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by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2008


One of the most intriguing media marriages in quite a while has been the uncomfortable creative partnership between videogames and movies. A lot of the relationship comes from the film industry’s lack of artistic options. Whenever they are in need of something story oriented, they look for the nearest narrative shortcut they can find. Similarly, the gaming business has discovered that, the more cinematic you make your console experience, the more likely the demo is to plunk down their dollars. Looking back to where it all began, with one eye in the technology and the other in the toilet, G4’s animated series Code Monkeys exemplifies how the ‘80s started the plug and play revolution, and how film both guided, and gave into, the medium’s many delights.

For the employees of GameAvision, the sale of their company comes as a complete shock. It grows even more disconcerting when they learn that crazy rich man Bob “Big T” Larrity is the new owner. An insane Texan, the new head honcho places his brain dead son Dean in charge. Then, he begins picking through the remaining employees. Between programmers Dave and Jerry, Todd and Mary, it’s hard to find someone serious. Even the other workers in the office - Black Steve the accountant, self-centered Claire the receptionist, and flamboyantly gay game composer Clarence, make it obvious that the lunatics are indeed running the asylum. Eventually, Larrity asserts his command, bringing in underage Korean boy Benny to test all the games. As they try and better competitor Bellecovision with each new game they release, these Code Monkeys set themselves up for fulfilling victory - or agonizing defeat.

Created by one of Adult Swim/Comedy Central’s up and coming talents and utilizing one of the most unusual animation styles ever, Code Monkeys is a joke filled gem for the ADD crowd. It is set up to be a waltz down analog memory lane for anyone who spent time throwing their Nintendo controller against the wall, while reminding us that pop culture - and specifically film culture - drove much of the artform’s early years. Slightly less successful than other television cartoons - including South Park, The Simpsons, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Code Monkeys still succeeds on several levels. It’s not just about characters - it’s about friendship, failure, uncovering personal flaws and foibles, and referencing every movie made during the Reagan era.

Initially, we are taken in by the camaraderie, the continuous back and forth between friends Dave (lead programmer and major party animal, voiced by creator Adam de la Peña) and Jerry (far more concerned with conformity). Then the differing dynamics between uber nerd Todd and ultra-feminist Mary add additional spice. When you toss in the amiable villainy of loose canon Larrity, his buttheaded son, and the ancillary players in this narrative mishmash, we find ourselves oddly won over. As things progress, we start to see the actual nods to the beginning of the entire videogame revolution. Famous names in the community (Nolan Bushnell, Steve Wozniak, Gary Gygax) tweak their own regal reputation, and suddenly the show is more than just slackers acting silly.

It all begins, brazenly one might add, with “The Woz”, featuring the former Apple pioneer. It’s the perfect set up for the show, and leads brilliantly into the very inside (and very funny) “E.T.” The episode reams Atari for creating one of the worst movie tie-in games of all time, and it features a fabulous ending that lashes out at George Lucas as well. The film connections keep coming, as a recognizable Tony Montana type helps Dave and Jerry finance their own business, and between Breakfast Club riffs (in “Todd Loses His Mind”) to the various direct lifts from famous videogames (Super Mario Brothers, Castle Wolfenstein) this is one of the more clever and concrete spoofs out there.

But it goes beyond pure lampoon. What’s clear here is that de la Peña really ‘gets’ the ‘80s. His insights into the decade, either personal, political, and professional are dead on. As is the design. You sometimes forget you are watching an animated series. Instead, you think your Sega Dreamcast has risen from the dead and started programming your TV’s picture tube. The visuals here provide a definite “wow” factor. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this is laugh out loud hilarious. The jokes come flying so fast and furiously, and the reactions cutting several beats out of the standard satiric type, that you can easily get lost and lose the humor. Still, there are moments that definitely tickle your tendencies - especially if you grew up loving your Intellevision.

As DVDs go, Shout! Factory really doesn’t deliver a definitive set. The fluffy bonus material may be appreciated by those really into the premise, but there’s very little backstage stuff. Even odder, the series never announces the voice cast during the opening and closing credits. It will take a trip to IMDb to discover such treats as Aqua Teen titan Dana Synder doing the voice of the Dungeon and Dragons addicted Todd. Also, without a working knowledge of the medium’s past, it may be hard to appreciate some of the creative cameos that eventually show up. Still, for such an off the beaten path production (G4 isn’t exactly a household name), the packaging here is perfectly fine.

Upon reflection, what is obvious about Code Monkeys is it’s nerdisms. It really does illustrate how geeks and the concerns of celluloid finally came together to wage war against boring entertainment and even more mundane cinema. The minds making the first videogames were lonely obsessives who disappeared inside arcane technology, rarified intelligence, and a shared love of all things fringe - including certain cult films. That two decades later that would become the Tinsel Town production norm is just another facet of Code Monkey‘s indirect appeal. On the outside, this is nothing more than profanity among programmers, Dig a little deeper, and you see our current culture finding its footing - for better and for worse. 

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 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?

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2008


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.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, a separatist movement, led by Count Dooku, is attempting to overthrow the Republic. The Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, have been put in charge of keeping things from spiraling out of control. As we catch up with the characters, Jabba the Hutt’s son has been kidnapped, and Yoda wants his two best knights to negotiate his return. Unfortunately, they are engaged in a massive battle on a far away planet. Adding to the problems is a new padawan, Ahsoka Tano. The youngling is assigned to Anakin, much to his initial chagrin. They eventually form an uneasy alliance. After tracking the huttlet to an abandoned monastery, the trio heads out to battle Dark Lord Asajj Ventress and her droid forces. While concerned over the safety of the hostage, they fail to realize that this may all be a trap to poison the Jedi in Jabba’s eyes.

Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.

It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, at least at first. We are given a simple set-up -Anakin gets new padawan, she’s a spunky little thing, they both learn lessons from each other while saving a baby slug from some slightly confusing double cross. Dooku does his thing. Cue John Williams inspired theme. But thanks to the relatively lifeless realization of this material by director Dave Filoni (who almost out snores Uncle George in the filmmaking department) and writers Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy, we are stuck with nothing but cause and effect. It’s all set up and problem solving, the characters given limited access to anything imaginative, instead relying on the same old moves and screenplay mechanics to maintain the story arc.

Once we get beyond the narrative pleasantries, The Clone Wars has little else to offer. The battle sequences are sloppy and wooly, delivering little scope and even less excitement. The proposed suspense never arrives, and since we know the fate of these characters beforehand (some, if not all, have to survive to star in Revenge of the Sith, right?), there is little surprise or satisfaction. The newer additions are merely tossed in, given little time to impact the uninitiated. Unlike live action clashes, where character and other physical elements can be added to up the adrenalin, the flat 3D characters present simply spin around like videogame targets. There’s none of the stylized grace of Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent hand drawn version of these events, which is odd when you consider that animation is as much about art as anything else.

No, the stench of preplanned marketing pours off this title like sugared cereal and sickening kid sweat in a Shrek queue. Everything here is dumbed down, turning potential science fiction and fantasy into overly cute concepts for toys and bubblegum flavored toothpastes. Looking even more closely, you can see the reach for the highly coveted girl demo (a speculative rarity), the equally elusive under 10 set (awwww - isn’t little stinky Rotta the Huttlet adorable!), and even those interested in alternative lifestyles. Yes, Star Wars gets its first openly gay icon in Ziro, Jabba’s wildly flamboyant and campy Uncle. Speaking like something out of a Tennessee William’s play and doing everything else to suggest homosexuality aside from lisping, this totally misguided creation is like a hate crime waiting to happen.

And speaking of anger, fans will be furious when they hear the sound-alike voice actors hired to bring their former favorites to life. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen, Natalie Portman, and Ian McDiamond are nowhere to be found among the credits. In their place are capable mimics, accented by the real voices of Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Daniels. Granted, we don’t get the return of Jar Jar Binks, but one imagines the lilting nasal whine of Ashley Eckstein (as Ahsoka) will be enough to give devotees a migraine. She turns this epic battle between good and evil into a highly costumed High School Musical. Indeed, everything is pitched so far over into outright juvenilia - the imbecilic droids and their incredibly dumb shtick, the lack of realistic violence, the continual arrival of new creatures - that the entire production feels like a love letter to Saturday morning spendthrifts

While it only truly drags toward the end (at almost 100 minutes, it’s 20 too long) Star Wars: The Clone Wars clearly suffers from a severe case of “why?” Why did we need more connective material between already unnecessary Episodes Two and Three? Wasn’t the first time through under Tarakovsky’s imaginative reign good enough? Why aim this material directly at kids? Don’t you realize that your biggest supporters remain the arrested adolescents who fill up Comic-Con with their aging geekdom, Smart Cars, disposable income, and costume making fanaticism? 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.

by Bill Gibron

13 Aug 2008


It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.

A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same - and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.

And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety - and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.

This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.

South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.

This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.

Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.

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