Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

From The “Other” Pile: EA Sports Active, Sondheim, W.K.-TV and more

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We try to cover the most significant new releases in our various A.V. Club review sections, but occasionally there are worthy CDs, DVDs, TV shows or other entertainments that just don’t quite fit. Periodically I’ll be rounding up the best of these items and giving them a hearty “Hey, check this out!”


EA Sports Active Personal Trainer For Wii

Ninentdo’s Wii Fit is a slickly packaged, genuinely fun way for gamers to get some light-to-moderate exercise, with enough rewards and charts sprinkled throughout the workouts to make a lumpy videogame addict feel as though he or she is making real progress. For a while, anyway. After a couple of months of Wii Fit, once all the exercises have been unlocked and the “fit bank” stops changing colors, even habitual Wii Fit-ers may wonder whether the same limited set of yoga poses and aerobic exercises are really getting them anywhere.

Enter EA Sports Active Personal Trainer, a Wii-enabled fitness program geared to get Wii Fit regulars to change their daily refrain from, “Whew! Sure is good to get the ol’ carcass moving!” to, “Holy crap am I going to die?” Utilizing the Wii remote, the nunchuck, and two pieces of included exercise equipment—a resistance band and a leg strap in which to park the nunchuck for lower-body exercises—EA Sports Active guides the user through lunges, leaps, laps and lifts, broken up with sports-themed drills that simulate shooting hoops, hitting a tennis ball, bumping a volleyball and the like. The primary advantage to EA Sports Active over Wii Fit—beyond the fact that the exercises are generally more intense—is that in “workout” mode one exercise follows directly after another, with none of the fumbling and selecting that Wii Fit requires. The workouts are pretty relentless.

The game's disadvantages are few, but significant. Unlike the easy-to-indentify-with “Mii,” EA’s avatars have an impersonal, jock-ish look that no customization can soften. EA Sports Active is scored to generic “high energy” dance-rock that gets old quickly, as does the game’s insistence that the player take daily surveys about junk-food consumption. And the sports drills whet the appetite for an actual game of volleyball or tennis, not the same repetitive motions day after day. But the biggest problem with EA Sports Active is one Wii Fit has as well: inconsistent controller sensitivity. During exercises that require a lot of leg bending, the controller frequently registers small shifts as big movements, and freezes the exercise until the player “stands still.” (It's awfully tough to squat down with your heels raised and arms up without trembling.) Yet while running laps, the player’s avatar often slows down for no apparent reason, even though the player’s pace hasn’t changed. It can be swear-at-the-screen frustrating.

But you know what helps vent frustration? A good workout! And though EA Sports Active lacks the enticing cuteness of Wii Fit, it’s an immediate results-getter. After spending 20 minutes jumping from side-to-side, pulling on a rubber band, and running with high knees, players won’t just be a little winded and damp, they’ll be doubled-over and drenched.

Road Show: Original Cast Album (Nonesuch)

Stephen Sondheim was a fairly prolific composer until the mid-‘90s, but after the ambitious and difficult 1994 show Passion, Sondheim seemed to settle into two part-time careers: being honored by his peers, and working on an elusive musical about early 20th century hustlers Addison and Wilson Mizner. The Mizner project first surfaced in 1999 in a workshop production titled Wise Guys (directed by Sam Mendes, and starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber). The show came back as Bounce in 2003 (directed by Harold Prince, and starring Richard Kind and Howard McGillin), and had short runs in Chicago and Washington D.C., but never reached New York. Late last year, a heavily retooled version of the show—now called Road Show, and starring Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, under the direction of the Sondheim-reinterpreter-of-the-moment John Doyle—played for a couple of months off-Broadway and won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award before closing.


Now, six months later, a cast album for Road Show has arrived, and though the music alone doesn’t convey all of Sondheim, Doyle and book-writer John Weidman’s changes to the story—many of which are staging-related—the new recording is decidedly stronger than the already-quite-good Bounce cast album. The differences are evident from the opening song, which used to be the ebullient “Bounce” and is now the acerbic “Waste.” The rest of the score shares songs and melodies with Bounce, and includes some of the catchiest numbers since the last Sondheim/Weidman collaboration, Assassins. The show tells the story of the sibling rivalry between shameless get-rich-quick schemer Wilson Mizner and his architect brother Addison, a dreamer whose own plans are often overshadowed, waylaid and destroyed by his brother’s. And as the story jumps from Alaska to New York to Florida, Sondheim’s score tours early 20th century song styles, blending balladry and Jazz Age zoom.

Judging strictly by the respective cast albums, Road Show hasn’t quite solved the problem that Bounce had: finding a way to turn two interesting characters, a fun milieu and some memorable songs into a satisfying story, with an ending and a point. Sondheim and Weidman are commenting on the sublimely human folly of ambition, American-style, and trying at once to laud the adventure and take note of the shattered lives left in the wake. But Sondheim never fully marries the ideas in his head to an emotional appeal, the way he does so well in shows like Sunday In The Park With George and Into The Woods. With Road Show, the emotional moments are more fleeting, and connect mostly when Sondheim tackles the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of collaboration, and the love affair between Addison and a wealthy male patron. Road Show is strongest when it just revels in the company of two guys who enjoy being outside the mainstream: swearing, swindling, loving illicitly and staying one step ahead of the suckers.


Destroy Build Destroy (Cartoon Network)

Want to see rocker Andrew W.K. help two teams of awkward teenagers build tricked-out vehicles then blow them up? (And if you don’t, are you sure you’re on the right website?) Cartoon Network’s game show Destroy Build Destroy doesn’t offer much variation on that basic cable staple the “junkyard war,” but while the adolescent contestants are too stereotypical and the game’s rules are too arcane (and don’t require much actual input or strategy from the teen teams), the presence of the white-shirted, ever-enthusiastic Andrew W.K. as the host makes Destroy Build Destroy a lot more fun than it ought to be. The “build teams” that do all the actual work seem to resent everything about the job they do and the mumbly brats they do it for, but Andrew W.K. walks among the pimply like some supernatural apparition, eagerly offering “the final choice between two huger than huge methods of destruction.” It makes one dream of a world where Andrew W.K. roams the globe, granting wishes to sullen high schoolers. Cartoon Network, there’s your next show.

Cinemad Short Film Almanac 2009 (Aurora/Microcinema)

Avant-garde cinema used to be tough for non-city-dwellers to track down and see, but a wave of DVD releases over the past few years has made experimental shorts more widely available. The latest such collection is the Cinemad Short Film Almanac 2009, a set curated by Mike Plante, who runs the website/newsletter Cinemad. The DVD comes with a booklet that reprints Cinemad interviews with the filmmakers featured on the disc, but since the interviews weren’t conducted in association with the collection, the booklet’s pretty much useless to anyone looking for information on the films included in the Almanac. And the films themselves are sort of a mixed bag, relying too heavily on shorts that combine found footage or artless shots of nothingness, overlaid with elliptical narration and/or on-screen text.


But as with most A/G collections, Cinemad Short Film Almanac 2009 contains a few won’t-see-this-anywhere-else gems that justify the purchase. The video-remix troupe Animal Charm offers a sample of “Edge-TV,” a collection of cheesy ‘80s video footage given an MTV gloss. The late Bruce Conner’s 1978 film “Valse Triste” cuts together sepia-toned clips of Kansas farm life, high fashion, and trains into a melancholy ode to vanishing Americana. Sam Green’s documentary short “Lot 63, Grave C” takes a contemplative, mournful look at the man who was stabbed to death in front of The Rolling Stones at Altamont. Leighton Pierce’s “Viscera” is one of the few shorts here noteworthy for its technique, as Pierce cuts together short, smeary, video-shot images into an impressionistic blur that makes live-action look like animation (and thereby conveys Pierce’s theme of memories fading into each other). And Bill Morrison’s “Light Is Calling” takes decaying footage of the old silent-era Civil War melodrama “The Bells” into a gorgeous paean to history and cinema. All the above are highly recommended to film fans with an adventurous streak.