Archive for November, 2012


BY MAX NEOPIKHANOV

Wearing the one piece khaki jump suits with personalized name tags, heavy looking backpacks with bobs and switches that hum and buzz with iridescence, Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston run onto a stage to overwhelming applause from a crowd of fans, the iconic theme song pounding in the foreground which fans just can’t help but sing along with: “who you gonna call?”

The Ghostbusters are back in New York — no not the original actors including Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd — but this time as a theatrical shadowcast starring Brooklyn College student Eliko Aharon, and have most recently performed at the BB King Blues Club in the heart of Times Square, 42Street.

Based on the first Ghostbusters movie from 1984, the Minions of Gozer is a shadowcast performance where actors perform scenes from the film while it plays on a projector screen in the background.  Established at the IFC Center located in the Greenwhich Village in Manhattan, the cast is hoping to perform the production at other venues in the city, and possibly at the Brooklyn College campus with the help of the theater department.

Aharon, 24, a Speech Therapy Major with a Minor in Art, discovered the Minions of Gozer shadowcast production in 2011 while doing a digital photography project at Kingsboro College when he saw several of the show’s cast members handing out promotional fliers.

After approaching them about possibly providing art design for the show, he was instead offered a chance to audition for the part of one of the four Ghostbusters, Ray Santz (Dan Aykroyd), which he immediately landed despite it being his first real acting gig.

“I was always interested in the movies growing up,” said Aharon. “There were the toys, the cartoons playing; Ghostbusters is a timeless classic.”

Aharon is currently one of the 14 cast members in the production which, according to show producer Angela Williams, works best with about 17.

Williams, 36, once a policy analyst for the city and now the director of Minions of Gozer, has helmed the production for nine shows since it opened last November at the IFC center.  A huge fan of Ghostbusters herself, Williams feels that the Ghostbusters films are still very relevant today despite being more than 25 years old, and exhibit some of the best qualities of New York City — where the films were shot and take place — and its inhabitants.

“I travelled to New York several years ago and I stumbled upon the firehouse [from the movie] and I wanted to recreate that moment of my favorite thing to life,” Williams explained. “I like the New York that’s portrayed in the movie, with curmudgeonly old people with hearts of gold.”

In addition to her directing duties, Williams helps to create and maintain some of the props and performs a few small roles during the production including operating slimmer, the tenacious and iconic green ghost who is brought to life through a puppet that’s been custom made for Minions of Gozer.

Much of the production’s budget goes into repairs and purchasing new props for each show, Williams explained.  “We tend to break a lot of things,” she said, laughing.  “I’m terrible at making things,” she said backstage while tearing up a white sheet into an impromptu ghost prop.

The show is, by theater production standards, decidedly low budget, mostly due to the largely amateur cast and home-made props. But as an entirely internally funded project is still an expensive endeavor for those new to show business.

The BB King performance is the first for which the actors were paid; each performer earned $20, said Aharon.  But money isn’t very important to the cast to whom the experience and fan support are enough reasons to keep the show running.

“It’s a low budget for a show but it’s a big budget for two people,” said producer Ryan Espin.” We are not doing it for the money, but because we love Ghostbusters.”

Espin,a 25-year-old web designer, is the show’s “co-producer, public relations, designer and Peter Venkman.” He and Williams provided all of the production’s initial funding for costumes, props, advertisement and other logistics out of pocket.

Some of the props are cheap, but others such as the essential energy beam proton packs that each of the Ghostbusters wear, cost about $200 each plus maintenance costs, said Espin.

Aharon spiritedly recalled an incident when his proton pack “completely fell off during one scene.”  A potentially harrowing and show-halting disaster in any normal production, the mishap apparently didn’t perturb the audience in the least bit, he said, and they instead laughed as Aharon continued delivering his lines without missing a beat.

According to cast members, this is all common fare in a shadowcasts, where performers don’t intend to take themselves too seriously.  Racy, off-beat humor and campy acting are the norm and are wholly embraced by the fans.

Indeed, at one point during the BB King show a cast member seemingly downed a good portion of a Jack Daniels Whiskey Bottle.  During another side bar, a cast member kissed another who was dressed in drag complete with a large 70s era moustache. Neither of the improvised scenes appeared in the original film.

Actors performing a film in front of an audience is not a relatively new concept.  The first shadowcast was born in 1975 with the Rocky Horror Picture Show film at the Weaverly Theater — now IFC Center — in Greenwich Village, said Williams.  In a time of flagrant discrimination and prejudice of gays, a few actors and theater enthusiasts decided to run a show where patrons could watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show and participate with the actors by shadowing the film on stage.

“It was a fun and safe place to hang out,” said Williams.

The performance has garnered a cult following over the years and continues to run at several theaters across the country — a cult following that Minions of Gozer cast hopes to someday meet and perhaps even eclipse.

Perhaps the most important difference between a shadowcast and a normal theater production is the extensive interaction between the players on stage and the audience members.  The production constantly breaks the fourth wall with self referential humor and impromptu skits that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Saturday Night Live – incidentally two of the Ghostbusters featured prominently in the films, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd,  began their storied careers as cast members on SNL.

At the BB King show, several audience members were pulled on stage to hold up signs or dance with the cast who would often walk off the stage and start conversing and interacting with the seated audience.  What seems out of place in a normal theatrical production is one of the key tenets of Minions of Gozer.

“The first two rows are ‘slime square’, where there is a definite chance of you being pulled up on stage or being hit with silly string,”  said Aharon.

Before the show starts, a member of the cast walks between the tables and doles out $2 brown paper bags packed with an index card, a crunch bar, several pieces of toast, and other references to the film, for the audience to throw on stage when given the cue.

Confections fly in every direction and colorful lights flash around the room.

The actor playing Rick Moranis’ memorable and extremely socially awkward character, Louis Tully, runs up to a nearby audience member and asks, “I am the key master, are you the gate keeper?”   A big grin erupts on her face, and her response is drowned out by the throng of cheering fans and the loud speakers by the stage.

Aharon has spoken with members of the theater department at Brooklyn College and said that any potential performance at the school will depend on the overall cost of the production, which will likely come out of the producers’ pockets. One possible idea is to screen the film and perform everything outdoors with a projector, similar to what the cast did at an outdoor show on the beach at Coney Island last summer.

“I think it would be a great experience for BC students to have,” said Aharon. “It’s not just people sitting or watching a movie, it’s almost as if you’re in the film right there with you.”

Moreover, bigger venues and interstate touring are some of the goals for the show, said Aharon.  He hinted at the “possibility” of a Ghostbusters II shadow cast and even suggested that he’d love to do a Jurassic Park Shadowcast in the future – complete, of course, with many of the Minions of Gozer cast members he’s gotten to know.

“We’ve worked together for so long that they’re almost like my family members,” explained Aharon, emphatically, and with a warm smile on his face.

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By MAX NEOPIKHANOV

For years, the first person shooter genre has been a sort of elusive and exotic beast in the metaphorical jungle of handheld gaming.  There have been a few attempts on Sony’s PSP but, unless you were a southpaw, controlling the camera with the face buttons was simply too imprecise and clunky to be considered fun.

The Nintendo DS and the 3DS fare somewhat better with its basic implementation of touch controls with a stylus, that while precise enough, requires some serious feats of dexterity and hand contortion to avoid  developing carpel tunnel syndrome after a few play sessions.

Mobile smart phones streamline the touch screen controls but completely leave out any physical buttons, rendering shooters even less appealing to gamers looking for a first person shooter on the go with the same sort of gameplay they’re used to at home. The state of portable shooters has thus far been a despairing story of going one step forward and then two steps back.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified for the Playstation Vita almost breaks that tradition but falls short of its pedigree, though not in the way you would expect.  For a portable shooter, the controls are good –excellent even — and the online multiplayer is very much in the spirit of Call of Duty on home consoles; the problem is that everything else has been scaled back and it becomes difficult to appreciate the good when considering the ludicrous $50 price tag.

The story in Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified takes place somewhere between of the first Black Ops and Black Ops II on  consoles. There isn’t any of the futuristic weaponry or motifs here; the classified operations missions span several years from 1075 to 1981 and feature classic weapons and enemies.  The plot, in a very loose sense of the word, follows Black Ops soldiers Frank Woods and Alex Mason.

I say loose, of course, because there isn’t a campaign with a traditional plot and cut scenes but rather short operations missions, explained by short vignettes providing some background, where the player receives a few objectives over the radio and then proceeds to engage ‘all the usual suspects’ in the way as quickly as possible while moving through a small level.  Much like Stalone’s Rambo, these guys don’t need back up from rookie soldiers, instead running and gunning down Vietcong and Spetsnaz solo while detonating plastic explosives and dropping f-bombs at each opportunity.

The Call of Duty franchise has never been one for having subtlety in its characters or any gripping psychological drama in its plots, but Black Ops Declassified somehow manages to one up its bigger-and-betters at having a heavy handed and, frankly, dim-witted approach to story-telling.  But depending on how much time you have while playing the game on the go, the minimal plot and dialogue may not necessarily be a bad thing.

In fact, the missions included are meant to be played in short bursts and last an average of five minutes: the caveat being that there but ten of them.  With all things being equal, this is at its core a one hour affair on the easiest difficulty.  Playing it on the medium difficulty may require double or triple that, and the hardest difficulty will probably require many, many more replays to complete since the levels feature no check points, instead restarting you from the beginning of the mission should you meet your untimely demise.

To extend the solo experience a bit, Nihilistic included a Hostiles survival mode, similar to the one found in Modern Warfare 3, where you face off against waves and waves of soldiers in an effort to achieve the best score possible.  While not as interesting as the incredibly popular Zombies mode in the original Black Ops and in Black Ops II, it’s an enjoyable time-waster but one that eventually grows repetitive and dull due to the lack of variety in enemies.  There’s also a small collection of time-trial missions that, at under a minute, end almost as quickly as they begin.

For fans of shooters looking to get in a couple of quick frags between bus or train stops, Black Ops: Declassified’s rapid fire gameplay that skips on the story and jumps right into the action seems like a good fit.  But in practice, the anemic selection of single player content at an almost shockingly high price makes for a fun but incredibly short ride filled with some, mirrors, and cookie cutter game-play rather than a meaty solo experience Call of Duty fans are used to.

Thankfully, Call of Duty is about more than just the single player campaign and the multiplayer is where Black Ops: Declassified redeems some of its merit as a decent addition to the Vita’s library.

Though it is not the first competitive multiplayer shooter on the Vita — Nihilistic’s Resistance: Burning Skies was released just five months ago — Black Ops: Declassified is the best example of multiplayer on the Vita done right, and I would go as far as to say it is one of the few competent online shooter experiences on a portable thus far.

Resistance Burning Skies, while utilizing Vita’s dual analog sticks, was plagued with unintuitive touch screen controls and a near intolerable frame rate that rendered the game unplayable for all but the most hardcore gamers.  Black Ops: Declassified is largely free of any such problems; the frame rate is steady enough most of the time and the game controls very similarly to its console siblings, only utilizing the touch screen minimally for melee attacks and grenade throws due to the Vita’s lacking a second set of triggers.

Tenets of the Call of Duty franchise, the experience levels, prestige, perks, and kill streaks are all here, though perhaps not as extensively as in the console games, along with about two dozen weapons, game-play modes like kill confirmed, drop zone (think king of the hill) and team deathmatch played across a mix of six new and re-designed maps.  Most of the maps are well designed and a good fit for the 4 vs. 4 matches, with nukehouse, a smaller version of the already small, fan favorite map nuketown, being the sole exception, where it is difficult to spend ten seconds without getting a kill or being killed.

As with the single-player modes, there is still a want for more multiplayer content like maps and perks.  But the most important requisite of being a decent Call of Duty game is that matches are fast, frantic, and are dynamic enough to keep gamers coming back for more, and all that is certainly here in Black Ops Declassified, even if it has been scaled back to fit the portable envelope.  The facsimile online multiplayer may be somewhat uninspired and dated when placed side by side with Black Ops II, but given that it’s on a handheld console, Black Ops: Declassified is definitely taking portable online multiplayer in the right direction.  I wish the same could be said of the single player.

Ostensibly, there is some good gameplay here, especially for those Vita owners looking for a console-like online first person shooter experience.  But with that said, it is hard to recommend Black Ops: Declassified at the full retail price: there simply isn’t enough content here to justify spending $50.

Overall Score: 6.0