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Top 12 Video Games of 2012

I have a bunch of “best of” posts planned for Sketchy Details that I’m going to break down into shorter, more digestible features in the coming weeks.

First up are video games. 2012 was a sort of renaissance for indie, low-budget, and online gaming. That is not to discredit the merits of the Triple A titles that came out. It’s just the reality of a market that has quickly embraced independent productions. Each major console now has a fully functional online marketplace, including handhelds, and Steam allows for easy download and trial of PC games.

Mobile gaming has continued to grow, as well. The tablet market exploded and smartphones are gaining a larger portion of the market every day. Social networks are somehow able to attract high quality games based on big Hollywood properties. And user-generated sites like Newgrounds are still holding on as a testing ground for larger releases.

Here are the Top 12 games of 2012.

12: Marvel: Avengers Alliance (Facebook)

marvelavengersalliance Top 12 Video Games of 2012Marvel: Avengers Alliance is a Facebook turn-based RPG inspired by The Avengers, both the film and the comics. You play as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tasked with leading the superheroes into battle. You start with a small arsenal of characters battling Marvel enemies from all eras and quickly earn points to recruit seemingly any character that ever joined The Avengers.

It’s a whole lot of fun to watch She-Hulk, Wolverine, and your gun-toting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent battle Loki, The Wrecker, and The Enchantress in an ever-expanding series of missions. The PVP tournaments and character customization are a nice touch. You level up your superheroes until you’re allowed to reassign abilities (there’s a rock/paper/scissors or Pokemon-styled trumping system that adds a nice twist) and enhance with a variety of technology.

The only downside is that the resources are quite limited if you do not convince all of your friends to play. Free to play on Facebook often means “until you run out of resources, then give us money” and, sadly, Marvel: Avengers Alliance is no exception.

12 Great Films You Missed in 2012, Part 2

Here’s Part 2 of the 12 Great Films You Missed in 2012. So far, we’ve looked at horror, sci-fi, history, and experimental prestige films that slipped by without notice. What will the second half of the list bring to the table? Keep reading to find out.

7: Thin Ice

How You Missed It:

thiniceposter 12 Great Films You Missed in 2012, Part 2That’s an easy one. This was dumped to a February release on 53 screens with no marketing and only word of mouth to keep it open. The film actually stayed in theaters through May, but dropped screens every week.

Why You Should See It:

Thin Ice is a really cool dark comedy/crime caper with a great cast. The only weak link is the “you’re not going to believe this story” premise that always preps the audience to distrust everything you put onscreen. The actual story is shocking in all the right ways. If the distributors or producers were actually invested in the film, there would have been a big push for Billy Crudup, Greg Kinnear, and screenwriters Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher to pick up some awards from the critics groups. They easily would have been shortlisted for what they put out there.

Full Review

8: The Raid: Redemption:

How You Missed It:

I have a sinking feeling that no one involved in the distribution of the film thought the summer blockbuster fans would sit through a foreign language action film. It was a mistake. When the film did well in a very limited release, they jumped straight up to hundreds of theaters with no real marketing push and the sales went stagnant. Then they didn’t know what to do, so they let it linger in select markets until only $34 were brought in on the final weekend of release.

Why You Should See It:

theraidredemptiontower 12 Great Films You Missed in 2012, Part 2 The Raid: Redemption is the action/thriller you’ve been waiting for. It’s a high stakes espionage film about a top notch team of agents called in to take down a mob boss who controls a gigantic, towering apartment complex. The action is used to develop characters because the story itself is so simple. The new score for the US release does wonders to bridge the gap between Indonesian and American cinema and culture.

Full Review

12 Great Films You Missed in 2012, Part 1

I’ve spent the past week going through my archives and building spreadsheets of reviews for all the media I cover. By the time I got through 2012, I realized what an amazing year it’s been for film. To make the cut for my Top 10 list for 2012, a film needs to score an 8/10 or higher; only one of those 8/10 films can get in at this point and I still haven’t seen Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, or Django Unchained.

Yet, there are a number of strong, inventive films from 2012 you might have missed for any number of reasons. Maybe they bombed at the box office due to a poor marketing campaign. Maybe they only did a one week qualifying release in New York and Los Angeles and spent the rest of the year shipping out screeners to critics and Academy members. Maybe it’s a genre of film you don’t typically seek out or a big budget blockbuster that you dismissed in summer movie season. Whatever the case, these 12 films deserve your attention.

As a quick note, this list purposely excludes the end of the year one week qualifying releases like Rust & Bone and Amour. Even if I do get to see them before 2013, they’re going to open in a more substantial way in the next few months.

1: The Devil’s Carnival

How You Missed It:

devilscarnivalscorpion 12 Great Films You Missed in 2012, Part 1The Devil’s Carnival decided to steal a page from the golden age of Hollywood and screen as a series of events. Darren Lynn Bousman toured the show throughout North America with large, immersive screenings. Cast members and circus performers showed up to interact with the crowd before the hour long film played. The ticket price was high for a film–$22 just to get in, significantly more for the full experience–and the lower price sold out quickly in most markets.

Why You Should See It:

Forget the nightmare of the previous Bousman/Terence Zdunich collaboration Repo: The Genetic Opera. The Devil’s Carnival is an old-fashioned musical with a dark edge. Three cosmic revenge stories pair recently deceased sinners with carnies and attractions that riff on Aesop’s Fables to create big music hall-styled song and dance numbers. The cast is great and the songs are strong and memorable. This is what horror musicals should be like.

Full Review

These Stories Never End: Updates on The Oatmeal and Tropes

If there’s one thing I know from personal experience, it’s that Internet drama never really ends until lack of web access stops it. You sometimes just need to ride it out as the terrors fade into nothingness.

There has been an influx in bizarre shouting matches online over copyright and criticism. They stumble over into real life, involving threats, lawsuits, and major media coverage on what can be described as trolling gone terribly wrong. It seems a lot of people don’t realize that, no, everything on Google isn’t free to use and, yes, you are responsible for what you write online and will be held accountable.

Let’s start with the happily ever after of these updates. Remember the awful, terrible, not very funny at all The Oatmeal v. FunnyJunk v. Charles Carreon v. The World incident? TL:DR: FunnyJunk hired Charles Carreon to threaten a SLAPP lawsuit against the creator of The Oatmeal for writing a blog post a year ago about how FunnyJunk refused to remove copyrighted comics. This turned into Charles Carreon, on his own accord, suing The Oatmeal, the National Wildlife Foundation, the American Cancer Society, IndieGoGo, the Attorney General of California, and 100 unnamed Internet targets for hurting his feelin…systematically trying to harass him out of work while raising money for charity as an attack against him.

Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Meet Anita Sarkeesian. She runs the media criticism site Feminist Frequency. One of her focuses is on the use of tropes in media. Essentially, she breaks down how certain character types repeat over a broad range of media.

Here’s a sample. In this video, she analyzes the use of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games through the lens of realistic responses to violence and trauma. Her analysis is even-handed and backed up by evidence every step of the way. She defines her focus and presents her arguments in a clear and logical way.

Sarkeesian decided to launch a Kickstarter project to examine five tropes used again and again in video games. She does not use loaded language or judge the repetition as overtly negative or positive because she hasn’t completed her research. True, she says that the tropes are “harmful.” That’s when she also mentions that there are games that hit on these tropes in more positive ways.

The goal was to raise $6000 to cover the costs associated with playing hundreds of video games for five videos. Presumably, these include acquiring the games, capturing images and playback, research expenses, and the actual labor that goes into putting a video series together. It’s a small amount for a video game project. Plus, that’s a genre that has really taken off on Kickstarter recently.

The project has been so successful that Sarkeesian is going to produce 12 videos: another six videos on tropes and one video on common defenses of sexism in gaming. She’s even writing a classroom curriculum to accompany the videos. What a great and positive use of resources for education, right?

Not so fast. Anita Sarkeesian has gone from pop culture critic to an example of how women are portrayed in media. Apparently, some male gamers have decided that Sarkeesian is a bad person for even suggesting that there might be female stereotypes in games.

That’s the kind way of saying what they’re doing. The reality is disturbing. A group of 4Chan users–though I doubt they’re the only ones doing it–are trying to get her Kickstarter project taken down for various TOS violations. They’re flagging her YouTube videos as hate speech because, to them, feminist means someone who hates men. They edited her Wikipedia page so much that it got locked. They flooded her comment sections with hate speech, telling her to lie back and take it, go back to the kitchen to get them a sandwich, or shave off her hair and stop wearing makeup if being a feminist matters to her.

It doesn’t matter that Sarkeesian hasn’t said any of the things they accuse her of saying. They’re trying to redefine the argument as “video games aren’t designed for women” or “men are portrayed poorly, too, so this project is invalid.” They’re actively campaigning against her success for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her project. It’s clear that most of the participants in this effort did not watch her Kickstarter video or read her project proposal. They’re setting up straw men while demonstrating the continued need for this kind of research at all.

tropesvswomeninvideogamesblog Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Maybe the outrage proves how much we need an analysis of harmful tropes in video games

To Sarkeesian’s great credit, she has not removed the comments. They are, if nothing else, evidence of the harm that stereotypes and tropes can bring through pop culture. The arguments they’re making are arguments that are constantly fed through the channels of pop culture.

Cartman says most of these things on South Park and he’s quoted verbatim in many of the comments. You can find references pulled from Peter Griffin, Stan Smith, and a host of other TV and movie characters. In the context of their shows, this behavior is funny because the writers realize how absurd the comments are. In the real world, it’s disturbing because these people actually believe what they’re saying.

Anita Sarkeesian’s project is funded so long as the Kickstarter stays up. As of this posting, she raised over $92,000 for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. I look forward to seeing her finished videos and can only hope that these objectors actually take the time to listen to her actual arguments. I’m not holding my breath.

What do you think? Any games you think Sarkeesian should look into for the project? I think Haunting Ground provides an interesting angle for Damsel in Distress. Fiona is the active investigator in the game, but she is incapable of defending herself against any attack unless her big strong dog is by her side. One game mechanic is actually running away and hiding to decrease the risk posed by a hulking male menace.

And what about this whole “they’re only trolling” defense I’ve seen pop up? Does that mitigate the outrageous nature of the attacks at all? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

Missing the Point: “O Superman” for HTC One

Have you seen the HTC One cellphone ad with the synthesized breathing set behind some sky diving stunt? Eventually, the song starts to mention Superman and sounds just artistic enough to match the free-falling fashion student angle. It’s a weird but memorable ad that kind of sticks in your head.

Here’s the problem. The song being used is “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson. Anderson, one of my favorite recording artists, is a sharp, satiric writer unafraid of tackling big issues through experimental music. She did not have happy technology on her mind when she wrote and recorded this art piece.

The clearest level of text in “O Superman” is a statement against the rise of technology and its impact on the interconnectedness of the world. She mocks the separation created by answering machine message services with spoken dialogue over the synthesized “ha” chords in the background. She can’t reach her mother, the judge, or Superman, but she can leave a message and they’ll get back to her as soon as possible.

Then you start to dig into the more politicized aspects of the song. There are references to American planes flying overhead, possibly breaking up the communication patterns. Is the America of “O Superman” responsible for the machinery of poor communication? She quotes the US Postal Service creed in the same drone as the answering machine message, as if all communication is made impersonal by convenience.

Going even further, Anderson has given interviews where she says “O Superman” was inspired by the Iran hostage situation under Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The planes are a reference to the rescue mission and the failed communication the inability to prevent and resolve the crisis any faster. This would explain the repetition in the background–like the ticking of a clock or blank lines of Morse code–as well as the ominous climax of the song.

osupermansmall Missing the Point: O Superman for HTC One

I know when I think of advertising campaigns, I immediately think of Laurie Anderson's harsh and experimental composition style

This isn’t even getting into the genesis of the song, a clever tribute to a lovely 19th Century aria with some vague thematic similarities to Anderson’s song.

So how, in 2012, does a cellphone company hear a song like this and think it’s a genius advertising gimmick? The surface level is a critique of this kind of technology and its impact on modern communication. That’s not exactly a winning strategy. “Here, buy our product. It’s ruining society as we know it.”

More likely, it was chosen for style over substance. It is a catchy song. It’s not a pleasant song, but it bores into your brain. “O Superman” even surpassed the success of its source video installation “United States.” The average person hearing that advert either doesn’t know what the song is about or has never heard it.

Now I’m depressed. Somebody call me when “Fire on Babylon” is used to sell barbecues. Then we can have a real authentic rage fest.

Thoughts? I love it when Laurie Anderson fans get to squeeze out of the woodwork in an honest to goodness contemporary context. Sound off below.

Case Study: When DMCA Takedowns Go Wrong

I’ll be the first to admit that there are problems with existing Intellectual Property Right Laws–from here IPR laws. They’re long, they’re confusing, they’re weighed heavily in favor of big corporate interests, they’re not enforced often enough, and they’re so confusing that people believe myths are reality. No, not including “(c)[year]” on your art doesn’t lose you the copyright (anymore). No, mailing your copyright to yourself does not constitute a legal argument of date of creation. And no, fair use does not mean you can use anything you want for commercial purposes if you have a legitimate claim on nonprofit/educational use.

This is the problem photographer Jay Lee is facing right now. Jay Lee took a photograph of Downtown Houston in 2008. He put it up online as part of his blog and didn’t expect it to be popular. He was wrong.

dmcatakedownnotice Case Study: When DMCA Takedowns Go Wrong

A sample DMCA takedown form. It's that simple

Recently, he decided to see how many people were using that photograph without his permission. The answer is a lot. He set to work sending in DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act, perhaps the only recent IPR law to actually have an impact on artist’s rights in a good way) takedown notices to get the unlicensed and unaccredited photos removed from various websites.

Then he sent a takedown notice that affected a lawyer/non-profit volunteer named Candice Schwager. Per Candice’s account, she’s been facing a lot of trouble because of her attempts to support a new candidate for a sheriff position in her town. The DMCA takedown from Jay Lee came in right when that other drama peaked and she immediately put the two together. Candice did not even believe that Jay Lee held a copyright to the photo in question at first. Instead, she thought he was a conspirator trying to shut down her political blog and fundraising sites to silence the challenger for the sheriff position.

Candice now admits that Jay owns the photo. However, conspiracy aside, she’s crying out that she had the right to use his photo without permission. She runs a nonprofit legal assistance program for developmentally challenged children and premature babies and nonprofits get to call out fair use. Is she correct?

Not really. The copyright laws concerning fair use do mention nonprofits as a protected group. However, this is after they define what constitutes fair use:

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright

dmcatakedownblog Case Study: When DMCA Takedowns Go Wrong

Copyright laws are hard enough before you factor in what counts as fair use.

Candice was not using the photograph for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. Therefore, even if she only used the photo on her nonprofit site, she was not covered by fair use. She also had that photo on for-profit sites and social networking profiles connected to her business. Fair use doesn’t cover businesses at all.

Do I think Candice really intended to hurt Jay Lee’s photography business? No. Do I think Jay Lee overreacted in sending out a DMCA notice in regards to Candice’s site? No. Do I think we’re getting the full story from either person? Nope. I will say that Jay actually does provide evidence while Candice describes evidence that doesn’t exist anymore by her own admission. That might mean something here.

Do I think that Candice has a case in the lawsuit she’s basing on Jay Lee’s systematic attempt to shut down her child-focused nonprofit through malicious lies, “hacking,” and fraudulent copyright attacks? No. Do I think that Jay is telling this story to be vindictive and ruin her business? No. Is this even close to a cut and dry case now that lawsuits are being threatened and dirty laundry is being aired? Sadly, no. It should have been. This was a very black and white copyright case turned gray by temper.

What are the takeaways from this bizarre story? Artists need to protect themselves. Stay on top of where your images are going. Use watermarks or sign up for a program like creative commons to make it clear how your art displayed on the Internet can be used. Watermarks discourage theft and creative commons spells out what is acceptable.

For non-artists, know where your images are coming from. Everything on the Internet is not free, especially images. Fair use only applies in a specific set of circumstances for a specific group of people. You cannot claim fair use when you unknowingly steal copyrighted content and you certainly can’t sue someone because you stole their content and a DMCA takedown hurt your business.

Thoughts? Am I missing anything big in either side’s claim? Share your ideas below. Love to hear from you.

The 10 Best Fantasy Films

Though I don’t talk about it as often as horror, I really love fantasy. Dark fantasy, silly fantasy, musical fantasy, fantasy novels, fantasy games, fantasy art–the list goes on. It’s the idea of creating an entirely different world, or even an alternate version of our own, that I find so appealing.

Over at the Regretsy forums, someone was asking for the ten best fantasy films of all time. I went knee-jerk and threw a list together. Then I stood back and realized that I more or less stand by the list and could have fun getting into the thick of it in a longer form. Such is the ten minute genesis of my 10 Best Fantasy Film list that I’ll stand by even without including any Lord of the Rings or Star Wars entries.

Honorable Mentions:

  • I couldn’t find room for any Miyazaki or Disney on the list, which feels like more of an omission than it is. Just consider Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo right on the cusp of the list.
  • I have a strange fondness for Peggy Sue Got Married and Pleasantville. It’s the throwback nostalgia mixed with the time travelling “what if” fantasy that gets to me. And Kathleen Turner in the former. I just couldn’t bring myself to bump off better films for favorite films.
  • Tim Burton is a bit too fluid in his genres for me to throw in Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, or Nightmare Before Christmas as fantasy films. A dark fantasy list they might make, but not when the whole genre is considered.
  • Me, of all people, should have found room for a musical like The Wizard of Oz or Brigadoon. I didn’t.

10: Curse of the Cat People (1944)

10fantasycatpeople The 10 Best Fantasy Films

Irena comes with a gift for the lonely little girl.

Curse of the Cat People gets a bad rap. It is a fantasy sequel to a horror film that focuses on the power of a child’s imagination through suggestion. The girl in question is the daughter of the cat woman’s husband and his new wife. She has no friends. Her parents are concerned when she begins to see a strange woman named Irena (the cat woman) in the woods behind their house. The girl also befriends a retired actress/recluse who teaches her fantasy and folklore.

Curse of the Cat People is almost the cinematic mold for future child-driven fantasies. Some of the films on this list might not even be able to exist if it weren’t for the quiet tale of a child’s imagination used as a tool for self-actualization against the wishes of her parents. When judged as a fantasy/character study, it’s hard to beat the strength of this film’s storytelling and visual vocabulary.

9: Willow (1988)

10fantasywillow The 10 Best Fantasy Films

The evil queen in Willow does not fool around.

Consider Willow a surrogate for all those wild 1980s fantasy films targetted at all ages–Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, etc. It feels like if you’re interested in fantasy, one of those films appeals to you more than the others. For me, it’s Willow. I like the story and the setting.

More importantly to me now is the technical quality of the film. Willow is a beautiful movie. The makeup prosthetics still hold up today. The costumes are gorgeous. Even the digital effects mostly feel right in the context of the film. It’s just a sweet, feel good fantasy film in that swords and sorcery vein.

8: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

I’m a bit obsessed with Greek mythology. That culture really developed some wonderfully rich stories and characters. Jason, in particular, has a great story that was brought to life in Jason and the Argonauts. It’s an epic in the literal sense of the word.

In fact, that story–combined with Ray Harryhausen’s extraordinary stop motion animation–is what makes Jason and the Argonauts worth watching. The acting is serviceable, if a bit stiff, and the settings are ok. The editing of Harryhausen’s brilliant character designs and distinctive animation are in a class of their own. Even then, the story is the real star and it’s strong enough to carry the weight of the effects.

7: MirrorMask (2005)

10fantasymirrormask The 10 Best Fantasy Films

The colors of industry--muted metallics, shadows, and dirt--define MirrorMask's fantasy.

This is one of those films that treads on a lot of the same territory as Curse of the Cat People. A teenage girl grows up in a traveling circus. When her mother becomes very ill, she enters a fantasy world of her own creation to reclaim the mythical MirrorMask and wake the slumbering queen. It’s not just an Alice fantasy. The fantasy is used to force the girl to wrestle with the difficulty of her own life and emotional health.

MirrorMask is slick. The acting is strong and the visuals are executed to dark and dreary perfection. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the film is the flipped color scheme. When a child escapes into fantasy, we expect bright colors and friendly creatures. MirrorMask flips it. The girl grew up with the circus. Therefore, gray, black, brown, and metallic colors are foreign to her, not candy colored perfection. It’s just enough of a twist on the Wonderland/Oz formula to feel fresh and interesting.

6: The Exterminating Angel (1962)

10fantasytheexterminatingangel The 10 Best Fantasy Films

Desperation takes over in a failed attempt to leave the dinner party.

The Exterminating Angel is an absurdist/surrealist masterpiece with a simple fantasy conceit. A group of upper class dinner party guests discover that they are physically incapable of leaving the room once the meal is finished. Over the course of a few days, their carefully constructed personalities begin to crumble when they cannot escape other humans for even a moment.

The fantasy of The Exterminating Angel is the backbone of the film. How the story unfolds is not exactly fantasy as you would expect it. For me, a good fantasy is defined by the world it creates. Writer/director Luis Bunuel twists something very simple into an unforgettable film.

5: Alice (1988)

Sometimes, fantasy is defined purely by how the story is told. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice is a perfect example of this. All Svanmajer does is portray Lewis Carroll’s story on film. Countless people have done their own Alice in Wonderland adaptations.

The difference here is execution. Kristyna Kohoutova, the young girl playing Alice, is the only actor in the film. Everything else is done with puppets, stop motion animation, and very clever editing. Alice is a film where the style becomes the substance. It exists to showcase the endless creativity of a modern master of animation.

4: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

10fantasyheavenlycreatures The 10 Best Fantasy Films

Teenage girls become obsessed with their every fantasy in Heavenly Creatures.

Could I have chosen another Peter Jackson fantasy property for this list? Yes. Would I feel good about ignoring one of the more ingenious uses of fantasy to raise the stakes in reality? No.

Heavenly Creatures is a brutal, unsettling film about an unhealthy friendship between two New Zealand girls. They create a brilliant fantasy epic, but also use their new found alliance to conspire against their parents in a crime story ripped from the headlines. Most unsettling is Peter Jackson’s use of the one girl’s actual diary for voice over narration and insight into a truly damaged psyche. This is almost as dark as dark fantasy can get with all the beauty and splendor of the most elaborate sword and sorcery epics.

3: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

10fantasypanslabyrinth The 10 Best Fantasy Films

The fawn does not let the young girl off easily.

I said “almost as dark as dark fantasy can get” for a good reason. Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War set Pan’s Labyrinth is a coin toss situation. Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Both are valid arguments. I’ve come down on the fantasy side of the argument because the otherworldly content sets the tone, not the real life horror.

What is not in question is the quality of this story. There’s a good reason that Pan’s Labyrinth picked up accolades and awards all over the world. It is probably the closest any film has ever come to distilling the essence of dark fantasy. The creature design, character development, and dueling plot lines based in reality and fantasy are so tight that it’s difficult to find even a minor flaw in the film’s logic. The story is incredibly moving and manages to make some very dark subject matter accessible to a wide audience.

2: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

10fantasybeautyandthebeast The 10 Best Fantasy Films

It is a struggle for Belle to even look at her own reflection.

Jean Cocteau is one of my favorite playwrights/screenwriters/directors. His expansive and twisted take on the tale of Beauty and the Beast is breathtaking. Belle is a Cinderella figure, forced to slave away at the hands of her spoiled older siblings while her father works outside the home. Her father steals a rose from the beast’s garden for Belle, which results in Belle being sacrificed to the beast.

However, upon seeing Belle, the creature wishes to spoil her as his wife. He will lavish her in all the finery and praise her older siblings thrived on. Belle does not know what to do on a number of levels. The appearance of the beast is the least of her concerns as she comes to terms with everything she has suffered through in life. Cocteau’s take on Beauty and the Beast would be unbearable melodramatic pulp in anyone else’s hands. Good thing he came up with this brilliant treatment of the story and did everything himself.

1: The Seventh Seal (1957)

It figures that I would choose something as bleak as a meditation on life, death, and the existence of God by way of a fantasy chess match as the best fantasy film. What can I say? Happy fantasy doesn’t do as much for me as the darker, meatier stuff.

I’m not afraid to call Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal a masterpiece. The conceit–a dark game with the devil–is an old one, but it works wonders in context. It almost makes the somber setting more bearable. The man playing the game is a knight during the height of the bubonic plague. People are literally starving to death around him as his interactions with death unfold. It’s an expansive look at a great number of historical, social, and philosophical issues through the lens of an ancient conceit of fantasy.

This is the part where you get to tell me how wrong I am. What did I miss? Where am I completely off track? What…more cheerful fantasy masterpiece am I missing? And why do I let a fantastic Kathleen Turner performance convince me that Peggy Sue Got Married is a great film? Sound off below.

Horses on Film

5346043863 a9b1b15453 Horses on Film

Think of any historical, war or Western film or television programme and you’ll be hard pushed to find one which doesn’t involve horses. Many animal rights campaigners would assert that the use of any animal in a film, programme or any other form of media is cruel and unnecessary and with the recent controversy relating to American “HBO” programme “Luck” starring Dustin Hoffman in which three horses tragically died before filming was shut down with no hope of resurrection, it would appear that they might have a point.

It’s worth wondering then what precautions are taken in production to safeguard the lives and comfort of animals including horses and where Luck got it so horribly wrong


In the United Kingdom and on any British backed or financed production, all animal activity is overseen and supervised by the Animal Consultants and Trainers Association (ACTA).

In their mission statement, they state “ACTA provides professional excellence and the highest standards of welfare in the preparation, training and supervision of animals throughout the media and performing arts.”

Their United States counterpart is the American Humane Society and from this, each company of production has their own unique governing body and their own rules.

The role of all or these individual bodies is to ensure that no animals are harmed or distressed during the production and are properly catered for as they work.

The Precise Role of ACTA

As part of their role in the media industry, ACTA have four main objectives. They aim to provide “a professional and comprehensive service” in supplying and training animals for any media including film, television, advertising and so on. They safeguard the welfare of the animals; they promote policies of veterinary care and conduct health and safety assessments and interventions where necessary.

As part of their work, they are involved in pre-production in which they encourage programme and film makers to prepare for the involvement of animals, including budget, time and care, they are also involved with arranging and maintaining insurance, risk assessment as part of health and safety.

A large part of their work involves the provision of a suitably qualified vet on any set. Their role is to certify the health of the animal prior to their work and to supervise all animal activity during filming and production including the equestrian property where the horses are kept during filming. It is their sole responsibility to confirm that the health of the animal is exactly as it was at the beginning and it is on their say-so that any certification from ACTA is allowed to appear in credits as advice to the public who can often be concerned for the health and welfare of animals in film.  


To all intents and purposes, the appeal of A-List actors and directors, high production values and a compelling storyline set around horseracing, the HBO series “Luck” was a hit waiting to happen but tragedy would strike three times before production was shut down permanently in March 2012. The alarm was first raised by PETA who were critical of the production methods used which led to the fatal injuries of two horses.  The AHA investigated and claimed it was satisfied with arrangements but the death of a third horse was too much to ignore and after a shut down by the AHA to investigate the tragedy, the network themselves took the unusual step of closing down production themselves claiming that “accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future.”

This is a guest post on behalf of Anna Wright who believes in horse for loan schemes, blogs on equestrian property and the outdoors. 

Rise of the Celebrigeeks (on YouTube)

Last fall, Google announced that it would be launching celebrity YouTube channels. A rumored $100million was invested to entice 20 celebrities to create original weekly video content. They also redesigned YouTube to be driven by channels, not individual videos. Despite some minor reservations about how celebrity YouTube channels would impact the bottom line of long-standing YouTube users, I was more than willing to embrace this model shift.

It seems this faith might have been well-placed as two of the brand spanking new celebrity channels are hosted by geeks that I trust. Comedian Chris Hardwick and actress Felicia Day have made their names by focusing on the same kind of content YouTube is known for. They know gaming, comics, parody, and pop culture. We have our first tastes of their original content and both of their projects are shaping up to be interesting hubs of new media.

First, Chris Hardwick’s channel is Nerdist (aka the official YouTube expansion of all-consuming geek culture blog/podcast extravaganza Nerdist). If you’re familiar with Nerdist, you know what kind of content is coming. For examples, there’s a show all about digitally blowing up YouTube memes.

The channel’s focus right now seems to be original comedy programming. There are two animated series–Dr. Tran and Nana & Lil Puss Puss–as well as a live action/puppet hybrid detective series (featuring actual puppets designed by the Jim Henson Workshop) called S.U.D.S.. Chris Hardwick’s musical comedy duo Hard & Phirm (with Mike Phirman) also have music videos on the channel.

I’m more interested in the live action content still to come. The first All Star Celebrity Bowling went up a few hours ago and it’s entertaining. Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist team goes up against some of the guys who run Machinima in a one game charity bowling tournament. Cue puns, jokes, distractions, and pin flying action. The channel will also feature a Weird Al talk show and an undisclosed Rob Zombie project.

Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry channel is taking a more regimented approach. There’s a programming schedule and everything. Mondays bring us The Flog, Felicia Day’s weekly video blog about her media consumption. Tuesdays bring us season 5 of The Guild and Wednesdays give up motion comics from Dark Horse comics, probably one of my favorite indie print publishers.

More importantly, Wil Wheaton has a show that should tickle any geek just right. It’s called Tabletop and it’s all about board games. The first episode saw Grant Imahara (Mythbusters), Jenna Busch (superstar blogger), and Sean Plott (Day[9]TV) play a game of Small World. Let me just say, after the terrible Family Guy extra of a Star Wars Trivial Pursuit match between the writers of one of their Star Wars parodies, I didn’t think you could make tabletop gaming interesting on video. Geek and Sundry proved me wrong. Plus, it’s Wil Wheaton trying to make everyone laugh while playing an overly complex German-styled board game. If you can’t laugh at yourself playing something like that, you need to learn to relax about gaming.

The only way this paid-celebrity YouTube channel experiment will work is if the celebrities fit into the fabric of YouTube. Chris Hardwick and Felicia Day are perfect choices for the geek demographic. Chris is like the 4chan/Newgrounds demo while Felicia Day feels more like the Whovians/Bronies–sillier and friendlier, perhaps. So long as what they put up on their channels feels authentic, they should have no problem keeping their subscription rates up.

If nothing else, celebrity channels on YouTube could convince more people to check out original programming on YouTube rather than jump in for the cute cat videos. Not that there’s anything wrong with cute cat videos.

Thoughts? Personally, I could talk about that “I’m the One That’s Cool” video all day long. Share your thoughts below. The moderation isn’t scary. I just delete hate speech and blatant spamming. Everything else goes through. Promise.

The Rise of the DJ/Producer

A few years ago, I thought the success of Timbaland’s Shock Value album was a novelty. Producers can have success, but they’re just not meant to be household names if they can’t do something else. That his Shock Value II release did significantly worse on the charts and radio seemed to confirm my suspicions.

But that’s not entirely true at this point. There’s a reason that the Grammy Awards were able to get away with a huge tribute to dance DJs who don’t sing at their last ceremony. The cache of producer clout is rising fast as more and more labels clamor to jump on the latest trends in digital and dance music.

Two years ago, a DJ/producer like David Guetta getting multiple Top 20 hits off of one album would be unimaginable. A crossover hit from the dance charts was always a possibility. It’s how people like Enur can score a hit every once in a while. However, in those cases, normally the guest artist/singer is the one credited for the song. The vocalist is who we can connect with even if the DJ/producer is the one who put in all the work.

Yet, listening to Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio stations in recent months, when a David Guetta track is played, it’s credited as “David Guetta featuring [guest],” not “[guest].” You could argue that Usher, Nicki Minaj, or Sia are the real draw. The fact still remains that somehow, the rise of dance/club music into mainstream culture has seen an equal rise in the recognition for DJ/producers.

riseofthedjproducerskrillex The Rise of the DJ/Producer

Skrillex is gaining recognition for his music and his public image.

It goes beyond DJs just getting credit. They’re being recognized in big ways. Remember Skrillex being a surprise Best New Artist nominee and actually winning more Grammys than any other nominee in that category? His music is suddenly everywhere in advertising, films, and TV shows. People know who Skrillex is even if they don’t understand what he’s doing.

Then there are the singers who crossover from being well-known and well-credited producers. Ryan Tedder of One Republic was been scoring a lot of hits for other artists like Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce long before his band was given a chance at a record deal. Neon Hitch produced for a bunch of dance acts before a label gave her some promotion.

The difference between these modern acts and an older industry crossover story like Carol King is intention. People like B.o.B. and Bruno Mars may be having successful solo careers right now, but they’re still pursuing work as producers with more press than usual. You’re just as likely to read a print article in Billboard (or like publication) about a new artist as you are to read about a new DJ/producer crossing over with an album or single. Working behind the scenes has never been hotter in recent memory.

The reason the trend sticks out for me is simple: the people making the music are starting to become household names. If the trend continues, who knows how many aspects of the creative industry will suddenly be recognized by the public. Will songwriters get their due without having to judge a reality show? Or will this emergence of DJ/producers stop when the sound of the lubs inevitably shifts in a new direction?

Best to live in the moment and appreciate what we have. The music industry is nothing if not fickle. Embrace the trends that make you happy and hope they become evergreen in the long run.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Miseducation of Justin Bieber

I’m not as put off by the existence of Justin Bieber as I think I should be. I think he’s a talented young man who is being pushed to pursue music that doesn’t suit him. Judging by the response I get when I try to be just a little kind to his career and pop culture presence, I’m doing something wrong.

Justin Bieber put out a new single yesterday called “Boyfriend.” It sounds…exactly like what Justin Timberlake was doing eight years ago. It’s homogenized hip-hop/R&B and it once again does not suit the singer performing it.

There is a long history of the mainstream record industry appropriating a specific style of music to package to a wide audience for a quick profit. I just wrote about how major labels are shoving random dubstep breaks into pop songs because club kids like dubstep. It’s a combination of filling holes in the current marketplace and latching onto whatever might be the next big trend.

It goes back much further than that with more cynical intentions. Pat Boone owes most of his career to doing covers of R&B/early rock for a white audience. Labels began digging around for white performers like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley to perform, initially, covers of black artists’ songs for radio. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips famously said, “If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

Go back further and you see crooners on bigger labels doing jazz and ragtime covers. At the same time, you would have big name artists doing separate recordings of the big songs from a popular stage or film musical to sell as pop. Get closer to modern times and you see country songs reworked as power pop ballads to sell films and records. There are hundreds of stories of artists who had their singles taken away from them and given to an artist receiving a bigger push. Just ask The Script about that big Kris Allen single that stopped them from getting a third single on their US debut.

Does race play a role in these decisions? It depends on what you’re looking at. The rise of rock-a-billy can easily be attributed to that quest for the shining white knight, but the same does not apply to a Rodgers & Hammerstein song becoming the signature piece of a vocal ensemble. I would argue the bigger issue is making less popular genres feel fresh, relevant, and safe for a wider commercial audience. The original artists might have more authenticity, but the manufactured artists are polished to a safe sheen for mainstream consumption.

Justin Bieber, like Justin Timberlake before him, is the R&B/Hip-Hop artist for the Disney demographic. Throw in a drum machine and some whispered rapping and little boys and girls will want to sing along with the charismatic young performer. His label could have, just as easily, pushed him as country, rock, or blues for a younger demographic. The style of music is not as important as the branding of the artist. Give a thin, conventionally handsome young performer a trendy look and easy to remember/sing along with songs and you’ve set yourself up for success if the branding takes.

In Justin Bieber’s case, whoever saw his YouTube videos of acoustic covers of pop and rock songs decided they could make more money selling him in a hip-hop/R&B vein than in a pop/rock vein. His music is pop, but the basis of the crossover is hip-hop and R&B. Why else would Usher be his mentor and Ludacris appear as a guest on his breakout hit single “Baby?”

justinbieberboyfriend The Miseducation of Justin Bieber

The cover image tells the whole story of Justin Bieber's new path.

It’s going to be many years before Justin Bieber is allowed to really push for career decisions on his own. He’s too profitable as a perfectly manufactured recording package to experiment with different sounds. Despite his interviews to the contrary, the push for a more seductive sound right after his 18th birthday is not his choice. The only difference is the content of the lyrics, not the sound design, genre, or delivery.

Remember how Britney Spears had to be a school girl at 17 while Christina Aguilera could go straight to the more seductive “Genie in a Bottle” image at 19 when they came out at the same time? Record labels want fans to fall in love with pop stars, but they don’t want to cross the line from crush to more until the artist is legal in all 50 states.

Will Justin Bieber ever try to branch out? Who can tell? If he’s happy with his calculated career path, he might just stick with it. If he’s not, he might not even get a shot at a mainstream audience with a genuinely different sound. Undoubtedly, this new single will do well on radio and the record charts. Bieber is still a hot property constantly put in the public eye. The more interesting question will be what his team is willing to do with him when the numbers inevitably drop in a few years. After all, the next big thing is only a makeover away from stealing his audience.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Blu-Ray Review: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

battleroyalethecompletecollection Blu Ray Review: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

A sharp blood-stained school uniform finishes off this manga-sized Battle Royale Blu-ray collection.

Battle Royale is riding the wave of good fortune surrounding The Hunger Games to its first proper home video release in America. Kept at bay for many years due to its original proximity to the Columbine High School shootings, this modern masterpiece about a group of junior high students forced to fight to the death has gained a tremendous worldwide reputation. The original novel from Koushun Takami spawned an award winning film adaptation, a controversial sequel, a popular manga series, and a strong reputation for shock value and sci-fi innovation.

The Blu-ray set, subtitled The Complete Collection, feels like a no-brainer purchase for fans of the series. I didn’t give it a second thought when I shelled out the extra fifteen bucks on Amazon to get four discs of goodies. But does the largest release constitute the best value? It turns out that The Complete Collection is a decidedly mixed bag beyond the single best transfer of Battle Royale released in America.

Disc Two: Battle Royale (2000, theatrical release)

Director Kinji Fukasaku turned a lot of heads when he decided that his 60th feature film would be an adaptation of uber violent dystopian/teen romance/coming of age/social satire novel Battle Royale. What could a 70 year old man bring to a story about young teenagers fighting to the death with their friends and classmates? Anyone who doubted Fukasaku’s relation to the project was shut down as soon as the film began screenings.

Battle Royale is one of the most heart breaking and fully realized visions of an alternate future to grace the world of cinema. After WWII, Japan and China formed an alliance that reset the balance of power in the world. Now, at the dawn of the millennium, young society is in chaos. Children refuse to go to school and actively fight against authority.

The government’s response is the Battle Royale Act. This increasingly popular program sees a randomly selected classroom of 9th graders dropped off on an abandoned island with weapons and explosive devices strapped to their necks. If more than one of them is alive after 72 hours, they all die. Only one victor can emerge to reach the honor of adulthood.

battleroyaleposter Blu Ray Review: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

42 young students are forced to choose between life and death in a twisted government game.

As grim as the premise sounds, Battle Royale is as sensitive as it is bloody. Kinji Fukasaku did an incredible job getting 42 teenage(ish) actors to develop motivations and react in realistic manners. The result is a film that elicits laughs as often as shock value. The story only works because Fukasaku made sure we care about the children.

In a wise decision, Fukasaku had screenwriters Koushun Takami and Kenta Fukasaku (his son) play up the importance of the most shocking stories. The first couple to commit suicide have a beautiful and meditative moment on the edge of a cliff before jumping to their doom. A young track athlete gets to confront the boy who ruined her reputation in a satisfying moment of justified revenge. Most important of all, the two most cold-blooded killers in the game–a silent transfer student and a charming bad girl–get to show off just how dangerous the motivation of a life or death battle can be. While Takami’s original novel contains these moments, they are given equal weight with the other students’ experiences in the story. Fukasaku was not afraid to play favorites in order to make the best film he could.

The emotional core of the film is the love story of Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. The two TV veterans–Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda–make the relationship feel real. These are two young people who were afraid to approach each other romantically in school. Drawn together by a shocking twist early in the game, Shuya and Noriko team up with their terrible weapons (a pot lid and a pair of binoculars, respectively) to find a way out of the games together. They never lose faith in each other because they know that neither one of them would survive on their own. It’s a beautifully realized arc that is edited within an inch of its life to never overwhelm the all consuming presence of the game.

Battle Royale has never looked this beautiful in America. I was practically crying at some of the visuals on the island. Though the tension played a role, the juxtaposition of the beautiful cinematography and the unimaginable violence shocked me into responding. By the end, I was numb and exhausted. The film is overwhelming in the best way possible, forcing you to experience every moment without a chance at escape.

Rating: 9/10

Page 2: Battle Royale II: Requiem

Page 3: Special Features

Once: A Listening Guide

I don’t know when I’m going to see Once, the new Broadway musical adapted from the popular indie film musical of the same name. It opens on 18 March, the last day of performances for the show I’m music directing, and I’m in tech/performance mode until then. I can only hope soon, as this show has a good chance of Book of Mormoning its way into sold out shows for months when the reviews hit.

What I do know is that NPR has once again reached an agreement with a new musical to stream the Original Cast Recording on their website. Once is nothing without its music. The songs are the draw even more than the story, which admittedly is a bittersweet twist on a classic love story boilerplate. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Boy can’t have girl unless he overcomes an obstacle. Cue the singing.

onceobcr Once: A Listening Guide

Once is nothing without its score and we get the OBCR before the show opens.

As I did with Ghost and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I’m going to do a track by track listening guide. I’ll be going into orchestration, performance, and how the creative team reinvented the music to work onstage.

Let’s get to it.

“The North Stand” is the overture. It opens up with strings doing an upbeat arrangement of “Falling Slowly.” One singer does eventually come in, but the drive is to set the tone for the show. It’s a party song at an Irish pub and it works.

“Leave” is an interesting choice to really open the show. Steve Kazee, playing Guy, has a beautiful voice. He’s giving good indie/folk on the vocal at the start, but you know he can do more. “Leave” is slowed down a bit from its use in the film, but is still just a guitar/vocal track. It appears that the stage musical sets the stakes for Guy right away. He’s devastated by the breakup with his girlfriend and suffering.

“Falling Slowly” is the song that won the Academy Award. It’s a beautiful ballad and the stage production doesn’t play with it too much. All they do is add a bit of rubato–slowing down the song at certain points and balancing it by speeding up a bit immediately afterwards. The piano bass line is emphasized a bit more, giving the song some weight.

The big difference is that Girl, played by Cristin Milioti, actually matches the power of Guy’s vocal. It’s a welcome change. Milioti has a fascinating tone to her voice. Trey Graham, in the NPR article, says she has “a gorgeously grainy cello of a voice.” I like that as a descriptor. It’s rich and warm and can make you cry. That’ll come into play later.

The addition of strings going into the bridge is beautiful and needed to add interest. I’m trying to remember if they used the full version of “Falling Slowly” in the film. It is a long song that can be a bit repetitive if nothing changes.

“Moon” is one of the new songs used to bring the community aspect into the picture. The whole show has been conceived to take place in a pub. People will come and go and, at intermission, the audience can go onstage to buy a drink.

The harmonies in “Moon” are great. I only wish NPR labeled all the singers so I can give credit to who is singing and playing this arrangement. What I can say is that Martin Lowe, a British music director/arranger (Mamma Mia!, Taboo, War Horse), created really beautiful arrangements for his US debut.

“Ej Pada Pada Rosicka” is an adaptation of a traditional Czech folk song. For people who haven’t heard traditional Czech music, this song will be a treat. It sounds like a party. The men and the women trade lines before breaking into a dance. The accordion and madolin are welcome additions to the strings and guitar. The whole thing just sounds like joy.

The song is sung entirely in Czech, which only makes sense since this is the first big moment for a huge group of brand new characters. The casting call for the Boston tryout mentioned the show adding in Girl’s family of Czech immigrants as a major force in the show. They are the ensemble and the orchestra, but they also get big moments like “Ej Pada Pada Rosicka.”

“If You Want Me” is my favorite scene in Once the film. Cristin Milioti brings a lot more power to the vocal than Marketa Irglova. Their voices are very different, but the song still sounds very good. That’s a testament to the composition. Martin Lowe gives the arrangement a really cool mid-tempo groove. I never imagined myself dancing to “If You Want Me,” but that’s what I’m doing. Milioti does some beautiful vocal embellishment that helps define her character. She’s going full-traditional Czech and I love it. Then there’s the siren song to end the performance. Milioti Elizabeth Davis (Reza) sings a high soprano line over background vocals of the chorus. It’s beautiful.

“Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” is as cute and funny as it was in the film. There’s not much to say. It’s a one minute song that’s supposed to sound improvised and it serves its purpose.

“Say It To Me Now” puts the focus on Guy’s vocal. The guitar is the only other prominent instrument. You can hear the bass in the background, but it’s secondary to Guy’s moment.

Steve Kazee really sells the chorus. I’d normally be annoyed by that rock growl just being thrown in. However, it’s the character. Guy is a would-be rock star who got off track because of a bad breakup. It only makes sense that he would sing like that whenever his true emotions surface.

“Abandoned in Bandon” is another new song for the show. It’s a short drinking song. The goal is to give the audience a brief break from the relationship between Guy and Girl. I could see it going over well in the theater. The actor is really hamming up the vocal and that’s what this kind of song needs.

“Gold” is another song given new meaning in the show. A lot of the music in Once the film practically happened as a montage near the end. Guy and Girl round up a few musicians to join them in the studio so Guy can record his demo. They go from one song to the next over images of the musicians performing and Guy/Girl getting closer.

I figured that those songs would be interpolated into the show to flesh out the story. I think I was right. “Gold” sounds like a declaration of affection for Girl by Guy and that was its function in the film, as well. Here, it’s just placed in the context of the exploratory arc.

The song has always been beautiful. The big change is adding a full chorus of singers and a small orchestra to the arrangement. You can just picture the stage filled with singers playing guitar, bass, and strings tearing the theater down during the extended instrumental break at the bridge. The arrangement turns a neglected song into the showstopper it should have been to begin with.

“Sleeping” is a new song for the show. What starts to worry me is how slow the show is. Most of the songs with any real substance are ballads. That can become very tiring in a live production. Once will live or die based on the staging and power of the cast. We know from the NYTW reviews that the concept is solid. Future casting will determine if the show really has legs. The wrong actor as Guy or Girl will ruin it.

 Once: A Listening Guide

Original concept art for Once.

“Sleeping” is a lovely declaration of love, determination, and regret. Guy knows what he wants and he is going to pursue it even if he might fail. The end of the song is perhaps the best part, with Guy losing himself. It’s another situation where I’d normally be disappointed by a lack of resolution. It just seems to work for Once.

What “Sleeping” does is give me hope that the stage show didn’t externalize the existential crisis of the story too much. For me, the beauty of Once the film was this lack of self-awareness in Guy and Girl. They were writing and singing these beautiful songs that clearly showed how they felt about each other, but they were oblivious to the songs’ true meanings. To them, they were just making music. Subconsciously, they were reaching for each other against all odds.

“When Your Mind’s Made Up” is taken a bit faster than in the film. It has a bit more of an adventurous edge brought on by the syncopated drum kit and fuller harmonies. I’ll give Once big credit for one thing: the show is not afraid to use its ensemble. The full choral moments are beautiful on the recording. I can only imagine how powerful it is to see that many talented musicians wailing away on a song like this. The violin sawing away at a counter melody gave me chills.

“The Hill” is my favorite song in the film. Here, Cristin Milioti underplays the first verse. She brings this beautiful and unexpected freedom to the vocals that serves the character well. Girl is the spirit and joy that Guy is lacking to make his dreams come true. She plays music because she loves music and Milioti is living to sing this song. It doesn’t hurt that she has a beautifully expressive voice and has turned “The Hill” into the character-defining moment for Girl. And again with the rubato that’s driving me wild.

“It Cannot Be About That” sounds like an entr’acte. It’s an orchestral arrangement of “If You Want Me” and, like “The North Stand,” it gets the job done.

“Gold (a cappella)” is an adventurous choice to use in this kind of show. It’s already a stripped down production, with the actor/musicians doubling as the orchestra. There is a strong sense of trust behind Once‘s concept. The creators really believe the audience will buy into the conceit of this relationship and this staging. Turning “Gold” into a full cast performance of a deeply personal song from Guy is a huge risk on paper. In practice, the arrangement is so beautiful that it will most likely leave the audience in awe.

“Falling Slowly (reprise)” is how you would expect the show to end. Why wouldn’t they go back to the best known song from the show to conclude the story? It’s the purest distillation of the story between Guy and Girl and I can see this orchestra-driven arrangement bringing a lot of closure to a story that just ends in the film.

And again, because it’s worth pointing out, I love a show that is not afraid to use its ensemble. Too many shows have most of the cast just sitting backstage doing nothing for most of the running time. Once is not one of those. That makes me happy. Why waste talent if the show can handle more people onstage?

You can stream the entire album at NPR. Just a word of warning: one of the tracks is missing in their listen track by track option. “Ej Pada Pada Rosicka” is mislabeled as “If You Want Me.” If you want to hear the Czech folk song, you need to jump to about the 10:00 mark in the “Hear ‘Once’ In Its Entirety” option.

The OCR of Once comes out next Tuesday. Will you be buying it? Sound off below with your thoughts on the show and the music.