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Monday, Jul 2, 2007

I just saw Live Free or Die Hard, so I do understand that there is a limit on how often one can suspend disbelief in life. That said, I am pretty much the eternal optimist. (I mean, it is true that I entered Live Free . . . expecting to like it!) So, I guess that just goes to show that I’m the original “there’s-always-something-good-around-the-next-corner” kind of guy. And if not “good”, then “wild” or “unexpected” or “worth keeping awake for” or simply “can’t wait to see what happens next”. Well . . .  that’s me.

I don’t know about you, but I have to say that I am rarely disappointed. ‘Cause invariably, after turning that corner, something unanticipated, unusual, something worth encountering, generally is standing right there. To my utter surprise (and general a/mu/ma/zement).

Like Bunny Country.

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Monday, Jul 2, 2007

Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.

This is indeed the kind of film one gets lost in, a symbiotic showcase of story, design and execution. The tale begins with our hero, a rat named Remy, recounting the first time he realized his special gift – the ability to create fantastic cuisine via a highly acute sense of smell. To him, food is a sensory experience, not just an available pile of garbage out near the sewers. Of course, this does not go over well with his extended vermin family. His brother thinks Remy is acting spoiled, while his Dad doesn’t understand how any rodent can abandon his family. When a freak accident separates the clan, Remy ends up in Paris, and soon finds the famous five star restaurant Gusteau’s. Unfortunately, the eatery has fallen on hard times, losing much of its status and reputation, thanks in large part to new chef Skinner and cruel critic Anton Ego.

As luck would have it, Remy befriends garbage boy Linguini. He’s a meek manchild, working in the kitchen of the famed eatery out of desperation – and a debt to his dead mother. One night, he messes up the soup, and Remy runs in to try and save it. Turns out the potage is a hit, and Skinner is desperate to discover the secret. Before long, Remy and Linguini have teamed up, turning Gusteau’s fortunes around with the help of the refectory’s staff, including the commanding Colette. But forces are conspiring to foil this partnership. The rat’s family has returned, and they love the fact that their sibling in squalor lives in a neverending food bank. Our human hero is also hounded by his newfound reputation. It has even peaked the interest of Ego, who thought he had buried the business ages ago.

While this all sounds incredibly complex, the truth is that Ratatouille is breezy and basic. It exudes a kind of smoothness that causes all confusion to pass away simply and sincerely. It shows more imagination in its first five minutes than most crass commercial CGI excuses for family films. It resonates with a kind of emotion that causes you to root for the heroes, hiss the numerous villains, and wonder on whose side the various ancillary character’s loyalties rest. Bird takes his time telling his tale, letting sequences of silly slapstick monopolize as much time as quieter, more intimate moments. It has to be repeated here that the pacing is all wrong for the weaned on home video set. Ratatouille wants to create a legend, and such mythologizing takes time.

If you can get into the movie’s relaxed groove, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways that consistently surprise you. Remy’s struggles to find solace after seemingly losing his family are heartfelt and sad. Similarly, Linguini is not just the comic relief. He’s a sweet soul with a decent spirit – he just can’t help the fact that he’s unexceptional. Even the villains shock us with their subtle character layers. Peter O’Toole is absolutely splendid as Ego, giving each one of his lines the kind of acerbic ambience that makes them consistently sinister. But when he gets his comeuppance of sorts, the way the movie illustrates his feelings is enough to bring a tear of joy to your eye. While the theme of being true to yourself sort of gets lost in the shifting storyline – though the “anyone can cook” maxim is repeated incessantly – Bird makes sure that we understand how it applies to everyone. In fact, one of Linguini’s best lines is a simply affirmation: “”Tonight, I’m just your waiter.”

As with most Pixar product, the voice acting is uniformly outstanding. Patton Oswalt is an odd choice to voice Remy, especially given his less than family friendly stand up comedy career (parents – don’t go running out to buy his CD and DVD catalog for the wee ones just yet). But here, the comedian does what he’s mastered on stage. He draws us in, using an amiable ‘aw shucks’ quality to counter his frequently blue bombshells. On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Holm is all Napoleonic complex as the tiny, terrified head chef of Gusteau’s. Making a fortune whoring out the restaurant’s reputation, Skinner is indeed panicked that Linguini’s fame will foul his plans, and Holm’s captures that paranoia perfectly. As Colette, a barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo is all Parisian girl power. Through her delicate accent, she exudes both determination and romance. Other standouts include Brad Garrett as the voice of friendly ghost Gusteau and Lou Romano as Linguini.

But the true stars here are the many artists and designers who toiled endlessly to realize the magnificent gleam of Paris. There are several shots that appear lifted directly from a photorealistic rendering of the skyline, and when Remy races through many of the city’s streets and byways, the attention to detail is maddening. It’s the same inside Gusteau’s kitchen. As with most interior spaces, Pixar amplifies the nooks and crannies, coming up with more and more ingenious ways of working our characters through the maze-like mayhem. This is definitely the kind of movie you have to see twice – once just to get the basics down, and the second time to drink in all the particulars. Unlike The Incredibles, which was simply the best comic book super hero movie ever made, Ratatouille wants to compete, optically, with the other wonders created by its corporate namesake. It does so magnificently.

Oddly enough, there are those wary of the film because it contains, at least for them, a decided ‘ick’ factor. Granted, for people who hate spiders, a film like Eight Legged Freaks of Arachnophobia might be a bit much to handle. Similar, the Empire State showdown between Peter Jackson’s Kong and that armada of bi-planes was so expertly visualized that anyone with a hatred of heights got instant vertigo. But to be put off by cartoon mice in a make believe restaurant seems a tad…specious. After all, this is animation, not real life, and while Remy and his clan are given the full blown bubonic plague treatment (some of these creatures are, well, ratty), they also speak and exhibit sophisticated motor skills. When was the last time you saw a lice ridden rodent whip up a delicious looking omelet. Besides, if you could make Mouse Hunt a sizable hit with a lifelike CG pest, you can handle these animated animals.

And yet, one can’t help but feel that this fantastic film will eventually underperform. Parents of antsy offspring will tell their SUV subordinates of their progeny’s predicable inability to sit still, and glumly conclude “It’s no Finding Nemo”. Others will be desperate to look for the instant hook of likeability and argue that Bird bypasses such shallowness for something more meaty. Whatever the case may be, don’t let the ennui-laced word of mouth dissuade you from seeing one of the best movies of the Summer. Proving once again that only Pixar can consistently make animated movie magic, Ratatouille is destined to go down as one of their best. And when you consider the canon it must compare to, that’s some statement.


Tagged as: ratatouille
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Monday, Jul 2, 2007
by Karen Heller [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

Could there be a more brilliant title than The Dangerous Book for Boys? You could take two empty covers, stick a book of matches inside—dipped in wax for waterproofing as suggested—and come up a winner.

This handsome volume, authored by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, proffers advice on such essentials as spiders, poker, invisible ink, skinning a rabbit and making a go-cart, things every boy’s father knew as a boy.

OK, let’s not kid ourselves here. Every boy’s grandfather.

A phenomenon in the authors’ native England where it was published a year ago, Dangerous was named British Book of the Year, with more than half a million copies in print. Since its May debut on these shores, the retro manual, which has a $25 list price, has sold 211,000 copies. It crests Publishers Weekly‘s best-seller list, outselling Reagan, Gore, Diana, Hillary, Einstein and, well, God.

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Monday, Jul 2, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Through The Sparks —"Mexico (Every Last Buffalo)" From Lazarus Beach on Skybucket Records Upon the realization that they were sitting on a library of songs and ideas, and with multiple songwriters in the band, Through the Sparks pooled their pile of beat-up pianos and organs, 8-tracks and a Protools rig, and formed Alamalibu Studios, the band’s heavily fortified, though often transient, music-making space in Birmingham, Alabama. The band released an EP titled Coin Toss and a limited edition collection of early recordings, AudioIotas, during the first year and a half of its existence, both released on Skybucket Records. They’ve recently completed their first full-length release for Skybucket, while playing as many shows as the recording schedule allowed.

The Ladybug Transistor —"Three Days From Now" From Can’t Wait Another Day on Merge Records The album features spirited contributions from members of Aislers Set, Architecture in Helsinki, The Clientele, Jens Lekman, Kevin Barker (Currituck Co., Vetiver), Heather McIntosh (Circulatory System, Instruments) Roy Nathanson (Lounge Lizards/Jazz Passengers) and others. The first fruits of these sessions were heard on 2006’s Here Comes The Rain EP.

Nadir—"Slave (Distorted Soul Album Version)" From Slave: The Remixtape on Bikiniwax Church-trained, Southern bred, reborn urban dread, Nadir (meaning “rare and unique”) is a clear and resonant voice of cultural change. Singer/songwriter, producer and activist Jonah Nadir Omowale brings us an undeniable musical message, steeped in both tradition and innovation. His music, called Distorted Soul, is a revolutionary soul music hybrid that incorporates elements of funk, electronica, r&b, soul, house, rock, jazz, folk and hip-hop “in such a delectable manner that his musical renditions are certain to satisfy and musical palate.”

The Foundry Field Recordings —"Transistor Kids" From Fallout Stations EP on Emergency Umbrella Records Fallout Stations is the limited edition, companion EP to The Foundry Field Recordings debut full-length Prompts/Miscues. It contains new songs, rarities, and highlights directly relating back to the concept album.

Rasputina—"Cage In A Cave" From Oh Perilous World! on Filthy Bonnet Recording Co.
Oh Perilous World! the sixth full length album from chamber-rock trio Rasputina was performed by the band’s creator Melora Creager and drummer Jonathon TeBeest with second chair Sarah Bowman contributing additional vocals. Creager wrote the songs featured on Oh Perilous World! over the last two years after deciding current world events were more bizarre than anything she could scrounge up from the distant past. She obsessively read daily news on the Internet, copying words, phrases and whole stories that especially intrigued her. She compiled a vast notebook of this material from which the Oh Perilous World! lyrics are culled.

Shout Out Louds —"Tonight I Have to Leave It" From Tonight I Have to Leave It on Merge Records
“Tonight I Have to Leave It” is the first single from Stockholm’s Shout Out Louds upcoming Merge full-length, Our Ill Wills [Sept. 11, 2007]. With a video for the title track, two remixes and two non-LP “b-sides” this is a great reintroduction to a Swedish band whose extraordinary 2005 debut, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff (Capitol) garnered worldwide critical acclaim and placed them squarely in the middle of the current Swedish pop explosion.

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Monday, Jul 2, 2007

Who doesn’t love a good manifesto? The New York Times thoughtfully provides pdfs of the Splasher Manifesto, distributed mysteriously a week or so ago by a group that apparently hates street art—they went around splashing paint on works by people like Banksy, who had suddenly became trendy with lifestyle magazines. This epistle has everything that makes manifestos great—Situationist-style mischievousness; heightened, pretentiously militaristic diction; paranoid megalomania tending toward nihilism; petty grievances about the art world elevated to cosmic significance; enough ambiguity and implicit irony to make it impossible to tell how seriously the authors take themselves. It’s as if they only just noticed that artists make commercial objects that are traded in markets that manufacture value out of thin air—value that is ultimately backed by workers’ sweat equity at some point in the economic chain. (This is most memorably stated on the page with the slogan “Capital sucks from the teats of idols”—“Your compromises with capital are not some side deal you make to support your art; it is essential to it, capital is woven into your production.”) Of course this makes artists’ poses ludicrous. But it almost gives artists too much credit and dignity to be appalled at how they fail to transcend capitalism; they never had a chance, especially the ones who practice art as if it were a shortcut to an understanding of sociology or political science. The movement that the splashers are trying to halt is the one that will expose once and for all that artists and advertisers (“creatives”) are essentially synonymous at this point. A new word needs to be coined for the creative practice the splashers want to champion, though it may just be the self-actualization promised by consumerism realized by different means.

There are some provocative points in the manifesto—namely that the avant-garde and the Left should not in any way be considered synonymous; avant-garde movements are not any more progressive than fashion cycles are. Also, that commercial street art turns public space into desiccated gallery space. It makes people walking the street feel vaguely like trespassers. It’s one of the reasons I personally hate the monstrous sculptures corporations plop in semi-public spaces near office buildings—the demoralization that occurs in the typical hierarchical and bureaucratized office is extended into the world at large.

But I would have enjoyed the manifesto for its audacious rhetoric alone. A few highlights:

“We began these series of actions as a critique of rationality…. To further exemplify the disrespect we felt for the work and its creator, we arrogantly mixed the wheat paste with shards of glass.”
The use of the adverb “arrogantly” in that statement perfectly exemplifies manifesto style, which is mainly about ludicrous adverb placement and unnecessary jargon.

“Any dialogue with power is violence, whether passively suffered or actively provoked.”
A good example of the tendency of manifestos to generate a multiplicity of near-meaningless aphorisms. The heightened rhetoric of manifestos proceeds toward an ideal in which every single utterance is an aphorism, a pithy expression of some contingent insight that is reframed as a universal axiom.

“We are comprised of both men and women”
Obviously there are no copy editors among them.

“If we did have to speculate on what would encompass a successful outcome, we would have to rejoice over those who are now autonomously destroying pieces on their own volition in cities across the globe.”
The global reach they imagine has to be tongue-in-cheek. But this is typical of manifestos, where a radical group’s efforts set such powerful examples that like-minded followers emerge spontaneously and forward the cause independent of their ever having being a coherent explanation of what the cause is. Manifestos imagine the power of organizations without the overhead costs they necessitate; the magic discourse of the manifesto calls into being groups that can achieve public goods without the friction of interpersonal squabbles.

“We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom.”
Sublime hyperbole, almost Baudrillardian in its scope. The idea that physical starvation is preferable to consumerist anomie is like the Spartanism I sometimes romanticize taken to the nth extreme: Material deprivation is preferable to meaningless choice among consumer goods. And remember, they are justifying nothing more extreme than vandalizing street art—they are willing to starve rather than be affronted by some well-meaning, gentrifying mural.

“Art collectors and admirers are the most insufferable lot of all. Endowed with nothing but time and money, they consistently hemorrhage both meaningless adulation and cash on their preferred jesters.”
“Nothing but time and money”—these are not bad things to have a surplus of. I guess the implication is that they lack talent, but the impression I get from the rest of the manifesto is that talent itself is a bourgeois mystification. I also get the sense that the manifesto verges on becoming the kind of hipster ego art that it professes to denounce; that is part of its frisson, perhaps.

“Art: the excrement of action”
The syntax here mimics that of the granddaddy of manifesto writers, Marinetti, the futurist who wrote “War: The World’s only hygiene,” a document which contains the immortal declaration “The red holidays of genius have begun.” “Art: the excrement of action” has some similarly bombastic declarations, about the centrality of action and destruction as creativity and so forth; apparently this group doesn’t subscribe to the notion that capitalism is the original harbinger of creative destruction—maybe they should read Schumpeter; they might appreciate his tone if nothing else.

“Destroy the museums, in the streets and everywhere.”
It’s impossible to tell if this is meant literally, but I take this to mean that the complacent, reverant attitude, flush with social capital, that we take to museums makes it impossible for us to appreciate art as it should be appreciated; it robs it of its appropriate context—apparently that of class struggle: “destroying the bourgeoisie”. This seems a tall order for most art, but if it can make us feel ashamed of the museum-going mentality, the passive faux-transcendent pose of chin-scratching judgment and connoiseurship, it’s moving in the right direction.

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