Archive for October, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)

October 30, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.–Shadow of Chernobyl spent years in development and was rushed out of the door. That the game feels partially complete and has an array of technical flaws is a major strike against it. But that aside, these are minor flaws when compared to what the game actually accomplishes.

Based loosely on elements from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel Roadside Picnic and Andrei Tarkovsky’s landmark 1979 film Stalker, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in an alternate near-future near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. A second nuclear disaster has warped reality around ‘the Zone,’ the quarantined area around the power plant.

You play a stalker, a cross between an explorer and scavenger that braves the hazards of the Zone for profit. Thanks to the well-worn “amnesia” plot device, your protagonist aims to find out who he is, why he has “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” tattooed on his arm, and why he’s carrying instructions to kill someone named Strelok.

And, despite some breath-taking cut-scenes, the plot staggers along fairly incoherently. It’s interesting, if you follow it; and believe me, you don’t have to. The game is so open-ended that you could literally spend weeks just roaming the radiated countryside.

And this is where the game really shines. I’ve never seen a video game that has such a fully realized game world. Thunder sends bandits scrambling for shelter before cold rain arrives. Friendly traders make space around their campfire for you, some of them chatting quietly in Russian. Mercenaries guard train yards and shout warnings before opening fire. And while the game is technically a first-person shooter, it’s the polar opposite of dumb action game. You can’t carry a million weapons, since guns weigh a lot…and food is maybe more important than ammunition; bullets kill easily and are affected by weather and hard surfaces; and enemies are smart and use teamwork. It makes more sense to avoid confrontation than to go in with guns blazing.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is saddled with technical quirks, goofy English translation and a semi-confusing main story arc, but these can be brushed aside if you’re willing to dive into the beautiful atmosphere. I hope I never forget the first time the game made me gasp–fading sunlight poked through an overcast sky, illuminating leaves as they danced along the road and eventually stuck to the side of an abandoned bus depot. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to go back and play it again.

-Jason Panella

Hotel Chevalier/The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

October 30, 2007

There is something of a tradition in Western literature concerning Indian travelogues: the privileged Westerner travels to India, knowing – always! – that he (and it is usually a he) can leave when he likes. The sojourn in India is, for him, an encounter with the spiritual savage – the one who has maintained, by her primitiveness and poverty, a connection to some more primal and spiritual reality – which reality he appropriates, cafeteria-style, and brings with him upon his return to the west, having consumed even that which his lifestyle of consumption cannot provide him.

The Darjeeling Limited (along with its companion short film, Hotel Chevalier, which is available for free download at www.hotelchevalier.com) self-consciously appropriates this premise, ironically subverting it. Darjeeling (and Chevalier, as well) mark Anderson’s return to a more honest, nuanced style, reminiscent of Rushmore. Francis (Owen Wilson) brings his brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) to India. Here they will embark on a “spiritual journey” on the titular train, with each day’s activities–from showers to temple visits–meticulously planned by Francis’s personal assistant, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky).

Filled with director Wes Anderson’s singularly lush visuals, the film is both more interesting and more approachable than his previous outing, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. While both that film and his earlier effort, The Royal Tenenbaums, took great pleasure in humanizing and redeeming the American bourgeousie, Darjeeling is, ultimately, a story about how life as an élite is dehumanizing. The three brothers can find no solace, ultimately, in their spiritual journey; it is only when its abrupt end forces their return from the dreamworld of leisure and introspection to the realm of dirt and life and death that they are able to become human.

-Adam Parsons

IMDb
Rotten Tomatoes

Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)

October 29, 2007

Iron and Wine’s newest album finds Sam Beam straying from the time-worn formula listeners have come to expect of his songs–that they consist of little more than Beam’s sleepy-voiced vocals and acoustic guitar. Having been invigorated by the experience of recording with a full band during the making of his collaboration with Calexico (In the Reins), Beam has chosen to record his latest album with a fuller suite of instrumentation.

If this sounds alarming, never fear; the overall effect of the songs is still the understated, pastoral music. It’s the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent lounging beneath a tree with a tome of poetry, a loaf of bread and thou. In fact, the well-placed addition of varied musical elements–from banjo to sitar–adds to Beam’s cryptically poetic verse. Branching out from his previous, exclusively acoustic guitar approach allows Beam to stretch out and more fully inhabit the sonic spaces he creates. Motion is a sign of life, and it is good to see that Beam is not content to keep cranking out album after album of sound-alike songs. With a full band at his back, Sam Beam is stepping forward in an exciting new direction. All told, The Shepherd’s Dog is a pleasant addition to Iron and Wine’s oeuvre of drowsy music for sunny afternoons.

-Nate Campbell

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Giving – Bill Clinton (2007)

October 29, 2007

In a world with extreme poverty, environmental degradation and wars of genocide and terror, it is easy to lose hope and question whether we can have any positive impact in the world. Former president Bill Clinton’s book Giving is encouraging, issuing a challenge to each of us to look for ways we can give. Regardless of our wealth, we are all blessed with the opportunity to share and give to those who are in need.

Through the retelling of numerous stories of generous givers, Clinton demonstrates that everyone has the opportunity to play a role in dealing with poverty, environmental degradation and wars of genocide and terror and encourages us to look for ways we can give. As Giving explains, there are numerous ways to do so with money, time, things, skills, and even gifts of reconciliation and new beginnings.

It is easy to question whether we have the means to give when we hear about Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet contributing such large amounts of time and money. But Clinton also shares the stories of Oseola McCarty, an eighty-seven year old woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who gave seventy-five years worth of savings to establish a university scholarship for poor African-American girls and McKenzie Steiner, a six year-old girl who organized a drive to clean up a beach in her community. Giving demonstrates that everyone can give: children, parents, grandparents; students and teachers; employees, managers, and CEOs; neighborhood communities, local governments and national governments; churches, synagogues, and mosques; high-income, middle-income, and low-income people. It is the sum of every small gift that we can give that will impact the world, not just the large individual gifts.

Giving provides us with a jump-start in looking for ways to give to the poor and needy in our own neighborhood and around the world. As Clinton states, “In America, many of us are besieged by more requests for help than we can grant. All of us need to decide between competing claims on our time and money…. [But,] that is a choice only you can make.”

Clinton concludes by explaining that we can find happiness in giving. Knowing that our gift, no matter how small, is changing another person’s life can bring a lot of happiness. Giving is a challenge to answer to the needs of people around the world in a way that can bring true happiness.

– Nathaniel Veltman

Nathaniel Veltman (nathanielveltman.blogspot.com) is a Master of International Development student at the University of Pittsburgh. He has spent extensive time working and studying in Ghana and Malawi, Africa. His focus of study is on non-governmental organizations and civil society, with a special interest in partnerships and micro-lending in Africa.

VISIT www.culture-ish.com/giving for a list of places that we think are great places to give

Pinback- Autumn of the Seraphs (2007)

October 12, 2007

Pinback’s mellow sound and beats may make you believe at first that their songs are simple, but that is not the case. Filled with emotion and many intriguing points, their lyrics say what Pinback wants to share. The opening lines of “From Nothing To Nowhere” begin, “And nothing makes you alive / And nothing makes you move as far down the wire.” To begin an entire album with those words seems bold, but also shows you where they want to go as far as the theme.

The simplicity of style is one of the bands many highlights. Strong bass patterns are one of their most singular aspects. Many, if not all, of their songs are lead by a bass guitar melody. Because the bass has such a strong hold in the rhythm of the band, there is not much that the drums can do to accommodate it. Usually using a single and simple beat, the percussion sounds mainly electronic, or at least electronic in nature.

Pinback should draw people who enjoy mellow music with a stronger rock background. Pinback offers simple but good sound, one that will entertain their fans and those who enjoy alternative music.

-Amy Gardner

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As I Lay Dying – An Ocean Between Us (2007)

October 12, 2007

Christian speed-metal/scream-a-lot-about-death band As I Lay Dying returns to the scene with their fourth studio album, An Ocean Between Us. Picking up bass player/vocalist Josh Gilbert adds some much-appreciated melody to the bass-drum-and-heavy-metal-guitar-barrage, and hints at P.O.D. circa 2003. Though the intensity of the music no doubt takes talent, As I Lay Dying doesn’t appear to have any aspirations to bring anything new or spectacular to the table–this album could be five years old and no one would know it.

Though seemingly afraid to mention God by name (we wouldn’t want to be too obvious, would we?), An Ocean Between Us seems set-out to portray truth and hope in grim circumstances: “For there is still beauty inside this dying world” (“Wrath Upon Ourselves”). Therefore, the lyrics have some weight–too bad you have to read most of them instead of listen and be able to decipher. Needless to say, the instrumental “Departed” is a hauntingly charming break from the usual thrash-rock action. An Ocean Between Us–though never original enough to rise beyond the usual Christian metal sound–presents credible, ultimately positive Christian lyrics to those who may be in need of some hope in life.

As I Lay Dying seems content in resting in their gloomy, dark imagry (just glance at the album art, complete with the cliché skull and all), for words like “decay” and “ruin” pervade throughout the album. However, the final track, “This is Who We Are”, concludes with a hopeful piano line to symbolize the subtle joy that still can be found in this otherwise sad and sinful world in which we dwell.

– Jake Kauffman

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The New Pornographers – Challenges (2007)

October 11, 2007

I feel I need to begin this review with an apology for the New Pornographers’ name, which is intentionally provocative. But by apology I mean a reasoned defense, not a spineless acquiescence to a foolish sense of shame someone might try to impart for listening to a band with such a name. Their name does not refer to some passion for sexually explicit materials; rather, it is a reference to a quote by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who once declared that “rock and roll is the new pornography.”

It is tempting to assume that a band with such a name, rooted in a inflammatory statement by pop-religion would be a group of people with a chip on their shoulders, with something to prove. This is not necessarily the case. This so-called Canadian supergroup consisting of songwriter Carl Newman, Dan Bejar of Destroyer and alt-country chanteuse Neko Case–as well as a slew of others–create light power-pop songs that steer clear of anger and angst. Their music is engaging and dynamic, forging a fine line between pop, rock and alt-country.

If Carl Newman and friends have an agenda, it is hidden behind a wall of nigh-inscrutable lyricism. Even songs with titles that smack of overt politicality playfully dodge such categorization. The song “My Rights Versus Yours,” might be making incisive commentary, but with lyrics like “Fingers in paints / in paints we brought, thinking we’d leave them when we’re not flying the flags of new empires in rags, the new empire in rags, the truth in one free afternoon,” it is unlikely the comment will become clear to anyone but the songwriter.

Freeing the songs from such baggage allows them to be enjoyed more simply, as fun, musically interesting pop constructions that say something more than “I want inside your pants” without getting too weighty.

-Nate Campbell

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The Kingdom (2007)

October 11, 2007

The Kingdom is a story about a handful of FBI agents (played by actors Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who want to strike while the iron is hot. A civilian complex in Saudi Arabia was attacked by terrorists and these agents have reasons to believe that this is something much larger than just a random attack. Not willing to wait and go through all the red tape required to get onto Saudi soil, they find means to get into the country and connect with the local government that the bombing affected. Their desire to strike back is intensified when they arrive and see that a proper investigation is not taking place. After befriending a Saudi militant (Ashraf Barhom) they are able to meet and talk with the prince who reigns over that area. The prince gives them liberty to make a full investigation.

Through the rest of the film director Peter Berg reveals scenes that help the viewer connect with the Saudis instead of just showing things from the American point of view. It reveals the whole iceberg of Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether the American characters only want to take care of the tip or not. The impression is still given that the Americans are in the right and that their tour had a great purpose, but then a parallel is exposed at the end. Through connecting with the Saudis in the movie the viewer gets the sense that the vengeance that the Americans are trying to achieve is just part of a vicious cycle. It’s a fact that leaves the viewer feeling empty and hopeless in some ways, saying, “sure, we won this battle, but there is an entire war going on that no one knows how to end.”

-Janet Chamberlain

IMDb

Rotten Tomatoes 

Kanye West – Graduation (2007)

October 10, 2007

After dropping out and registering late, Kanye West has now graduated and is making the transition from higher education to “real life.” He has matured by dropping the skits of the last two albums, focusing on tightly produced songs. The main singles “Stronger” (sampling Daft Punk) and “Good Life” fit with the style of his earlier hits like “Gold Digger.” But he gets much more personal in “Everything I Am,” reflecting on his own fame and the paradox of death on the street and what seems like a celebration of that fact in most rap music. This album continues West’s streak of good albums.

Graduation features a select group of collaborators, like Mos Def, Lil Wayne and Coldplay’s Chris Martin. One of the great parts of the physical album is the album art done by Takashi Murakami. And West has put his celebrity to work as a main supporter of www.edin08.com, a movement to make education in America a political priority.

Greg Veltman

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Radiohead, Music Distribution and You

October 8, 2007

On Saturday, Sept. 30, English rock band Radiohead announced that they were releasing their new album In Rainbows on Oct. 10. This came as a surprise; most bands alert the public to forthcoming releases months ahead of time, not 10 days prior.

But the real shocker was the band’s distribution method. Not currently signed to any recording label, Radiohead announced that In Rainbows would be available for download on their website on the 10th. The price is up to the buyer. That means you can get it for free, or donate however much you like. I, for the record, am paying $6 for it.

Radiohead has essentially kept their album under wraps so they could leak it themselves onto the Internet. Letting fans decide what they pay isn’t anything new–Quote Unquote Records has always been a donation-based label, and a variety of artists (Derek Webb, Wilco, R.E.M.) have released albums for free on their websites. But this is the first time a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling band has tried this with a brand new release.

This has the potential to shake things up. The recording industry is rife with corruption and abuse, with the blame being dished out equally between suit-and-tie execs, greedy artists and all of us who buy records without even thinking about the ethics. And it’s especially sad when indie rock is championed as the alternative, considering that many of the big “independent” labels like Sub Pop or Tooth & Nail are tethered to major, corporate labels.

But the only reason Radiohead can do this is because they’ve already made money from countless tours and record sales. It would be hard for a band of working joes to do something similar. But the stakes have been raised; if this works–and judging by the response it’s generating online, it probably will–people may start rethinking the ethics and morals behind making music and how it relates to money.

There seems to be little middle ground regarding music; people are either getting cheated by someone or making more money than they know what to do with. At the very least, it may make people look for better alternatives to paying $18 for a new CD or paying $0.99 for a copy-protected digital song (buying directly from the artists or using eMusic are–respectively–two alternatives). This stuff matters: even something as seemingly mundane as record distribution falls under God’s sovereignty, and we need to strive to do what is just and fair for everyone involved.

Jason Panella