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by Bill Gibron

24 Aug 2008

He seems like a nice enough guy. Last time anyone checked, he wasn’t making massive tabloid headlines with his debauched behavior, nor had he been discovered killing kittens in some crack-soaked back alley. Heck, he even has a hot girlfriend (director drag and drop diva Milla Jovovich) and a baby girl. And yet ask film fans who their least favorite director is - nay, ask them to list the men who’ve made an abomination out of the motion picture medium - and his name instantly comes up. As frequently as Dr. Uwe Boll. With a directness reserved for Ed Wood or Coleman Francis. To listen to the disgruntled talk, he has systematically destroyed potentially effective projects, reducing long held genre hopes to squirming, squiggling junk.

So what is it about Paul W. S. Anderson that drives the critic to complain - and even worse, why does this friendly faced UK filmmaker receive so much fanboy wrath? The answer, sadly, remains rather elusive. It can’t be his actual moviemaking acumen. He’s certainly got a handle on the artform’s basics, unlike other hacks that can’t put two scenes together without struggling to make sense of the narrative structure. And as this week’s Death Race proves, he can manufacture fake action with the best of them. Sure, he edits like an insane person and piles on the flash when some focus would truly help. But Paul W. S. Anderson is not a bad director. He’s just had the unfortunate luck of taking on titles that get geek panties in a big fat workmanlike wedge.

His name wasn’t always a motion picture pariah. He first came to prominence in his native Britain, where in 1994 his violent thriller Shopping caused quite a stir. Its portrait of disaffected youth, stogy class conformity, and the purposeful destruction of property gave a smug England some harsh food for thought, and catapulted Anderson into the minor fringes of the mainstream. It also made him fodder for that notorious “next big thing” tag, something many foreign filmmakers get saddled with once Hollywood finally hears about them. As a creative cause celeb, Anderson was given immediate access to the hottest script in the studio system - the big screen adaptation of the video game smash Mortal Kombat. It would wind up being the first of his many career coffin nails.

Granted, it’s hard to screw up a martial arts movie in which characters compete in a ‘brawl for it all’ tournament to the death, but Kombat apparently gave audiences its first reasons to be concerned about Anderson. It wasn’t the lack of skill - again he is far more fluid in his filmmaking than any of the movie making misfits he’s frequently referenced with. No, where Anderson seems to stumble (both then and now) is in the all important area of ‘reimagination’. Unlike Christopher Nolan, who tweaks the Batman saga into a psychologically deep crime story, or Sam Raimi who tries to keep to Spider-man’s general spirit, you never know what to expect when Anderson is in charge. Sometimes, you get a reverent reinvention of the mythos. At other instances, the end results are unrecognizable to even the most ardent aficionado.

In Kombat‘s case, the reinvention process seems to totally forget the reason the movie is being made in the first place. It has to be hard for screenwriters to turn fisticuffs into fleshed out stories, but Anderson’s scribes treat it like brain surgery. Gamers loved Kombat because of its bone crushing battles bathed in buckets of blood. They loved the finishing moves and the easily identifiable characters. Trying to turn this all into some manner of Shaw Brothers knock-off was not the way to go, and yet Anderson and company strove to bring a kind of backstory viability to the concept. While many felt the reformatting failed, the title was still so commercial that even this subpar semblance of the game made money.

As usual, cash creates opportunities, and Anderson was allowed to pick his next effort. He chose the David Webb People script Soldier. Kurt Russell was pegged to star, and pre-production began on the potential sci-fi epic. The pedigree at least seemed secure - Peoples had co-written Blade Runner, received an Oscar nomination for his work on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and guided Terry Gilliam’s great 12 Monkeys. Soldier had all the elements of a potential hit - a certified cult star, an intriguing story, and a hot shot helmer behind the lens. Then Russell decided to take some time off, and the entire project was pushed back.

Anderson needed something to help him cope with Soldier‘s work stoppage. He barreled head first into the outer space horror film Even Horizon. The original screenplay by novice Philip Eisner offered an abandoned alien laboratory investigated by a party of Earth astronauts. Anderson preferred a more straightforward scary movie, and discarded the idea. Instead, the new Horizon storyline centered on a missing spacecraft that may or may not have traveled to the bowels of Hell when it disappeared for seven years. Loading the narrative up with sadomasochistic sex and gore-drenched violence, Anderson hoped to redefine both terror and the extraterrestrial. Instead, he was forced to cut nearly 20 minutes of the movie to get an “R” MPAA rating.

At this point, Anderson was two for two. Sure, Event Horizon was not a major financial hit, but enough in the business saw its polish and professionalism to give the director another shot at Soldier. Russell was ready now, and the film premiered to universal yawns in 1998. Many consider it to be the worst film of Anderson’s career, a braindead bit of bombast that trades on little of the premise’s promise and ideals. At the time, the filmmaker had hoped to update Roger Corman’s Death Race for an actual 2000 release. Instead, he had to suffer the blowback from creating a big time blockbuster bomb. It would be two more years before Anderson got a chance at another noted title.

The zombie video game Resident Evil had long been considered a cinematic slam dunk. There were even suggestions that the father of the undead film, George Romero, was eager to film an adaptation. But the job went to Anderson instead, and while the devotees dished over the stupidity of the choice, the director delivered. Even though it changed some of the console title basics, Evil was still a moderate hit. It led the way to Anderson’s adaptation of AvP: Alien vs. Predator, another solid success. Again, the faithful fumed over the liberties taken with the material, including elements not found in the comics or companion sources. Yet Anderson argued for his approach, highlighting his reliance on the original films as guidance and inspiration. 

All of which brings us to this week’s box office dud Death Race. Coming in third behind Tropic Thunder and The House Bunny, Anderson clearly has lost a lot of his big screen buzz. Of course, no one was really clamoring for a revisit to Corman’s 1976 road kill epic to begin with, but the update is not as bad as the reviews suggest. Instead, it’s just big dumb action with lots of explosions and cars (and body parts) going v-rrrooooom. Indeed, there is nothing here to suggest Anderson is the Antichrist or incapable of delivering decided popcorn perfection. But as with many of his movies, the way he reimagines Death Race - an internet competition inside a maximum security prison run by a ruthless female warden with one eye on the ratings and another on her big corporation concerns - fails to fulfill the concept’s kitsch calling.

And there’s another argument that may or may not sway potential detractors. Anderson is one of the few filmmakers who is open and brutally honest about the editorial decisions he is forced to tolerate by mindless studio heads. Ever since Kombat, he has complained about interference, stating that if he could release a “Director’s Cut” of his frequently panned projects, the opinion of his work would change radically. Event Horizon is one of his particular sore spots, the aforementioned missing footage destroyed or lost by parent Paramount. Especially in this era of the digital domain, where DVD can indeed redeem a failed film, Anderson is angry that he hasn’t had a chance to do just that. There are supposed longer edits out there for every one of his marginalized movies, but due to their lack of success, the rights holders see no reason to rereleased his versions - if they’re even available. 

And so Paul W. S. Anderson sits, marginalized by a business he’s frequently benefited. Personally, he says he’s sick of trying to explain the symbolism in Magnolia (clearly being mistaken for Paul THOMAS Anderson), and after changing his name to W.S. he hates explaining anew that he is not responsible for The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. His next film is another video game adaptation - the more or less unnecessary Spy Hunter - and one assumes that even now, the arcade crowd is gearing up to undermine his efforts.

Until then, Anderson will continue on as producer, writer (Castlevania), and behind the scenes Resident Evil guide (the franchise appears headed for its fourth film). It’s also clear he will remain a ridiculed member of an easily outclassed collective. He’s definitely not the worst director in the history of film. But defending him gets harder and harder - especially in light of his less than spectacular past and present preoccupation with b-movie mediocrity. One day he might find a way to prove his detractors wrong. Until then, Paul W. S. Anderson will remain an easy if enigmatic target. Just like his films, figuring out what’s wrong with his reputation is not as simple or straightforward as it sounds.

by Mike Schiller

24 Aug 2008

Know how to tell when the holiday gaming season, that oh-so-wondrous three-ish months that closes out the year, is around the corner?  When the list of games being released gets a lot bigger, but the number of games that you actually want to play stays pretty much the same as it’s been all summer.

This, of course, is the first week in which that particular phenomenon appears to be taking hold.  As such, we are offered such licensed audience-pleasers as Digimon World Championship and Garfield’s Fun Fest, both out for the DS this week.  Specialty racing games are also prime suspects for the pre-holiday rush, and this week we see Ferraris and demolition racers get their own games for multiple systems (the sadly toothless Need for Speed franchise gets a release as well).  And…wow.  Look at the Wii.  The poor system’s got a reputation for shovelware already, and this week is not going to help.  Another Kidz Sports game?  Something called Freddi Fish in the Kelp Seed Mystery?  And then there’s my personal favorite, Spy Fox in Dry Cereal, which sounds like one of my average Saturday mornings in the mid ‘80s.  All that list is missing is Ninjabread Man 2.

Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360

Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360

Counteracting this onslaught of things I’m entirely not interested in are two releases that promise to be some of the most engrossing play experiences yet released this year: Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360, and Disgaea 3 for the PS3.  The first is a more traditional RPG experience (though if you’ve played the demo, you’ve already found that the combat is a little bit more hectic than that would imply), while the second is a tactical RPG.  Both are new entries in well-established franchises, both have excellent advance press, and both have the potential to utterly destroy your social life for long periods of time.  That means they’re winners in my book!

Disgaea 3, for the PS3

Disgaea 3, for the PS3

Also on the docket this week is the release of the new Tiger Woods game, which almost gets the game of the week nod on the strength of its brilliant little trailer alone.  Whatever advertising agency decided to capitalize on last year’s glitch and turn it into this year’s gold deserves a raise.  A big raise.  The ever-reliable Xbox Live Arcade gets Castle Crashers, which looks like another utterly chaotic (not to mention potentially brilliant) effort turned in by the geniuses over at The Behemoth, who have made an art form of gracefully mixing cuteness and violence.  Mario Super Sluggers has a good chance of being exactly the arcade baseball game that Wii owners have been waiting for as well.

And…aw, heck, who am I kidding.  I think I’m going to buy Spy Fox in Dry Cereal just so I can look at that name on my shelf.  Doesn’t it sound like a classic waiting to happen?

Trailers for Vesperia and Disgaea, along with the full release list, are after…the jump.

by Jason Gross

24 Aug 2008

Been brewing on this for a few months so please excuse the fact that the article references below are a little old, inspired by yet another wave of ‘death of journalism articles.’

It’s not only this study claiming that critics are losing out to social networks and music services but also this survey of UK critics bemoaning their own profession.

Let’s admit it- the reason that you see a lot of these columns is because of self-interest.  The writers left standing in publications want to defend not just their peers but also their profession and their job.  The debate then is whether this is really warranted or not otherwise.  One argument against scribes is that the egalitarian nature of the Net levels the playing field and lets the masses storm the gate of opinion, making it more public again.  Then again, just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean that they can express it well or as the old saying goes “Opinions are like assholes- everybody’s got one.”

There IS good reason to worry though as recently (well, relatively recently), the L.A. Times has cut more writers loose, including Chuck Philips (who admittedly had some big problems with sources to a recent story).

In my mind, a good music critic can serve two important purposes: 1) helping you to find out good music and/or 2) helping to think about music and issues around it.  Admittedly, there’s much more call for the former than the later and even then, there’s a lot of competition from other sources, mostly online.

And that’s where the big stink happens when professional writers complain about the Net, as for instance in this Guardian article.  What they’re worried about is whether blogging will or can (or should) replace print criticism, but maybe this a false set-up.  Posting a link to a story or an MP3 file or an embedded music video isn’t the same thing as writing a think piece or a carefully researched article- that doesn’t usually happen in blogs and maybe it’s expecting too much of them to think that they (always) should.  Posting info can be a valuable service which you can learn something from- a good music blog can just as well help you find good music.  To say that it’s not ‘journalism’ per se is right but that doesn’t take away it’s value as providing a public service.

In the next installment (hopefully soon), we’ll hash through some fallacies about the ‘anyone can write’ argument…

by Bill Gibron

24 Aug 2008

One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.

Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.

It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.

He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions. 

In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.

Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.

While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.

Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.

Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.

Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation

Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.

There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.

In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.

Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.

by Rob Horning

23 Aug 2008

Earlier this week, Yves Smith linked to this FT editorial by Roberto Foa, in which he argues, citing this recent study,  that the world has become happier as it has become freer.

How is it that the world is getting happier? In the words of Thucydides, the secret of happiness is freedom. In each survey respondents were also asked to rate their sense of free choice in life. In all but three countries where perceived freedom rose, subjective well-being rose also. A chart, produced by the authors, shows how these increases in free choice and subjective well-being are strikingly related.
The world in which we live today is unquestionably a free one. For the first time in history, most of the world is governed democratically, the rights of women and minorities are widely acknowledged, and people, ideas and investment can cross borders. Since the study began in 1981, dozens of middle-income countries have democratised, relieving many from fear of repression: every country making a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy shows a rising sense of free choice. In addition, there has been a sharp rise in the acceptance of gender equality and alternative lifestyles. Countries where this revolution has been most pronounced, such as Canada and Sweden, continue to show rising well-being.

It would be easy to mistakenly conflate this with the view that “economic freedom”—the freedom of choice in a consumer economy—is sufficient to engender a happy populace, particularly since the people of former Soviet bloc countries have become so much happier since 1991.

In the space of two decades, several countries that were members of the Soviet bloc have become members of the European Union, with new freedoms to travel, work and live as never before imaginable. Not only has the proportion claiming to be “very happy” risen in every country except Serbia and Belarus, but this trend has been wholly driven by the younger generation. Among eastern Europeans aged 15-24, the proportion saying they were “very happy” was 9 per cent at the start of the 1990s, roughly the same as in other age groups. By 2006, this proportion had more than doubled, and steady rises were also evident among those in their 30s and 40s. Country after country in the study – Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine – exhibits this trend. Belarus stands out as an exception in changes in happiness by age (the young are still as miserable as in 1990, and the elderly only a little better off).

But as Foa stresses, the happiness the study detects is not a matter of purchasing power—it’s not merely that people are able to buy things, but they are now able to do things: “The link from free choice to rising happiness suggests that the appropriate benchmark of development is not income per capita, but individual freedoms and capabilities. This is the human development perspective associated with Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate. While income and well-being are closely correlated at early stages of development, once the threat of starvation recedes, social and political freedom appears to be as important.”
Smith notes the rising surveillance in Western society now threatens that social and political freedom. The problem is that the “economic freedom” can breed a kind of complacency while commercial interests busily promote a misunderstanding of the true source of happiness, urging us to see it in goods rather actions. These trends can conspire to blind us to how our “capabilities” become circumscribed. When the government forbids certain actions, it’s unmistakable; when actions are instead made de facto impossible by the culture industry, which schematizes for us our experience and renders it hard to conceive of alternatives, we might not be so quick to notice. This is not because things are forbidden, they just seem “unrealistic” and irreconcilable with the narratives and lifestyles mediated by our culture. It’s not that we are forbidden from an “alternative lifestyle”—it’s just that it is draining to attempt to pursue one, perpetually sapping the energy to resist other soft cultural commands about what to value, what to shun, what success means, how we should interpret our emotional reactions, and so on. We might end up mistaking complacency for a kind of happiness, even while nagged by feelings of dread and insecurity, of not not knowing who we really are since our identities are displaced to the things we own.

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In Defense of the Infinite Universe in 'No Man's Sky'

// Moving Pixels

"The common cries of disappointment that surround No Man’s Sky stem from the exciting idea of an infinite universe clashing with the harsh reality of an infinite universe.

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