AND RADIO - These make modern people feel sad and constraint. These put a bottle neck on consumer individuality, feeling like they only see a ‘limited snapshot’ of what is available. Minimal ‘personal relationship building’ means less authenticity and less trust. When a band is viewed as ‘relevant’ from these sources, people who like them are either ’stupid’, ‘just want to fit in’, or ‘ironically like the band/artist.’
  * REGULAR PEOPLE/CONSUMERS - These are consumers like you or me. We want to listen to music and populate our iPods for different reasons. Some people enjoy ‘hunting for music.’ Others just get it from friends. Humans are at the tail end of the meme trail, but they do create a demand for memes which can sometimes force a band to exhaust their presence.

As with virtually everything on Hipster Runoff, it’s hard to tell the degree to which Carles is joking, or even whether that determination would have any meaning. He’s basically guilty of everything he mocks, making his blog a sort of self-consuming artifact. It points two mirrors at one another and records the infinite regress: a blog worth blogging about. Memes as memes. Consequently, there is nothing exaggerated about what he reports here—this really is a pretty accurate portrait of the “music-meme economy.” It lacks only the oozing cynicism.

In its way, Carles’s discourse is far more performative than anything Derrida ever managed. I’m wondering, though, if Carles’s style of discourse, the mode of proceeding by tautology and negating irony by both fully indulging it and entirely rejecting it simultaneously, is the only creditable form of discourse for addressing the contemporary cultural scene. It captures perfectly how every phenomenon is already processed and accepted as a strategy, and the possibility of appreciating any given thing in earnest is always already in quotation marks, without the presumption of there even being a reason why.

by Sarah Zupko

24 Mar 2009

It was a mere four years ago this week that the pre-“Paper Planes” M.I.A. dropped her full-length, non-mixtape debut Arular on the listening public. Like most critics, we loved it. Adrien Begrand raved that “Ms. Arulpragasam has delivered the best UK debut since Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner.” Here are the three videos from the album.

 

“Sunshowers” (single released 5 July 2004)

 

“Galang” (single released: 14 September 2004)

 

“Bucky Done Gun” (single released: 26 July 2005)

 

 

by L.B. Jeffries

23 Mar 2009

Kane & Lynch is an attempt to recreate the epic bank robbery from Heat while borrowing a few of the typical plot points from Michael Mann’s films. As in Heat and Collateral, this is a game about two dissimilar people at odds finding commonality. More specifically, it explodes the relationship between Robert DeNiro’s character and Kevin Gage (Waingro, the bearded guy DeNiro kills in the hotel). While the film is content to define the difference between these two men under codes of professionalism and brutality, the game confronts how flimsy a difference this actually is. Waingro may murder prostitutes and hostages, but how is that different from the people DeNiro shoots or the woman he abandons? Kane, depicted as the consummate professional, continues to stand by a code that has slowly destroyed his family and his own life. Lynch, relying on medication and prone to violent delusions, has no code at all. The way that their relationship develops throughout the game leads to their supposed differences slowly dissolving. I’m going to ignore the Gerstmann Gate fiasco for this breakdown of Kane & Lynch. Although the scandal may have made for good headlines, I don’t really see what it has to do with the actual game.

 

The game opens with Kane reciting a letter to his daughter on his way to Death Row. He writes, “As you know if you’ve read the papers, my life as a mercenary and all the pain I’ve caused, most of it is true. I should regret it all, I should be scared of dying, but I’m not. I can’t anymore. The only feeling I have left is regret that I’ll never get to know you.” This refusal to feel any guilt creates a kind of moral blindness in Kane. He wants his daughter to love him but is unwilling to acknowledge his own personal flaws that make him so unbearable. The game is literal about this: Kane is blind in his left eye just as he is blind to his own personal failings. This repressed guilt also comes up whenever you are wounded, the screen goes white and repressed memories will play until a squadmate rescues you. Kane’s wife screaming at him for keeping a gun in the house, children playing in a park, or Kane trying to stop himself from murdering people.

Lynch interrupts Kane’s letter monologue when a prison break occurs and Kane is freed. In terms of game design, the levels work like an organized Grand Theft Auto encounter with the police. Rather than have the game generate a steady stream of police assaulting you, it is a roller coaster of running from building to building while fending off the cops. One of the refreshing things about this being the premise of a “duck and cover” game is that the plot actually matches what you’re doing in the game. As Mitch Krpata points out about Gears of War 2, when your game design consists of ducking and crawling through a war zone it creates a dissonance with a story about being the ultimate badass. Kane & Lynch’s game design matches its plot because these are both scarred and tormented individuals. Kane has a broken nose, a blind eye, and scars that mark a person who has seen too much combat. Lynch is equally unimpressive as he is bald, overweight, and wears glasses. These are the kinds of people you’d expect to be ducking under cover just as much as you’d expect them to be up to no good.

The two chief complaints about the controls are that the camera is sluggish and the cover system is terrible. On the issue of the camera, what this complaint refers to is that the reticule moves slowly when you aim from the shoulder. It helps to consider the timing of the game’s release in regards to this design choice. Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War were the current smash hits, and they also relied heavily on aiming from the shoulder. The difference is that there was no slow down when you move to shoulder aiming in those games. Although technically the game was just relying on the exact same setup as the developer’s previous game Freedom Fighter, a lot of people try to play the game like they’re playing Call of Duty 4 or Gears of War, and it feels sluggish when you do so. You often don’t need to aim from the shoulder and these variables can be tweaked from the menu anyway.

The other complaint is about the cover system, which will automatically cause your character to drop down when you hit cover and also turns the camera around corners for you. Again, the source of the complaint mostly seems to be that it doesn’t working like Gears of War. All of these arguments boil down to a preferred method of control but blaming a game for not being like a different game seems a bit backwards. Once I broke myself of old habits while playing Kane & Lynch, the game worked fine for me.

The combat scenarios after the escape from Death Row continue to explore and test the relationship between the game’s two title figures. After the 7, a criminal organization Kane abandoned, kidnaps Kane’s family, they stick him with Lynch and a plot to steal a briefcase. The game’s tutorial then teaches the player by having them teach Lynch how to fight. The game tells you how to throw grenades, then you throw one, then Lynch mimics it until he understands this himself. It establishes an authoritative relationship for the player, making Lynch both distant and inferior to Kane and the player. The subsequent bank robbery and theft of the briefcase goes wrong when Lynch, while left in charge of the hostages, hallucinates and starts shooting them. In Co-Op mode the person playing Lynch will find their perspective distorted and all the hostages will literally look like cops to that player during these moments. Kane curses and swears at Lynch for being unprofessional once they escape, but, in the next level, the player has to kidnap a woman from a packed Tokyo nightclub. Once the bullets start flying, the player is stuck in a situation where they have almost no choice but to shoot a hostage themselves. The very moral stance that you criticize Lynch for in one level must be violated by the player in the next.

Kane exacerbates the situation by leaving Lynch alone with yet another kidnapped victim, resulting in Lynch losing control and accidentally killing her. Because we know Lynch is unstable, the repeat accident starts to shift the blame from Lynch to Kane’s irresponsible reliance on him. The downward spiral continues as Kane reports back to the 7 that he wasn’t able to recover the briefcase and the 7 kills his wife as a result. Sending his daughter away to “find someplace safe,” Kane abandons her to get his revenge. Throughout these exchanges, it is Lynch that is constantly seeing the hiccups in Kane’s logic. He points out that he wasn’t entirely at fault for the second hostage incident, and he points out that Kane isn’t going to be able to help his daughter by abandoning her. Kane, still blind to his own flaws, mostly just tells Lynch to shut up.

Facing the constant criticisms from his squad of “Dead Men” and Lynch, the player’s position as the superior authority that began during the tutorial slowly comes into question. Kane’s desire for revenge becomes steadily more murky as he is forced to confront the fact that, like leaving Lynch with the hostages, he shares in the blame for his wife’s death. Were it not for the botched kidnapping and Kane’s constant reliance on violence as a solution, she would still be alive. The last third of the game loses a great deal of its appeal by having the levels involve a Civil War in Havana. For a game that differentiated itself by being a hard boiled crime thriller, these final moments feel like the very games Kane & Lynch stood apart from.

The game eventually forces the player to curb the urge to just shoot their way through every problem by having Kane’s daughter be the one held hostage. If the player moves or tries to shoot the 7 while they have Jenny, they’re both gunned down. If they calm down and think up an alternative solution, they can escape.

The final level of the game echoes the decision made by Robert DeNiro in Heat. In the film, DeNiro chooses to finish off Waingro instead of walking away. In the game, Kane must choose between saving his daughter or saving his stranded men in Havana. To emphasize how trapped Kane is by his own criminal nature, the designers make either choice a hollow one. If you save Jenny, then her hatred for your own hypocrisy and refusal to care means she will despise you. If you save your men, redeeming yourself as a traitor, then Jenny will be shot and killed during the process. While Heat chose to emphasize that DeNiro’s own criminal code ended up robbing him of a decent life, Kane & Lynch forces the player to see the shallow life DeNiro would have had either way. Whether Kane saves his daughter or his men, he must still pay for his past crimes.

by Jennifer Kelly

23 Mar 2009

Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile

After a long, ultimately fruitless wait for a table at Nuevo Leon, I am again faced with the choice between food and music. Guess which I choose? 

That’s right. Fuck tacos, Kurt Vile is on at Mrs. Bea’s. As I excuse myself I am trying to explain to my dinner companions who I want to see, and they think I’m checking out Kurt Weill, you know, the Threepenny Opera guy, who is, I think, fairly dead by now. No, no, no, this particular Kurt Vile is a sometime participant in War Against Drugs greatness, and also has his own pretty fantastic album, Constant Hitmaker out on the Gulcher label. He is, at the moment, of some interest to at least three big indie labels, so you may be hearing more about the guy later. For now, let us just say that he is a slight, shy fellow, with his hair falling down over his eyes, who somehow manages to evoke the lo-fi purity of New Zealand bands like the Clean as well as larger scale Dylan-into-Springsteen Americana anthemic-ness. He is digging into the slanted epic expansiveness of “Freak Train”, when I arrive, a long jammed-out track with just a hint of California country psych from his upcoming Childish Prodigy. His bass player switches to harmonica for “Freeway”, my favorite of all his songs, his drummer is hitting the toms with the open palm of one hand,  the other shaking a maraca. It is, as the name implies, a breezy, endless highway, wind through the open windows kind of song, full of that relentless optimism that comes with starting over, and Vile’s guitar, a wooden Les Paul, arches through its shimmery textures like a rainbow after a long storm. He switches to a flower-engraved Ensenada 12-string for the next song, whose title I can’t catch, coaxing a shivery, ghostly tone from it that is a little bit blues, a little bit folk. 

caUSE co-MOTION

caUSE co-MOTION

caUSE co-MOTION sets up almost immediately after Vile, and I have to say, their album It’s Time, a collection of singles, left me a little bit cold. It seemed like a fairly pale rehash of a lot of things from 1978 - 1981… the Clash, Fire Engines, English Beat, etc…. and without any really memorable songs. I like the show a whole lot more than the record, though, because they are working their songs so very hard. The bass player, in particular, is all over the place, doing the leaps and kicks and lunges that, like MSG, make everything taste a little sharper. The drummer plays a short-order kit, no bass drum, just snare, cymbal and floor tom, getting the most of out it, though with frantic, marching-band-on-speed snare fills, sticks bouncing straight up to perpendicular with the impact. The singing is laconic, flat and stream-of-conscious, classic first-wave punk to the core, but feeling less like an imitation, more like a personal style in the live context. As in much of late 1970s punk, there’s something vaguely ska-ish about the guitars, which sting and chime in a trebly upper register. And here’s the thing, I thought the songs weren’t that memorable, but I remember a whole bunch of them, “Which Way Is Up” with its left-turn triplet break, the razor-y jangle of “This Just Won’t Last”, the summer-y angst of “This Time Next Year”. This band is better than I thought, and way, way, way better live than on the record.

Psychedelic Horseshit

Psychedelic Horseshit

Psychedelic Horseshit is the kind of band that, even if I knew nothing else about them, I would go see just for the name. In this case, though, there’s a lot more to love than the band name, especially if you like that grimy, diesel-fueled punk rock that sounds like the Fall recorded in someone’s shower stall—with the water on. Some of the band members are wearing hand-markered T-shirts that read “Wavves Suxx”, a double consonant eddig at the one-man garage phenom receiving inexplicable love from the blog world. (Wavves is playing later at the same party, but I’ve heard so many people trash him by that point, that I leave beforehand.) “I Fucking Hate the Beach” says the singer, maybe a song title, maybe a statement of purpose, but in any case, the beginning of the kind of mayhem where amps and cymbal stands fall like dominoes and everybody keeps going. Another song is said to be called “We’re Pink Floyd Bitch”, is played from a guitar held together with hope and duct tape, from which sudden flares of wah emerge from something between a drone and a rant. Then they play my favorite, “Rather Dull” just as chaotic and fine as on the record, and maybe a little better sound, and it’s over.

Blank Dogs

Blank Dogs

Blank Dogs is another band I mean to see before I go home, just missed him a couple of days ago at Beerland, but bought On Two Sides at the table anyway. It’s super fun, echo-distorted, keyboard-heavy, post-punk, more synthetic and along the lines of Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnyman than say, the Fall or Gang of Four. It’s getting pretty packed by now, and I have to slither a little to get close enough for a photo. Mr. Blank Dog is reverbed to the max, his voice echoing like a horror movie soundtrack. He plays a few songs, ending with a really great version of “Leaving the Light On”, and then something technical goes wrong and the set is cut short.

The Ohsees

The Ohsees

That means it’s time for the Ohsees, John Dwyer’s current band (old ones include Pink and Brown, Hospitals and the Coachwhips) out of San Francisco, who totally kill, absolutely the best band of the night. Ohsees started out as kind of a lo-fi blues-folk taping project, much mellower than Coachwhips (almost everything is somewhat mellower than Coachwhips, but this was really toned down). It has evidently evolved into something much more garage-y and hard-rocking. Dwyer is typically, maniacally charming, switching between at least three well-worn guitars, biting down hard on the mic, jumping and twitching and yowling a punk rock blues, trading cracks in reverb-echoed god-voice with Todd P. and generally tearing the shit out of his tunes. For the last song, he invites Kyle from the Fresh and Onlys (also Ty Segall’s drummer on Wednesday) up and sets a two-man drum train, for a monster-chugging, amp-damaged, blues-rock frenzy… fantastic stuff. 

Eat Skull plays next, if anything even better than on Wednesday, the sound sharper so that you can actually hear the words. The singer, Rob Enbom (like Dwyer , ex- of Hospitals), has twisted his ankle, and so performs the whole set sitting on the floor, but it doesn’t seem to slow things down much. In fact the fuzz has cleared a little, and I am getting, for the first time, a little whiff of the Sex Pistols out of this band. Another great set, and by this time, the whole backyard, plus the empty lot next door, plus the parking lot behind the stage, are full of kids, some sitting on top of their cars, some hanging out of trees, some climbing onto the railings around the stage, to hear the music. It’s like a punk rock Woodstock, without the mud, but plenty of broken glass to step over, watch your step.

Woods

Woods

Woods has, by this time, set up on the concrete below the stage. They play a set of mostly fairly ethereal psychedelic pop, with high eerie harmonies and dense New Zealand lo-fi guitars. Then right at the end, they all switch instruments, and the sound turns totally punk. 

Crystal Stilts comes next, a band whose full-length Alight of Night I’ve enjoyed a lot, but I’ve heard, over and over, that they are not very good live, and they are truly not. A muddy wash laps over their slacked-out, early 1980s sound, a drone so dense that you can hardly tell the songs apart. I move closer to the stage and further away, trying to find a spot where I can hear, but it’s all just a mess. Getting colder all the time, too, and I’ve dressed for mid-1980s sunshine. Wavves is coming on next, and after that, No Age, but it’s too crowded to see much anymore, and I wander off, thinking vaguely of checking what’s at Beerland. Once I get there, though, exhaustion and overload takes over, and I hail a cab home. Hate to end on a down note, but there it is, my final band at SXSW 2009.

 

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