Saturday, July 29, 2006

Beastie Boys - Awesome; I...Shot That!

Twenty years after rising to global fame with the debut of their landmark LP Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys have released a revolutionary new concert dvd. The concert was filmed live at Madison Square Garden at the end of their most recent tour in late 2004. In addition to following the traditional model of using a few strategically placed professional camera operators, the Beasties also recruited dozens of fans attending the show and armed them with cheap Hi-8 video cameras to capture the action from the crowd. The amateur operators were distributed throughout the arena, even in the nosebleed seats, so the performance and crowd response were literally covered from every possible angle. The result is a show that truly lets the viewer feel like they’re in the arena and pays tribute to the grass-roots promotion and production techniques that launched hip-hop in the first place.

Here’s where it really gets mind-bending: not only can viewers watch the original theatrical release of the show that jumps between all of the feeds based on the editor’s direction, they can also select the dvd exclusive “Grid Vision” option that lets them watch ALL of the feeds at the same time in a massive grid. The grid is usually 64 screens deep, although it occasionally drops down to lower configurations to highlight specific action. Grid Vision is a brilliant addition that nearly overwhelms the senses with so much visual stimuli to process.

So how’s the show? On the whole, it’s outstanding, although it takes a hit in energy at the half-hour mark when the Beasties ditch their mics and track suits for their instruments and powder blue tuxedos for a 15 minute jam band session of some of their mid-career noodlings. Although it’s an interesting change of pace, it’s ultimately an ideal time to hit the snack bar before they come storming back in the second half with a barrage of their biggest hits. The rest of the show relies on Beasties DJ Mix Master Mike to provide the beats, and he never fails to impress with his amazing turntable wizardry.

The Beasties had two other original ideas for the presentation of this tour, and they’re given spotlight treatment as bonus features on the dvd. Before the start of each show, they dispatched camera crews to talk to the fans outside each arena, usually asking what songs they wanted to hear but also just letting fans express themselves however they wished. The footage was quickly edited and presented to the fans each night to add some local flavor and get them hyped for the show ahead. One bonus dvd feature presents a brief sampling of this footage from shows around the world.

At the beginning of each show, the house lights would go down and a video would play showing Mix Master Mike in some sort of crazy adventure such as racing golf carts backstage, stealing a record from another band, or getting in a shootout with the Beasties themselves. Eventually, MMM would make his way to the stage and the audience would realize that everything they just saw was live, causing them to go bananas when he hit the turntables with the camera still following him into action. The best of these impromptu bits are assembled in the dvd bonus features.

The encores for this tour were inventive as well. For the first encore, the Beasties usually ran to the upper deck of each arena and performed Intergalactic in the crowd, to the insane delight of the fans with previously poor seats. After racing back to stage, they re-emerged for a final encore back in band mode for a blistering presentation of Sabotage, an exhilarating end to a superb concert.

As if the dvd didn’t already have enough extras, the Beasties have also include an “Insightful Band Commentary” audio track. It’s not very interesting as the comments are usually along the lines of “here we are on stage and stuff”, but their banter gets amusing at times such as when they theorize about how guest star Doug E. Fresh earned his World’s Greatest Entertainer title and how he stacks up against other great entertainers.

Other extras include an a cappella audio track so fans can “make the music with their mouths”, various footage of their temperamental tour manager, and a “hidden detour” alternate camera angle option that lets users follow specific individual cameras for bonus footage when prompted onscreen.

Finally, the dvd offers a peek into the daily life of pseudo director Nathanial Hornblower, played here by comic actor David Cross. It’s a pretty boring short as it just follows the bumbling foreigner through a mostly uneventful day in New York with only a brief encounter with MCA and Ad-Rock, but it is an unexpected addition worth a sampling for the curiosity factor alone.

It’s refreshing to see a veteran act still willing to innovate and experiment, especially when the results turn out this well. While the dvd would be worth the purchase for the original concert film alone, the wealth of extras and options elevate the package to instant classic status.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

San Diego Comic-Con International 2006

Over 100,000 people attended Comic-Con again this year, and each of them were faced with a mind-numbing assortment of activities to choose from each day. I attended for three days, and it's taken me three more days to recover and collect my thoughts enough to generate a wrap-up. It's impossible to provide a definitive overview of the event due to the sheer volume of programming available, but this is my story.

My crew arrived late to the Con on Thursday due to some flight delays (thanks American), so by the time we checked in at the hotel and picked up our badges the day was drawing to a close, but we all made it inside in time for the biggest event of the day, director Guillermo del Toro discussing his much anticipated upcoming film, Pan's Labyrinth. Del Toro didn't offer much in the way of exclusive footage or information, but he was extremely inspiring as he discussed his decision to operate outside the studio system by insisting on shooting in Spanish with a cast of virtual unknowns. He's coming off of profitable mainstream hits in Blade 2 and Hellboy and could have had a much larger budget by toeing the studio line, but his vision for this film would have been compromised. Much like Robert Rodriguez, he's a director who sticks to his guns and ignores attempts at studio interference, and the results are looking phenomenal so far. He also made it very clear that he's one of us, a big fan of comics and fantasy in general who was looking forward to exploring the convention floor with the rest of us (all true, I spotted him the following day), and he even gave out his email address for anyone who wanted to get in touch with him. For comic book fans, actor Doug Jones (Pan) was along for the ride and dropped hints that he's in final discussions to play Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel.

Friday's first must-see for me was Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror film panel. Unfortunately, Mr. Dogg got a late start hitting the road and subsequently got stuck in the horrendous Con traffic, preventing him from appearing in person during his panel. He called in by mobile phone and took a few questions from the audience, but the rest of the panel consisted of some clips and Q&A with the director and other second-tier stars including Ernie Hudson, Brande Roderick, and ex-wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. The movie looks absolutely terrible, with quality about on par with public access tv, and based on what we saw it boggles my mind how the director was able to assemble even the somewhat recognizable talent he did. On the upside, gorgeous co-star Daniella Alonso was completely enchanting and almost made up for the disappointment of the rest of the panel.

Next up was Paramount's Stardust panel featuring the creators of its original graphic novel, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, along with a screenwriter and producer. I expected nothing from this film, but wanted to see and support Vess since he's one of my favorite artists. The film is being directed by Matthew Vaughn, who famously jumped ship from X-Men 3 after surprisingly getting the nod in the first place. So far, it appears that his trade of one comic book property for another was an uncanny move, as the project looks fantastic and sports an amazing cast including Michelle Pfieffer, Robert DeNiro, and Ricky Gervais. We were treated to numerous clips that left me desperate for more, and now I can't wait for this one to come out. I've owned the classic graphic novel for over a year and now I'll definitely have to get around to reading it.

I dropped by the Battlestar Galactica panel for a few minutes until heading over for Richard Kelly's discussion for Southland Tales, but his panel was over a half hour late getting started so I bowed out to hit the convention floor for some shopping.

The big draw on Friday was New Line's panel for Snakes on a Plane, the internet phenomenon that will likely be crushed by the weight of its own kitsch upon release. Samuel L. Jackson was in the house to drop the mf-bomb over and over again upon demand, and a snake wrangler temporarily turned the stage into Animal Planet with the progressively larger snakes he brought out to play, culminating with a 19-foot (!) anaconda that was one of the scariest mf-ing things I've ever seen. New Line put together a hilarious reel of some of the best fan creations of Snakes poster art and videos and we got an exclusive 10 minute preview that left me worried. It's all fun and games in theory until the movie comes out, and it's likely to pack in a ton of viewers during opening weekend, but in reality the movie looks to be a bit of a bore that will have a difficult time holding viewer attention for 90+ minutes.

New Line also gave us an exclusive video greeting from Tenacious D, aka Jack Black and Kyle Gass, and treated us to the first few minutes of their epic new musical, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny. Even if the rest of the movie sucks, which it won't, it's worth the price of admission just for the few minutes we saw. Young Jack Black (a dead-on impersonation by child actor Troy Gentile) butts heads with his uptight, straight-laced father (Meat Loaf!) and gets inspiration from the poster on his bedroom door that springs to life in the form of Ronnie James Dio, leading to his decision to run away from home and head west to follow his rock dreams...and it's all in song!

After dinner, we headed back to the Con to check out the fourth annual collection of the Worst Cartoons Ever, and they really were so bad they were good. Highly recommended viewing, one hour of animated train wrecks that are so painfully poor they just can't be missed.

Saturday is always the biggest day of the Con, and this year was no exception. However, I made the choice to devote most of my day to exploring the show floor and smaller panels at my own pace rather than carefully schedule my day to hit all the big panels. As a result, I purposely missed out on the annual Lost panel, the incredible Grind House panel with both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino and many of the stars, as well as the big Sony panel for Ghost Rider with Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes and Spider-Man 3 with ALL the stars and director Sam Raimi. Frankly, I saw the Ghost Rider panel last year (minus Nic Cage) and didn't care about the Spider-Man movie enough to tie up valuable shopping time, although I probably should have made an effort for Grind House.

So what did I see? Well, I started with Warner's panel for 300 and was completely blown away by the footage I saw. I haven't been so excited by a trailer since the Sin City preview at the Con two years ago, and the crowd reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that they immediately ran it a second time. Like Sin City, this was also originally a comic book created by Frank Miller, and he was on hand to discuss the project along with director Zack Snyder and stars Gerard Butler and David Wenham. The film has a bit too much of a soundstage look to it, like all the action was done inside and then digitally transposed onto outdoors backgrounds, but the style is just exquisite with a washed-out color palette similar to the original comic books punctuated by shades of crimson on character uniforms, as well as dramatic use of slow-mo and sweeping camera work.

That was the extent of my film coverage for the day, but on the comics front I hit the spotlight panels on the Flight anthology and legendary Japanese artists Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Yoshitaka Amano.

Flight has rapidly become the best comics anthology currently on the market, eschewing the traditional navel-gazing angst-filled indie black and white content for high-quality shorts and sequential stories with a slant towards all-ages fantasy audiences. For example, Michel Gagne is serializing a colorful 150-page graphic novel in Flight about a fox on a wild adventure. Some of the contributors were onhand to answer questions, but the bulk of the panel was devoted to editor/cover artist Kazu Kibuishi's discussion about how he got the project off the ground and assembled the impressive roster of artists, mostly recruited from the animation and video game creation fields. As he described it, the creators universally want to be making comics full time, but they're much better off financially in their "day jobs" so the anthology format gives them the chance to pursue their passion and find an audience without forsaking their regular paychecks. The anthology is currently in its third volume with a new and seemingly larger one released about once a year, and they're all highly recommended reading. After the panel, I discovered a large print of the current cover image (pictured) for sale on the show floor and managed to get it under Kibuishi's pen for an autograph. Thanks Kazu!

Yoshihiro Tatsumi was a virtual unknown in North America until comics sensation Adrian Tomine discovered his work and lobbied publisher Drawn & Quarterly to begin printing it, starting last year with the lush hardcover package The Push Man and Other Stories and continuing this year with the new collection Abandon the Old in Tokyo. Tomine has become Tatsumi's cheerleader and champion, working tirelessly to promote the artist's classic works and even acting as editor and letterer for the English editions. Tatsumi has been making comics for 50 years and continues to create today, leading to his current recognition as the "grandfather of Japanese alternative comics". You won't find any robots or fairy princesses in his work; he's devoted to the everyday struggle of the common man and even coined the term gekiga to describe his work, a combination of the Japanese words for drama and art. Speaking through a translator, he answered Tomine's questions about his career and work style, leading to an amusing exchange when Tomine griped about how prolific Tatsumi continues to be compared to Tomine's glacially-paced output of one page a week.

My final panel of the Con was a rare appearance by Yoshitaka Amano, an icon for both video game fans and otaku. Unfortunately, the Con sorely underestimated his popularity, scheduling his panel for a room of around 300 seats that left many more hundreds waiting in line outside. What makes him so special? Well, he was the character designer for the first six games in a little video game series called Final Fantasy (currently nearing its 12th iteration). He created his own manga series in Japan, Hero (also released here). He created the character designs for well-known anime property Vampire Hunter D. And he has worked with both Marvel (Elektra and Wolverine) and DC (Sandman: The Dream Hunters). In short, his artwork has been extremely influential in multiple venues and granted him an almost mythic stature here. Speaking through a translator, he discussed his career and answered questions from other panelists, but it wasn't important what he said, just that he made the effort to come to the Con to the delight of his many fans.

My best star sighting on the floor was a chance encounter with Rosario Dawson as she promoted her new comic book from Image, O.C.T.: Occult Crimes Taskforce. The rest of my time was spent exploring the small press booths, scoring free swag from the big studios, and discovering new artists. Best finds: and for some cool new apparel for Senora Caballero, and repeat Con visitors and

The bad thing about the Con is that there's just so much to see and do that you end up missing out on many things. For instance, I didn't spend any time shopping for comics at dealer booths because there just wasn't any time to spare. I also feel like I missed out on lots of freebies, although I was pretty happy to stumble upon the Simpsons Movie t-shirt giveaway by chance. At this point, it's a Comic-Con in name only as the worlds of film, art, toys, tv, and gaming have jumped into the mix. It's still an amazing experience, it just requires begrudging acceptance that you will never be able to see and do everything you want to.

After three days of traversing the cavernous convention hall, my crew and I were exhausted, broke...and anxiously awaiting Comic-Con 2007!