Thursday, December 30, 2010

Music Video Review: Kanye West Unleashes His Inner "Monster"



By Scott Tre


Hip-Hop has never really had an artist that has mastered or revolutionized the music video in the same manner as Michael Jackson.  In today’s climate of reduced budgets and considerably less than lavish productions, it would seem to that the time for a rapper to ascend to the king of pops music video throne has long since passed.  Amusing but unambitious clips from current stars like the ever maligned Wacka Flocka Flame haven’t exactly pushed the form in a new direction, and Kanye’s own long form video for Runaway left many scratching their heads.

Book Review: Dan Charnas Reveals The Intricate Details Behind "The Big Payback"


By Scott Tre

The story of hip-hop culture, from its inception to its current state, has been told plenty of times.  Usually it focuses on the artists and/or the music and comes from a rather familiar perspective.  That perspective has always left out a rather crucial piece of the puzzle, one that authors have mistakenly decided that the general public would never be interested in: The businessmen who battled it out behind the scenes, often in board rooms with narrow minded executives, to bring a musical culture born in the ghettos of the Bronx to the prominence it enjoys today.  That story, with all of its supposedly boring details, is just as crucial to understanding hip-hop as an encyclopedic knowledge of all the classic songs that have been released and battles that have taken place. 

No Country For Black Men: Affirmitive Action Has No Place In Asgard, So Says A Hate Group



By Scott Tre

It’s no secret that comic fans can be overly protective of their beloved characters.  Whenever a new Hollywood adaptation is announced, fandom gears up to obsessively peruse every aspect of the production.  From casting to costume designs to the most minor story details, some fans will accept nothing but 100% fidelity to the source material.  Anyone truly familiar with both comics and films knows this to be an unreasonable request as they are two completely different mediums with different requirements.  Still, the passion of said fans is more than understandable as it often comes from a place of love, or so we’d like to think.  Sometimes, the obsessive nature of fandom reveals prejudice and bigotry.

TV Review: Misfits Season 2 Episode 6



This week the ASBO Five learn that fame and fortune exacts a heavy price.  A socially inept young man previously unknown to them is blessed with abilities by the same storm that empowered them.  He can manipulate both liquid and solid dairy products, even after they’ve been ingested.  Unlike the ASBO Five, he decides to go public and cash in.  When the gang at the community center speaks a bit too freely about their powers, they tip off their probation worker who immediately dimes them out to the press.  Just as they are contemplating going into hiding, an “entertainment manager” of sorts ensures them that such drastic measures are not necessary.  She also happens to represent “Milk Man.”  While the ASBO Five enjoy their first brush with celebrity, other people who have been changed by the storm come forward.  Suddenly, “Milk Man” realizes his powers aren’t very impressive when compared to  others.  Suddenly, his apparently laughable skill becomes useful in a way that no one anticipated.

Movie Review: Tron Legacy


By Scott Tre
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), prolific software designer and ENCOM international CEO, has been missing for twenty years.  His disappearance has adversely affected both the company and the life of his young son Sam (Garrett Hedlund).  Since his disappearance, ENCOM international has gone from a company set on changing the world for the better to a corporate behemoth that rules it from on high.    Kevin’s friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), now an executive consultant, tries in vane to maintain Kevin’s vision.  He advices Sam to take his rightful place at ENCOM, but the rebellious youth finds acts of sabotage against the company much more diverting.  When Sam goes to his father’s long defunct video arcade to investigate a mysterious page at Alan’s request, he suddenly finds himself on the game grid that his father described to him as a young boy.  There, he engages programs in gladiatorial combat, and finally reunites with his dad.  Together with the mysterious Quorra (Olivia Wilde), they hope to defeat the tyrannical Clu 2 and get back to the real world.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movie Review: Jeff Bridges Shows "True Grit"



By Scott Tre


The Western is considered the most American of film genres.  It shamelessly embraced the outlaws of the period as folk heroes, setting a trend that would repeat itself in gangster and crime films.  By the end of the 1960’s, the genre fell out of favor with the movie going public.  It was replaced in the 1970’s by its natural successor, the action picture.  Many notable filmmakers have returned to rich mythology of the American west every so often over the last 40 or so years, having offered revisionist and deconstructionist takes on the genre.  Some of these seemed to be made almost in apology for the blatantly romanticism and glorification displayed during the genre's heyday.  For a filmmaker in this day and age to offer an unapologetic and unabashedly classic take on the genre would take balls of steel.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sadat X Comes Clean About The "Good Old Days"



By Scott Tre

Age and maturity have a way of removing the rose colored glasses from our eyes, or so we'd like to think.  The ever increasing distance from our childhood and teenage years  can sometimes intensify feelings of nostalgia as opposed to tempering them with wisdom.  We assume that as adults we can handle the truth about our childhood heroes, although our fondness for the past can make acceptance of the truth difficult.  Sometimes it's necessary to have those blinders removed by force. 

Old school rap fans tend to remember the golden era (and all preceding eras of hip-hop) as an artistic renaissance that operated without the drug addled  decadence and materialism that has since become a hallmark of the culture.  Sadat X recently ripped that shroud of innocence and righteousness away  in a YouTube clip recorded for The New York Minute.  In the clip, Sadat matter-of-factly discusses the popularity of "woolies" during in the 1980's.  "Woolies" were a mixture of crack and marijuana that became a fixture on the New York party scene.  Sadat reminisces on the brief period of freedom that existed before crack became illegal.  He not only admits to partaking in the drug, but reveals that "everybody was doing it" as the stigma of being a "crack head" didn't yet exist.

George"Boy George" Rivera

Sadat also touched on how the hedonistic atmosphere of the era was enhanced and personified by "bosses" such as George "Boy George" Rivera.  Rivera was an exceptionally flamboyant heroin kingpin from the South Bronx who amassed a multi-million dollar fortune during the crack era.  He managed to do this while in his late teens.  Sadat  makes a point of saying that though drugs are still present in the current hip-hop scene, the likes of  Boy George and his ilk are nowhere to be seen.  So not only were the "good old days" not as good as we remember them, they were largely a facade. 

What makes Sadat's admission significant, aside from his animated and shockingly candid demeanor, is his membership in what was once regarded as one of Hip-Hop's more "conscious" groups.  Brand Nubian spread the gospel of the 'Nation of Gods and Earths' at a time where conscious rap was losing its relevance.  Though their music was a bit more hedonistic (and violent) then their reputation would lead one to believe, they never openly endorsed the recreational use of crack cocaine.  Most rappers didn't.  By the time Brand Nubian hit the scene, crack had long been criminalized and was no longer in vogue.

The image of the modern rapper was largely inspired by that of the crack kingpins of the 1980's.  That influence infiltrated the music itself as well, taking center stage by the mid 1990's.  Regardless of what revisionist historians would have us believe, Hip-Hop was never pure nor innocent.  Our forefathers partook in the forbidden fruits of the devil's buffet while presenting a quite different mindset to the fans  They lament the hedonistic orgy that hip-hop has become, unwilling to acknowledge their role in that outcome.  Instead of keeping the past enshrouded in lies, it would be better if they allowed those of us with an appreciation for the past to see it as it really was.  Props to Sadat X for coming clean when he had nothing to gain by doing so.     



Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trailer Review: Get Ready To Be Bludgeoned By Real Steel!



By Scott Tre

Having grossed over 1.5 billion dollars worldwide with only two entries, it was quite obvious that the Transformers films would eventually birth a number of like minded properties.  The ultimate question remained what would those properties be, exactly?  It appeared with the advent of toy line/cartoon adaptations such as Alvin & The Chipmunks, G.I. Joe and the Smurfs that we already had our answer.  Amazingly, the Cybertronian wars would as dramatized by Michael Bay and company would also foster a demand for more robot themed properties.  With the upcoming Real Steel, it seems that the Transformers tree has born some strange fruit indeed.

Real Steel is a big screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story Steel, which had previously been adapted for television as an episode of The Twilight Zone.  It’s also, in many ways, an unofficial big screen version of the game Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.  The story centers around washed up prize fighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who gets a second shot at the title via as unexpected technological development.  Giant robots have supplanted human beings in the boxing ring, thus taking over the sport.  Charlie begins to promote minor league bouts between robots.  When he falls on hard times, he teams up with his son Max in hopes of building and training a mechanical pugilist that will one day become a champion.

Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy and produced by Steven Spielberg & Robert Zemeckis.  It’s become quite clear at this point that Spielberg has a robot fetish, and god bless him for it.  Though his own films have taken a darker turn as of late, he still hasn’t completely lost the childlike spirit that made him a household name.  Levy has absolutely nothing on his resume that will excite fandom.  The concept is the star here, more so than whoever is onscreen or in the director’s chair.  This is basically a Rocky sequel done with visuals from the two Transformer films.  The fact that robots will be beating the crap out of each other ensures there will be no bloody violence, leaving parents free to take the little ones.



This is an easy sell for fans of action and high concept sci-fi.  The trailer wisely presents the film to be exactly what it is: a kid’s movie for adults.  The camera work is straight out of a number of tournament style martial arts and boxing films, right down to the seedy settings.  Despite the inherent silliness of the concept, the film seems to be playing it straight faced.  The FX are reminiscent of Transformers, though the boxing motif might result in more coherent action scenes.  The story will undoubtedly be both familiar and light weight.  In short, this looks like fun so long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Something tells me that many will end up preferring it to the third Transformers film.  Either way, count me sold.

TV Review: Misfits Season Two Episode Five


By Scott Tre

In Episode 5, things get wilder for the ASBO Five.  After walking in on a charity worker named Jessica during a private moment, Nathan has one of his infinite lives taken away.  While he and Alisha  investigate who exactly is responsible, Simon and Jessica begin a courtship and find that they have much in common.  Kelly helps and befriends a scruffy yet seemingly gentle outlaw named Bruno.  Bruno has also been affected by the mysterious storm that birthed the ASBO Five, but in a much more bizarre way.  Curtis and Nikki begin to compulsively consummate their relationship.  That night, at a costume party being held at the community center, everything comes to a proverbial head in some decidedly unexpected ways.

The main theme of Episode 5, from what I can tell, seems to be sex.  The Misfits has always had a strong sexual component (much of it by way of Alisha’s undeniably magnetic aura and Nathan’s juvenility), but the sexcapades on this episode are more explicit and frequent than any episode yet.  This is interesting when contrasted with the American take on superheroes, which hardly allows for any sexuality save for standard romance subplots.  

Nikki & Curtis


American superheroes are often celibate, some even asexual.  Batman and Spider-man, as they are portrayed in the movies, never ever get to close the deal onscreen.  They chase after the women of their dreams and never get the ultimate prize.  As many emotional/psychological issues as those characters have, it would be nice to see them let of a bit of sexual tension. 

Alas, American audiences are too prudish for such things.  Thankfully, Misfits is a British production.  Its creators understand that sexuality has to be a integral element in a series that has such attractive core characters.  Any heterosexual male who says they aren’t hoping for a peek at what Alisha, Kelly, and Jessica are working with is either lying or delusional.

A more intimate side of sexuality is also explored.  Kelly learns in a very unexpected way that Homosapiens aren’t the only ones that crave love and affection.  Nor are they the only ones that struggle to suppress their more primal instincts.  Just as the ASBO Five themselves struggle to hide their superhuman abilities to the world at large, normal people harbor all sorts of weird secrets and desires that they dare not share or indulge.  We all struggle with our true natures, no matter where we may fit in on the evolutionary food chain.   

Jealousy, in more than one form, is also explored.  As she patiently waits for Simon to blossom into the armored parkour expert of her dreams, Alisha must contend with the fact that she will not be the one to “deflower” him.  The considerable bedroom skills he displayed in episode 3 will come by way of other lucky girls.  Then there is the blind, raging jealousy of a father who guards his daughter's virtue like a crazed sentry.  His love for his child borders on incestuous. 



From a plot standpoint this episode is all over the place, but in a good and entertaining way.  Things that would sound silly and preposterous on the page play out in a way that makes them seem not only compelling but plausible (relatively speaking).   Slowly but surely, we get to see the ASBO Five take a more active role in their own destinies, and steeling themselves to the disappointments and dilemmas they are confronted with.  By the last half of the first season, Alisha’s predicament made her seem damaged and fragile.  At this point she seems a bit tougher and more capable of protecting herself, as does Simon.

My fear that Misfits might take a turn toward something more routine and expected has subsided a bit with this episode.  I don’t know where things are going or what to expect from this series.  There seems to be little that it isn’t willing to do with these characters.  It ventures effortlessly into tragic and knowingly absurd territory, all the while displaying a deft self assuredness about itself.  The show is confident that it is going about its business the right way, and as a result so is the audience.  What will the ASBO Five be when they reach journey’s end?  Will they have costumes?  Only the writers of Misfits know for sure.   



Friday, December 10, 2010

Trailer Review: Behold The Power of The Mighty Thor!



By Scott Tre

The world of Nordic fantasy has never been my bag.  That holds true for my taste in movies as well as my taste in comics.  My favorite superheroes are usually grounded in the realm of science fiction (either that or they are simply vigilantes with no superpowers to speak of).  The one thing that has always irked me about Celtic and Nordic fantasy is the absence of any real "rules" to govern the fantastical worlds that were created for them.  They usually focus on magic and the supernatural.  Wizards duel, and men and gods are allowed to share the same space.  Science Fiction, in my opinion, has always done a better job of establishing a reality where the fantastic seems plausible.  I know my summation will irk fans, but that is how I've always felt.  As far explanations for the fantastic go, a scientists laboratory will beat a sorcerer's cauldron any day in my book.

The one aspect of European myths and legends that has always intrigued me is the swordplay.  There truly isn't a more fearsome sight on this earth than two nordic supermen hacking away at entire armies with broadswords.  It appeals to the destructive child inside me.  Conan the Barbarian was great because it was more of a war/revenge movie at heart than true sword and sorcery adventure tale.  The magical elements of that world were mostly in the periphery.  Every once in a while these elements would make themselves known, but mostly the movie was just about how awesomely strong Arnie was.  Now at long last, it seems that Conan will have a blond haired counter on my short list of favorite nordic superheroes.  Most surprisingly, he will come by way of a comic that I had never cared much about....until now.

Kenneth Branaugh's adaptation of Thor has been big news for genre fans.  Along with Captain America: The First Avenger, it is the most anticipated superhero film of 2011.  Though I had never been into either character much, Thor appealed to me the least of the two for the reasons stated above.  Seeing the Comic-Con trailer that leaked earlier this year caused me to reconsider my stance.  It showed Thor to be a well manicured, heavily chiseled bar brawler.  The scenes between him and his father Odin (fittingly played by Anthony Hopkins) were awash in heavy handed melodrama, just the way I had always pictured them.  It showed the story of a God who was forced to walk among men as penance of some sort.  Regardless of my aversion to the source material, the ideas intrigued me.  Most of all, I enjoyed the shots of Chris Hemsworth in all of his beer swilling, 'roided up glory.

This new official trailer is a more compact version of the comic-con preview, with CGI that looks more detailed and finished.  It offers swooping shots of a shiny Asgard that looks as though it were constructed of giant church organ pipes.  It also has an amazingly cool shot of Thor being cast down to earth via what looks like a combination of a thunderbolt and tornado.  We also get one hell of an iconic image of Thor trying in vein to wield his hammer.    From what I can tell, Kenneth Branaugh's Shakespearean sensibilities seem right in line with the world envisioned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  It's visually pleasing in a way that a former skeptic such as myself could never have anticipated.  I am now taken with the idea of gods and men occupying the same reality.  I have no doubt in my mind that this will appease fans and non fans alike.  Wow.   


Saturday, December 4, 2010

DVD Review: 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s



By Scott Tre

These days, films like The Warriors, Death Wish and Taxi Driver serve a dual function.  For movie buffs they are classics of their respective genres.  From a historical perspective they are also time capsule films.  They are a snapshot of the biggest city in the world as it teetered on the edge of oblivion.  The New York depicted in them is completely extinct, a museum piece.  Tourists and residents now walk and meander about in some of the very locations shown in these films without fear.  The South Bronx is perhaps the biggest example of this, having undergone so-called urban renewal since the late 80’s.  These days, it is mainly known as the acknowledged “birthplace” of hip-hop.  Throughout the 1970’s, it epitomized all that was wrong with New York City (and by extension the United States as a whole) at the time.  It had yet to be recognized as the proving grounds of phenomenon that would grow beyond its borders and take the world by storm.  



80 Blocks From Tiffany’s takes us inside the lives of two notorious Bronx street gangs of the time: The Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads.  We see the adversarial relationship that developed between them and the cops that patrolled the neighborhoods they inhabited.  Much of this story is told through interview footage taken with both groups.  We see testimonials from former gang leaders such as “Blackie” and “Comanche".    Managers and club owners such as the fittingly named “Heavy” and local merchant Mrs. Ostrov describe how the gangs impacted their businesses.  Surprisingly, some saw them as a positive force.  Others saw them as a pariah  sucking the neighborhood dry.  It also gives us a peek into the rather mundane and aimless lives of the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls, two of the most notorious street gangs to have prowled the streets of the South Bronx in the 1970’s.  They harmlessly refer to themselves as “clubs”




Via reenactments, we see some of the gangs' more underhanded activities.  The necessity of staging these portions of the film is obvious as gang members likely did not want to be captured on film burglarizing houses or hijacking trucks.  Perhaps in the current climate of popular media and self aggrandizement, today’s gangs would be all too eager to commit various felonies for the viewing public.  The barrier between voyeurs and poor people who resent being gawked at no longer exists.  Still, these reenactments provide a fascination all their own.  We see a young man scale the side of building like Spider-Man in order to burglarize an apartment.  He does so without the aid of ladders or ropes.  This leaves the impression that gang-bangers of decades past were both more inventive and physically fit.





Aside from the obviously staged reenactments, the gangs themselves seem to lead a rather uneventful existence.  Their days consist of beer fueled bullshit sessions in squalid apartments.  This adds an air of sadness that was perhaps unintended by the filmmakers or the gang members themselves.  Whatever criminal activity these kids engaged in seemed to be an outgrowth of not only boredom, but an inability to picture another life for themselves.  What you see around you daily greatly impacts your ability to visualize yourself someplace else.  At the end of the day, for all the rapes and killings many of these guys brag about and confess to, they hardly seem truly evil.  More or less they are resigned to their fates.

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s was directed by Gary Weis over a number of weeks in 1979.  Gary did the short films on Saturday Night Live during its first few years, and much of that sensibility carries over into this film.  The gang members and their world are viewed through a prism that regards the sadness and desperation of the situation, but also takes note of the absurdity and unintentional humor of it all.  We see a pilfering hustler try to negotiate his way out of severe beating from a local.  Having grown weary of the pilferers rambling, the local simply “mushes” him in the face and sends him on his way.  The moment is amusing and slightly surreal, making the residents of these neighborhoods seem strikingly human.  Much of what they do is for show.

Overall, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s doesn’t take itself as seriously as the equally fascinating Flying Cut Sleeves but it somehow more cohesive.  Flying Cut Sleeves was done with great empathy for the subjects.  80 Blocks maintains a certain distance, allowing other elements besides pity to creep in.  This could be viewed as condescension by less perceptive viewers, but in actuality it takes a view that is much more honest.  None of the people interviewed seem to grasp the reality of their situation, or the desolation in which they live.  Why should they?  For them it’s simply how it is, nothing more nothing less.  This kind of nonchalant attitude makes 80 Blocks a slightly more colorful documentary than its counterparts.         

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s offers a rather sobering counterpart to fictional depictions of New York Street gangs such as Walter Hill's The Warriors.   Being a part of a street gang in the south Bronx during the 1970’s was hardly an epic adventure that promised immortality at journey’s end.  It was more about living and surviving in the harshest of circumstances.  Good times were savored and bad times were plentiful.   



TV Review: Misfits Season Two Episode Four



By Scott Tre

Hard choices have to be made as the “Asbo 5” come that much closer to fulfilling their destiny (whatever that may be) in this week’s episode of Misfits.  Alisha continues her relationship with Superhoodie, who is in the fact the future version of Simon.  Back at the community center, the quintet conspires to keep their powers secret from a new addition to their group, the young activist Ollie.  This proves unnecessary as they soon discover that Ollie was also blessed with superhuman abilities by the same storm as they were.  While going about their duties, the group is confronted by Tim, a nut job who quite literally sees the world in terms of his favorite video game, to the point where he lives it out in reality.  He is convinced that Simon is a man named Conti who owes him money.  Meanwhile, Nikki receives a heart transplant that has her feeling a bit strange.  Tim continues to stalk the group, who become engaged in his deadly game whether they like it or not.

The Way Tim Sees The World (literally)


The villain of this weeks episode, Tim, continues the theme of superpowers as extensions of one's obsessions/desires and character flaws.  He acts out the scenario of his favorite video game, the ultra violent Jail Break AutoJail Break Auto is clearly a spoof of Rockstar Games' best selling Grand Theft Auto video game series.  Tim bears a striking resemblance to Niko Bellic, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 4.  Is he an example of the dangers of violent video games, or perhaps the dangers of getting to immersed in fantasy worlds of any kind?  Possibly, but I’d like to think that Misfits would never indulge such simple moralizing.  Either way, the character is truly frightening, killing people without the slightest hint of remorse.  His field of vision is exactly the same as the screens of his favorite game, almost as though he was wearing virtual reality headgear that perpetually kept him plugged into that world.    

Tim


This episode also allows the interpersonal relationships between the characters to mature a bit.  Curtis and Alisha are both forced to acknowledge the reality of their awkward romance thus far.  Alisha’s affair with the future Simon reeks with foreboding and underlying menace.  Earlier episodes lead us to believe that Simon is a consummate weirdo.  He is also capable of killing.  Early on I suspected that he may intend to harm Alisha, but it quickly becomes obvious that he means only to love and protect her.  The feeling of dread comes from a sense that some unavoidable tragedy looms ahead.  Superhoodie is a bit too time conscious, planning his moves down to the millisecond.  He seems to know that something is coming, but what?  Alisha has finally found the intimacy she craves, but the things are developing at far too frantic a pace for her to truly savor it.  

Alisha and Superhoodie aka Future Simon


Misfits is now in full on superhero mode.  The action plays out longer, and the suspense wound even tighter.  While this results in more thrilling set pieces and plot developments, the show still does not abandon the themes that make it stand out.  As things progress, the “Asbo 5” are becoming more and more aware of the extent of their powers, and what use those powers can be put to.  Comic readers have always fantasized about what they would do with Wolverine's healing abilities, or a dose of super soldier serum.  Like the Marvel heroes, the “Asbo 5” has real problems and demons that stalk them at every term.  Each use of their powers has a ripple effect, creating consequences that they must deal with.  Like video games, the fantasies in our minds play out free of consequences and pain.  Real life rarely works out that way.  Misfits seems all to aware of that.  Even as I laugh at Nathan’s antics and drool over Alisha and Nikki, I fear what the future has in store for them.       

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tasty Treat: Jean Grae

By Scott Tre

Every B-Boy needs a B-Girl.  I like my women as feminine as possible, but every now and then I get the craving for a tomboy.  Maybe it's just my inner child, then again maybe my taste in women is as weird as my taste in just about anything else.  Ms. Grae knows how to pull off that tomboy swag with just the right touch of girlishness.  No matter how rough and rugged (or downright weird) she tries to come off, she can't keep that "girly girl" from bubbling to the surface.  On the mic she goes just as hard as any guy, which actually adds to her appeal (rare for a female rapper in my humble opinion).  Unlike most of the "dictionary" rappers she is often unfairly grouped with, her music is appealing and her punchlines are actually witty.  Her looks grab your attention, while her talent and intelligence keep you around beyond the length of a gaze.  She's everything I need.  Too bad she's married.  Maybe there's a colony of petite, cute little B-Girls like her in some far off hip-hop fantasy land somewhere.








Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: Jay-Z Allows Both His Life and His Art To Be “Decoded”



By Scott Tre

Jay-Z’s rise to prominence as arguably the premiere rapper and hip-hop entrepreneur of his generation is perhaps hip-hops greatest rags to riches story.  Raised by a single mom in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, he hustled in the streets during the gold rush of the crack era.  He then applied and adapted the lessons he learned in those streets to the music industry.  In the process he became millionaire hundreds of times over and married one of the most sought after women on the planet.  One of his raps could not be anymore fantastical or complete.  It is the ultimate hip-hop dream.



Jay-Z’s new hardcover book Decoded lays that story out in a rather unconventional way.  It is not a straightforward autobiography, but a collection of thoughts and musings that precede intricate breakdowns of some of his most famous verses.  Also included are pictures and artwork that help to tell the story.  To say the tome is of the coffee table variety would not be too far from the truth, but it is considerably more substantial than that.  This isn’t just a bit of fan service for Jay-Z devotees, but a conversation with one of raps most gifted songwriters.

Jay explains one of the most pervasive themes in his work, the many parallels between hustling/drug dealing and rapping.  This is a well worn cliché that has become part of the shtick that rappers use whenever confronted about the profane and lurid images that saturate their work.  It’s about as tired as the old adage that gangsta rappers are merely street reporters or Chuck D’s famous quote that rap music is the CNN of black America.  In Decoded, Jay offers perhaps the most thought out and valid version of the rap game/crack game dynamic that I have ever seen.  It is as clear and logical an explanation as any skeptic could hope for.



 Jay talks of how Hip-Hop was birthed during the heroin soaked and cocaine sprinkled haze of the 1970’s and entered its much fabled golden era during the same period of time that crack cocaine was fostering a new kind of entrepreneurial spirit.  To an extent, rap music has always been a product of this sentiment.  Both the drug dealer and the rapper represent a way out of a desperate situation and change to fit the times.  How could a rapper present a truly honest portrait of the surroundings that birthed him if he did not mention the dope peddler as one of his primary inspirations?  The speak of the drug game from a purely cautionary stand point, or to ignore it altogether, is as disingenuous as the reckless glorification that rappers are often accused of.

The breakdowns of Jay-Z standards such us “Regrets”, “Meet The Parents” and “Can I live” reveal a side of the performer that has always been present but often ignored.  There has always been a strong theme of regret and sadness that undercuts the tales of hood super stardom...the guilt that comes along with ill gotten gains, the nagging awareness of the lives one has helped to ruin.  There is also the impending feeling that Satan is dogging your every move and eager to collect on his bounty.  Jay has always noticed all of these things, and often incorporates them into his lurid Donald Goinesian tales.  He never gets much credit for it, but the picture he paints of the hustler is perhaps more realistic and emotionally honest than any other rapper ever.



From another stand point, we are finally allowed to assess just how witty and crafty Jay has always been.  He uses simple language and song construction to convey ideas, offering witty punchlines and couplets that have layered meanings that likely won’t be grasped by the causal listener upon first listen.  This is through no fault of his own, as Jay has always eschewed the tendency to confuse his listeners with a needlessly elaborate vocabulary or baffling wordplay.  His raps are deceptively complex and yet still not beyond the grasp of the layman.  He wants everyone to “get it”, but he also wants them to listen.

The reader is also treated to Jay’s views on world events, as well as stories about conversations and meetings he has had with the likes of the Notorious B.I.G, Quincy Jones, Bono, Oprah, and President Obama.  Some of these people have even become friendly acquaintances.  Through these stories it becomes clear just how far Jay-Z, and by extension hip-hop, have come.  In many cases these people were already aware of, and fans of Jay before they ever met him.  President Obama arranged a meeting with Jay before he became president.  That is the extension of Mr. Carter's reach.  His lurid tales of cocaine dealing and the high life managed to touch the leader of the free world.  Amazing.



If there is one complaint I have, it’s that Jay remains rather vague about his days as a drug dealer.  We mostly see them through the prism of his music, and in that regard they remain broad and mythic.  The true crime aficionado in me craved something a bit more detailed and epic...a large portrait narrative with a beginning, middle and end.  While it is silly to expect that Jay would go into great deal about his criminal past, some specifics may have added a bit of validity to his observations.  Hard as it is to believe, there are many people that doubt Jay’s criminal past.  It would have been nice for Jay to finally provide the ammunition to shut them up, but that has never been Mr. Carter's style.

Decoded is a fun and inspirational (if sometimes lightweight) read.  It doesn’t purport to be a tome of epic significance.  Jay isn’t looking to change your life so much as he is giving you a glimpse into his.  Like many of jay’s best songs, the deeper meanings hidden in the musings of Decoded kind of sneak up on the reader, even when they are presented in a plain and obvious way.  After the final page is turned, you consciousness has been touched.  Say what you will about Shawn Carter,  call him materialistic,  arrogant or shallow.  The one thing you cannot call him is vapid.  Like the generation he represents, he is more than he appears to be. 

         

     

Saturday, November 27, 2010

TV Review: Misfits Season Two Episode Three




By Scott Tre


As expected, life grows ever more complicated for everyone’s favorite super-powered screw-ups.  After a run-in with the elusive “Superhoodie”, Alisha is intrigued in way that demands her curiosity be satisfied.  Curtis also searches for answers, but of a different sort.  After locating the women that appeared in his drug addled vision, he begins to visit her home regularly.  Nathan and Simon accompany Kelly to the shop of a tattoo artist with rather unconventional methods.  During the visit, something strange happens that inspires Nathan to explore an underdeveloped side of his character (much to Simon's chagrin).  Meanwhile, Alisha's quest to solve the mystery of Superhoodie uncovers much more than she is ready to deal with.

As Misfits slowly morphs into a full on superhero story, it continues to explore a number of challenging themes.  Given the shocking bit of information we receive regarding the mousy and introverted Simon, his character arc seems to be a variation on the sort of nerd wish fulfillment represented by more popular super heroes such as Spider-Man.  Alisha’s superpower (or ailment, depending on how you look at it) plays like a long, hard lesson on valuing the looks and irresistible sexuality she has been blessed with.  The first season showed us just how flagrant and manipulative she was with those gifts, using them as a get out of jail free card.  The incessantly juvenile and grating Nathan learns that whatever barriers are keeping him from consummating his relationship with Kelly may have more to do with latent desires in his own heart than mere personality differences.

The Mysterious "Superhoodie"


More than anything else, the main theme that seems run through the duration of this season is following ones desires and having the courage to shoulder the consequences that come with that.  We all want the answers to leading a happy and content life, to know what “purpose we serve.”  However, we are reluctant to seek these things out when given the chance, clinging to the facade of normalcy like a security blanket.  Even if we find said answers, they just lead to more questions as opposed to stability.  The facades and masks we have developed offer a comfort that the “truths” we seek cannot.  Becoming what you are meant to become, or coming into your own, requires the willingness to grow and mature.  No one among The Misfits has displayed that ability as of yet.  Thus, they are not ready to accept the mantle of heroes, if indeed that is what they are to become.

Misfits is such an odd but satisfying series.  It’s chock full of juvenile elements as demonstrated by its crass sense of humor and sexuality.  Its also deceptively insightful and dense, able to contain a considerable amount of plot machinations and character development into a single episode.  While it caters to our base instincts, it also engages our psyche.  We all share the same flaws and desires as these five, yet the show encourages us to see them as deeply troubled.  It also invites us to laugh and gasp at their mishaps.  Then, it throws us a series of sucker punches that cause us to realize that they are none too different from ourselves.   As the show inches closer toward traditional superhero territory (as evidenced by certain developments in episode three) I can only hope that it maintains the ability to shock and surprise the audience.  I have a feeling that when all is said and done, Misfits may end up as a contender for the best super hero television series ever.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Damian Kenow Leads Us Down The 'Paths Of Hate'






By Scott Tre

Animation has the ability to make the terrestrial seem otherworldly.  The mundane can become an odyssey through the unknown when rendered by an artist's pen as opposed to being filmed in live action. Likewise, a fantastic historical event that has lost some of its wonder over the years can feel new and fresh when viewed through the prism of CGI or traditional cell animation.

Whether it's WWII fighter planes above Europe or X-Wings in the furthest reaches of space, cinema has seen its share of aerial dogfights.  Though thrilling, they have become quite familiar.  Well, Polish animation studio Platige looks to make the familiar fantastic again with Damian Kenow's animated short film Paths Of Hate.  It revolves around an aerial dogfight for which very little context is given.  Its makers tout it as an examination of that most primal emotion that drives humanity headlong into the chaos of war: hatred.




The animation itself has the quality of a highly detailed motion comic, or an example of the rotoscoping process at its highest state of refinement.  It could even be a cell shaded cut scene from a flight simulation video game.  While all of the aforementioned comparisons might seem like belittlement, they are not. What this trailer does is offer an interestingly stylized take on an old standard.  We see two pilots doggedly pursuing each other over water and mountainous terrain.  The close ups of bullets being fed into guns and spent shell casings being discarded speak to the vast amount of energy and resources being expended by these two men for the sole purpose of killing one another.  They most assuredly do not know each other, and likely have no quarrel beyond the different nations and ideologies they represent.

The trailer ends rather abruptly, but leaves the viewer wondering how this clip fits into the context of the entire piece.  Bottom line is it leaves the viewer wanting more.  It's also a good example of how images by themselves can convey ideas, be it close-ups of the eyes or of machinery.  Amazingly, the medium of animation continues to expand to accommodate not only various themes and subject matter, but various styles and methods through which to make the real surreal and vice versa.  As the line separating the animated world from the real world becomes increasingly blurred, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? suddenly feels a lot less like a fantasy.  Then again, maybe that's just me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Words From The Desolate One: A Phone Conversation With Just-Ice


Just-Ice: Still Desolate After All These Years.


By Scott Tre

Never underestimate the importance of having the courage of your convictions.  Tough talk is worth zilch if one hasn’t the stones to back it up.  Rappers would do well to remember this, as Hip-Hop is now going through a phase where words and history are not valued.  MC's no longer have to worry themselves with walking the walk, so long as they talk the talk well enough.  Fans these days are as concerned with artistic integrity and honesty as they are with actually buying CD’s...that is to say, not much.  Such an environment can be extremely dismissive towards an old head with the balls to call it as he sees it. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Return To The Rock House: A Phone Conversation With Tony M.F. Rock (Part 1)



By Scott Tre

At a time when Atlanta hip-hop was mostly known for "booty shake", Tony M.F. Rock was perfecting an entirely different template for his fellow ATLiens to follow.  His 1990 debut Let Me Take You To The Rock House had the requisite amount of uptempo club bangers, but also showed considerable artistic range.  Its influence begot super lyricists like Andre 3000.  Tony also exerted a certain level of influence on the emerging Miami bass scene, having contributed verses to the 2 Live Crew's infamous classic As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

TV Review: 'Misfits' Season Two Episode One



By Scott Tre

The misadventures of every ones favorite group of gifted though misguided youth continue with the second season of Misfits.  The season opener shows the gang being stalked by a mysterious helmeted figure.  

Misfits has been such a thoroughly entertaining show that it's hard to find fault with any single episode.  It gives you everything you want from a superhero themed show, with more food for thought than any number of "adult" superhero comics could ever possibly offer.  It also flirts with our mischievous side, openly exploiting the secret desires of it's openly male fanbase.  That is the secret of the shows success.  It combines solid storytelling with a juvenile sense of humor and titillation.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chris Evans Silences All Doubt That He Is The First Avenger



By Scott Tre

Although I am an admitted fan of both superhero comics and films, some of the more "classic" characters have never done it for me.  I have always found Captain America a bit hokey and especially out of touch with modern sensibilities.  The idea of a brightly costumed hero participating in World War II ground battles and using a shield as his primary weapon has never been something I found interesting. 

Yet, I find the prospect of a Captain America film delightful.  I think that what seems outmoded on the comic page may in fact be whimsical and thrilling when projected on the big screen.  The latest photos of Chris Evans as the title character come courtesy of Entertainment Weekly (on newsstands tomorrow), and I'll be damned if Cap hasn't literally stepped off the page and onto the screen.  Evans has packed on quite a bit of muscle mass (naturally, one hopes) and in one photo he sports a smile right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Other photos show Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull.  Weaving looks to be in full on hand wringing and mustache twirling mode, which only heightens my anticipation further.  Other photos are right out of a 1950's science fiction movie and seem to reek of atomic age paranoia.  It looks to be Spielberg-lite, which is exactly the sentiment that is needed (at least for the WWII era stuff).  Chris Evans officially has my vote.  If Captain America fails, it won't be because of him.  I dare anyone to look at these photos and remain unmoved:















Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Prepare To Be 'Derezzed' By Daft Punk






By Scott Tre

I'm pretty much a hip-hop guy all the way (I was born in the Bronx.  Sue me).  I've never been into the electronic or house music scenes as being raised on scratchy samples prejudiced me against synthesized music.  However, I have been known to appreciate classic soul and just about anything used to score a film if it touches the right cord in me.  A couple of good examples are Brad Fiedel's electronic score for The Terminator and Wendy Carlos's score for the original Tron.  I remember humming the music to the light cycle scenes while playing with my toys as a kindergartner.  For me, Tron Legacy just will not be sufficiently satisfying unless it has great music to go with it.

When it was announced that Daft Punk would be doing the score for Tron Legacy, I felt unmoved.  Aside from having no familiarity with their catalog, I simply would have preferred to have Wendy Carlos back.  So it was with little excitement that I watched the video clip for "Derezzed", a song off of the Tron Legacy soundtrack album/musical score.  One thing about being willfully ignorant of something is that it provides ample opportunity to be very pleasantly surprised.  I know next to nothing about Daft Punk, but the musical backing they provide suits the world of Tron beautifully!  Saying that it draws you in is an understatement.  From almost the first frame I just went with it.  This is game warrior music, without a doubt.  I felt like I was attending a rave inside a video arcade, tripped out on ecstasy and watching two guys decked out in neon performing capoeira.             

I greatly enjoyed this track, and it has officially earned a spot on my iPod.  I will be setting aside space for the entire soundtrack and I may even delve deeper into the electronic enigma that is Daft Punk.  Remember boys and girls, it's always good to try new things!

Style5 Animation Takes Us On a Tour of 'The Wrong Block'

By Scott Tre

As hard as it is to believe, there are many people who still see animation as a medium for children.  Even with the proliferation of Japanese anime over the last 25 years, such attitudes persist.  Skeptics see graphic violence and explicit sex as nothing more than placebos that help man children cope with their childish viewing habits.  While such obvious elements do not necessarily constitute entertainment for "mature audiences" on their own, it is rather short sited and ignorant to maintain the stance that cartoons can only be for kids. 

Toronto based studio Style5 animation has something quite interesting in the works: an animated film noir called The Wrong Block.  It centers around retired detective Max Braddock, who awakens out of an eleven year long drunken stupor to solve one last case involving the son of his slain partner.  As the official trailer shows, the hard boiled plot is supported by some very offbeat visuals.  Character designs incorporate elongated necks and broad, parallelogram shaped torsos.  This thing definitely isn't shooting for realism, which is one of the many joys of animation.  The reality of the world being depicted can be dictated by the artists pen. 


Quirky projects like this go a long way in showing the potential for animation.  Animation is not  a genre in itself but a medium that can be made to accommodate any genre.  Luckily here in the west we have innovators like Sam Chou and his team over at Style5 who ignore silly stigmas and push  boundaries to their limits.  There's no telling whether or not The Wrong Block will be a successful experiment, but the effort is certainly worth it.

*You can find out more at the official site.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Movie Review: "Paranormal Activity 2" Tries To Make Lightening Strike Twice


By Scott Tre

When a film appears to have become a phenomenon based on a gimmick or a novelty, conventional wisdom leads many to dismiss its success.  What skeptics are often unwilling to admit is that such cynicism is often a bit disingenuous and grounded in "hipper-than-though" attitudes.  When a supposed gimmick works too well, or better than was anticipated, a knee jerk response can be to try and diminish it.  The inevitable sequel is seen as something of a litmus test as to whether or not the first go around was merely a fluke.  Again, skepticism is usually a thinly veiled hope to see the property fail.  A gimmick that works more than once may have to be reevaluated.  What appears to be a parlor trick may indeed be skill, craft and ingenuity at work.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice...

As Daniel(Brian Boland) and Kristi(Sprague Grayden) celebrate the arrival of their newborn baby boy Hunter, the joyous occasion soon gives way to tension and paranoia.  After their home is vandalized by a rather bizarre burglary in which nothing was stolen, Daniel has a video surveillance system installed.  As the strange occurrences increase and become more frequent,  Kristi suspects that something else is going and that it may be linked to a childhood trauma.  She confides in her sister Katie(Katie Featherston), who  provides little in the way of sympathy or comfort.  As it becomes more and more obvious that an uninvited and unseen intruder has taken up residence, Daniel remains skeptical.  The camera system becomes a silent and omnipresent observer, recording the drama as it unfolds.



Paranormal Activity 2 is the sequel to last years very successful Paranormal Activity.  The film was shot on home video in a single location and presented in a documentary style to give the impression that it was evidence of events that had actually occurred.  There was no violence or gore and special effects were practically non-existent.  The film relied on the most primitive techniques for generating tension. While many found the film's approach to be eerily effective, they also lamented the rather repetitive dramatic elements and story structure.  This caused the film to be disregarded as triumph of marketing and gimmickry in some quarters.  Surely, the release of a sequel so soon after the success of the first film provides an ample opportunity for this fraud to be exposed.  Surprisingly, Paranormal Activity exposes the inherent weaknesses of this idea while still being just as effective.  Maybe even more so.


Paranormal Activity 2 digs into the exact same bag of tricks as the original, while employing some slight enhancements.  Title cards and counters in the corner of the screen mark the passage of time.  Instead of a camera remaining stationary in the master bedroom and filming the protagonists as they sleep, we are treated to multiple angles via the surveillance system.  They are cycled through as though edited together by a security guard charged with watching over the property.  The multiple angles keeps the technique from becoming quite as mundane as it was in the first film, though the filmmakers again stretch it the breaking point.  A home video camera is again employed, used at alternate moments by Daniel and his daughter Ali.   

As in the first film, the soundtrack is used to optimal effect.  Each scare is preceded by a low fidelity hum, sometimes punctuated by sudden bumps and crashes.  The surveillance footage is shot by hidden cameras that remain in fixed positions and glower down on each location, allowing audiences to drink in the full picture.  They never pan in any direction in order to follow the action.  The combination of these techniques feed the imagination well beyond capacity, allowing the viewer to do much of the work.  This creates an interesting dynamic where the viewer is almost competing with the film, as if watching a magician perform the simplest trick.  The concept of a "jump scare" seems unfair, so audience members peruse every inch of every shot like a forensics expert.  If they can find anything that "telegraphs" the inevitable jolt of a sudden noise or something lurking in the background, it robs the sequence of its power.  Admirably, even when the viewers efforts bare fruit, the jump scares still work.

Then there are the moments that are creepy in their mere conception.  One of them centers around baby Hunter and is easily among the most breathless and anxious moments in recent memory.  It speaks to the fears of every new parent.  There are also some delightfully simple devices like doors that are slightly ajar, and characters going to deepest darkest corners to explore bumps in the night.

This kind of tension ratcheting does have its drawbacks.  As effective as the end results are, the moments leading up to them are undeniably tedious.  The incessant teasing of the aforementioned title card and counter routine, no matter how ingeniously staged, becomes grating.  At some point you just want the film to get on with it already, especially when what its doing is so obvious.  Also, the pseudo-documentary presentation coupled with the "naturalistic" style of acting and the single location makes everything play a bit more repetitive than it would if presented in a more conventional way.  This is where the film's most valuable asset, that it appears to be an actual event unfolding before ones eyes, works against it.  Home videos can be the very definition of tedium.  It also makes it clear that the filmmakers are stretching the threadbare material well beyond the breaking point, making one wonder if it justifies a feature length running time.    




Thankfully, Daniel isn't quite as annoyingly macho and inconsiderate as Micah(the protagonist from the first film), which makes him a bit more sympathetic.  He is every bit as stubborn, but his stubbornness seems to be born both out of healthy skepticism and a need to protect his family.  Ironically, that protective instinct is what initially leaves them open to attack.  Kristi is much more of a housewife than Katie (the other protagonist from the first movie), which makes her seem a bit more helpless when the foolishness starts.  Speaking of Micah and Katie,   they both make an appearance here, played by the same actors.  Katie and Kristi are sisters.  This ties the two films together in a way that should play as much more contrived than it actually does. It is yet another form of slight of hand on the part of the filmmakers.


Paranormal Activity 2, like its predecessor, is a very slight film that proves both resourceful and effective.  While I am unsure if either film constitutes as technically good film making or even good storytelling, the results are undeniable.  No matter how much you anticipate a jump scare, it still makes you jump.  You will be aggravated by the tedium and repetition, only to be startled by the simplest parlor trick imaginable.  The film is perhaps designed for single viewings as it is a bit less than substantial, but it manages to do two things that it's gorier and more lavish counterparts often cannot: it legitimately scares you, and manages to linger in your mind after the credits roll.