1.31.2011

For Love Of The Game

Happy snowstorm, everyone! I am beginning to think I should consider a move to Alaska, as I seem to be the only person I know who genuinely gets excited by blizzards. In the interest of fighting community-wide cabin fever and the cooped-up-crazies I want to share a treasure trove of entertainment with you. 

I speak of Gamespite, a blog I follow devotedly yet of which I have never formally become a member. Bear in mind, though, my reluctance is based only on my personal reticence at being a 'joiner', or a fear of being rejected. I probably sound more neurotic and weird than I intend to here, but I digress. It's thoroughly awesome and you should check it out.

Obvious personal nerdery aside, I love the site for both its content and tone. I first became acquainted with it from listening to the (now sadly defunct) Retronauts podcast from 1UP.com
/. The host for the show, Jeremy Parish, has been maintaining the Gamespite domain for the last decade, on and off, as a place to write and host honest, heartfelt critiques about games both new and old. It certainly doesn't need an endorsement from me to keep it's momentum rolling; it's a thriving community that chugs along, creating some of the most interesting breakdowns on video games and culture I've read anywhere. Honestly, the driving factor behind my writing this article evangelizing the site is simply that I think Gamespite deserves the accolade and attention. 

The site has become a repository for insightful and detailed articles on everything from psychological profiles on the background players in Nintendo games, to a forum full of some of the most intelligent, kind, and above all witty members, on the internet. Additionally there is the fantastic 'Let's Play!' section, where you can vicariously experience a game, either to relive it or experience it for the first time, most often with incredibly funny commentary that makes the experience akin to a modern MST3K. All of this and more, gathered and maintained by the persistent and prolific Parish. 

While Parish has made no bones about his own passions, among them Klonoa and Mega Man Legends, he has been a well-rounded editor and publishes a broad cross section of the  world of electronic gaming. The lion's share of the posts come from Parish himself, with contributor's columns being collected into themed issues he's dubbed Gamespite Quarterly, available for purchase in both soft and hardcover. Themes for issues go in suites, such as one for Heroes and another for Villains. The varying authors show their love for the overlooked and unsung, writing on sidekicks and bitplayers that they hold dear to their hearts. Other times its heavy, analytical critiques on the nature of choice in the medium, like Bioshock or Maniac Mansion. If all of this sounds way to intricately involved in the culture, try looking for something as familiar and famous as Mario and the impact its had on society.

What I find to be most enjoyable about the collective writings as a whole is the tone of the work - it's approached with both a reverence and light-hearted sense of humor, with little of the typical snark endemic of video game communities. Of course, this is not to say there is a dearth of knowing winks and elbows in the ribs, but the mood is one of appreciation and contemplative study that shows a genuine love of the subject matter. Take, for example, this massive list of articles, freely available for perusing.

If it seems like I'm rambling on in a disjointed matter, it's probably an accurate assessment,. It's most likely due to the over abundance of material that's been gathering over the years. For my non-gaming brethren it may seem like a shot in the dark into a niche community, but to a large part of the internet it's a well known haven, a group of friends and family that just seem to get each other. It's a place for kindred spirits to find people to play online with (Who Don't Suck, according to the thread title, in an inspired stroke of  social networking) or to share their appreciation for heavy metal. It's a massive community that just exudes positivity.



Check Gamespite out, and if you have any interest in ye olden days of gaming, the Retronauts podcast is still available at the site linked above as well as iTunes. Take a look and see what you find. 

1.30.2011

Modern Prog Rock

Evening, all.


Long day of typical Sunday stuff - errands, groceries, cleaning, sweeping, vacuuming, exercising and to counteract the exercise - a massive meal of the most delicious, and above all healthy, tacos I've ever had. So I write this in a bit of a dozing food coma, battling fatigue and the nods. Accordingly today's post will be a bit truncated, but fully formed regardless. I thought I'd expound a bit on my favorite album of all time, which is also a bit of a guilty pleasure. While I've already written about the Smashing Pumpkins, today we look at their exceptional offering, Siamese Dream.


Recorded in the early winter of 1993 in Georgia, the album marked a turning point for the band. Notoriously egocentric frontman and driving force Billy Corgan began writing from a much more personal perspective and, under the watchful eye of producer Butch Vig, started down one of the most prolific and high quality segments of his artistic career. An aside here - Vig is a known 'personality', i.e. a strong opinioned musician whose career has brought high praise as well as personal scorn, but his output, as well as involvement in the odd-ball band Garbage (another 90s favorite of mine), are fit for another day's post. To acknowledge his involvement in the album is to put it in another category, one that is also associated with interpersonal conflicts as well as incredible results. 


Moving on.


The band struggled through the sessions, with varying results. Corgan's neurotic and obsessive work ethic resulted in amazing craftsmanship, but at the sacrifice of his relationships with his band mates. According to legend, he not only locked guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky out of the recording booth, but ended up re-recording everything the pair had lain down by that point. Another well known factoid is that Corgan went crazy on the overdubs and 'aural construction' of the album by putting a whopping 70 overdubs on a single lick in the song 'Soma' just to create the proper tone. Despite the descent into blind ambition, the album turned out to be a master stroke, and was heralded (at the time) to be their best work.


While the band was and continues to be regarded in some circles as blatant careerists and corporate shills, the music on Siamese Dream speaks for itself. 14 songs, all in a row, show the massive jump the band had made from their debut album, Gish, to here. They (or Corgan, if you prefer the insinuations) had gone from psychedelic rock and flailing, jangly chords to streamlined, intensely rhythmic riff-age and stadium sized hooks. The songwriting quality was also leaps and bounds beyond what they had previously accomplished. The first single for the album, and my favorite song of my lifetime, the straight-ahead power-pop 'Today' was written after a bout of writers block. It's straightforward nature almost stands in defiance of the struggles that had prevented its creation. The sweeping, lush 'Disarm' served as a signature stamp of what the band's sound would be in their acoustic mode, moody and sorrowful. The album opener, 'Cherub Rock', is a signifier of the new sound, starting with a drum roll and building, octave chord riff that crescendos into an undeniably catchy song that stays with you long after it ends. 


The band clearly came into their own with this album. By creating simple, accessible songs like the weeping and droningly beautiful 'Mayonnaise' or the brooding and powerful 'Soma' the band honed their distinctive sound that set them apart from the grunge sound-alikes of the era. While their peers and rivals focused on dirges and lo-fi indie rock, here was an album of polished and obsessively micromanaged prog rock. It was almost iconoclastic move, at this point in the music scene, to be so knowingly well-practiced when the easy money was on slouching, flannel driven grunge.


Rather than ramble on for another 500 words about how great this album is and why you should be listening to it, I'll let it speak for itself. Either it will move you or it won't. Good music stands the test of time and I keep coming back to this album, no matter how many times I've heard it. The craftsmanship and mood of the album just speak to me on a personal level. It may be due more to where I was in my life when I first heard it and how it affected me, but I feel today that the music does stand the test of time. Oddball or not, anal-retentiveness aside, I love Siamese Dream.

1.29.2011

Of Dubious Legality

Okay, for the first time in what feels like a week I'm doing a legitimate, full-on post. 

Alright, enough stalling - let's get right to it. I'm using today's space to examine a concept I had been aware of yet only looked into in the last year. Something of questionable moral and legal territory. Something which deserves a look, frankly. That something is Fan Edits.

While the idea of alternate cuts by people other than the original productions of movies had gained notoriety as far back as the 70s, the idea of a 'fan edit' first gained major prominence after the release of the controversial prequel to the Star Wars Saga, The Phantom Menace. A professional film editor, who for a long time remained anonymous, set about removing the majority of the (perceived) out of place humor and substantial scenes with kid-friendly Jar Jar Binks, as well as rearranging scenes and dialog in an attempt to improve what many fans saw as a flawed entry in their beloved series. The Phantom Edit, as it came to be known, served as the first widely publicized foray into the field of fans editing major motion pictures as they saw fit. The Phantom Edit had corrected or addressed what many saw as severe flaws in the source material; by doing so it illustrated the potential for 'rescuing' other movies that film buffs felt had strong roots but bore weak fruit.

Surprisingly there hasn't been a downpour of lawsuits and court dates stemming from the wave of edits available on the internet. While a particular high profile documentary about fan edits themselves did warrant a cease and desist from Lucasfilms, in the end it appeared to stem from Lucasfilms mistakenly believing it to be a bootleg copy of one of their own movies. Unlike the distribution of music over file sharing services, these edits don't have the immediate accessibility or convenient file size, let alone audience pool to draw on. Multitudes of web users may want to torrent the new Kanye album, but how many people want to see the Lord of The Rings movies re-cut to more properly match the original story Tolkien wrote in the books? From what I can gather: smaller online presence, less impact on sales and not technically bootlegging. It's just taking a DVD you already own and rearranging scenes or cutting things out, essentially. Most distributors haven't had the desire to chase the community down to close off what amounts to be a minimal amount of damage, anyway.

While I haven't had the opportunity to see The Phantom Edit myself, I have had the pleasure of seeing a particularly interesting edit of the back-to-back sequels to the sci-fi blockbuster that was The Matrix. An absolute shift in zeitgeist for Hollywood, The Matrix became one of the most acclaimed (and consequently, mimicked) movies of the last twenty years. A story of man vs. machine, cyberpunk action and techno bombast, it certainly deserved the praise it received. The simultaneously filmed sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, were seen as a matter of diminishing returns, however. Overstuffed and wandering, the general consensus was the sequels either went off the rails or tried to cram too much into not enough. Personally I enjoyed them, flaws and all, for the imagery and philosophic themes the movies explored. But that is an article for another day. Today, I'm writing on how they can be combined to make a more cohesive whole.

The Matrix DeZIONized is an edit that combines the two drawn-out sequels and squashes them into one lean, focused film. The effect is amazing. By removing all of the scenes that take place outside of the Matrix, as well as any material mentioning Zion, the result is a movie that feels more in line with the original. Granted, the entire edit then seems to take place in the Matrix, but that was how most of the story was written anyway, so the editor had to work with what was already laid down. Still, the movie moves along at a much faster clip - action scenes seem much better spaced, plot points come at a quicker pace. Hell, the entire story, what the essential point of the sequels was (besides cash), comes so quickly as a result of proper editing here that the viewer has to ask "Why put in all that stuff about Zion in the first place?" Two movies with run times of 138 minutes and 129 minutes, (almost five hours!) cut down to one movie of 121 minutes. Those numbers alone show how much extemporaneous material was present. 

Watching the edit, the story flows so smoothly that you barely notice the few holes left from the cuts, for example characters not having resolution in the final act, or the odd dialog piece not having a previous reference point. This mostly is a holdover from having seen the original films, but if this was your first time through these two films, one would hardly notice. If you have an opportunity and the means to see this movie, I would suggest you take a look, if for no other reason than to study how much of an impact editing a movie can have. It really is a fascinating work.

I say all of this with the knowledge that my own, unaltered, Blu Ray versions of the movie are due to arrive from Amazon any day now. I can rag on the Wachowski siblings all day long and yet these movies are still near and dear to me. I was absolutely enthralled with them when I first saw them, partly due to never having seen the films and texts that they took inspiration from. I waited to buy them on DVD in the box set due to financial constraints and having other burning cinematic desires. So when I saw the entire series was available on Blu Ray for less than $50, I jumped with no hesitation. So, I plan on watching the beautiful transfers of these odd films back-to-to-back, then check out the edit and see if it stacks up after all. If you do, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Also, check out some other edits out there. I'll be doing a write up in the future on some others, including some interesting extended cuts. I've already covered one, the epic and genius rearrangement Chronologically Lost. The intarwebs is full of possibilities.

1.28.2011

Red Rover

Evening!


Today has been a jam packed day and as a result I haven't been able to sort out a proper write up on a couple different things I've been working on. They'll be posted eventually but in the mean time I wanted to share something that has been boggling my brain as of late.


One of the fantastic and literary gifts I received this Christmas came from my younger brother. Said gift is a great read which I'm just finishing up and will do a proper run down when it's officially finished. The book in question is How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, a hilarious and fascinating analysis of one of the most controversial scientific decisions of the decade. Personally, I get it so far. Tiny little planet, on the verge of the Kuiper Belt, other things Brown is breaking down in a clear and concise manner, with a solid dose of humor, to boot.

What I've been struggling with while reading, however, is the scale of the universe we live in. I find myself completely distracted from thinking about the literally astronomical distance between our celestial bodies. I know this will come across as a nothing post, people will read it and think "oh that's nice" and move on, but that just bums me out.

Please, in our cluttered and manic lives, try to take a moment and attempt to picture the absolutely massive scale of the  Solar System and the void between planets. Think of Mars and how far away it is. Think of the fact that simply because you're alive to read this you most likely will not live to see a person touch Mars. After the budget cuts NASA has seen as of late, such a monumental event won't be accomplished by us, that's certain. But! We have put a robot up there. That little guy has taken pictures. Please, let that sink in. It works almost as the opposite as WALL-E. Check out this amazingly moving XKCD comic to get a little better perspective.

In lieu of a proper write up, I'll leave you a few pictures of an alien landscape we'll almost never set foot on, yet is still within our grasp.



Peace out.







1.27.2011

Warm Fuzzy Viewings Deux

To compensate for the shortened post mourning Double Danger Comics, today I offer another Warm Fuzzy Viewing. Today's subject is the Simpson's episode "Skinner's Sense of Snow", in which a blizzard hits Springfield and traps the students at school before Christmas. This episode was originally broadcast December 17th, 2000, which seems completely impossible for an episode to be eleven years old and still seem like it's part of the 'newer' era. Let's dig in!

The episode starts with Homer being denied the opportunity to watch football because the family wants to see the Cirque de Puree (Homer: "But I wanted to see Brett Fav-re!" complete with French accent). When the circus tent is blown away the Simpson clan hightails it home, barely beating the impending snowstorm, which is described as a "Nor'easter meets a Sou'wester". 
When the storm rolls in, even the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is closed. 

Radio Announcer: The following schools are closed today; Shelbyville, Ogdenville, Ogdenville Tech, and Springfield Elementary... (Bart and Lisa gasp in surprise)...My Dear Watson Detective School. (Bart groans) And lastly, Springfield Elementary School...(Bart and Lisa cheer) …is open! (Bart and Lisa groan) And it's open season on savings at Springfield Menswear... which is closed.

 The few students whose parents forced them to attend are made by Skinner (the only faculty member not off at a caucus) to watch the delightfully terrible holiday movie 'The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, But Then Was'. Taking cues from Mystery Science Theater's expertise, the old movie is rife with production errors, like a Grip walking into the shot, or cardboard props for sheep falling over, mid-take. It's best summed up by Milhouse's complaint about the protagonist singing to the romantic interest: "Why won't he stop singing? He's been wooing her for 45 minutes!" When the projector catches fire (Nelson: "Ha ha! You shoulda got the DVD!" Skinner: "This IS the DVD") the class tries to leave, only to find themselves snowed in. 


Bart: "We're trapped in the school!"
(Wailing)

Milhouse: "We're gonna miss Christmas!"
(Even louder wails)

Skinner: "I fixed the movie!"
(Loudest cry of all)

Realizing the kids haven't made it home yet, Homer and Ned venture out in the blizzard to rescue them with a makeshift plow.

Flanders: Well, I'm all for rescuing the kids, but I wish you hadn't sawed off my roof. (cut to show part of Flanders’ roof sawed off)
Homer: My car, your roof; it's only fair.
Flanders: But it's my car.
Homer: Well, yeah.
Flanders: Hey, whatever happened to the plow from your old snowplow business?
Homer: I never had a snowplow business.
Flanders: Sure you did, Mr. Plow. You're wearing the jacket right now. (Homer turns, revealing he's wearing the “Mr. Plow” jacket)
Homer: I think I know my own life, Ned. (sings "Call Mr. Plow, that's my name; that name again is Mr. Plow".)   


En route to the school they hit a fire hydrant and freeze to the spot. Running the engine to stay warm, they are overtaken by fumes and pass out, giving way to Homer dreaming he is a Sultan in the Middle East (Homer tells a maiden: "Bring me my Ranch Dressing hose!")

The kids are forced to spend the night in Springfield Elementary and Ned and Homer are trapped in a fume-filled car! Will they survive? Will the kids miss Christmas? Will they have to finish that terrible movie? Watch Skinner's Sense of Snow to find out! (Available in the Season 12 box-set or on Simpsons Christmas Vol. 2.) 


It's an excellent episode in which we have one of the prime ingredients - the snow storm trapping the kids in school, on top of Bart trying to escape via Secret Snow Tunnel! I love shows with blizzards trapping people in places - one of my favorite memories of this winter has to be the massive and record setting blizzard in December. I watched from my condo as the city buses just flipped their signs over to 'Not In Service' and made everyone get off where they stopped. It was nuts, the whole city shut down. As a result we stayed inside, cooking awesome and elaborate food all day. 


I think what I love about being snowed in is having to dig in and go into that 'survival mode' or try to entertain yourself with whatever is around. You're forced to make the most of your immediate surroundings instead of thinking that something outside or elsewhere is better. This episode hits that feeling square on - blizzards, do your worst! 

Buzzkill

It is with a heavy heart that I write this.

Yesterday evening, after another excellent trip to Fuji Ya for dinner, I was walking home on Lake Street. As I passed Bryant Lake Bowl and wondering why I never bowl, I saw this sign hanging on the door of my favorite comics store.

That's right. Double Danger Comics, the impeccably up-kept comic store of my neighborhood, is closing. 

What a tragedy! Here we had a nice, freshly done and locally owned comic store and it's going out of business. I remember being so excited, walking from my condo to their grand opening on National Comic Book Day, eager to see what the place looked like and what their selection was. It was a double bonus - not only was a great, new shop opening right down the street from where I lay my head at night, but it was Free Comic Book Day! I picked up the best of the freebies and (of course) did some legitimate business as well, managing to tack down some issues I had not been able to find for quite a while. They had a fantastic store and I made sure to be a consistent patron whenever I could, instead of shopping at one of the bigger book stores. Super cool prints for sale, an excellent asetethic, figurines, good selection and variety and above all a friendly and patient staff. It was a great place to have, right in the neighborhood. You would think Uptown, of all places, would be able to support the need for such a place, especially with the gap left in the community ever since mainstay Shinders closed down earlier in the decade.

Granted this is only the physical location closing its doors. According to the staff they plan on maintaining their online presence and selections while shuttering the shop on Lake Street. It really is a bummer, even if they ring you up with a smile and recommendation for things you might like, based on your purchase. Such an awesome store, going the way of the buffalo. The one, small silver lining, a minor positive to this situation, is the massive liquidation happening as a result, but even that makes me feel guilty for taking any pleasure in it. Considering the awesome back log of stuff still available, I picked up a few trade paperbacks and recent issues, as well as a Futurama figurine for my desk. Get in while you can and the selection lasts, there were some amazing things available for a whopping 50% off. Again, I got some great deals but at the cost of losing my favorite store in the area. A sad trade, if you ask me. 


Quelle domage. Here's their site, check 'em out if you can, or if at all possible, help them out by reducing inventory. I know I plan on making a trip back before the end of February, their last day of open doors. It was an excellent shop, worthy of your business and mine. I just wish I could have helped more. 

1.26.2011

Nerd Alert!

Well, hello there!

Today, in a move of geeky self-awareness, I want to tell you about an excellent multi-media presence in our world. The thing I speak of is the Nerdist podcast. The brain child of Chris Hardwick, known for his appearances on G4 and Chelsea Handler (or for those of us who watched MTV in the 90s, hosting Singled Out with Jenny McCarthy), the Nerdist podcast was first made available February 8th of 2010. Hardwick, who had at the time just started hosting Web Soup, a you-tube heavy spin off of The Soup, wanted an outlet for talking to friends and fellow comedians about things they found to be nerdy or worthy of geeking out over. The general idea was to find things that were worthy of obsession and passion to specific audiences and bring it a more public view, be it comedians they felt people needed to know about, or personalities who were changing the landscape of distribution and what it means to have a career being an artist, like Scott Sigler or Jonathon Coulton. Enlisting his friends, fellow comedian Jonah Ray and tech-savvy Matt Mira, they launched both the podcast and a blog to evangelize the world on their nerdist views. 


Each episode is roughly an hour and features a guest of the week, typically recorded in Hardwick's home along with Raye and Mira. Fair warning, there is more than a moderate sprinkling of profanity, just in case your ears are allergic to that sort of thing. Topics and guests range from voice actor extraordinaire Billy West (known for voice work on shows like Futurama, Doug and Ren & Stimpy) to Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, to Mixed Martial Artist Jason 'Mayhem' Miller (host of MTV's Bully Beatdown) to Rob Zombie (of Rob Zombie fame). Hardwick, Raye and Mira spend the duration of the show  both interviewing and joking with their guests, to great success and amusement. While critics of the show have accused the hosts of fawning over whoever they bring on, Hardwick defends his enthusiasm as just that - he prefers to have guests whose company he actually enjoys and wants to learn about. As he posited in one of the episodes, why would he want to have to talk to someone for an hour, in his own home mind you, whom he can't stand? In several episodes Hardwick relates his own struggles with negativity and how he tries to see the best in everything, and his show's perspective and method of guest selection follows that ideology.

Each interview provides insightful glimpses into the minds and processes of each guest. It's fascinating to hear Drew Carrey talk about what it was like to do the Tonight show with Johny Carson and how it could literally open up your career overnight, or hear Stan Lee (of Marvel Comics legend) talk about where the ideas for characters and plots originated. At one point Hardwick had an opportunity to interview Ozzy Osbourne for an unrelated piece and they hit it off well enough that he put up the whole interview for that week's episode. Who knew Ozzy was a massive Dr. Who fan? In a particular instance of absurdist humor, Hardwick interviews the Muppets, yes those Muppets, and asks questions like they're normal, everyday people. Hearing someone give a straight-faced interview with Fozzy, Kermit and Gonzo is bizarre, to say the least. 


With the podcast updating every week and Hardwick and  Ray tweeting about things in between their respective gigs as professional comedians, eventually the concept started to get too large for just them to run on their own. To satisfy the demand for content and consistency, they reached out to writers they admired and had them take the reigns on the Nerdist blog, which I've had a link to on my own site since it's beginning. It was a stroke of genius for Hardwick, as he wanted to keep up the steady stream of content and writing without it becoming a time-sink for his own life. The result? We get new episodes every week, the blog is updated on a frequent basis and non of the content flags due to disparate schedules or obligations. Anything from bizarre news stories to sightings of the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile end up on the blog, which is always a good read. The podcast stays consistently awesome as well. Check out some of the guests they've had: 


Kevin Smith
Ozzy Osbourne
Bill West
Marc Maron
Sarah Silverman
Greg Fitzsimmons
Brian Posehn
Mike Birbiglia
Rain Wilson
Bill Maher
Fred Willard
Jim Gaffigan
Joel Mchale
Andy Richter


See that? See how many awesome, amazing people they've had on? Here's the best part: all these hysterical, entertaining and insightful podcasts are FREE. That's right, no cost! Go for it! Download them on itunes or off their blog. There is something for everyone, I guarantee it.

1.25.2011

Bombast

Alright friends and neighbors, today we're going to talk about a different kind of monster movie.

My post last week on indie-extraordinaire Monsters extolled the virtues of subtlety and how to evoke mood by presenting the quieter, more tense aspect of the unseen. The appeal in that film was the ambiance and it's minimal presentation, eschewing EXPLOSIONS for long silences and the unknown. Today's subject matter is pretty much the opposite of the little monster movie that could. What I'm referring to is 2008's Cloverfield.

While directed by Matt Reeves, known mostly for his TV work on the show Felicity, the movie is basically the brain child of J.J. Abrams, creator of the genius and sorely missed Lost. Abrams said the idea stemmed from seeing Godzilla figurines in a Japanese toy shop with his son. Seeing the iconic monster and realizing the impact it had on the culture, he thought to himself "I want to make an American monster" in that vein, our own thing that is unique to this generation. 


The movie was filmed under tight wraps with only the slightest of details leaking out during production. A teaser trailer for the movie was shown before theatrical screenings of Transformers, showing the head of the Statue of Liberty being flung down the street in Manhattan with crowds gathering to gape at the spectacle. That was all the audience had to go on, unless you followed the viral marketing that popped up innocuously online. This was back in the days where Myspace was still considered a social viability for relevance, as opposed to today's ultra-ubiquitous Facebook. What fans (correctly) assumed was that the pages were of characters in the movie. These were all linked together from a central website that showed photos of a fractured and broken New York skyline. Further hidden links led to pages showing a beverage company that mined its secret ingredient off the ocean floor. Follow those links and you get a video of a deep-sea drilling station that was sunk by an undersea attack. All of that was meant to give clues to the movie's plot.

Ready? Here goes.

The Blair Witch monster eats New York, attractive people flee in terror.

That about sums it up!

While I admit its a bit of an over simplification, I still enjoy it for what it is. The movie is a modern-day monster movie, a popcorn flick with shaky camera-style, lending a found-footage aesthetic. A group of attractive young people are having a going away party for their friend Rob, and on the night of the party, as another friend films the debauchery, a monster from the ocean floor, 25 stories tall, begins stomping through New York. The next 70+ minutes are spent alternating between running while turning to film fleeting glimpses of the monster and gasping for breath in hiding holes, asking each other just what that thing was and what should they do now? Desperate rescue attempts and edge-of-your-seat close calls fill out the rest of the running time. There are a few cool and creepy moments, such as running from smaller parasites that fall off the larger creature, or stumbling onto the military's ad-hoc quarantine and medical zone.


I know it sounds like I'm pretty roundly dismissing the movie, but despite its obvious flaws and at times frustrating camera work I still hold a soft spot for this overlooked oddity. To me, the movie feels authentic and genuine, despite the ridiculous premise and bland characters. Self interested, boring people in New York? I'll buy it. But what I think really sold it for me is what Roger Ebert, of all people, suggests about the film. He saw it as an unnerving take on our worst (unconscious) fears after September 11th. To ironically allow vanity steer my post, its been said that my generation was one that was profoundly affected by the attacks because we were forced to watch it over and over again on TV after the fact. Seeing this shaky cam footage of people roughly my age, running and screaming from some Lovecraft-ian horror-from-the-depths does affect me and gets a visceral response. It all adds up to one messed up movie. It's short, frenetic and barely focused but it still appeals to me with its immediacy and (to use a phrase I take from The Simpson's Lindsey Naegel) in-your-face attitude. 

Yes, this is a flawed movie. It's short, the people are sketches at best and there really is no plot besides "RUN!" but I still find myself enjoying it under the right circumstances. Most often, that would be on a massive TV with a good sound system and a beer. Maybe a couple beers, actually, but the violent camera work might make that difficult, come to think of it. Basically if you're looking for a straight-forward popcorn flick that might actually make you think a bit, give a look. I'm pretty sure it's widely dismissive reception kept the price down.

Oh, and the monster? Pretty awesome and strange, if you ask me. 

1.24.2011

Back To Work

In an attempt to get back on the horse I thought I would use today's entry to tell you about an album that has been a personal joy of mine. After two straight days of visual arts and deviating entries, today is a return to form with a breakdown on why this album is so fantastic and deserving of wider acclaim. The artist in question? Colin Hay.

And who is that, you rightfully ask?

None other than the very talented singer/songwriter and former frontman for 80s Australian group Men At Work.

Yes, that Colin Hay. The man with the unusual voice and eyes that are just a bit off. Not scary, just a little unusual. Further research reveals it to be a run of the mill lazy eye, it just is something you don't come across everyday in chart topping musical groups. But instead of focusing on a case of lazy eye, let's look into this musician and his under appreciated work. 


As I mentioned, Colin Hay was the frontman for Men At Work, the group behind iconic tunes like "Who Can It Be Now" (one of the few songs that are actually better as a result of saxophone) and one of my guilty pleasures, "Down Under". The band had a style that was hard to pin down, in my mind - there were, at times, touches of reggae, new wave, power pop. One could make the case that the lack of distinctive style is not a good thing and I'd actually be inclined to agree. Like another love of mine, The Cars, the hits were massively successful and enjoyable but the rest of the albums would be dreck. So it seemed to go for Men At Work - huge hits, filler by the truckload. Hidden in there, though, were a few gems. By 1986 the band had broken up due to the typical in fighting and control issues and that would mark the end for many stories. What makes this one a little different is the subtle coda to it.

Colin Hay kept plugging away.

He  continued to write, record and perform, releasing solo albums as the years went by, to mild success. In his work there were continuing signs of well-crafted, honest songs that speak to the listener in a very direct and moving way, but they tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Hay kept working and recording, establishing his own cannon well after the demise of his band. All of this came to a point with the release of 2001's 'Going Somewhere'. The album was a stripped down, sparse collection of his best songs of his career. Gathered from as far back as the early 80s, the album is just Hay's voice and guitar playing with the occasional overdub. The resulting album is beautiful, a group of songs that, put together, highlight the brilliance of a man over the span of twenty years and how he has aged so gracefully. Even his voice has improved with time, the young, passionate wail giving way to a dusty croon that is lower and softer, as he has found a more subtle way to impart his music. 

The album opener, 'Beautiful World', is a wonderful example of what's to come in the next 13 tracks. It's a serene, open song that extolls the joy in simple things. This is not in the trite sense of Chicken Soup for the Soul platitudes, but comes across as natural and significant. The way Hay sings about making tea and swimming in the ocean move me in a way that few, if any songwriters have. Something about it feels genuine in a way that suggests he has come to these realizations not through self help books, but through gradual appreciation that grew in to a deeper understanding of the world as he has grown older. The open and full chords he strums and picks add to the peaceful air of the opening track. 

Some of the songs have received extensive play, like the moving "My Brilliant Feat", which I still hear on the radio today. It even had its day in the sun as the focal point and theme for an episode of the awesome, cancelled-too-late, Scrubs. It's a moving piece of acoustic wonder that culminates in Hay singing un-enunciated words that, sung over a minor chord change, is profoundly moving. It is a sign of quality songwriting when you can put on a song and listen patiently for three and a half minutes just to get the joy of hearing that one special chord change and how it affects the tone of the song. The whole album has moments like that, where the listener is rewarded for putting it on and letting it go. 

Not all the songs are lighthearted and uplifting. The brooding "Children On Parade" is a tune that, while not bleak or dreary, has a darker, more cautionary or tone in longing. An example of how well he can rework a song from synthesizers and droning 80s drab, here its presented as a sorrowful tale. There is a word in Portuguese, saudade, that I think is fitting for the song. The way the song transitions from the melancholic finger picking in the verse to the thickly strummed chords of the chorus, the feel or mood undergoes a significant change that marries the song quite well.

 What I think it is about the album that I love so much stems from both what it is and what it represents. On the surface it is a very stripped down and bare album. It is simple and straight forward, accessible to the ear. Frankly, its catchy as all get out. I love to sing along to it. 'Going Somewhere' is an album that shows music at its essence. As to what it represents, I find peace and contentedness within it. Not in the hippy/groovy sense, but in the idea that time passing and growing older can be a positive thing. The idea that losing youth is not always bad is rare - it seems like everything we experience is a manifestation of the desperation for relevance and cool. This album, dorky as it may sound, represents the antithesis of that ideology. It's okay to get older. It's okay to change. But you can look back at at the highlights of your life without it being a bland retrospective of greatest hits. Colin Hay's two biggest hits aren't even present, let alone the incredible song "Overkill" from his Men At Work days, which is another shining example of his acoustic work.

If you have the time and means, track down this album and put it on when you're driving or cleaning or just sitting around on a sunny day. Hopefully you'll find it as rewarding and enjoyable as I do.

1.23.2011

Weekend Wind Down

Tonight's post brings you to another tangent of the blog I hadn't really accounted for in its inception. Having felt stymied for material in the last 48 hours, I thought I would share something I did over the holidays and stashed away on my hard drive, being unsure of what to do with it.


Instead of ranting and raving while about some secret obsession or reviewing some media I love, I thought I would use this Sunday as an opportunity to showcase something simple that amused me. Not having the usual wealth of drive and inertia to work with, I'm rounding out the weekend with some light hearted shots of shenanigans. It's a bit of nothing, really, but it's the idea  and execution that make me laugh, so here goes.


Over the holiday season I had the chance to pay a visit to my parent's home in Wisconsin, stately Mole Manor. One of my mother's long-standing Xmas traditions has been to display her Christmas Village collection, a series of ceramic structures  that show the North Pole and its denizens as they ready for the yule tide grind. One of my traditions is indulging in vodka-sodas and poking through boxes of childhood relics in search of...whimsy? I have no idea, but its fun to make my brain go "!?!?!?!" and feel that distant recognition come rolling in. When these two things come together, you have the most recent of my goofy and indulgent art projects. 


Long and short of the idea was to take a box full of Micro-Machines based on the Star Wars intellectual property and set 'em up, diorama-rama style. It's definitely juvenile and silly, but it made me laugh and got a good reaction from mon petit frere, who was also indulging with me, in another excellent holiday tradition. Last year we watched an old, worn out copy of Star Wars on VHS and we marveled at how far we had come to Blu Ray. He remarked how it looked as though George Lucas had smeared Vaseline on the screen. This year, I made my own creation in tribute to Lucas' inability to let a work of art lie untouched. I call it "North Echo Base Pole". Forgive the quality of the images, please, as they were taken on an Iphone 3gs, none of that beautiful Iphone 4 gorgeousness. Regardless, take a look!




The Dark Side of Santa's Village


Santa's Storm Troopers


Better than Tauntauns


Backing Lord Vader


Cheaper Than Elves


Multiple Vaders


Mounting A Defense

On The Front Lines


Santa's New Hope


So there you have the highlights from the Christmas Eve debauchery. Pretty tame but most standards, but I thought you might get a laugh out of it, in lieu of posting any more about material I've already written on. Tomorrow I will return to my usual form, as I've had two full days to give the internal processor a break and recharge the circuits. Stay tuned for more!

1.22.2011

Another Late Night Post

To be perfectly blunt, I'm spent.

The well is dry tonight folks.

I have no zeal today for a long and pretentiously insightful post on something I love. As penance tomorrow will have either one long and detailed post, or another double post extravaganza. Such are the up and down thrill rides that are my weekends.

To maintain my streak of daily posting and positivity, I thought I'd throw out two really cool links to artists whose work I really dig. The first is completely in character and expected, the other is a little more esoteric but quite beautiful.

The first unabashedly geeky artist is Kodykoala (real name Donald) from El Paso, Texas. An avid gamer, he makes these amazing sculptures out of vinyls and other material, both for sale and his private collection. I'm not going to post any shots here as I don't want to take anything away from his site, but you really ought to check out his work. He does some amazing things with plastics and has a crazy good pop style that I love. I plan on aquiring something from his line once I have a place to display any art that doesn't hang on a wall. Condo dwelling forces an economical use of space - right now most horizontal areas are covered with books and keyboards, so no room for Mega Man statues. 

The second is another site for an artist whose work I am constantly thrilled and enthralled by, Jon Klassen. His site, Burst of Beaden, showcases his gorgeous and dynamic works that are available to purchase. Among his pieces are some design work he did for the movie "Coraline", based on the children's books. His style displays a deft use of minimalist shapes and distinct color/tone choices that are both jarring and engrossing. I see his work and my mind instantly kicks into high gear, both analysing it and musing over what my mind creates by interpreting his skillful absence of anything extemporaneus. It's quite moving. Head over to his site and take a look, I can't say enough about it to do it justice.

That's about all I have for tonight. Like I said, not everyday is going to be a barn burner, but it's something! Mnemosyne were fantastic last night at the Cabooze in Minneapolis, expect a write up on their excellent mix tape soon. I also have a few projects up my sleeve for storing up content to fill in on these lackluster days, but I don't want to ruin the suspense. Secrets, secrets! 

Until tomorrow, dear readers! Sleep tight.

1.21.2011

A Quiet Town

I'm taking a gamble here and assuming I can fit in an entire entry in the usual style on a Friday evening. Maybe I'm too optimistic for my own productivity, or maybe I just think I can fit it in before my friends in the excellent hip hop duo Mnemosyne hit the stage tonight. Either way, I'm diving in head first.

I've previously written about my love for the music of Akira Yamaoka. Today I wanted to write a bit about how I became familiar with his work. The method in question is one of my favorite things of all time, but one that I am always a bit hesitant to really throw myself behind in a public spectrum due to the off putting nature of it. The love I speak of is Silent Hill 2. I realize how silly it sounds to say its the sequel that does it for me, but the fact that this game is the second entry in what would become a long running franchise is almost irrelevant due to its stand-alone nature.

But I digress.

Let me start over. 


Silent Hill was a sleeper hit on the Playstation, released in the late 90s. There's not a great deal that you need to know about it for this article except : 1) its a psychological horror-based videogame 2) the distinct visual style is critical to the appeal and essence of the game 3) it is set in a town called Silent Hill, in which there is something very...wrong. Really, that is all one would need to know to be able to jump into SH2 and not feel like you were missing a crucial part of the story; the designers and directors did a fantastic job for creating a unique and independently strong game related only in setting and tone. That the game is rooted in psychological horror is also integral - its purpose is to disturb instead of scare, to unnerve rather than make you jump.

The protagonist of the game, James Sunderland, receives a letter in the mail from his wife Mary that says she is waiting for him in Silent Hill, in their "special place". Two problems lie within his receiving this letter - he can't recall what specifically that place would be and, most importantly, his wife is deceased. "Right," you may say with incredulity, "So what's the trick, she faked him out, or its a trap or something?" Very genre savvy of you, but no, it is no spoiler to say she is dead. No more. Corporeal yet unliving. It is the first indication that something is very wrong in the game, either with the town or perhaps our protagonist. What follows is a disturbing adventure into the depths of a man's psyche, searching frantically for a past that eludes him at every turn. 


The game was released for the Playstation 2 and Xbox in September of 2001 and stood as a benchmark for many years for how to tell a story and create a rich, motivated character for players to control. (The fact that I dove headlong into the game after the terrorist attacks is the subject for an entirely different post altogether.) To this day, its legacy is one of high acclaim and a shining example of how to tell a tale of interactive fiction. I find myself thinking and describing it not really under the term of 'videogame' in my mind but as a movie you have an element of control over. It's not a free-roaming piece of sandbox city, a la Grand Theft Auto but a linear tale of curiosity and morbidity that the player guides James through. What allows for such a bizarre story to be told, and what continues over from the original game, is the atmosphere, both literally and figuratively.

Allow me to veer off the intended path for a moment to explain something technical.

The hardware for the original Playstation, though impressive for the time, was not without its limitations. In order to render large, open areas intended for exploration the designers had to limit what would be rendered and presented on screen. Basically it boiled down to not being able to create as full and detailed world as possible without some restrictions on graphical quality. The design team for Silent Hill, realizing that their game would put a heavy strain on the hardware, decided to disguise the limitations by incorporating it into the aesthetic. In a clever twist on form versus function, they used the distance-limiting fog of the era's computing power as a way to set mood and ambience for a spooky feeling. What was initially a lack of visible distance became a pervasive and eerie fog the player had to contend with. This fog, while not strictly necessary for the PS2 hardware, was retained for the somber and otherworldly nature it afforded. 

Now, to get back on track.

The game, as I stated, is a disturbing tale of horror that guides you from a lookout over the town, through the town itself and into its depths, literally, as you search for your deceased wife, Mary. You descend onto a wooded path into town and when you arrive in town, it seems completely deserted. Unfortunately this turns out not to be the case, as James stumbles onto twisted and uncannily inhuman creatures that attack him and he is forced to defend himself. As he ventures through the empty town, quiet except for his footsteps, a feeling of unease comes over the player. Through the fog you can hear things moving, coming closer. Sometimes...things...swoop out of the darkness to attack. The game takes you through abandoned apartments, a dark hospital, through the historical society and into the depths of the towns old and decrepit prison beneath. It is a game not of bombast and jump scares but of dread and terror through perceived threats. 


The nature of James' marriage and how he dealt with his wife's passing is involved as well, to an amazingly insightful degree. His character is one of a mourning man who struggles with loss and memories that are fading away, to be obscured by justification and self-assertion. I don't want to go to far into the details but the revelations about motivations and the nature of deceit the first time I played the game were revelatory and to this day its held as a pinnacle of story telling in the videogame industry. All of this adds up to why I feel like the game is a 'game' only in the loosest sense, defined only by medium and not experience.

What little soundtrack there is, is haunting and absolutely beneficial to the experience. Yamaoka created music and soundscapes that only heighten already-pervasive moods, be they the eerie and somber stretches of exploring alone, or the unnerving horror of a rotted-out hotel with strange creature crawling out of the woodwork. Synthed percussion hum like a heartbeat, pianos drone in haunting tones. To boot, there are themes for each character, or motifs, like an opera. Take a listen here to one of my favorite pieces of the game, let alone some of my favorite incidental music ever.


While I could write for pages and pages about this game and the entire series on top of it, I need to put a pin in this post. I can feel the fact that I want to do a more in depth analysis on the game and some of the themes down the line, so I will let today's entry serve as an introduction, or perhaps an enticement. If you're a gamer and haven't experienced it, you're missing out and should spring for the five or ten dollars it would cost to pick up a used copy. If you're not a gamer (my condolences) then either have someone walk you through just a few minutes of it or risk taking a look at the movie adaptation, which was a mixed bag. I personally enjoyed it - it's about as good of an translation as you could do with Hollywood's abysmal track record for movies based on games.


Honestly, I feel that the game stands on its own as a phenomenal piece of interactive fiction that is sorely unappreciated, even within its own audience. If you can handle the horror, give it a look. I'm glad I did. Stay tuned for more on this amazing game.

1.20.2011

Un, Deux, Trois

Nerd alert!

Even the most prolific of us get a case of the brain slugs. Mine is particularly bad today. See?

Yeah.

That bad.

So what I'll do today is simply point you in the direction of something I find to be, as John the Baptist put it, "wicked cool". 

As anyone who has known me in the last six years can attest, I loved the TV phenomenon that was Lost. There was literally no other thing that compared to it. It was its' own fundamental thing, a creation of unique zeitgeist in our modern culture. The common comparisons, although not exactly on target, were to The Stand and Twin Peaks, both of which I have loved. The show is simply one of my favorite things ever and the hole it has left in my pop-culture heart has yet to be filled. No joke, no hyperbole, I genuinely miss the eager, giddy nature of the nights it was on and the mass-theorizing that followed in the morning. I plan on doing more of an in-depth analysis in the future but for now I wanted to highlight a peripheral, or perhaps tangential aspect to the show.
An integral aspect of the hour long drama was the nature of time and its structure as a means of telling the larger story. This was initially done by splitting each episode into the current narrative and a demonstrative or character-revealing flashback to before the island story. As time went on the show (MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR A SHOW THAT NO LONGER IS ON THE AIR) switched to flash forwards and side cuts that intersected with the main story. While ostensibly just a cool way to tell a massive and sprawling tale that was akin the a novel for TV, it created a phenomenon known as 'viewer lock-out' which kept the average viewer from wanting to jump in and pick up the action in without seeing the backlog of episodes, which by season 6 was a whole hell of a lot. 

I was (still am) obsessed with this show and simply cannot say enough good things about it. I honestly feel if you have any appreciation for fictional art in any sense you should give it a chance, if for no other reason than to see one of the most amazing, beautiful (and not coincidentally expensive) TV pilots in history. If you've watched the show in its entirety, and if you're reading this that is a distinct possibility, then I want to fill you in on a very cool secret. 

Ready?

Someone possessing more skill and patience than myself took every single episode and edited them into one long, chronological take on the entire series. Instead of having to check the mind-bogglingly comprehensive Lostpedia for who did what and when, everything is presented as it happened in sequential order. The entire series is cast into a new light as a result. Everything from the beginning to The End takes on a whole new significance as a result. Characters are shown in a new light, actions have more relevance and life-long struggles are made clearer as a result. The effect is uncanny.
Obviously this website and the content hosted there is of....dubious legal standing. The show was a massive hit and made millions for ABC, but what is to be done with its legacy is still up for debate. I absolutely adore this idea. Some fans wondered if this style of consumption would be an option when the entire show was released in a single volume for Blu Ray but it has yet to be done by official sources. I still hold out hope for an official version of this, but fan edits like this are a fascinating source of intrigue for me. If you have any interest I would highly recommend giving a look, even for specific points in the show, to see how they look in new light. A deconstruction like this a shuffling of the deck and a fresh take on what is, in my mind, one of the best works of fiction in existence.

Not to be too hyperbolic.