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by Bill Gibron

19 Aug 2008


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?

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