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by Lara Killian

26 May 2008

Recently I picked up the Artemis Fowl series, and made a few remarks about it in my Evil Boy Genius post. When Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius (2005) crossed my path last week, therefore, I felt compelled to read it. Here, I thought, here is a knockoff Artemis Fowl – another boy genius, obsessed with computers and mathematics, but in this book he gets the chance to be mentored, to go to university (he graduates from high school at age 13, as any self-respecting evil genius would), to be trained in world domination. This time the story is set in Australia rather than Ireland. And sans fairies. So there are a few small differences.


Although protagonist Cadel is clever and ambitious, he turns out to be just a very intelligent, otherwise normal teenage boy who wants to belong to a family and to prove himself. Stifled at every turn by his adoptive parents the Piggotts, psychologist Thaddeus, and the man he is told is his biological father, Dr Darkkon, Cadel soon feels trapped and attempts to escape Darkkon’s plans for Cadel to build some sort of malicious empire by staging a controlled collapse of the microcosm he has been placed in at the Axis Institute, a secret university for people with special abilities or weird gene mutations, causing symptoms like smelling really bad or having silvery skin like a fish. And gills. Apparently, author Jinks got started on the idea for the novel when she got curious about how characters similar to Professor X of the X-Men series got their degrees from.

Though Cadel is obsessed with systems of all kinds, he is too young to understand that people will never react as you expect them to, and the situation soon spirals out of control.

Where Artemis Fowl often seems to be even more abnormal because he doesn’t react in an emotional way to almost anything around him, Cadel Piggott has totally normal reactions to the bizarre developments in his life. He gets upset, breaks down, acts out, and forms a relationship with an equally intelligent girl (though she certainly has problems of her own). She is put in danger, and Cadel has to decide what means more to him: family or friendship. Many teenage readers should be able to relate.

Overall, this appeared to be a more detailed story about a teen geek taking over the world than the Artemis Fowl series, but that series is more clever and appealing in its dialog and action. Plus, Artemis is almost totally independent and fully aware of the implications of his actions, always a few steps ahead. Meanwhile, Cadel of Evil Genius finds the systems he thought he understood imploding while he looks on in despair, and that story is just not as entertaining.

Any good reads out there over the US holiday weekend?

by Chris Conaton

25 May 2008

Weezer have always had a knack for making great videos. Spike Jonze’s early work with the band on the low-key but clever “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and the innovative “Buddy Holly” video that featured the band inserted into Happy Days helped put him on the map. Then there were Marcos Siega’s clips for “Hash Pipe”, with the band in sumo suits, and the excellent “Keep Fishin’”, which had Weezer appearing as guests on The Muppet Show. On Friday, May 23, the band added “Pork and Beans” to their list of video triumphs. Premiering on YouTube, the video is three minutes and 15 seconds of references to internet pop culture, most of which became famous through YouTube in the first place.

The band assembled dozens of these internet celebs and tossed them all into the same video, having most of the lip sync to the lyrics of the songs. The main performance in the video shows Weezer in a field in lab coats, performing amidst an ever-increasing number of Diet Coke-and-Mentos fountains. The sheer amount of references is astonishing, and the video quickly becomes an entertaining checklist as the viewer tries to identify the various bits. I got about 80% of them on the first time through. My favorite moments- drummer Pat Wilson creepily hanging around the Numa Numa headphones guy and Rivers Cuomo awkwardly giving Chris “Leave Britney Alone!!” Crocker a hug.

Sure, Weezer isn’t the first to combine a pile of internet references in one place. South Park did it to hilarious effect a couple of months ago, and that’s just one example. And yes, it will probably seem dated six months from now—it won’t have the staying power of the “Buddy Holly” video, that’s for sure. But since videos are often basically band-approved commercials for the music, staying power isn’t the point. Right now, and for the rest of the summer, Weezer has a surefire YouTube hit on their hands that will go a long way towards keeping their name out there as they promote their new album. It’s both funny and a savvy marketing strategy, so kudos to them.

by tjmHolden

25 May 2008

Whatever gets you through the night ‘salright, ‘salright It’s your money or life ‘salright, ‘salright Don’t need a sword to cut through flowers oh no, oh no

Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John Lennon

Getting through a journey is a lot like that. Maybe. Depending on how you take John’s meaning.

One way I take it—whenever I find myself on the road—is that there are always simpler ways to solve life’s conundrums than may, at first blush, spring immediately to mind. And ways more rewarding than calling on a corps of engineers to erect a bridge when a raft wafting lazily down the river might just as easily work.

Well, at least, it’s something to keep under consideration.

One of the points of this blog is to remind us all that one of the points of the peripatetic life is to enjoy the journey—to keep our eyes open, our ears attuned, our noses aware, to ensure that our brains are engaged—to treat, in short, the journey as if it is the purpose, rather than a means toward some other purpose. Because if we treat it in the alternative, then we won’t abide by any of these sensory commandments and then our trips merely amount to work. They become transformed into a grating on the psyche; a waste of 8 or 10 or 15 hours in our finite store. They become a metaphysical equivalent of the stack of books planted in the path of ants heretofore trying to move from Point A to B. Sure, give them a little time to get over their astonishment and they’re guaranteed to find a way over and around the books—no doubt about that—but for what purpose? Merely because they were forced to in order to join the begnning with the end point. Maybe greater social concord will result, but it is unlikely that enlightenment or moral benefit will follow.

Even so, for me, there are times when my various peripatetic forays reduce me to that state of anthood. One more queue to join, another form to get processed by another functionary with a worn atttitude and a badly frayed uniform. It is times like those when I counsel myself to abide by Lennon’s lyrics: do whatever it takes to get by, make your way through. Any way you can; just get through it, as simply as possible.

Which—don’t get me wrong—doesn’t mean you have to do everything in accord with someone else’s agenda. Not at all.

Thinking about it, I am reminded of this woman I spied as I was walking one morning through a subway station in Tokyo:


by Bill Gibron

25 May 2008

In the world of weak analogies, Steven Spielberg is the Beatles of blockbuster movies. He literally invented the genre, reconstructed it when it went wonky, and continues to leave a legacy of legitimate popcorn art with every passing decade. This is the man responsible for some of the greatest cinematic entertainments of all time. The list simply boggles the mind: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park, Minority Report. Even his so-called failures - 1941, Hook, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - contain moments of celluloid splendor.

Yet the Fab meta-phor is appropriate since the 62 year old director went through a similar critical reconsideration in the ‘90s, and the consensus was not pretty. As John, Paul, George, and Ringo were marginalized as nothing more than a “boy band” or “pop phenomenon”, reducing their relevance to a Britney Spears video, Spielberg was called overrated, low brow, and mired in the mainstream. His success was his albatross, his talent his very reason for an over-generalized dismissal. Naturally, all of his serious work was left out of the conversation, substantive masterworks like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, or Schindler’s List limited to the flukes formulated by an Oscar desperate hack.

Of course, just like everything else on the Internet, Spielberg’s reputation has started to rebound, and with good reason. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. As his latest offering, yet another installment in the formerly finished Indiana Jones Trilogy, rakes in another box office bundle, it’s time to look back at what this amazing director does best - creating indelible images that transcend time to celebrate cinema in its purest, most potent form. While these ten examples are just the tip of the iconic iceberg, they prove why Spielberg is the best. Few can match his manipulation of the language of film. Let’s begin with:

Jaws (1975) - The Underwater “Discovery”
So much of this movie is engrained in our entertainment subconscious that almost any scene could be picked for inclusion here. But there is one moment in particular, not part of the original Peter Benchley novel, that marks the moment Spielberg announced his intention of being a serious filmmaker. He wasn’t playing around anymore. The combination of techniques - set-up, shot selection, shock value - brings the total terror of what Chief Brody and Matt Hooper are facing directly to the fore. Learning that it was all created in a crewmember’s swimming pool is the sweetest part of its moviemaking mythology.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - The Home Invasion
Some would point to the arrival of the alien mothership as this film’s iconic moment, a sequence where spectacle merged with significance to etch an indelible image into our collective cultural scrapbook. But the better, more powerful scene comes halfway through, when unknown forces attack the country home of Gillian Guiler. Even more frightening, they appear to be after only one thing - her tiny son Barry. Using inference and suggestion to brilliant effect, we arrive at the moment when watching the sky was not just a suggestion - it was a warning worth taking seriously.

1941 (1979) - The Ferris Wheel Fiasco
It was the movie that argued for Spielberg’s retreat from wunderkind status, a big brawling mess of a comedy that was more unfocused funny business than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World War II. Still, there are a couple of striking sequences, with the last act attack on the tiny California suburb one of the best. Of particular note is a scene in which a seaside Ferris Wheel, perched dangerously close to the pier, is suddenly switched on. Without warning, a mortar shell loosens the attraction from its bearings. In pure blockbuster style, it careens down the dock and into the water. Classic.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - The Bar Fight
In a film made up of amazing sequences, many overlook this opening takedown between Indiana Jones, a recently introduced Marion Ravenwood, and a bunch of Nazi-led nasties. Proving once and for all that Spielberg is the king of carefully choreographed chaos, the pieces of this barroom brawl fall naturally into place, each swing of a fist or plonk with a whisky bottle adding another accent to the action. Toss in the natural chemistry between stars Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, and it’s clear that a legendary bond would be formed, one that would finally be explored three decades later. 

ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) - The Suburban Bike Race
The late night arrival. The meeting in the backyard. The agents’ flashlights chasing our title creature through the underbrush. The flight past the moon. “I’ll Be Right Here”. There’s a reason this fragile fairytale remained the number one box office draw for years. Spielberg poured all his imagination and vision into this quiet story of a boy and his visiting alien, successfully marrying emotion with event to craft a timeless wonder. Yet for anyone looking for a how-to on intricate chase dynamics, ET‘s escape to the forest via a band of two wheelers is the pulse pounding primer.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - The Mining Car Chase
In a much maligned movie that many site as the series’ worst, Spielberg steps up and does what he does best - combine amazing F/X with brilliant mise-en-scene to forge a heartstopping, breathtaking literal rollercoaster ride. There are so many jawdropping gags here, references to everything from modern amusement parks to the films of Buster Keaton (and his Civil War classic The General, in particular), that it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. By the time Spielberg introduces the stunt work element, a whole new realm of action is achieved…and this is coming from the man who redefined it just three years before.

Hook (1991) - The Pan Discovers How to Fly…Again
In what many think is the director’s weakest film (it gets more vitriol than 1941, but then again, it does star Robin Williams), the story of the little boy who supposedly never grew up gets a surreal, slightly Yuppified sheen. From a fantasyland that looks like a skate park gone gruff to a lead who appears 40 pounds to heavy to play an impish sprite, Hook has its problems…many, many problems. But it also contains one classic moment where Pan, attempting to recapture his happy thought, remembers being a Dad for the first time. Suddenly, he takes flight, and for one magical moment, the movie works effortlessly.

Jurassic Park (1993) - The T-Rex Attack
Anyone who questions the overreliance on CGI needs look no further than this remarkable sequence from the director’s return to blockbuster glory. Thanks to Stan Winston’s miraculous practical creatures, and the seamless integration of the computer generated material, we totally believe in the primitive smackdown occurring before our eyes. Of course, Spielberg’s creative craftsmanship and shot selection add to the scene’s overall power. While the raptor attack would end the film on a suspense-filled high note, the first time we see this massive prehistoric beast lumbering across the landscape still sends the gooseflesh across your arms and the shivers up your spine.

AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) - The Robots Discover A Submerged New York
Near the end of the Spielberg interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s last project, a pair of humanoid automatons travel to the mythical island of Manhattan to seek out the Blue Fairy. Upon arriving, however, they come across a metropolis semi-submerged in water. As skyscrapers spew overflow and other buildings decay and collapse, the duo tries to locate the last important clue in their quest. Where the movie goes from here has caused lots of online debate, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing the Big Apple literally drowning from nature’s wrath. It’s a stellar moment in a criminally underrated film.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - The Nuclear Age is Born
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Spielberg and crew when asked to revisit this franchise some 16 years after it officially ended was to bring the character and his age-based situation up to date. Sure, Harrison Ford looks and acts older, and he’s surrounded by characters who constantly remind him of his senior citizen status. But leave it to a genius filmmaker to find a single image that instantly captures the essence of this dynamic. Having survived the initial blast, Indy lands outside Ground Zero, and as he climbs a nearby hill, a massive mushroom cloud provides a perfect backdrop. Welcome to the ‘50s, ‘30s serial hero!

by Bill Gibron

25 May 2008

It’s hard for any film to bring something new to the standard dysfunctional family dynamic. Cinema has seen it all - disgruntled adolescents, adults in full midlife crisis mode, infidelity, divorce, the struggles of step-relations, and any number of psychological and emotional traumas. Thanks to the independent film, a category that feeds on the notion that anyone’s personal kinfolk catastrophe makes for riveting (and cheap) drama, along with the changing social status of the irradiated nuclear brood, the subject no longer resonates. Instead, most relative-oriented efforts come off as whiny, self-indulgent statements of the filmmaker’s failing maturity, nothing more.

Not so with writer/director Sion Sono. After an infamous life of booze and baffling behavior, the celebrated Japanese artist has used the international success of 2002’s bravura Suicide Club to jumpstart his lagging reputation. That prior effort, a surreal horror statement that focused on the self-destruction of 54 schoolgirls, all of whom jump in front of a rush hour train, was a schizophrenic free-for-all, an attempted cultural commentary lashed to the normal splatter spookshow. Now, Sono revisits the events of that fateful day with Noriko’s Dinner Table (new to DVD from Facets Video), enclosing the story with a unique look at parent/child problems and the typical teen angst. In the process, he manages to create a stunning post-modern masterpiece.

Poor Noriko feels lost in her house. Her father is distant, her mother loving but cold. Sister Yuka simply laughs at her disquiet, not yet old enough to feel a similar sense of interpersonal disconnect. One day, Noriko discovers a website and a messageboard where like minded girls come and discuss their problems. One screen name in particular - Ueno Station 54 - offers sympathy and support, and soon our unsettled girl runs away to Tokyo. There, she meets the person behind the postings. She’s Kumiko, in her mid ‘20s, and running an odd talent agency. Seems she hires on individuals she meets online, and then trains them to be family members ‘for hire’. Noriko signs up, and eventually, Yuka joins her, leaving their reporter father to wonder what’s happened to his children.

Like a novel written by David Lynch in celluloid sentences instead of scribbles, a meditation on what makes us care about those we call our nearest and dearest, Noriko’s Dinner Table is spellbinding. It takes a deliberate, detailed approach to some very unusual and in-depth material, and manages to make even the most mundane sequences reverberate with subtle suggestion. Narrated from several different vantage points, and illustrated in a straightforward, unaffected manner, director Sono delivers the kind of devastating personal insight that movies like Ordinary People and The Squid and the Whale can only hint at. By applying the typical coming of age anxiety, and meshing it with the totally distinctive “relatives for rent” idea, we get something substantive and symbolic, capable of the most universal truths and scene-specific revelations.

First and foremost, Sono wants to understand what makes a family. Is it simply biology, or can it be bought? We see several instances of Kumiko’s company in action, elderly folks ecstatic for a visit from their ‘loved ones’, desperate fathers hoping to reconnect with the daughters that fate has unfairly taken from them. During these scenes, which really aren’t explained at first, we hear Noriko’s insightful justifications. Because she comes from an unhappy home, because she finds her father a selfish and hateful man, the happiness evoked inside these faked scenarios fills her heart with hope. Eventually, she will lose herself in the job, forgetting all together about the domestic situation she left in the Japanese countryside.

Kumiko’s story is equally intriguing. Found in a locker at a train station, she has grown up hating the mother who abandoned her. Years later, when a reconciliation is attempted, the bitter child merely hires on the parent as part of her business. Kumiko is seen as an integral part of the Suicide Club, present when the girls take their lives, and often delivering other sacrificial victims to murderous clients. If Noriko’s Dinner Table has a villain, it would be this impish little witch. But we see something similar in her, something that makes Noriko’s rash decisions and whiny weakness seem understandable. Kumiko is just as lost as the people she patronizes, eagerly falling into the role of wife, child, parent, or partner. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to keep the ever-blurring line between fantasy and reality clear.

It’s a theme that Sono restates over and over. Noriko tells one version of her life at home. Yuka both supports and subverts her interpretation. Father, who indeed plays the most ambiguous role in the triangle, is an unclear combination of faults and fears - some true, some as fictional as the characters his daughters are hired to essay. He’s simultaneously the most and least sympathetic individual in the film, clearly detached from the needs of his wife and children, and yet devastated when they disappear one by one. Sono seems to be suggesting that all of Japan is trapped in a work ethic that ignores the needs of the person for the benefit of production. It’s part of the rationale behind the series of suicides acting as a subtext, as well as the reason Kumiko’s company is thriving.

All of this plays out in deliberate steps (or “chapters”, as Sono calls them), meant to reflect both the differing perspectives of the main characters as well as the actual novel the director wrote after Suicide Club‘s success. The movie frequently feels like a book, loaded with little details that build up over time to create a complex, mesmerizing narrative. There will be those who see the two hour and thirty-five minute running time and balk at such storytelling excess. Others, like this critic, will drink in every moment and wish for more. As he did with Suicide Club, Sono leaves more questions unanswered than addressed, and the ending is so ambiguous that anything could literally happen next.

Though rumor has it that the director will revisit this material for another sequel, the interview included as part of the bonus features on the DVD seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, Sono says he may address the mysteries of the Club itself, but Noriko’s story is more or less complete - which again is odd, considering that we really don’t know much more than what’s implied by a final firm statement offered by our hapless heroine. Yet even inside such an inference, Sono discovers volumes of meaning. Noriko’s Dinner Table may represent a family finally finding itself, or the inevitable disintegration brought on by adulthood and aging. Whatever the case, this amazing movie delivers its deconstruction in ways that are both shocking and stellar. It singlehandedly reinvigorates a dying cinematic genre of relative dysfunction. It’s personal pain as art, pure and simple.



//Mixed media

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

// Moving Pixels

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