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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cat Men Evolved: Lion-O & Pals Got a Makeover For a CG Feature That Never Came To Pass

By Scott Tre

A friend of mine once hilariously expressed his disinterest in a Thundercats revamp by dismissing the feline warriors as merely "cat men".  In other words, there was nothing especially distinct about the science-fantasy property beyond the idea of humanoid cats.  His summation was funny because it wasn't that far form the truth.  Take the story of Thundercats and put the focus on humans instead of bipedal felines and it suddenly becomes much less interesting.  Well, that same friend recently came across something that has him rethinking that position and shared it with me, and now I am sharing it with you.
Artist Dave Bullock uploaded some character redesigns and storyboards he did for a Thundercats CG movie that never got made.  They are interesting the say the least.  Lion-O, Panthro, and Tygra and given broad shoulders with high torso-to-waist ratios and cat-like lower legs.   The designs look made to facilitate extreme freedom of movement and fluidity.  It would have been great to see them in action.  Go over to Dave Bullock's Deviant Art Gallery to see more.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Marvel Heroes Have Entered The Game Grid!

By Scott Tre

As the Disney marketing machine kicks into high gear for the December 17th release of Tron Legacy, it has blessed us with the coolest bit of cross promotion in quite some time.  Marvel has prepared a series of variant covers for some of its biggest titles in anticipation of the film's release.  Each one features a different Marvel hero decked out like a game warrior, neon lights and all. It's really satisfying to see a bit of movie marketing that feels unforced and organic.  Perhaps the "mouse house" and the "house of ideas" aren't such strange bedfellows after all.  Below are a few of my favorites.  The full selection can be viewed at Geek Tyrant.  Enjoy!

Wolverine #4 TRON Variant

Invincible Iron Man #33 TRON Variant

Thor #617 TRON Variant

The Theatrical Poster For "Tron Legacy" Recalls The Past While Looking To The Future.

By Scott Tre

Aside from the groundbreaking visuals contained in the film itself, perhaps one of the most memorable images from the original Tron is the one shown on its theatrical poster.  It showed Tron himself reaching up to receive his disc from his user as it lowers to him while traveling on a single beam of blue light.  The scene it references has Tron being given the vital information needed to defeat the Master Control Program.  He was a warrior receiving a gift from the gods, and the poster conveyed that wonderfully.

Taking its cue from the original image, the theatrical poster for Tron Legacy offers an updated version that is just as amazing.  It contains many of the expected enhancements, but the basic concept remains untouched.  It's a classic movie poster image that completely captures the essence of the film it's trying to sell.  It's nice to see the powers that be adhering to the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" for once.  Hopefully that sentiment is indicative of the finished film.

Here is a comparison of the poster for the original Tron (top) with the poster for Tron Legacy (bottom).

Here is the 2nd official trailer for Tron Legacy:

Here is the trailer for the original Tron

Monday, October 18, 2010

Anime Series Review: Iron Man Episode 3: "Project, Revived!"

By Scott Tre

In the third episode of Iron Man, titled "Project, Revived!", A rash of tornadoes overtakes Japan and kills key meteorological experts who once worked on the abandoned 'Tesla Project'.  Iron Man flies into the eye of one of the storms to find a mechanical behemoth at its core.  As Outa Nanami and Tanaka Chika uncover the secrets of the Tesla Project, Tony Stark aids in rescue efforts while trying to stop this latest technological menace.

"Project, Revived" shows improvement over the last two entries in terms of pacing and establishing a palpable sense of menace.  It shows a bit of influence from Japanese Kaiju, as natural disasters are no different from giant monsters in terms of the havoc they wreak on mere humans.  This influence can also be seen in scenes that show Iron Man confronting the machine itself, which dispatches giant mechanical hands the contain old shell head.   The threat level is upped considerably this go around.

The characterizations and drama still leave a bit to be desired.  There is an ongoing theme of Stark trying to ingratiate himself to the people of Japan, who remain skeptical due to his background as an arms dealer/manufacturer.  That makes for some nice little moments, but the antics involving Nanami Chan have a decidedly sitcom feel to them, and are a bit too reminiscent of the dynamic between Clark Kent and Louis Lane.  The characterization of Stark himself is still a bit bland, but we are allowed peeks at the shallow womanizer that lurks beneath the veneer of the selfless industrialist.

"Project Revived" builds up and maintains a steadier momentum than the first two episodes from the outset and as a result is a bit more satisfying.  However, it still feels way too mannered and stiff.  One keeps waiting for it to unleash the wild kinetic energy that seems to lurk just beneath the surface, yet the series progresses along much too cautiously.  Caution is never a word that should come to mind when thinking of anime, yet that is exactly what comes to mind while viewing Iron Man.  MADHOUSE need not be so reverent or careful with western mythology.  Come on guys, cut loose!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Breaking The Man of Steel: An E-Mail Coversation With Daniel Brown, The Man Behind The Short Film "SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY"

By Scott Tre

To me, the great hope is now that these little 8mm video recorders have come around, some people who wouldn’t normally make movies are going to be making them. Suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camcorder. And for once, the so called “professionalism” about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will really become an art form. – Francis Ford Coppola from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse.

Out of Sight out of Mind: Invisible Demons

Just as the demon Pazuzu tormented young Regan in "The Exorcist", many people are plagued with emotional/mental illnesses that are not visible on the surface.

By Scott Tre

Human beings are visual.  We tend to believe what we see and experience as opposed to what we are told.  In these cynical times, people are less likely than ever to take someone at their word.  If something isn’t tangible or readily apparent to us, we dismiss it outright.  We adopt this mindset knowing full well that it sometimes allows us to remain comfortable in our own ignorance. 

Human suffering, in its many forms, is easily disregarded if it isn’t of the physical variety.  Physical ailments and illnesses manifest themselves visually.  They can be quantified with words.  As you sit on the exam table in the doctor’s office, you can simply point to the spot where it hurts.  We have even developed machines that use radio waves that can penetrate through flesh and bone to reveal tumors and cancerous growths.

The thought of facing your demons alone can be daunting and unbearable.

What of the silent killers?  Silent Killers are personal demons that haunt us and weigh us down with emotional baggage.  They ruin relationships and alienate friends and family.  They make us undesirable as mates and lovers.  People usually dismiss them as personality flaws, when in fact they can be remnants of past traumas and experiences.  They are ghosts and phantoms that are laughably dismissed by non believers.

In many cases, the skeptics have yet to be visited by such apparitions.  They’d like to think that their courage and resolve is enough to send the ghouls running back to the underworld.  They don’t regard anything that isn’t the result of what they deem to be a “real” problem (homelessness, joblessness etc.).  Perhaps that is why they are so dismissive of other people’s fear when confronting such demons.

Or maybe they are simply insensitive.  “Tough love” and “brutal honesty” are often convenient little phrases that thinly veil indifference and cold heartedness.  We all have our problems and many of us, quite frankly, don’t have the time or patience to tend to anyone else's needs.  If the person is bedeviled by an unseen force, they shake their heads in disbelief.  The “realists’ among us have enough to contend with in the “real” world, or so they’d like to think.

Then there are those of us who while not indifferent to emotional/psychological suffering, have a hard time dealing with problems that cannot be solved by applying simple logic.  The more logical and practical among us see life as a math problem, where the most “sensible” or “logical” answer is usually the correct one.  Alas, our emotions rarely respond to applied logic.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, Phobias and other psychological/emotional ailments are about as real to many of us as the bogeyman.  We sometimes see the victims of these ailments as whiny cry-babies.  Cowards who use therapy and medication to help them cope with the realities most of us face on a daily basis with little to no help.  Drugs are seen as a crutch.  Psychologists and psychiatrists are often characterized as hustlers.   

Interestingly, the skeptics maintain their stance even though anxiety and depression are believed by psychiatrists to be associated with various forms and mental illness and chemical imbalances.  The difference between situational anxiety and the kind of chronic anxiety that qualifies as a mental/emotional disorder has been validated.  Such conclusions were reached by professionals in the medical and scientific communities.  They are not mere musings on the part of weaklings looking for an out or an excuse not to succeed in life. 

As time goes on, our knowledge base gradually expands.  Prescription drugs become more refined as our understanding of the chemicals that regulate mood and perception evolves.  The same goes for therapy, which is far from an exact science.  Neither of these things is fool proof, but they are an accessible and viable option.  The pharmaceutical and therapeutic communities may be profiteers who exploit weakness, but the fact is they are available.  Doctors and therapists listen to their patients, or at least they are trained to.

Silent killers can be just as dangerous and as damaging as maladies that manifest themselves physically via symptoms.  They don’t thrive on the power of belief.  They don’t disappear simply because you choose not to acknowledge them.  Drill instructor style “negative reinforcement” rarely works, and “just get over it” is about as useless as any other t-shirt ready phrase one can think of.  Easily digestible platitudes are not what is needed.  More than anything, those who are plagued with silent demons want to know that you see their pain and that you care.  While you may not be able to solve their problems, you see their suffering and acknowledge it as real.

If you have a friend or family member who is plagued by an invisible demon, a helping hand can make all the difference in the world to them even if you don't have a solution.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Short Film Review: Superman Finally Has His Rendezvous With Doomsday

By Scott Tre

DC's "Death of Superman" storyline provided a much needed surge in sales for their flagship character.  In the last days before the implosion of the comic book industry, the media hype surrounding the event was something of a last hurrah for the medium.  Detractors found it to be more of a calculated publicity stunt than an actual story arch.  Though the actual quality of the it can be argued, it remains one of the more well known recent events involving the character.  Even if it wasn't actually good, the idea of comics most Christ like icon finally meeting his end might make for an entertaining film.  Alas, the so-so box office performance of Superman Returns all but ensures that such a  project may never see the light of day.  Although a Zack Snyder helmed Superman film is currently in the planning stages, Warner Brothers probably wouldn't be daft enough to revive their franchise with an entry in which the title character dies.  Thankfully, aspiring filmmakers toiling in the underworld of fan made trailers and short films are just that daft.

Someone by the name of Kashchei2003 has employed something called "after effects" to create his vision of what a "Death of Superman" movie should be like and has called it SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY (MAN OF STEEL sequel) - The Death of Superman.  It is not so much a trailer as it a very resourceful short film.  It uses key scenes from recent well known blockbusters such as Superman Returns and The Incredible Hulk (among others) and edits them together into a surprisingly coherent whole.  Kashchei2003 even manages the neat little trick of turning The Hulk into Doomsday by superimposing the likeness of one character over the other.  The results are a bit less than "state-of-the-art" but they get the point across handily.  Portions of musical scores from a variety films are used on the soundtrack.  All in all, Kashei2003 has done a spiffy job of realizing his vision and makes a Superman/Doomsday film seem credible.  Never underestimate a resourceful and talented fan.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Boy Who Cried Wolf: Eminem Has Become Hip-Hop's Perpetual Victim

By Scott Tre

In a moment bizarre enough to be a sign of the apocalypse, a white rapper has complained about racism.  During a 60 minutes interview that aired last Sunday, Eminem stated that his melanin deficiency is the reason why the homophobic content of his lyrics come under constant and intense scrutiny since other rappers say the same things that he does.  That's right, Marshall Mathers is using that most dreaded of gambits, the race card.  At one time, the very idea of a white rapper was considered far fetched.  Even further fetched was the idea of white rapper who could be respected among his black peers and  outsell them.  The farthest fetched idea in the history of mankind would be said white rapper having the stones to play the race card.  Hip-Hop has officially entered the land of the surreal.  Go to the 8 minute and 19 second mark on the clip posted below to witness the sheer lunacy first hand:

But wait, none of this is the least bit surprising when one takes a good hard look at not only Eminem's image, but his track record.  Almost from day one, Eminem has been Hip-Hop's perpetual victim.  His image is based in something wholly different than what white rappers that preceded him were selling.  He hasn't/can't pull off the kind of "wigger" swagger that signifies a white kid that was brought up around black folks.  He hasn't the psuedo-bohemian/intellectual vibe of a backpacker.  He is simply a white guy who raps.  He is also arguably the first white rapper to not be actively at odds with his whiteness.  In fact, he has always been all too aware of it.  He is Hip-Hop's version of the nerd who uses his new found fame in a particular arena to not only vent his angst, but to take revenge on his attackers.  He carries the scars of the beatings he took as the "corny white boy" in school, and he allows the world to see them.  That has always been his shtick.

He is also a symbol of the bitterness and suppressed rage that all nerds and perpetual victims carry around with them like luggage.  He is quick to spew acidic bile to other helpless targets, but reluctant to deal with the fallout.  He is the victim who has grown up to be a victimizer.  Whenever he is confronted on the insults he hurls at others, he acts as if he is being attacked and the reprisals are unsolicited.  Either that or he goes at people that he knows either can't fight back or see his nonsense as not worth addressing.  Em has the shtick down pat.  It couldn't be anymore complete if it came from a case study.  That has always been Em's hook, and what makes him interesting as a performer.  He markets the angst of victimhood, wrapped in shrouds of dark humor and absurdist imagery.  It doesn't hurt that he is one of the most talented lyricists ever.  That's right.  White or not, Em is one of the best to ever pick up a mic, and therein lies his true grievance.

His whiteness prevents him from earning that most coveted of titles from the portion of the Hip-Hop audience that matters most: black kids.  Not all black kids, but a very specific subsection of black kids.  Go to any "black section" of Detroit and I'm guessing you aren't very likely to hear Em's name tossed around as a G.O.A.T candidate.  Maybe local heroes like Esham or MC Breed, or fallen heroes like Pac and Pimp C.    Go to other "urban" areas around the U.S. and the story is probably very similar, only thing that changes are the names.  From High-rise housing projects in New York to dirt floor shacks in the rural south, Marshall Mathers isn't that renowned.  His lyrical prowess will definitely be acknowledged in some of those circles, but the actual love will be withheld. 

Luke & the 2 Live Crew

I suspect that is what is at the heart of Mr. Mathers current delusion, and a delusion it is, make no mistake about it.  For Eminem to say that his skin color causes him to be unfairly scrutinized while his black brethren go unchecked is sheer lunacy.  Even before the inception of Gangsta Rap, Hip-hop has always come under fire for extreme lyrical content in one form or another.  Lest we forget the battles that Luther Campbell and the 2 Live Crew won for free speech.  Their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was ruled obscene and illegal to sell by district U.S. court judge Jose Gonzalez.  A Florida retailer was arrested after selling the album to an undercover and three group members were subsequently arrested after performing songs from it at a nightclub.  Judge Gonzalez ruling was later overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

N.W.A Sans Ice Cube In All of Their Gun-Toting Glory
What of N.W.A's infamous (and quite overblown) admonishment from the Federal Bureau of Investigations?  Ruthless records was sent a letter from the government agency that scolded the group for it's song "Fuck The Police".  They were prohibited from performing it at various concert venues.  What about the controversy over Ice-T's heavy metal band Body Count and the infamous song "Cop Killer"?  The song was removed their self-titled debut.  Ice-T soon ended his relationship with parent label Warner Bros. when they expressed concern over the cover art for his 1992 album Home Invasion. Remember when Public Enemy came under fire for the video for "By The Time I Get Arizona"?  Let's not even get into the way Death Row Records was hampered by the likes of C. Delores Tucker and Dionne Warwick, much less more recent controversies involving Ludacris and Nelly.

50 Cent, Eminem, and Dr. Dre

Growing up as a fan and student of the music, Em more than likely has a strong familiarity with all of them.  That is as it should be, since Em is a direct beneficiary of the battles won by those artists.  That they were not necessarily cited for homophobic content is beside the point.  They all caught hell by the bucketloads for lyrics that had different combinations of violence, sexuality, misogyny, and profanity.  They suffered consequences that ranged from jail time to canceled shows and tours to being dropped by their labels and more.  Name one time in Eminem's career that he has ever been in any real danger of being dropped from Aftermath/Interscope or having his CD's yanked from store shelves.  Such exploits and accomplishments far outweigh the run-ins Marshall has had with organizations like GLAAD.  He can do what he does because scores of black rappers already paved that road with their blood.

The Notorious B.I.G, The Reputed "King of New York, Sporting That Which Marshall Mathers Covets Most

Em is quite possibly the biggest selling rapper of all time, having moved over 80 million records worldwide.  He performs to sold out crowds and has the respect of many of his peers, not least of which 50 Cent.  That is not enough for him.  The crown worn at different moments by the likes of LL and Pac (in death) beckons.  He wants it, and he has the chops and the catalog to claim it.  Alas, he cannot have it.  THAT is the discrimination that truly chaps his hide, and to that I say tough shit.  There are scores of ultra-talented black rappers from a variety of regions and sub-genres who have yet to get their due.  Eminem is no more important than any of them... the only difference is that he is is white.  Take a number and get in line, chump.

Perhaps to mask his frustration over that little dilemma, he has fabricated a different kind of discrimination that he may have thought would go over better.  In its own way, this may be worse than Em's use of the N-Bomb and other racial epithets directed toward black folk (that were exposed by Benzino) in that this time Em is spreading an outright lie.  This is something that he knows isn't true.  He has finally and completely become the character he has always played.  Everybody hates him, Nobody likes him, so instead of eating worms he spreads misinformation.  "Black rappers get away with it so why can't I?"  It all ties in with the same thing he has always been selling the public.  On the 60 Minutes segment, his bouts with drugs and the like are packaged as a comeback story.  His career as a whole is sold as the ultimate rags-to-riches come up.  The hurt little boy has healed and is on the comeback trail.  Since Em plays all of it straight-faced, it cannot be written off as one of his many publicity stunts.

What makes it so insulting is that he knows it's bullshit.  Andre Young aka Doctor Dre, the man largely responsible for introducing Em to the world, is no stranger to controversy.  As a member of N.W.A and as founder of both Death Row and Aftermath, the good doctor has endured his far share of criticism.  In fact Eminem has famously come to his defense.  When accepting an award at MTV Video music awards, Will Smith famously told the crowd that he was able to do so without a curse during his acceptance speech.  Mr. Mathers took exception to this, looking at it as a slight to the brand of profane gangsta music the good Doctor pioneered.  He then took aim at the Fresh Prince in a the first single off his second (and best) album, the Marshall Mathers LP, "The Real Slim Shady":

Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records/well, I do. So fuck him, and fuck you too.

From this line, it can be deduced that from very early on, Em was well aware of the criticism that rap receives not only from without but from within as well.  Old school east coast rappers of Will Smith's ilk were very vocal about their disdain for the profane and violent turn rap music took in the wake of Straight Outta Compton.  Em's own artist, superstar rapper 50 Cent, has recently come under fire for comments made about gays on Twitter.  Em knows better, and his comments prove him to be delusional at best, a liar at worst.  Perhaps he has has fallen completely out of touch with the culture that he became a part of.

Coming seven years after the scandal involving his use of racial slurs against black women on a recording uncovered by then owners of The Source Magazine Benzino and David Mays, this situation will only serve as confirmation of Eminem's racism.  Em has not only cast the light of suspicion on himself, but made things harder on white rappers and rap fans who hope to shed the wigger label and be taken seriously.  Whites who indulge in Hip-Hop culture often carry the stigma of outsiders who treat black culture as a novelty, a clown suit for wayward white teens searching for an identity in their formative years.  Certainly, such an blanket accusation is unfair.  However, Eminem has now given considerable weight to such accusations.   For me, his shtick has finally lost its charm and no more passes can be given.  This is one disgrace too many for raps great white hope. Not only has he racially insulted his peers, but he has the nerve to claim that the media has unfairly singled him out due to his skin color.  In that sense, he isn't all that dissimilar from right-wing extremists who shout reverse racism at the drop of a hat.  Fuck you Mr. Mathers, for knowingly spreading misinformation about a culture that embraced you with it's arms wide open.

The Feeling Is Mutual, Mr. Mathers!

Movie Review: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren Paint the Town "Red"

By Scott Tre

Action and comedy are two of the hardest elements to bring together successfully in a single film.  Modern blockbusters include heaping portions of both in order to fill out the requirements for so-called "four quadrant" films.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks, many media outlets predicted the impending "death of irony" as a reaction to the tragedy.  Well, reports of said death were greatly exaggerated as Hollywood has found new ways to implement humor into otherwise serious subject matter.  Movie violence always has and always will go over easier with audiences when it's coated in a sugary capsule of irony and/or humor.  In a society that looks to comedians like John Stewart to shape its perspective on current events and world issues, it is necessary to keep reminding them that it is all a joke.  Thus, the breaking of the fourth wall continues indefinitely.

In Red, former CIA black-ops agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is in retirement, living the sort of schnook lifestyle that would have driven Henry Hill insane.  His main source of entertainment is running a scam on pension services that enables him to flirt with a phone rep named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).   After a CIA "wet team" tears his home to shreds during a failed assassination attempt, Frank anticipates that the next move of his unknown assailants will be to track down Sarah and grill her as to his whereabouts.  Frank finds Sarah and the two investigate the situation while on the run.  They uncover a conspiracy that requires Frank to seek out fellow retirees.  Cooper (Karl Urban), the CIA agent in charge of eliminating them comes to find out that they are much more than what he was lead to believe. Frank, Joe(Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) come out of retirement with both guns blazing, intent on avoiding a premature death at the hands of their former employer.

Red is an adaptation of the Wildstorm/Homage comics limited series written by Warren Ellis.  It shares a number of similarities with The Losers, also an adaptation of a comic put out by a DC imprint.  Both revolve around a group of operatives with the best military training imaginable.  Both are filled with characters who don't seem to take anything all that seriously.  Both feature excessive violence that is clearly not meant to be taken seriously.  The final and most telling similarity is that both achieve middling results as entertainments.

Visually, the films are are not identical but carry many of the same hallmarks: gimmicks that are meant to  keep things interesting.  Animated, three dimensional post cards are used to signify a change of location.  It is used similarly to how the Indiana Jones films employed the image of a red line tracing its tracks on a map of the world to signify globe hopping.  Unlike the Indiana Jones films, the method used in Red calls attention to itself.  It's meant to be noticed and laughed at, which is in keeping with the spirit of the film.  Slow motion is used to enhance the awe factor during key moments of action sequences as well as to elicit laughs by highlighting the implausibility of said physical feats.  As expected, it is all capped of with smart ass remarks courtesy of the main characters.

The action itself is staged well, though it is not distinct from other recent offerings in the genre.  Audiences are treated to a very effective and very brutal fight scene in an office.  It serves as proof positive that MMA style choreography has supplanted graceful and intricate martial arts fight choreography in the post Bourne Ultimatum era.  The larger set-pieces aren't quite as successful.  They are bigger but not necessarily better.  This is a phenomenon that holds true for the duration of the film.  The "wet teams" assault on Franks home is easily funnier, more suspenseful and more thrilling than any of the firefights that follow.

As for the acting, all of the principles do exactly what they have been known for their whole careers.  In recent years Bruce Willis has incessantly milked the "old man who is a lot more than he appears to be" shtick for all it's worth.  This time out he doesn't bother to find a new variation on it.  Ditto for Morgan Freeman and John Malcovich.  Freeman is just simply there, while Marvin is another one of Malchovich's stock weirdos.  This is were yet another similarity to The Losers makes itself known:  the film tries to conjure a chemistry and mood similar to that of Steven Soderbergh's Oceans films.  It is essential to understand that the boys are back together again and that they always come out on top.  Red never approaches that level of enjoyability, though its cast is likable enough regardless.

Around the hour and twenty minute mark, the story pauses for a much needed moment of deadly seriousness.  An interesting dynamic also develops between Frank and Cooper (Karl Urban).  It's too bad there could not have been more of these.  A fatal mistake made by many action-comedies is that ham fisted, self aware humor is poured on in excessive amounts.  This may take the edge off the violence and make make the film more palatable for general audiences, but it also robs the proceedings of any sense of consequence.  None of the humor feels organic.  No amount of slick film making can mask this, and usually only makes it all the more obvious how insubstantial the film in question is.  It's easy to say that movies like Red are not meant to be especially memorable, and that is the whole problem.  A film need not weightless to be diverting.  Hollywood seems to take it for granted that substance is the enemy of fun.

Red is yet another forgettable yet very mildly entertaining action comedy.  It is an example of where modern filmmakers seem intent on pushing this hybrid genre.  Some might say that genre fans and purists should simply pull the stick out, especially since the snarky tone is very much in keeping with the action classics of the 1980's.  To them I will point out the smart remark and humor laden films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard gave us sympathetic protagonists and a sense of urgency.  Audiences were made to feel that what transpired on the screen mattered.  I defy anyone to say that they truly care about any of the characters in Red, regardless of whether or not they found them entertaining.  Go ahead, I'll wait.      

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Anime Review: Does "Iron Man" Represent The Next Step For Marvel Animation?

By Scott Tre

On the animation front, the House of Ideas has been getting soundly trounced by Bruce Timm and his crew over at Warner Bros. Animation.  While Marvel Animated productions have not been uniformly horrible, they have been unable to reach the bar set by the DC Animated Universe.  To make matters worse, the gap between the two seems to increase with each subsequent release from either company.  The straight to DVD offerings of the DCAU often have the feel of feature length films, or well conceived television pilots.  Marvel offerings often feel like barely passable accessories for fans.  A big part of the formula for Bruce Timm's success has been the influence of Japanese anime which has been prevalent from the very first episode of Batman: The Animated series.  Perhaps in a bid to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap, Marvel Animation has teamed up with Japanese Animation studio MADHOUSE LTD. to produce anime iterations of some of their most famous characters.  The first one of these to see the light of day is Iron Man, the first two episodes of which have already aired in Japan.  

In the first episode, Tony Stark arrives in Japan amidst swirling rumors that he will be retiring as Iron Man.  He plans to set up arc reactor stations that will serve as a source of clean, free energy for the Japanese. In order to ingratiate himself to the land of the rising sun, he puts on an air show featuring his latest creation: a variation of the iron man suit named Iron Man Dio.  After the Dio suit malfunctions during an aerial exhibition, Stark discovers that it may have fallen under the control of an organization named Zodiac.  

In the second episode, Tony Stark is suspected of smuggling plutonium and is requested to speak in front of an investigation committee.  Instead of leaving his fate in the hands of investigators,  He dons the Iron Man suit and sets out to clear his name.  While tracking a stolen shipment of plutonium, he again does battle with a mechanized minion of the techno-terrorist organization Zodiac.

Any iteration of old shell head will have to contend with massive shadow cast by Jon Favreau's two blockbuster Iron Man films, which for better or worse have become the definitive version of the character for the general populace.  This makes it even tougher for any adaptation that looks to create its own identity.  The idea of an anime series based on a Marvel comics character brings any number of tantalizing possibilities to mind.  The cultural differences between East and West could possibly spawn a wholly original take on the character.  Sadly, the first two episodes of Iron Man do very little to either establish a fresh take on the character or to diminish the considerable lead that the DCAU has over Marvel Animation.

The character designs are about what you would expect from a quality anime production.  The Lines are clean and sharp.  The characters stand tall and even seem to curve in the directions of the blowing winds.  Tony Stark looks like he stepped right off the cover of an anime version of GQ magazine.  Scenes featuring the Iron Man suit are aided by computer graphics.  Everything with a metal surface looks as though it was immaculately cleaned and given an impenetrable wax coating.  Everything glistens with an ArmorAll sheen.  Perhaps this is a sly comment on the glitzy world that Tony Stark inhabits.  He always has to be ready to go in front of the cameras. 

As is be expected in a quality anime production, the action scenes move at a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" pace.  The first episode is a mundanely slow burn until a serviceable aerial duel between Iron Man and Iron Man Dio.  The second Episode features an extended chase book ended by similar robot battles.  Both sequences prove to be highlights, but unfortunately the drama motivating the action is a bit less than compelling.  This makes it hard to get too involved in anything that transpires.  Tony's interactions with reporter Nanami-Chan are initially cute but already show signs of growing tiresome and repetitive.     

One major failing is the characterization of Stark.  Instead of the bombastically narcissistic playboy portrayed by Robert Downey Junior, we get a slightly mischievous pretty boy crusader.  This is not to say that the anime should simply ape the approach of the films, but it could have offered something a bit more engaging.  Throughout the duration of the pilot episode, Stark is a bland variant of the James Bond persona.  He is simply a well intentioned ladies man who pilots a robot suit. There isn't an ounce of pathos or inner turmoil to be found.  Anyone who has not read the comics or seen the films would be hard pressed to understand what drives him.  That is perhaps the biggest obstacle in Iron Man feeling like a fully conceived production.  Furthermore, if this series did not bare the Iron Man name brand, it would be nigh indistinguishable from any number of mecha anime series.   

While it is always necessary to give any new series a few episodes to establish a momentum, Iron Man is off to very uneventful start.  The previews for the Marvel/MADHOUSE collaborations had us expecting something that would move at a breakneck pace.  Instead, we seem to have gotten a rather stoic and subdued Tony Stark plunked in the middle of a pedestrian espionage story.  Perhaps this is simply a rather slow build up to an amazing pay off.  The first episodes of Iron Man have gotten the series off to an uneventful start.  Either way, the series still has 10 episodes left to prove me wrong. 

DVD Review: Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words

By Scott Tre

Documentaries can sometimes be needlessly lavish and overcomplicated affairs.  They sport solid production values but have a superficial, glossed over feel.  The surface is never penetrated and no real insight is ever offered.  On the other end of the spectrum, many of the so-called hood/street documentaries that are all the rage these days are under-produced and unfocused.  They are poorly edited and cobbled together collections of testimonials from burn outs.  Such productions serve as a  ghetto form of self-aggrandizement.  Everyone, it seems, wants to immortalize the mythology of their hood.  Ideally, the best documentaries find the "sweet spot" between these two disparate extremes.

Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words is a DVD documentary and companion piece to Ron Chepesiuk's  excellent book Sergeant Smack: The legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers (you can read my glowing review here).  It features exactly what the title describes: Leslie "Ike" Atkinson and only Leslie "Ike" Atkinson telling his own story.  Vintage news footage and photos are interspersed throughout.  Title cards listing milestones and achievements give perspective to many of the statements made.  However, Ike's narration creates a more intimate vibe than any book describing his life's experiences could possibly conjure. In a very warm and matter of fact tone, Atkinson touches on key points that the novel explores in much greater depth.  He talks about his early life in North Carolina, his tenure as a master sergeant in the United States armed forces, his propensity for gambling, and his trailblazing career as a heroin kingpin. 

Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words was directed by Sergeant Smack author Ron Chepesiuk, who is like a ghost during most of the proceedings.  He does double duty as the interviewer, remaining completely off camera.  We are not allowed to hear a single question that Atkinson is asked for the first three quarters of the running time.  Not until the final quarter of the film do we hear Chepesiuk's voice, and even then it is only a faint whisper emerging from behind the fourth wall.  Gustave Flaubert once famously said "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere".  For the most part, Ron Chepesiuk holds true to that adage.   

Seeing and hearing Ike Atkinson speak automatically dispels many of the misconceptions that viewers may have about what constitutes a gangster.  Unlike many Hollywood depictions, Atkinson is not a charming rogue or a scheming strategist (at least not on the surface).  He is also not a blood thirsty killer.  Atkinson is simply a person who peeped every angle of the game and got in where he fit in.  One suspects that his disarmingly "ordinary" nature is what allowed him to get as far as he did.  Go to any black barbershop or church in America and you are likely to meet someone like Ike.  He is likable, inviting, and able to suck you into a story very easily.  Towards the end, Atkinson emerges as what very few real life gangsters do: A human being. 

Frank Lucas is of course mentioned, but Ike's conflict with him is wisely not made the focal point.  In fact, Atkinson is the most dismissive he has ever been in regards to the self proclaimed "American Gangster".  The only real drawbacks are the synthesized musical score (a soundtrack full of oldies that recall the appropriate time periods might have worked better) and the truncated running time.  Then again, this documentary is meant to be consumed with the book itself, or perhaps as a primer.  They both serve to fill out the complete picture of Atkinson.  A show like Gangland would undoubtedly provide slicker editing and a much more sensationalized account of Ike Atkinson's life, but the singular focus and subdued mood of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words leaves the viewer feeling assured that he is indeed hearing the truth.



Thursday, October 7, 2010

Da Mad Face Evolution: A Phone Conversation With Sticky Fingaz

By Scott Tre

The early 1990's birthed a number of rap groups centered around a single, colorful personality.  Even a casual observer could pick out that one group member that seemed destined for greatness.  Some people just radiate a certain energy that demands its own showcase.  Though Sticky Fingaz never achieved solo success a la Busta Rhymes, one would be hard pressed to say that he squandered his chance at stardom.  Via numerous acting roles in film and television (including a stint as the small screen incarnation of Blade), Sticky has built quite the resume.  He has not left his recording career behind, however.  The Onyx brand is alive and well and Sticky plans to maintain that energy and channel it down as many unexpected avenues as possible.

Friday, October 1, 2010

When Mythologies Collide: "The Warrior's Way" Promises Flying Lead & Slicing Swords

By Scott Tre

American westerns, Hong Kong chop sockies, and Japanese chambara films all serve a similar purpose.  Each one of those genres keeps the movie going populace of their respective countries connected to a mythic past that is based in actual history.  They also serve as a form of voyeurism for enthusiastic outsiders who are enamored with the exoticism of cultures unlike their own (such as yours truly).  In the early 1970's, the television series Kung-Fu, served as an early example of how the mythologies of both east and west could be combined in novel fashion.  True movie buffs realize that words like genre can sometimes be artificial constructs that enforce artificial boundaries.  Since shaolin monks and western gunslingers both serve a similar purpose, there is no reason they should never meet on the silver screen.

Surely, even Cain from Kung-Fu could never have anticipated the journey that Yang (Jang Dong Gun) would embark on in the upcoming The Warrior's Way.  Yang is a wayward Asian warrior that flees to the new land after refusing the orders of his master.  Upon arriving in a frontier town he is acquainted with Ron (Geoffry Rush), the town drunkard.  He also meets Lyn, a circus knife thrower.  His past comes back to haunt him when scores of ninja warriors track him down and lay siege to his adopted home. 

The film itself is awash in green screen images and overhead shots depicting massive armies advancing on the enemy (the kind of shot that has become a standard of the fantasy genre in the wake of the LOTR trilogy).  The scenes in the frontier town have a color scheme that one can immediately recognize as being that of a dream land.  The images of countless ninja warriors lining rooftops and city streets before they take to the air and pounce on their prey is right out of the anime classic Ninja Scroll.  It all looks gloriously insane and will hopefully prove to be a much better example of Asian pop cinema than last years mediocre Ninja Assassin.

At worst, genre hybrids are shrewdly contrived vehicles meant to cynically tap into two different niches.  At best, they reveal the kinship between the genres they pair up and show the commonality between cultures.  While The Warrior's Way likely has no such lofty ambitions in mind, it should serve its purpose well enough by managing not to bore audiences.  It will also give the multiplexes a much needed dose of martial arts coolness during the fall season.