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.    


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.