Category Archives: Media

Film Review: Killing Them Softly

Dir. Andrew Dominik
Score: 7.4

To begin with, let’s just put our subjective proclivities out on the table: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was, in this critic’s estimation, one of the cinematic highlights of the aughts — so sumptuous in its storytelling, so well-crafted and absorbing in its execution, I sat in stone-cold rhapsody for the entirety of its 160 minutes, and sat there for even a few minutes more until well after the final credits had rolled and the houselights came back up.

So, let’s suffice it to say my anticipation of this particular title — Dominik’s first since “Assassination” (and, along with 2000’s Chopper, only the third of his career) — was on the high-end of the scale. The film, a heist-and-retribution affair is certainly no Assassination — at a scant 95 minutes, nor is it asking to be — but it’s plenty impressive on its own merits.

We follow the caper from the start, when a dry cleaner known as the “Squirrel” (Vincent Curatola) puts together a shaky two-man team, nervous Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and strung-out Aussie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), in order to rob a high-stakes underground poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). The reason the Squirrel thinks he can get away with this? Because Markie has admitted to having his own game robbed some years before, and therefore, the heat will undoubtedly fall on his head and no one else.

This more or less works as the Squirrel has planned, but for the organization behind the poker game hiring of a heavy-duty cleaner named Jackie (Brad Pitt) in the aftermath. Jackie, no fool he, believes Markie’s denials (even though he’ll still have to get whacked as a matter of course), and fairly easily traces the caper down to its true point of origin, which is bad news for all involved. Jackie is a pro’s pro, a man who’s steady gaze and affectless resignation speaks to a full life spent in service to such men as the nameless driver (Richard Jenkins), an emissary sent from the real head office — an unspecified organization whose tendency towards maddeningly standard corporate behaviors suggests anything from Bank of America to AOL — to negotiate the job with Jackie.

As good as he is — and when we see the man at work, we can’t help but be taken with his cold, calculated artistry — Jackie isn’t flawless. He initially brings in a separate hitman for part of the job, a washed-up alcoholic named Mickey (James Gandolfini, and God, how I missed that labored mouth-breathing delivery of his), who spends several days holed up in a posh hotel room, getting drunk and hiring hookers, perhaps a flash of sentimentality on Jackie’s part that ends up just being another mess to have to clean up later.

Throughout the film, Dominik employs an interesting background soundtrack of political soundbites and speeches, taken from Missers Bush, McCain and Obama from the 2008 election. Every car radio is blaring their stump speeches, every bar TV airs their talking points, and every line can be taken as an on-the-nose assessment of the character’s situations: “…Each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we want” Obama intones as we first meet the Ratso-voiced Frankie, slumping through a debris-covered slab of concrete aqueduct.

The musical soundtrack, too, employs a similar on-point style: When we first meet Jackie, Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” helpfully plays on his car stereo; when Russell and Frankie celebrate their new-found riches by shooting up, VU’s “Heroin” plays ever-so-gently in the background.

This is not a film that aims at misdirecting you from the point it’s trying to make (the soundtrack to the closing credits is Barrett Strong’s “Money”, after all). While Assassination is long and rich with material (culled from Ron Hansen’s excellent source novel), here, the story itself is more barebones and gruel-thin (money is stolen, the perps are dispatched) but Dominik still mines it for every erg of effect.

Along the way, he employs a creative and seemingly inexhaustible bag of visual story-telling tricks — from a camera mounted on a swinging car door to an extreme super slo-mo assassination, more captivatingly beautiful than any on-screen murder this side of vintage Scorsese. He also is working from his own clever and tautly lurid screenplay (based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins), filled with memorable lines — most of which, alas, cannot be printed in mixed company — against a backdrop of the final throes of the 2008 election and then-President Bush’s ill-planned financial bail-outs of the very same giant banks that put the country on the brink of financial Armageddon. “America isn’t a country,” Jackie says very near the end, “it’s just a business.” Once again, he’s right on the nose.

Frank Lee: The Man Who May Bring the Gaming Industry to Philly

Will Philly be the site of the next mobile gaming craze?

Professor Frank Lee, who founded Drexel’s Game Programming & Development Program, has been turning heads lately with his new initiative to bring the gaming industry to Philly. Working with the government to create economic incentives, his goal is to transform Philadelphia into the nation’s hub for mobile gaming. I had the opportunity to chat with Frank Lee, where we touched on everything from Pac-Man to game testing:

—————————————————————————————————————————————— When did your passion for video games start?

Frank Lee: Personally, I’ve been playing video games all my life. I was born in 1969, so you figure I was ten during the late 70’s, early 80’s — which is sort of the peak of what they call the golden age of arcade… That’s when, for example, games like Asteroid and Pac-Man sort of ruled the landscape. There is a rule of thumb in the game industry which basically says: ‘If you were born before 1965, you don’t really play games, but if you born after 1965, you’re playing games more-or-less forever.’ You grew up on games. So if you actually look at the demographics, each year the average age of people playing games is getting older, mainly because people like myself, who were born during that period — after 1965 — we grew up playing games. But we continue to play games when we’re 30, 40; it doesn’t really matter. We still play games. So certainly, games are deeply embedded within the DNA of my youth and the time that I grew up in.

Now, more from the academic side, I graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science from Berkeley and Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie-Mellon. My research that I did focused on how people learn in complex environments. Certainly gaming at that time was purely playing. So in grad school I played, in undergraduate I played… But I got interested in games as part of my research, trying to look at how people are able to learn in these very complex environments. So I wanted to use gaming environments as a platform to test my ideas about how people learn. But somewhere along the line I became more interested in the game portion of it, versus the psychology portion of it. I was interested in what makes a game fun, what makes a game interesting, and so on — what people sometimes refer to as the psychology of play…What makes some people enjoy a game, or some people not enjoy a game? Those are the questions that I’m interested in, and I sort of pursued gaming when I began creating gaming classes at Drexel, when I came here in 2003. So all throughout 2003 and onward I developed gaming classes, like experimental game development. But I got really serious when I partnered with my colleague, Professor Paul Diefenbach, who is a faculty member in Digital Media, which is the digital art side of Drexel. He and I confounded the Drexel game program, as it exists now, in 2008. It’s a collaborative program between the Computer Science department and the Digital Media program… What are the advantages to basing a gaming company in Philadelphia?

FL: It’s strange, this whole endeavor to try to increase or grow the gaming industry of Philadelphia came from this disbelief of why Philadelphia isn’t a powerhouse in gaming. And the reason is [that] we have all the raw materials for a great game community, great game industry. So, Philadelphia region itself… has one of the highest concentrations of colleges and universities. You have great places like Drexel, Penn, Temple, but also Swarthmore, Villanova. We’re just a mecca of great colleges and universities. Drexel has a very strong game design program, as I mentioned. Certainly Penn also has a very interesting and great game program as well. So, why aren’t we a great game location? Why isn’t Electronic Arts and Ubisoft knocking the doors down of Philadelphia to try to set up shop here? And that was the mystery. You have been heavily involved with the Pennsylvania government’s initiative to bring gaming companies to Philadelphia. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

FL: It makes perfect sense geographically, in that you have the heavy concentration of the west coast, — you have a strong game concentration in Los Angeles, in Seattle, and so on. And that makes perfect sense, because if you look at the game industry, you have the two big companies — Sony and Nintendo — are Japanese companies. West coast is closest to Japan. Its a five hour flight versus a twelve hour flight… That has started this whole endeavor of trying to work with local game entrepreneurs who also believe strongly in Philadelphia and want to bring and grow the game industry in Philadelphia, along with nonprofits like Select Greater Philadelphia and local city and state officials, to try to make Philadelphia a very attractive place for the game industry. And its been hard work in that, initially, we tried to look at bringing in a large player to the city. So, for example, someone like Electronic Arts… to have them establish a branch in Philadelphia. And that wasn’t working really well. One, because they are looking for, essentially, money. They want incentive to come to Philadelphia. And certainly Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania in general, is in a tax crunch. So there has to be a strong drive and push from the state to try to create an interesting package for such a company to move.

One example of that is in Louisiana. Louisiana’s government office provides a huge incentive for Electronic Arts to create a Q&A facility with a partner with Louisiana State University, I believe. So they built a massive Q&A facility there. So you can do it that way, which is what I consider the ‘top-down’ approach… You have the government involved, trying to track down companies… But that didn’t seem like it was happening. So the other way then is to try the ‘bottom-up’ approach, trying to grow local companies and have them succeed and stay in Philadelphia. That became more plausible since 2008, with the rise of the mobile and social games.

We are looking specifically at educational games. If I ask anybody to name me an education game company, I’ll get nothing. So I think there is a potential for a strong niche market that’s dedicated to educational games in the mobile space. Where do you see the gaming industry headed? Is there any specific direction?

FL: For the past three or four years, the console market has been shrinking. People are buying less console games. But I think that that is largely due to the fact the consoles are getting old. X-Box 360 came out 7 years ago. The next generation is coming out either next year or the year after… Then you will see an uptick in the console market. But that market is fairly mature; people who have consoles will replace the consoles. You’re not going to have a huge influx of people buying new consoles that didn’t already have consoles.

The biggest growth, and the most interesting space for the industry, is in mobile games. Mobile games as we see it now did not exist before 2008. In 2007 the iPhone came out; in 2008 the App Store came out. There was no mobile game market before the App Store. From almost zero revenue in 2008, this is a multi-billion dollar industry now, and it’ll only grow… In 2009 only about twelve and a half percent of the adult population had smartphones. In 2010 that doubled to 25 percent. But that aside, that still leaves 75 percent of the population without smartphones. That’s where you’re growth will come from, with mobile games. With mobile games, you’re not limited to physical distribution, meaning that I don’t have to go to Gamestop to buy my game for the iPhone. It is all electronic distribution. Because it is electronic distribution, you’re not limited to a regional market… My market is the entire world if I have a mobile game. So that’s a realization that most people in the industry have come to accept, that the mobile is going to be the most important area for gaming for any foreseeable future. On the subject of working in the industry, how would someone like myself go about getting paid to test video games for a living?

FL: That is basically Quality and Assurance. It is not as easy as you might imagine, because its not like you’re being paid to play games; you’re paid to find bugs in games. So you’re basically doing the same thing over and over again — playing the same level over and over again — for eight hours a day, five days a week. Probably, my suggestion is to check out Gamasutra, which is the main game developer website. That site will list different [available] positions. And that is typically the entry-level position. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, you mostly start with Q&A in testing, and then work your way up. As a lifelong gamer, what are your top 5 favorite games of all time?

FL: Tetris, Bejeweled, the original Half Life, BioShock, and Pac-Man.


Stumping the Crowd: Bill Clinton at the UPenn Palestra (Photos)

Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller

Bill Clinton was in Philadelphia on November 5th for a rally to support the reelection of President Obama, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra!

Don’t forget to vote today!  To find your PA polling location, click here!  (New Jersey, click here.)


Reppin’ For The Art Of The City: The New Roots Mural

Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller

The Mural Arts Program and Grammy award winning hip hop artists The Roots are proud to celebrate the production of the latest addition to the Albert M. Greenfield African American Iconic Images Collection. The Roots will be immortalized on the back of the World Communications Charter School with the upcoming mural due to be completed sometime in December 2012.

Black Thought of the Roots Paints a Piece of the New Mural

An event was held to honor local artisans and the continuing success of the Mural Arts Program at Ms. Tootsie’s at Broad and South Streets on Saturday, October 27. Executive Director of the Mural Arts Program, Jane Golden, made enthusiastic remarks about the program’s mission to improve public spaces and unite communities through artistic expression. The Roots’ Tariq Trotter and Ahmir Thompson say they are honored to be a part of this project and consider it to be one of their greatest achievements as artists and Philadelphians.

Later, guests walked to the site of the upcoming mural for an unveiling of the design and location. The day was marked by performances from Philadelphia natives Chill Moody, Rone, and Dice Raw. Attendees participated in interactive mural painting and t-shirt making with the artists who will be completing the mural.  Collaborators as well as residents shared a mutual love for the city’s unique culture and innovative traditions, and the event highlighted Philadelphia’s long standing and ever growing art scene through live music and visual arts.

The Ball on The Square 2012 Photo Recap

More than 400 Philadelphians dressed to the nines to attend the 2012 Ball on The Square.

It has been just a little more than two weeks since the Friends of Rittenhouse Square hosted their 29th annual “Ball on The Square.”

On Thursday, June 21st, nearly 500 Philadelphians descended on the fabulously reinvented Rittenhouse Square for an evening of glitz and glamor. Catered by Stephen STARR Events, the dinning was delectable, and the drinks were formidable.

While the $600 a ticket main event was happening under the tented square, younger ‘friends of the square’ enjoyed cocktails and gambling across the way at Smith & Wollensky. For a more moderate $120 a ticket, the “Young Friends Ball on The Square” attracted roughly 200 of Philadelphia’s more thoughtful young professionals.

Follow James Boney on Twitter @otherminds

HQ Nightclub Preview Weekend

Atlantic City’s hottest new nightclub, HQ, offers a preview weekend for those lucky enough to get in the doors.

With the summer now officially under way, Philadelphians have a new ‘must go’ destination to look forward to. Beginning Friday July 6-8, Altantic City’s latest casino behemoth, Revel, will be hosting a preview weekend for HQ nightclub – the hottest new club at the Jersey Shore.

Hosting four levels and 40,000 square feet, HQ Nightclub will provide party-goers plenty of fist-pumping glory to beat the heat this weekend.

A joint venture between Las Vegas based Angel Management Group and New York’s EMM Group, this weekend is sure to attract night life elite from Vegas, NYC, DC and more.

During the preview weekend, guests will be able to experience HQ Nightclub’s unique offerings including impeccable service, premium design, and a suspended performance stage area. The space also features a DJ booth, custom-created with its world-renowned resident DJs in mind, such as A-Trak, Calvin Harris, Cedric Gervais, Chromeo, Chuckie, Dada Life, Dirty South, EC Twins, Manufactured Superstars, Roger Sanchez, Rony Seikaly and many more.

Revel Nightlife has now begun accepting reservations and guest list requests for HQ Nightclub’s main room on its newly launched website It will be open Friday through Sunday starting at 10 p.m. For more information, visit or find them onFacebook and Twitter.

Follow James Boney on Twitter.

Screen Grabs: July 8, 2011

This week, we look at three new summer comedies: one funny, one moronic, and one German.

Herewith, a brief round-up of this weekend’s opening flicks, and the conventional wisdom surrounding them. In descending order of awesomeness.

Horrible Bosses

The Story: Three men with nightmarish work situations hatch a plan to eliminate each other’s bosses.
The Skinny: On paper, at least, you have three seriously funny leads in Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, and a director in Seth Gordon (King of Kong, “Community,” “Parks & Recreation”) who would seem to be a solid choice for a dark comedy. So, how’s it hold up? About average, from what Scott Ross at Popcorn Biz reports: “it’s a second-tier effort that’ll leave you amused, but won’t change your life.”
Full Review: Horrible Bosses
Now Playing: The Pearl
Complete the Experience: While we don’t recommend killing any of your bosses, you can certainly complain bitterly about them over a fine martini at The Ranstead Room.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

Vincent Wants to Sea
The Story: A man with Taurette’s Syndrome escapes from a clinic with an OCD patient and an anorexic to spread his mother’s ashes in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Skinny: Ralf Huettner’s comedy sounds suspiciously like a lot of other movies that have come before it. In fact, whenever we hear the words “road trip” associated with a film, it almost always bums us out. The City Paper’s Sam Adams would seem to agree with this assessment, writing ” There’s hugging and learning, but little insight or memorable detail.” And while we understand the title’s in translation from the German, still, yikes!
Full Review: Vincent Wants to Sea
Now Playing: Ritz at the Bourse
Complete the Experience: If a beach you want to explore, might we suggest the fine piece of coastline at LBI? Though we don’t recommend scattering ashes indiscriminately.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

The Story: A zookeeper in desperate need of romantic advice receives help from many of the animals he has been caretaking.
The Skinny: A broad, idiotic comedy from Kevin James (with help from Adam Sandler) is nothing new, but the mirthlessness is almost total and complete in this lazy film. It doesn’t help matters if reports are true that one of the animal wrangler companies involved with the film were, in fact, abusing the animals under their care. Our best advice would be to wait until your next cross country trip and catch it on the flight. Just don’t pay for the headphones.
Full Review: Zookeeper
Now Playing: UA Riverview
Complete the Experience: You can, of course, take in the beauty and grandeur of Philly’s own Zoo, just don’t expect to get a running commentary from the bears.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14%

Screen Grabs: The films you should drop everything to see, and the ones you should avoid like the plague.