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Tuesday, Apr 22, 2008

I’d been mulling over this Idolator story about Vanity Fair editor Lisa Robinson and her publicists’ memo about ‘no more promos’ (even if the memo itself isn’t recent).  I’ve seen reactions range from ‘when did VF really care about music?’ to ‘good for her for going green’ to ‘everything’s going digital anyway…’  I think all these responses are legit actually though from the tone of the memo, it does sound like she’s being an elitist crab who’s using ‘green’ as a cover for her decision. 


I get lots of promos too and while I’d love to listen and write about every single one of them that I find interesting, there just isn’t the time to do that.  I wouldn’t go so far to say ‘no more promos’ though.  Even with all of the music blogs out there plus MySpace plus P2P sites plus Last FM plus Pandora plus Napster plus E-Music plus mailing lists plus dozens of other ways to discover music, I still get surprises from promos.  I’d hate to give that up, not just because I wanna get off any gravy train but because the music nut in me wants to keep discovering music I didn’t know about or appreciate before. 


I’ve got no beef against downloads if they’re listenable- I received a recent one from a label for a great R&B band that was all tiny and fuzzy to hear, really distracting a lot from the music.  For streams, they’re not the same as accessing music the way you want and when you want so that’s not as convenient to hear and appreciate the music.  If labels can overcome these hurdles, I’m all for digital promos.  I have enough problems with finding shelve space for my CD’s and the price for external hard drives has dropped so much (500GB for only $100??) that it makes sense to go this way. 


On the external HD tip, I’d recommend getting one regardless if you’re filling up your old hard drive or not- do you really wanna lose all that music that you ripped or downloaded for months or years now?


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008


Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.


It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan - or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store - and wife - were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.


Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine. 


Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (new to DVD from Image Entertainment and THINKFilm) is kinetic. It is dynamite laced with electricity, a perfectly played puzzle that’s final images make for an astoundingly satisfying statement. It’s about greed and the lack of money, morality and the lack of ethics, love and the lack of commitment. It takes standard human foibles and amplifies them to the stuff of glorified Greek tragedy. With amazing performances, pitch perfect direction, and a story that crackles with flawless mechanical timing, we wind up with another stellar example of that solid suspense subgenre - the dark double cross. In a year that’s seen the equally exceptional Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men, Lumet’s return to glory stands right along side them. It’s depressing and daring, showing that even six decades in, this heralded director is not about to go softly into that good night.


This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy - a strip mall jewelry store - all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.


Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.


Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.


The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.


And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term - “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” - everyone agrees with the categorization.


It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away. 


 


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008
In part 3 of L.B. Jeffries' series, he takes a look at the role that plot plays in our gaming experiences.


Continuing with our outlining of the three variables of a video game (player input, plot, and game design), we next come to the question of how to assess the story in a game. Rather than indulge in the mass sea of back story and plots at surface value, let’s talk about what the story in a game actually is: stuff you have minimal control over. You can’t change the back story. You have a limited number of choices concerning the plot’s outcome. You generally don’t get to pick who you associate with. The story in a video game is where player input finds meaning, and yet it is the very thing you cannot affect.

At the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, during Ken Levine’s lecture about plot in games, an audience member stood up and complained that they hadn’t wanted to kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Disregarding the fact that killing Ryan was a brilliant commentary on extremist ideologies and questioning authority, it begs the greater question of whether or not this was even a problem. Bioshock would’ve been a much weaker game if it hadn’t been for that scene, and Ken Levine himself has admitted that after the third act the game’s story pretty much goes downhill. So given that the Andrew Ryan uncontrollable sequence was the best part of Bioshock in terms of the story, what are you supposed to say to someone who didn’t like it? At what point do you stop and say, “No, this is what you should be doing and if you don’t like it then stop playing”? What are the merits of forcing a player to do something in video games because that’s what the story says to do?


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008

Many thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones for posting what has to be one of the funniest satirical riffs about women in music that I’ve ever heard.  Erykah Badu is one of music’s most inspiring musical figures for me, in part, because she remains oblivious and impervious to musical fads and the pressure for seasoned artists to reinvent themselves.  There will never be “Honey” the Hot Chip Redux.  With the proliferation of bands who throw together singles and blow up based on a few myspace demos, it’s refreshing to see such a painstaking craftswomen meticulously mold something that still aspires to the much maligned and increasingly elusive category of “art”.  You can pretty much read her satirical statements in this video as line for line refutations of all the criticism directed at her.  I like that Badu can be powerful, sexy, difficult and sophisticated without doing, as she puts it, “ho” shit.  Not to mention, as evidenced by this video, she has the big picture, in all its grotesque proportions, on point.


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Monday, Apr 21, 2008

The first nice day of spring—this past Friday, in New York City—always makes me feel suspicious and somewhat put upon, threatened. I’m supposed to be too overjoyed about it; instead I end up thinking about crowds and sweat and exposed skin I wish weren’t exposed and a general mindless air of following the orders of the sun. This may be the inevitable consequence of city life, or New York City life, where every palpable shift in the zeitgeist feels like a contrived trend to be resisted.


But here’s further evidence that people should feel lucky not to live in Manhattan. After work, I found myself in Union Square and happened to witness an event being staged there where a bunch of people wore their headphones and danced to music on their iPods in what was billed as a “silent rave.” I found this to be crushingly depressing, an all-too-perfect symbol of the way isolation and rote individualism is colonizing what is left of public space, and how even ostensibly group-oriented activities must be eviscerated from within by a self-regard that’s presumed to be primary. Let’s all get together and dance, but not to the same music—we’ll just all watch each other perform the writhing ritual of self-projection and serve as one another’s audience. That way we can reinforce that public space is just where you go to be under the microscope, where you can surveil and be surveilled as opposed to sharing any experiences or exchanging any ideas. The headphones preclude the expectation of social exchange, which can make civic participation so irritating. The “silent rave” lets you simulate community without the noisome bother of belonging to one.


Like “flash mobs,” that peculiar form of performance art where people just show up and clog the flows of commercial life with their mere being, the silent rave seemed to be a vague gesture toward participation in something by people who must lack the ingenuity to come up with something more rigorous for one another to do than simply showing up. It’s low-impact participation with a vague subversive intent that’s not directed at anything in particular. They are not protests, which must seem pretty strident and would require overt commitment to a particular political view. Instead, they feel like marketing stunts, they feel promotional. It all reminded me of the models who are hired to hang out in front fo Abercrombie and Fitch on 5th Avenue.


But I don’t know what the silent rave is promoting. iPods? A generation’s general commitment to gadgets? To mediating themselves through technology? To being apart together? Back in the old days, I imagine people sat together in parks without headphones and shared the same sensory environment. Now they can be “together” without cramping their style or compromising. That’s progress, I guess.


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