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by Arun Subramanian

20 Jan 2009

The narrative attempts of the Need For Speed titles have always felt a little unnecessary.  In general, the racing genre doesn’t require any plot to make racing fans want to drive.  But for the past several years, Need for Speed titles have been clearly influenced by The Fast and the Furious films, and as such, it is not surprising that similar story elements have made their way in.  This is not inherently bad.  However, the execution of these elements in Need For Speed Undercover is particularly lackluster.  Leaping over the uncanny valley direct to live action territory gives the the cutscenes a distinctly campy quality, making it difficult to feel invested in either the plot or your character.

It’s not as though that should necessarily matter, of course.  For games like this, it’s all about the driving.  Much can be forgiven in the face of solid and fun core driving mechanics.  Arcade-inspired racing physics can be intensely fun, and in fact they seem to be the bread and butter of the Need For Speed franchise.  But in Undercover, the AI implementation and relative speed of your car versus the opposition in some of the events serve to make parts of the game far too mindlessly easy.
There are certainly a number of things that Undercover does well.  The Cops ‘n Robbers online mode is certainly fun, if not entirely original.  The overall sense of speed delivered by the game can make it quite a visceral experience as well.  Further, the actual driving mechanics are well-realized.  Unfortunately, Underground makes a number of missteps.  While some, like the previously mentioned easy difficulty and poorly realized cutscenes, are a function of developer choice, others seem to have been due solely to a lack of testing and polish.  The reviewed PS3 version had frequent framerate and clipping issues that make it feel as though it was rushed to market.  The fact that the game is being released for an amazing ten distinct systems indicates how hard EA is pushing the title, and as such, it’s not entirely surprising development efforts were spread thin.

Still, none of Undercover‘s problems are enough to sink the title outright.  Really, the problem that Need For Speed Undercover faces is that Burnout: Paradise has significantly raised the bar for this kind of game, and accomplished the open-world mechanics and online experience with more polish and flair than is on display here.  It offers a superior experience in almost every way meaningful to the genre.

What makes this interesting is the fact that, though the two franchises were developed by different studios, they are both published by EA.  In a sense, then, EA is openly competing with itself, given that racing fans only have so many dollars, and while one of their racing franchises is critically acclaimed, the other is content to be competent but mediocre.  For die-hard fans of the Need for Speed franchise, or those that focus most of their gaming on racing titles, Undercover can be enjoyable.  But for gamers who spread their tastes across a variety of genres, there are simply better racing games to be played.

by Bill Gibron

20 Jan 2009

Vision is hard to come by in today’s ‘crank ‘em out and count the pennies’ Hollywood. Bankability and commercial viability often trump things like talent, imagination and artistry. Why make something daring when you can make dollars. There’s also a strange synchronicity between the two completely competent business extremes. Sometimes, a filmmaker has to trudge away in demographically determined limbo in order to get his or her chance to stand up and shine. Such is the case with Darren Lynn Bousman. Best known for turning the sensational suspense thriller Saw into a practical, money-making franchise, many dismissed him as a genre journeyman - capable of creating gruesome, horrific terrors, but not much else.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when, after leaving the lucrative series, Bousman’s first feature ends up a Grand Guignol Gothic musical featuring a cast including Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton. Entitled Repo!: The Genetic Opera, this morbid modern take on the classical artform stands as one unique, spellbinding experience. Developed by composers Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, it began as a stage play. With Bousman’s support, a 10 minute financing “trailer” was cobbled together and taken around. When Lionsgate, the beneficiary of the filmmaker’s Saw support, gave the greenlight, it was an uphill struggle to get the film made, and then recognized. Now available on DVD, this ridiculously creative repugnant roadshow lives up to every ounce of its wild-eyed ingenious promise.

In Bousman’s more than capable hands, the not too distant future is a grim landscape littered with corpses. A plague has struck the world’s population, turning once healthy organs into failing blobs of flesh. Enter GeneCo and their genetically engineered replacement parts. Thanks to endless advertising, the work of company symbol/songbird Blind Mag, and the relentless pursuit of profit by founder Rotti Largo and his inauspicious children - sons Luigi and Pavi, and fame whore daughter Amber Sweet - everyone now has a second chance at life. But there’s a catch. Organ transplants are expense and most people must finance their necessary surgery. Make all your payments, and everything is fine. Miss one, however, and one of GeneCo’s Repo men will come calling…scalpel in hand.

From such a complex set up, Repo! then takes a traditional approach to its main narrative thread. Dr. Nathan Wallace is Largo’s foremost legal assassin, a man with a past he is trying to escape. His inquisitive teenager daughter Shilo longs to learn about her late mother, the blood disease that is killing her, and the reasons for GeneCo’s sudden interest in her well being. When Rotti finds out that he is terminally ill, he must determine who will inherit his corporate kingdom. But with Luigi’s outsized temper, Pavi’s perverse addiction to changing his face, and Amber’s overall obsession with surgery (and the illegal painkillers that make it all so easy to endure), he can’t see his own family running the business. Instead, he looks to Wallace, his late wife, and their frail offspring to continue on his legacy. But there’s a catch…

From the moment it begins, there is no denying one fact - this is a true opera. Almost all the dialogue is sung, and Smith and Zdunich avoid presenting a collection of pop songs for meatier, more intricate sonic structures. Repo! uses specific themes, repeated motifs, and other obvious classical tricks to take us into a world of heighten emotions and outrageous individuals. The last act denouement, set within the title arena, plays like a Puccino snuff film. Bousman relies on his actors’ talent to take us into an existence overflowing with of rotting death, familial backstabbing, and Marilyn Manson macabre. Such studied voices as Sorvino, Brightman, and Skinny Puppy’s Ogre are matched well by vocal novices like Alexa Vega, Ms. Hilton, and the always insane Bill Moseley.

Casting is crucial to this film, something Bousman discusses at length as part of the DVD’s available commentary track. In the detailed discussions offered, the director goes out of his way to praise each participant for their bravery and commitment to the project. Even without this information, such singular determination would be obvious. Sorvino and Vega are particularly effective, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Stewart Head equally good as Shilo’s dad and Rotti’s main Repo man. Perhaps the most unsung hero of the entire piece is co-writer Zdunich, who essays the ethereal role of narrator/necromancer The Graverobber with a kind of instant onscreen magnetism that studio suits simply die for. One imagines he’ll be taking up residence in some casting agent’s reserve list before long.

With amazing performances, awe-inspiring visuals, endless reams of invention, and a true talent behind the lens, Repo!: The Genetic Opera should be a masterpiece, and it is…up to a point. Even the bloodletting and organ grinding add to the film’s overall feeling of scope and spectacle. No, the one element that feels slightly out of place (and less so once you’ve experienced the movie a second time) is the music. By avoiding the instant hook, the sing-along melody, or the instantly recognizable riff, the aural side of the production becomes initially awkward and obtuse. Tunes like “17” do stand out immediately, but it takes a while to get into the unique and sometimes struggling joys of “Chase the Morning” or 21st Century Cure.” Perhaps the best moment occurs when Brightman belts out the beautiful Italian aria “Chromaggia”, complete with requisite emotion. It brings the fascinating finale to an utter standstill.

The most memorable element of Repo!: The Genetic Opera however remains how startling impressive and visually imaginative it is. You have literally never seen anything quite like the images Bousman puts on the screen. From the corpse-strewn catacombs with their twisted limbs of agony to the freak show finish which seems lifted from an arthouse interpretation of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” video, this is pure cinematic showmanship from someone who understands the medium implicitly. Had he not had the success of the Saw films, one wonders if Bousman would have ever seen his fabulous fever dream come to fruition. Chastise them all you want, but those poster children for torture porn allowed something like Repo!: The Genetic Opera to see the light of day. The movies are much better for it.

by Rob Horning

20 Jan 2009

Will Wilkinson is freaked out by the Obama adulation:

It’s really just too much to take. The American media lives for politics, and so what the American public gets is completely grotesque. Selected exchange:
  Meredith Viera: I think the hardest thing is not getting emotional, because it’s such an emotional morning. You just want to laugh, you want to cry. It’s so moving. It hits you that you’ll probably never see anything like this again.
  Peggy Noonan (I think): I keep thinking of the old poem, the end of the old poem about the end of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it then to be alive. To be young was very heaven.” So many young people here. It’s very moving for them.
  Viera: I’m not young but I’m blissful, that’s for sure.
It’s all like this. They can’t help themselves, apparently. But it’s also pretty clear that they really do see their job as mediating and engineering our emotional response, as manufacturing our consent.

True enough. They really do see it that way. And it’s not some conspiracy made up by paranoid leftists fulminating about the culture industry. It’s especially obvious today how much contrarian strength it requires to think against the current. You end up feeling as though you are lumped among the “cynics” on the “wrong side of history.”

Incidentally, this is how it felt also during the build up to the Iraq war, when very little of what was reported in the mainstream media seemed to have any relation to reality, and sober analysis of the situation was regarded as virtually treasonous.

by Michael Edler

20 Jan 2009

Lou Reed - Berlin

Lester Bangs dedicated a large portion of his writing career to Lou Reed. Bangs’ loved Lou Reed, but he also hated his guts. Genius and creativity mixed with egotism and jackass-ery. I love Lou Reed. Quite simply, he’s probably my secret crush that I don’t talk to many people about for fear of having to defend this love against a wall of the opposite point of view.

Can I be honest? I have all sorts of difficulty with Lou Reed. There are moments I feel he receives absolutely no credit for the evolution of rock and roll. I mean, come on! No Velvet Underground? No R.E.M. No Sonic Youth. Absolutely no major influence for the underground music scene of the ‘80s and no Nirvana and the list goes on and on. Don’t give me the Ramones or the much over-hyped Sex Pistols. Velvet Underground. More distinctly, Lou Reed holds the key to everything.

And then I stop myself. Usually mid sentence and remind myself whom I am talking about—Lou Reed: The masochist of rock and roll. The man that not even Lester Bangs could quite pin down (which has to be a reason why so much of Bangs’ career is dedicated to writing about Lou Reed). In the end, Lester concluded, “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possible conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.” Lou fought with the demons created by David Bowie and tried to match full bore that type of excitement; almost pissed he hadn’t thought of glam first. Thus, Lou returned to his VU roots and turned out Berlin.

Berlin caught hipster renewal the past year because of director Julian Schnabel’s filmed concert of Lou Reed performing the entire Berlin album. Shockingly panned by critics and fans upon initial release, Lou spent the majority of his career avoiding the music from Berlin. The album is Reed’s rock opera about a disturbing relationship between a couple based upon drugs and not much else. A maniacal album with full session horns mixed with music snippets from Lou’s days with the Velvet Underground; the most affirming this point are within the song “Caroline Says”, a direct rip from the VU’s “Stephanie Says”.

Berlin is an arresting album and not one for an introduction to Lou Reed’s musical legacy. However, the album dedicates itself to pull its listener to the depths of post ‘60s, urban decay. Truly a song like “The Bed” where Lou whispers of the death of his character Caroline; “And this is the room where she took the razor/And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night/And I said, oh, what a feeling” summarizes the pain and death of the West in a post Vietnam/Summer of Love era that is largely built upon fluff and excess. True, Lou loves the characters he addresses, but Lou also understands that by addressing these issues he stirs up the bowl of stew and no one likes all the ingredients in this stew.

Whatever the case, Lou Reed’s Berlin is probably a nice way to microcosm Lou’s career. He probably gets too much blame for making the album and for making it a disturbingly story that feels disjointed with the glam he was producing at the time. At the same time, Lou probably doesn’t get enough credit for making an album that harkens back to Velvet Underground while giving us a glimpse into what will be Lou’s most engaging and critically acclaimed work of his career in New York and Magic and Loss where Lou shows the focus that is somewhat lacking throughout Berlin

Regardless, Lou Reed’s Berlin is a necessary album for a Lou Reed fan. I am happy to see it receiving some new critical acclaim and was happier to see it in the stacks of “New Vinyl” at Dave’s Records. It shows that rock and roll can resuscitate without traveling down the pathway to corporate sponsorship and excess. Rock and roll can be what it’s supposed to be: urgent and unrepentant. Both are true of Berlin.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jan 2009

When the Academy Award nominations are announced this upcoming Thursday, 22 January, there is a distinct possibility that the five available Best Director slots will be taken up by filmmakers who have never been nominated before - or at the very least, have limited Academy cache. Unless someone like Ron Howard sweeps in and secures a slot for his over-praised (and under-regarded) Frost/Nixon, we could be looking at a list including Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Gus Van Sant (Milk). Now, technically the last name on this list got a previous nod for the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vehicle Good Will Hunting, but 2008 may just go down as one of the strongest years for directors ever. Outside the normal Academy-possible names, there are dozens of efforts deserving of praise.

What about Jon Favreau’s work on Iron Man? Who would have thought that such a second tier comic book character would warrant such stellar first class treatment? Or how about Matt Reeves’ reinvention of the first person POV horror film with Cloverfield? The annihilation of New York by an alien monster never appeared more potent, or potentially terrifying, than it did in this early 2008 release. There was David Gordon Green’s delirious take on the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, which followed another one of his fine small town Gothics, Snow Angels and Ben Stiller finally delivered on over a decade of promise with his stellar insider satire, Tropic Thunder. Between the work of newcomers like Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and the returns to form for recognized winners (Jonathan Demme - Rachel Getting Married and Oliver Stone - W. ), it was a wonderful 12 months for the individual behind the lens.

Yet how cool is it that Fincher, Aranofsky, Nolan, or Boyce could walk away with a little gold statue? All have done amazing work, and have carved out a niche among film geeks and lovers of fine film. So what if each has had less than successful runs at the mainstream (only Nolan holds two certified hits - both of them Batman revamps). A critic would gladly take any effort by the mind responsible for Fight Club or Sunshine over a weak willed effort by some otherwise solid studio journeymen. While a dark horse could still stand out and claim one of these uncelebrated savant’s limelight, it’s clear that 2009 was the moment when the fringe finally found some industry acceptance. Heck, Benjamin Button is about to break the $100 million mark. That’s better than Fincher’s last three films combined.

So what makes this time different? Why are five filmmakers usually left for artsy fartsy plaudits (and little else) finally putting notches in their business model headboard? For Boyle, the answer was simple - think outside the UK box. While many of his movies were set outside the country, there’s been a distinct English flavor to memorable masterworks like 28 Days Later or Trainspotting. But with Slumdog Millionaire, the British maverick decided to concentrate on India as an actual character itself. That’s why Mumbai swings and swells with a kind of baffling Bollywood magic. Or what about Nolan? He’d been down the masked avenger avenue before. How could he possibly improve on his fan-favored ‘beginning’ for the man-bat. The answer, oddly enough, was seriousness. He took the often campy comic book material and made it into The Godfather for the graphic novel set.

For Aranofsky, it was a stylistic stripping down. The Wrestler often feels like a documentary discovered by a neophyte nostalgic for a bit of ‘80s sports showmanship. There’s none of The Fountain‘s fascinating flourishes, or Requiem for a Dream‘s big screen idiosyncrasies. Instead, it’s just performance capture, clear and simple. The same can’t be said for Fincher, however. Everything he’s learned about art design, costuming, detail, place, mood, tone, narrative, characterization, special effects, editing, scoring, pace, and inherent emotion has been whittled down and rendered resplendently with his indirect take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. While he’s always been a meticulous filmmaker, Benjamin Button is like cracking open a time capsule loaded with eye-popping ideas and awe-inspiring images.

That just leaves Van Sant, and it seems unfair to minimize his efforts this time around. Milk was a major achievement, a biopic that dealt more with what a famous man stood for than what he did behind the scenes. By focusing on the political end of Harvey Milk’s life, and using his personal problems and predicaments as kind of a grateful Greek chorus, we came to understand the passions that drove him, and the positions which ended his far too short time on this planet. Allowing all of his actors the room to explore and extrapolate - especially the mesmerizing work of lead Sean Penn - the director once condemned for creating a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho is now again poised to perhaps pick up his first real slice of cinematic recognition.

Naturally, there are foul winds blowing for this potential nerd nomi-nation. Ron Howard already has one of these glorified career cappers, and there’s enough of a generational gap implied to ignore the historical retrofitting of his take on the infamous ‘70s interview. Besides, when potential results indicator the Director’s Guild of America announced their group of five back on 8 January, Aranofsky was out and Opie was in - and the Oscars rarely waver from such peer mounted recognition. Still, there’s a chance at bucking the trend, something that surely allows The Reader‘s Stephen Daldry or Gran Torino/Changeling‘s Clint Eastwood to sleep at night. Even with Howard in, however, the trending tends to put Boyle as the man to beat. He already has a Golden Globe to shore up his chances.

Last year, Best Director honors were shared by Joel and Ethan Coen, yet there’s was also the first acknowledgement of the turn towards the outside - they themselves beat four first timers including geek god Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman, and artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Oddly enough, DGA nom Sean Penn - Into the Wild - didn’t make the final Academy five. So there’s still hope that one of the familiar faces clogging up the film biz machine will be missing come 22 February. Until then, it’s fun to reflect on a year which saw so many wonderful films, and so many amazing directors finally making their mark. Let’s hope it continues throughout 2009. The artform clearly needs it. 

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