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by Bill Gibron

22 Jul 2008

It’s time to get out the black wreaths and the ceremonial armbands, especially if, like this critic, you grew up on a steady diet of Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and their exemplary movie review program Sneak Previews/At The Movies. With the duel announcements this week that Richard Roeper (the replacement for the late Chicago Tribune icon) was leaving the show, and that Roger Ebert was done with his participation, Disney finally felled the giant they’d been gunning for since cancer caused the Sun Times scribe to walk away from his on-air participation. It’s no secret that the House of Mouse wanted the series gone - or at the very least, significantly cut back, reconfigured for a new demographic, and bolstered by a bigger piece of the potential pie (Ebert maintains the symbolic “Thumbs”, At the Movies greatest inadvertent asset). Now they’ve got their wish, much to the dismay and detriment of the serious filmgoer fanbase.

While the pro/con summarization of cinema clearly goes against the intellectual approach to film (movies are much more than a recommendation or rejection), the format created by the legendary Midwest columnists would come to symbolize the video age vitality of the medium. With more and more access to movies - thanks in part to technological advances like cable and VCRs - there needed to be a standard bearer for the post-modern motion picture storm. Enter Gene and Roger, two seasoned salts who braved the bad weather of offering opinions on what many saw as a no win, highly personal proposition. After all, just like music and humor, entertainment evaluation can never be communal or completely universal. Still, they tried, and in the interim, they created consensus, addressed issues threatening the artform (colorization, rampant and gratuitous violence) and even stepped in it now and again.

With Siskel’s passing in 1999, many felt the show would simply fade away and die. Ebert tired diligently to maintain the profile, and after a series of guest hosts and high profile ‘auditions’, he settled on Mr. Roeper. To many outside of Chi-town, he was an odd choice. While the native was born in the city of big shoulders, his columns (and eventual reviews) were of regional interest, mostly. When he was tagged to replace Siskel in 2000, he met with some initial resistance. Some saw him as too mainstream, preaching the studio press kit while his partner kept the criticism ‘real’. Over the years, Roeper has gained the respect of both the industry and the audience. When Ebert himself took ill in 2002, the relative newbie grabbed the reigns of the again shaken showcase and continued to foster its importance.

And now, it is no more - at least, not in the way we remember it. In some ways, it’s unbelievably sad the way this all happened. A few months back, there was a dispute over whether the show could actually use the infamous hand gesture. Ebert, who maintained the rights to most of the format with Siskel’s widow Marlene, felt slighted by Disney’s lowball figure to re-up their interest, and so the pair prevented At the Movies from giving the thumb. Then, this year, with the improving critic returning to his 41 year long print gig, it looked like the non-renewal writing was on the wall. Roeper’s “retirement” from the show is further illustration that, aside from certain financial considerations, Uncle Walt’s ‘yes’ men were no longer interested in keeping the series alive. Both men issued press releases, taking the high road in what was, for both, an understandably painful professional chapter.

The mangy Magic Kingdom proposes to have the last laugh, however. Just yesterday 22 July, the studio announced a “new” version of At the Movies featuring E!‘s Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. While they hope the fresh faces will bring in a “younger, hipper” audience, the 26 and 41 years olds, respectively, have little else to offer. Both are considered seasoned professionals, and yet they lack the background, and more importantly, the perceived authority of Roger and Gene. Remember, Sneak Previews was a PBS program specific to the Chicago area before hitting syndication. And both critics were well into their time stint as print critics. Lyons is just a few years into his current career path, while Mankiewicz can rely on his illustrious heritage (related to Frank, Herman, and Joseph L.) to buy him some early respect.

One wonders how the reduced viewership who made the show a must-watch requirement before hitting the Cineplex feel about both moves. Ten or fifteen years ago, yours truly would have been devastated. Even though he frequently had to fish about to discover what elusive cable station was syndicating the show (and when), Siskel and Ebert were an essential aesthetic guide. Sure, they could be incredibly wrong (Gene adored Saturday Night Fever, while ‘Uncle’ Roger continues to hate on the brilliant Blue Velvet), but more times than not, they tempered their judgment with insights that smacked of that critical rarity - perspective and insight. Rare was their’s a declarative or assertive opinion. They always provided analysis with their sometimes snap judgments. Siskel championed polished and professional scripts, while Ebert longed for directors capable of commandeering the various nuances of cinema.

Yet as with all film journalism, the duo appear destined to be boiled down to a rather superfluous set of symbols. As with numerical ratings or alphabetical/iconographic scores, the thumbs were a concession, a way of giving the casual filmgoer a shorthand commercial calibration. If Siskel and Ebert gave a movie “two thumbs up”, it was probably very good. If they declared the opposite, you could easily write it off your list. When they differed, and they did so frequently, an inferred sort of interactivity was necessitated. You had to match up your own idealized view of what movies meant with the men on the screen, and then indirectly gauge accordingly. Many remember the memorable arguments the pair would participate in, each knowing their particular view made the most sense. Over time, bias and age would play a part, but for many, it was all about those up/down digits.

With Internet illiteracy slowly corroding the world of legitimate publishing (and the accompanying professionalism of actual writers), it’s sad to realize that the ‘yes/no’ dynamic has become At the Movies’ lasting legacy. As stated before, no website which offers reviews does so without such shortcuts. Rotten Tomatoes has the whole “fresh/rotten” routine, while others provide stars, popcorn kernels, or film reels as a means of giving you the gist of the scribe’s ideas. Turning 600 to 1000 words into a series of cartoon clapboards may feed the masses, but it’s also a lazy man’s means of understanding cinema - and if there was one thing Siskel and Ebert (and eventually Roeper) were not, it’s indolent. They took their job seriously, even when it looked like VHS (and then DVD) would reduce all cinema to a series of direct to tape travesties.

Business models are entitled to treat inventory in the most effective way possible, capitalizing on its worth while making sure it doesn’t depreciate enough to warrant a sell-off. In the case of Disney and At the Movies, they clearly believed in two indisputable facts - Ebert was the show and Ebert wasn’t coming back. For all his syndicated steadiness, Roeper never felt irreplaceable. He was a place holder - albeit a damn fine one - for some ethereal pairing that could never occur. No one could replace the show’s curmudgeonly conscious (which Siskel clearly was), and Ebert’s importance to the mediums he helped maintain meant that his continued departure invalidated the show’s worth. No offense to anyone involved, but the At the Movies of 2008 - excellent guest hosts and repeat reviewers or not - was not the series of 1978, or 88, or 98.

Naturally, none of that matters now. Both Ebert and Roeper have vowed to soldier on, and with new on air outlets opening up all the time (HD NET, Reelz cable channel) there are soft places for both to land. And Mickey has his revamp, which while already starting to stink, at least seems evocative of the show’s spirit. Whatever happens, film criticism has lost one of its most important links to mainstream meaningfulness. Thanks to the talents and tireless efforts of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Richard Roeper, an otherwise out of touch audience had a reliable source of EPK-less, non-Infotainment Tonight-lite movie information to draw on. Call it the continued tabloiding of TV, or the web’s final revenge on the Fourth Estate, but the absence of At the Movies will definitely be felt. Even in the most inclusive environment, there needs to be a leader. Here’s hoping this is one champion that’s down, but not out. 

by Mike Schiller

22 Jul 2008

Hopefully, fans of the Guitar Hero franchise who are also inclined to visit this here site have already seen Ryan Smith’s review of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, which as far as my experience with the game goes is right on the money.  Still, as an admitted Guitar Hero junkie myself (which sounds extreme, but there’s really no other way to put it), I’m compelled to offer two more observations about the game.

Did I mention that the battle with Joe Perry is easierthan any battle in Guitar Hero III?

The battle with Joe Perry is easier than any battle
in Guitar Hero III!

The first of these observations is exclusive to the Xbox 360 version of the game: the achievements.  Just in case anyone was concerned that Neversoft wasn’t keeping up with the forum buzz, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith directly addresses one of the chief complaints of critics of Guitar Hero III: namely, that the game as a whole (and the set of goals laid out by the achievements in particular) is just too damn hard.  I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero games, but I’m not so good that I expect to blow through the expert career in the second night that I own the game.  As if to say “sorry for expecting you to score 750,000 on anything, and oh, also sorry for thinking you could snag a perfect score on 20 different expert-level tracks”, the achievements are quite obviously designed for the novice.  The most difficult of the achievements are only so for their unpredictability (like the one that forces you to win in sudden death in a battle mode match), and the skill-based achievements don’t even require a score of 500,000 (325,000 on “Train Kept a Rollin’” never really feels out of reach).  Experienced players with a little bit of time on their hands will have a cool 1,000/1,000 points in under a week.  This could be a boon for some players, but in a $60 game, exhausting the achievement list that quick feels a bit like a gyp.

All I’m saying is that it seems a bit strange that Guitar Hero II still seems to have the best idea of a balance of easy, tough-but-doable, and nigh-impossible achievements when two iterations of the franchise have been released since.

Seriously -- this is as hard as \

Seriously—this is as hard as “Dream On” gets.

The other thing that strikes one as odd about Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is the difficulty spread of the songs.  Of particular note is “Dream On”, which actually occupies a spot in the second-to-last tier of songs, which should suggest that it’s a difficult but far from impossible song.  Still, it’s a placement that caused some concern in the community given that “Dream On” was released as downloadable content for Guitar Hero III to promote the upcoming Aerosmith version, and quickly gained a reputation as one of the easiest songs Guitar Hero has ever offered.  It hasn’t changed a bit from that downloadable version in Guitar Hero III, and it feels even easier as part of the penultimate grouping of songs.  Again, some players might be pleased that they get a bit of a break in the form of one of Aerosmith’s most famous and celebrated songs, but those looking for any semblance of a challenge are, again, bound to be disappointed.

Totaled up, the challenge of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith simply isn’t enough in a number of ways, particularly for the person most likely to pick this up; that is, the Guitar Hero veteran who’s looking for 40 or so new songs to play.  For someone who’s never played Guitar Hero, however, someone who happens to be drawn to the franchise for the first time by the featured band, it will be perfect.

Unfortunately, that preferred target of the Guitar Hero: Aerosmith buying constituency will very likely be a rather pronounced minority.

by tjmHolden

22 Jul 2008

On my way to Scandinavia, in transit in South Wing, Terminal One in Japan; stuck in a line that is advancing as slow as it took Seurat to connect all the dots.

I look up to spy a portrait that is even fuzzier; one that takes longer to come into complete focus.

It started out looking like this . . .

And as I tried to make sense of it, drew back, which made it look like this:


But what did these images add up to?


by Terry Sawyer

22 Jul 2008

One of the most offensively sexist critical crutches is the diminishing addendum of “protege”  applied primarily to female artists subtly hinted to be be ventriloquist dummies for more talented Father-Miyagi male musicians. (see also M.I.A. as Diplo’s protege)  Though Janelle Monae has built a resume as producer, vocalist, writer and arranger, her work with Andrew 3000 and Big Boi apparently makes her their understudies.

I wish the sound quality of this clip could convey “Sincerely, Jane’s” orchestral bombast. Unlike other uses of classical music in songs steeped in the hip hop tradition (where piano loops or violin shards suffice), the song is actually structured in grand movements with Monae displaying an acrobatic range in what amounts to a scalding litany of misery, blistering accusation and disdain for humankind.  In short, it’s fantastic.  Think Shirley Bassey having Marianne Faithful put a cigarette out in her eye.  I also love the crazy clash in her onstage image:  equal parts Grace Jones aggression and small-framed Anita Baker swaying. 

I’m cautiously optimistic about her debut.  Monae reminds me of Macy Gray and Imani Coppola (whose new project Little Jackie is my othersummer obsession) in that she borrows from several genres and the chemistry is either pop perfection or simply dull dilution.  Macy Gray in particular embodies the pitfalls of having a voice with no vision, resulting in songs that generically clip the tips of various fads and frenzies.  I think Janelle has more talent, style and depth, but for every successful genre alchemist there are dozens of Cree Summer’s, Rosey’s, and Nikka Costa’s.

by Jason Gross

22 Jul 2008

If you go to Pitchfork for their review of the new record by Black Kids, you’ll see a SORRY message with two long-faced doggies. Cute but you have to wonder if they’re not tooting their own horn a bit here. True, they named Black Kids a phenom not long ago (hence the apology) but do they really think that they alone were responsible for the band’s ascendancy and now have to apologize about this because the group put out a crappy record? 

The Guardian, Vice and NME had written about them before that and Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Village Voice wrote about them afterwards so how do you quantify that it was Pitchfork alone that put them over the top? Even if that were somehow the case, why does Pitchfork itself think they have to apologize? It’s not their fault that the band can’t follow-up a good EP. That’s like saying ‘we built them up and now they suck and so don’t get mad at us about it, OK?’ That’s a lot of assuming and even more chutzpah.

What’s worse is that the review they have up now might not even be their first crack at the latest record. According to one source, the original review earlier in the day was a 0.0 (which they promised to do away with after their Travis Morrison fiasco) with the text saying ‘Everyone makes mistakes’ (if anyone else saw this, please respond!). They sure do make mistakes but if that’s the case here, Pitchfork has a lot more to apologize for and not just to the band.

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

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