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by Mehan Jayasuriya

15 Aug 2008

I used to think that only an act of God could keep me from a Radiohead show. Well, much to my surprise, this past spring, God decided to call my bluff on that one. So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I approached Radiohead’s performance this past Tuesday in the Philadelphia suburb of Camden, New Jersey – a makeup date, of sorts, for the washout this past May. This time around, I took every precaution. I checked the weather forecast compulsively. I packed a GPS-equipped phone, just in case I got lost on the way. I double-checked to make sure my name was on the guest list. I left for the venue earlier than was probably advisable.

Despite all of these precautions, just about everything that could go wrong en route to the venue went wrong. I took a wrong turn and got lost in the suburbs of Camden. My GPS-equipped phone ran out of batteries. The car charger for the phone didn’t work. None of the gas station attendants seemed to know where the Susquehanna Bank Center was (not that I can blame them, what, with a catchy name like that). I eventually made my way to Camden, only to get lost yet again in that city’s vast, spooky underbelly. The setting sun completely obscured my view of the road. My girlfriend told me to settle down, repeatedly.

Eventually, I made my way into downtown Camden, where I asked a police officer for directions. He shot me a befuddled look before pointing directly across the street from where he stood.

As for the show, well, there’s not much left to say about the In Rainbows tour and even less left to say about Radiohead as a live act. As always, the five lads from Oxfordshire were on point, crafting a career-spanning set-list and attacking it with both passion and precision. And as you’ve surely heard countless times by now, the band’s LED light spectacle was, for lack of a better word, spectacular. Standing there in awe of the music and lights and amazed that I had made it to the show at all, I couldn’t help but identify with the band’s choice of a closing number. As Thom Yorke’s disembodied voice rang through a sampler, the LED spires scrolled in tandem: “EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE”.

by Jamie Lynn Dunston

15 Aug 2008

Just before Christmas 2006, I heard about a new(ish) online game played in real time.  In it, you create a character, gain experience to level up and buy skills, and engage in combat with other player characters.  The game lacks NPCs, so every interaction takes place between two real people.  The action takes place in Malton, a ruined, quarantined city after a zombie apocalypse, and players may take the role of either survivors or the undead.  Best of all, the game is browser-based and free to play.  So what’s the catch?  Widespread narcolepsy, apparently. 

The game I’ve described, Urban Dead, is grid-based, and each movement on the map, use of an item, or search conducted uses one action point.  These action points are rationed to about fifty per day—they replenish at a rate of one per half hour, give or take.  When your action points are used up, you fall asleep.  In an abandoned bar, in the street, wherever—you just pass out.  I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Malton, but it sure as heck isn’t caffeine. 

The rationing of action points is not an entirely new system—Kingdom of Loathing has been running a similar system since 2003—but unlike life in the Kingdom, which mainly pits player characters against NPCs, running out of action points in Urban Dead can cause your survivor character to be dismembered and devoured by undead minions hungry for the bloody flavor of harman hambargars (that’s zombish for human hamburgers), or your zombie might end up getting a fire axe to the back of the skull and staying down for the count (requiring ten additional action points to stand up after a head shot). 

Urban Dead has its own mythology, much of which is documented in its dedicated wiki, and which includes the ability of certain individuals with the requisite training to revive those who have been infected with the strange zombie virus and restore the undead to the, ahem, sunny side of life.  This has created a number of conventions invented from whole cloth by the players on both sides of the grave, which in many ways is more interesting than the game itself.  For instance, those who prefer to play as survivors and log in to find that they have been chewed on during the night can move their shambling corpses to one of several dozen designated revive points—usually cemeteries—and stand in a queue to be brought back to life.  There are players who devote their entire daily ration of action points to reviving their fallen comrades, and who may never actually fight zombies at all. 

Then there are those who play as survivors, but instead of helping their fellow humans fight the zombie hordes, they load up on shotguns and rampage around shopping malls, capping innocent bystanders and generally spreading chaos.  To combat these “player killers,” an unofficial character class has evolved, and bounty hunters seek out and kill the player killers.  Of course, death is a temporary state in Malton, so the circle of life and undeath ebbs and flows like a bloody river flowing to an eternal sea.

Most fascinating, however, are the groups that have repurposed the mechanics of Urban Dead to play a game so completely their own such that it resonates both in-game and out.  Take, for instance, The Shamblin’ Crooners.  This is a group of zombie players that travel from venue to venue performing for human audiences.  In-game, zombies with sufficient experience can buy skills that allow them a rudimentary form of speech (using only the letters a, b, g, h, m, n, r, and z) and something called “Flailing Gesture,” which unlocks the option to point north, south, west, east, or at nearby people or objects.  The Shamblin’ Crooners combined these skills to choreograph elaborate song-and-dance numbers, to be executed just before all the survivors in the chosen venue are, well, executed.  The result: a bunch of dead players who are pretty amused by the whole thing, really, when it gets right down to it. 

I could go on. There are zombie lexicographers, who tirelessly catalog the constantly evolving slang that is zombie speech (survivors with guns: bangbang manz).  There are keen hackers who forge slick apps to make the user interface prettier, tidier, or more accessible.  There is a group called Upper Left Corner, which gathers in the titular corners of malls (which occupy four grid squares) and consume themselves with small talk and witty banter—zombie apocalypse be damned. 

Urban Dead has inspired a few spin-offs since its inception in July 2005, and its creator, Kevan Davis, has been supportive of games like Nexus War.  In my experiences with these games, however, the relaxation of various limitations—responses to common complaints about Urban Dead‘s restrictive gameplay—renders them too simple and drops the stakes to an unsatisfying low.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, it’s rather like playing tennis with the net down.  The limited capabilities of Urban Dead characters inspire creativity and resourcefulness in its players, and therein lies its real magic.  Instead of creating a story and inviting the players to watch it unfold, Davis has succeeded in crafting a sandbox and letting the players create their own world inside it.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2008

The Summer is winding down, and yet there are still some high profile titles waiting to be released. For 15 August, here are the films in focus:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars [rating: 4]

Clearly, the powers behind this convenient cash grab can’t see the real reason Star Wars remains culturally significant. The Clone Wars is proof that, in some people’s minds, it’s nothing more than an easily reconfigured revenue stream.

You’ve got to give George Lucas credit. Who else but the man behind the whole Skywalker family space saga could systematically rape his past while still producing staunch defenders? While he used to bemoan his inability to make “small, arthouse fare”, he now seems permanently stuck in Gene Simmons mode (read: endlessly remarketing his myth for future fans - and profits). After completing his horrendous prequels, many thought he was done with a galaxy far, far away. As it turns out, he was just getting started. As a live action TV series looms, we are currently being treated to the theatrical release of the pilot for his soon to be weekly animated effort, The Clone Wars. Based on the lifeless collection of computer generated chaos offered, things may be ending before the even begin.  read full review…

 

Vicky Christina Barcelona [rating: 3]

Vicky Christina Barcelona is really nothing more than rich people bitching. Now where exactly is the fun in that?

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the rich are different than you or me”, and if by dissimilar he meant boorish, obnoxious, and self-absorbed, he couldn’t have been more right - especially when it comes to their motion picture counterparts. Unless they are decked out in period piece garb and surrounded by palatial estates that warrant consideration as characters themselves, their ambiguous angst fueled by an existence outside the reality of regular people can grow oh so very tiresome. Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t think so. In his new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, he follows two disaffected American gals with tons of disposable…emotions as they laugh and love their way through Spain. Sadly, both the humor and the matters of the heart are indulgent and quite dull. .  read full review…

by John Bohannon

14 Aug 2008

When the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD Set came out, for some reason I wasn’t surprised that the Replacements performance wouldn’t make the cut. Although I never got to see the band during their days of performance, countless hours have been spent on YouTube seeking out their performances—and “Kiss Me on the Bus” has been one of the most consistent, exceptional pop songs that the Replacements ever produced.

This performance, circa 1986—shows the Replacements in their prime. Although not quite as memorable as their famed Saturday Night Live performance, this highlights Paul Westerberg’s raw vocals at their best, and Bob Stinson whips up a solo variation that has the guitar sounding massively out-of-tune, and massively wonderful. Every time you watch the Replacements play, there’s something different to be offered, and that’s part of the glory of the Replacements. They never tried to be something they weren’t and the songs were never perfect. They were more focused on a valued performance and a songwriting that left an impression—a lesson a plethora of bands that spend entirely too much on their image and exact reproductions of the studio sound can learn from.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the rich are different than you or me”, and if by dissimilar he meant boorish, obnoxious, and self-absorbed, he couldn’t have been more right - especially when it comes to their motion picture counterparts. Unless they are decked out in period piece garb and surrounded by palatial estates that warrant consideration as characters themselves, their ambiguous angst fueled by an existence outside the reality of regular people can grow oh so very tiresome. Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t think so. In his new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, he follows two disaffected American gals with tons of disposable…emotions as they laugh and love their way through Spain. Sadly, both the humor and the matters of the heart are indulgent and quite dull.

Having decided to spend the summer in Spain, New York gals Vicky and Christina become intoxicated with Barcelona’s beauty. One’s there ostensibly to study art and architecture. The other just wants an adventure. They enjoy indulging in the local wine, and the somewhat unwelcome advances of artist Juan Antonio. Inviting the pair to a romantic weekend in the country, he comes on very strong. Vicky hates this aspect of his personality, while Christina is intrigued. Eventually both bed the painter. Vicky is tormented by her rashness. Christina, on the other hand, moves in with Juan. It’s not long, however, before an element from the man’s past inserts itself into their situation. It’s Maria Elena, Juan’s highly strung ex-wife. Under the guise of being depressed, suicidal, and needing to protect her former husband, she becomes the third wheel in Christina’s connubial bliss. Of course, it’s not long before the passionate duo become a trio - with all the attending problems. 

Sometimes, a movie just doesn’t click with you. Try as it might, and conversely, as much as you would like to meet it halfway, something stops the connection. The clash can either result in outright anger, or in most cases, downright disinterest. Such is the case with Vicky Christina Barcelona. For all its nuanced subtleties, arty experiments, references to wealth and power, and bubbling libidos, this is a film that just can’t find a way to seem real. It appears locked in a dream, drowning in painful superficialities that few would want to invest time in. Even worse, it takes characters and turns them into types, constantly forcing what could be interesting individuals into purposefully placed pigeonholes. By the end, you just want the whining to stop, to have some sense of the way life really is whack these hedonistic snobs right in the face.

Sadly, such a comeuppance never arrives. Instead, Allen drops back into casual observer mode and lets its cast simply bore us to death. From the Spanish side of things, Javier Bardem is given the thankless role of confused, compassionate lothario. On the one hand, he can’t wait to bed these statuesque Americans. He’s like horniness tempered with a come hither accent. On the other, he’s like a momma’s boy missing the teat. We’re supposed to sympathize with his undying devotion to crazy mixed up Maria Elena, to see how his pseudo soul mate torments him so. But when Penelope Cruz arrives, all tussled hair and raccoon eyes, she’s like an invader from a failed version of Warhol’s Factory. And then she speaks, and all the stereotypical shrill insanity comes cascading out. Somewhere along the line, Allen mistook psychosis for passion. Here, the two aren’t even remotely related.

Naturally, every demented ebb must have a fathomless flow, and our two ‘lost’ tourists provide a perfect pair of undaunted doormats. Of the two, Rebecca Hall’s supposedly sensible Vicky is the most aggravating. Initially, she makes a grand point about being in love with her fiancé, recognizing Bardem’s wolf in seducer’s clothing, and standing by her moral and sexual convictions. So guess who allows her libido to undo two decades of determination? For the rest of the film Hall appears unplugged, using flustered frustration as an excuse for any and all interpersonal faux pas. At least Christina makes no bones about being unstuck in her pointless, prone to hastiness life. Scarlett Johannson has a hard time conveying ditz. It frequently comes across as her character being sleepy. But if Allen was looking for someone to match his foreign actors bump for grind, this voluptuous star will definitely do. 

None of this explains why Vicky Christina Barcelona is so lifeless though. Allen name checks Gaudi and other familiar artists, yet he uses their work as the most uninteresting of backdrops. Equally uninspired are the people who float around this foursome. Bardem’s father cuts an intriguing image - he’s a poet who does not publish because he doesn’t believe the world deserves his beautiful words. Quite intriguing, but Allen pushes past it for more shots of Juan Antonio making cow eyes at Christina. Even worse, moments of supposed comedy are treated in such an off hand, ill timed manner that we’re never given a chance to laugh - or better yet, a reason to do so. It’s all just so idyllic and lazy, like a typical vacation except without the planned itinerary and accidental dysentery.

It’s hard to tell if this is a failure in idea or execution. Allen’s camera is relaxed here, the cinematography frequently as drunk on the locations as the characters. He does use a rather annoying voice over narration, the explanations often doing what clever blocking and actual acting would accomplish. In fact, everything is spoon fed to us in ways which become increasingly annoying. Indeed, one’s tolerance level of this material literally evaporates as the plot and the peccadilloes plod along. While it may not be fair to judge any artist by their past, Woody Allen isn’t winning over many new fans with his recent direction. While he may never recapture the quality of his classics, it’s hard to support such wayward expressions. Vicky Christina Barcelona is really nothing more than rich people bitching. Now where exactly is the fun in that?

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Violin Virtuoso L. Subramaniam Mesmerizes in Rare New York Performance (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.

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