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by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2009

I am tired of all the “social commentary” accolades. I am fed-up with the entire “holding a mirror up to homophobic America” excuses. As I was when Sacha Baron Cohen arrived on these shores with a movie made from his hit HBO TV series, I am still not convinced he is the future of comedy. He did indeed change the face of post-modern humor—over to Judd Apatow and the gang. Now the man who made Borat an adolescent after-party merriment (and in turn, banked a few million bucks in the process) is back, ready to redefine funny business once again (I hope the cast of The Hangover is paying attention…). This time around, it’s gender politics that’s getting the ribbing, and like my last run-in with a British comic as faux foreign correspondent, Brüno is far from brilliant. Indeed, it’s a one note movie that forgets said message early and often. 

Clearly cobbled together after an initial approach didn’t work (got to give the fashionistas credit - they saw through Cohen’s ruse rather quickly) the four credited screenwriters return the narrative right back to Borat country, bringing Austria’s favorite TV boy toy to the bigoted US of A to see if lightning strikes this particular ambush angle another time. In what passes for a plot, Brüno is blackballed by the entire European media, unable to get a job after ruining a runway show with his Velcro suit. Setting up shop in LA with his sycophantic manservant Lutz by his side, he is desperate to be famous again.

He hopes to strike a deal for his own celebrity gossip show. When a focus group is less than enthused with his gay-bating gall, he tries to make a sex tape. After that, he goes charitable and adopts a baby from Africa. After a misguided talk show appearance, he is left with only one choice - go “straight”. Seeking the aid of a Christian ‘converter’, Brüno tries to fit in with a group of rednecks. Eventually, he realizes that his fawning assistant Lutz really does care about him. They go off to get married, secure in their belief that love will find a way.

Now, are you laughing yet? Does the plot description make you giggle uncontrollably? If not, you’re going to have problems with Brüno. This is a movie that relies more heavily on story than the “stop and shock” antics as before. There is clearly more scripted material here, attempts by Cohen and the rest of the cast to raise eyebrows by bringing gay life and its many sexual components to the mainstream. This is a movie obsessed with dicks—full frontal and blacked out, anal and oral acts simulated in order to give Joe Sixpack and his adolescent complements a couple of awkward orientation heart attacks. If you’re naïve, in high school, or a dedicated follower of scatology, you’ll think this is genius. Anyone with world experience, however, will feel left out of the loop.

That’s because Brüno never rises to Cohen’s previous levels of truth. When Borat challenged people on their racial or cultural biases, he did so knowing that real reactions merit the biggest laughs. But as we sit through a sequence where desperate stage moms (and a dad) agree to exploit their children for a shot at stardom, the joke is on our lead. All he has to do is watch an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras to see he is years behind the curve in mocking the “anything for fame” mindset. It’s the same when Brüno calls his agent while getting his ass waxed and his anus bleached. We are supposed to snicker at the entire set-up. But outside of a few backwater burgs in the Bible belt, these are subjects spoken about regularly on cable channels like E!

Borat had “gypsy tears” and the whole “stranger in a strange land” strategy. Brüno avoids any such outsider conceits. Our homosexual hero believes he is a player, an icon waiting to be discovered by a populace too dumb to see how fabulous he really is. So how, exactly, does the scene with two incredibly ditzy charity PR gals aid in that intention? Sure, it’s sadly comical, especially when you realize that these bimbos are probably bringing home more money than most hardworking, INTELLIGENT citizens make in a lifetime, but Brüno himself is not sparking their stupidity. Instead, he’s a passive provocateur. He just shows us and lets them destroy their credibility in one amazingly empty-headed example of career suicide.

In truth, Brüno is nothing but 82 minutes of genitals. Its makers want to believe that the sight of a male penis bopping around in extreme close-up will have you rolling in the aisles - and if you are 14, and inexperienced in the ways of the reproduction, it just might. This is a movie that needs you to be as unsophisticated and clueless as the “targets’ being skewered in order to appreciate the “satire” being shoved at the screen. As the line between what has been staged and what is “true” gets blurred and then completely forgotten, all meaning is sapped out of the material. Even the finale, which could have accurately riffed on the overridingly homoerotic nature of mixed martial arts is, instead, another showcase for Cohen to personally “push the envelope” as a performer.

As with all comedy, laughter is subjective, but at this point in the Borat/Brüno game, I’m out. I’m smarter than the people he mocks. I’m too sophisticated to view “found” humor as anything other than an accident. I don’ drape myself over the latest fad and flaunt it as the second coming of anything…and I definitely didn’t buy into the hyper-queer context Cohen was issuing. If I want broad, over-the-top stereotyping laced with genuine comic gold, I’ll dig into my DVD collection and throw on Pink Flamingos, or even better, John Waters’ brilliant deconstructionist camp classic Female Trouble. Ridiculing American rubes is like shooting dead, motionless fish in a barrel filled with Jell-O. The only “genius” involved is getting the public to buy it as scandal. Sacha Baron Cohen has managed that box office bait and switch before. Me? I’m over it.

by Nick Dinicola

10 Jul 2009

The traditional heads-up display is more and more being treated as an unwanted intrusion on the gameplay experience. Players need the information displayed, but the HUD can sometimes be distracting. Many developers try to do away with it, hoping that will make their game more immersive, and different games take different routes with different results.

Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drakes’s Fortune have traditional HUDs, but try to hide them as much as possible. In both games the HUD only appears in certain situations, and then fades out of sight when it’s not needed. Far Cry 2 shows the typical health and ammo, but the health meter only shows up when the player is hurt or uses a syrette to heal, while the ammo only appears when a gun is running low and must be reloaded soon. Uncharted takes things a step further by removing any health meter, instead the bright colors of the forest fade each time Drake is hurt until the screen is black and white, and then the color returns as his health automatically regenerates. The ammo appears whenever the player shoots.

Fading a HUD into and out of view depending on the situation is a fitting compromise for these two games. A HUD, no matter how small it is, attracts the eye, so by removing it until it’s necessary the player is more likely to notice the details in the environments. Since both games have impressive environments, it’s only natural that the player be encouraged as much as possible to admire it, and not spend the game looking at a mini map, health meter, or ammo counter. But this technique doesn’t solve the problem of immersion. The character can’t see the information in the HUD so there’s a clear disconnect between us and them. We can see things they can’t. Even if the information in the HUD is limited to only things the character would know, presenting it in a floating, immovable menu still creates that disconnect.

Dead Space has a simple yet clever way of dealing with its HUD. It takes all the standard elements of a heads-up display and treats them as if they actually exist in the game world. The health meter becomes a glowing tube on Isaac’s spine, and all other relevant information is projected into the world as a hologram in front of the character: Remaining ammo floats above our gun, and the inventory hovers in the air while we select items. When the camera turns the inventory turns as well. It isn’t an immovable menu pasted over the action; it’s part of the world.

Dead Space doesn’t treat the player as separate from the character; we can only see what Isaac sees.  Since the inventory is part of the game world, the game doesn’t pause when we turn on the hologram so there’s no menu for us to retreat to if the action becomes too tense. But this real-time item management is the only tangible effect the loss of a HUD has on the game. The dark ship isn’t suddenly scarier, the art direction and sound add more to the atmosphere than the floating inventory does. While Dead Space removes the traditional HUD all together, that loss doesn’t make the game any more immersive than it would have been otherwise.

Mirror’s Edge, on the other hand, implements a unique HUD, if it can even be called that, in a way that makes the game more immersive and even adds to Faith’s character. Like Dead Space, there are no menus pasted on the screen, though there is an optional reticule to prevent players from getting dizzy. The “HUD” comes in the form of red objects scatted about the environment. These objects point the player in the proper direction to help them navigate though the levels. It’s also worth noting that when Faith picks up a gun there’s no ammo counter, the number of bullets left is unknown to her and to us.

Highlighting the path is more than just a pointer for the player, it’s a visual representation of Faith’s natural path finding ability. We’re literally seeing the world through her eyes, not just seeing what she sees but how she sees it. Instead of just making the HUD a part of the world, we’re seeing things from an individual’s unique perspective. We are Faith. When we take control of her it becomes obvious that she’s a professional Runner. Yes, the game tells us so in a cut scene, but we also get to see that fact for ourselves as she picks a path though the rooftops. Even though we don’t have her talent we see it at work, and we see the results.

I don’t think the mere presence of a heads-up display, or lack thereof, affects a game in any meaningful way. More games are finding creative ways to avoid them, but as Dead Space proves, simply presenting a menu in a new way doesn’t make it anything more than a menu. Immersion comes from stepping into the shoes of a character, an idea that Mirror’s Edge embraces to its full extent, and since playing it I can’t help but wonder how other game characters see the world around them.

by Bill Gibron

9 Jul 2009

Apparently, previous accomplishments and past reputation mean nothing in the “what have you done for me lately” world of Hollywood hackdom. Just because you’ve made excellent films as a director (Adventures in Babysitting, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or were responsible for several excellent episodes of a seminal animated series (The Simpsons) doesn’t mean you can deliver something special - or even watchable. The sad fact is that, for all it’s post-millennial Generation Z posturing, I Love You Beth Cooper is an abject failure. It’s not funny. It’s not insightful. And just when you think it will wake up and deliver the kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgia that made John Hughes a wealthy recluse, it continuous its path toward complete cinematic incompetence.

Egged on by his fey friend Rich, high school valedictorian Denis Cooverman decides to use his ceremonial speech to say all the things he never had the nerve to during his tenure as resident class geek. During his address, he calls out the bully who beat him up. He points out the snobby girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day. He even shames an ex-student who dates the girl of his unrequited dreams. And yes, eventually, he says the five magic words that will change his life - or at least his graduation party plans - forever. When Beth Cooper unexpectedly arrives at his house, ready to show Denis a good time, little does our dork know that such a special night will include run-ins with her Roid-raging boyfriend, various terrifying traffic incidents, a rabid raccoon attack, and the realization that, sometimes, fantasy is a million light years away from lovelorn reality.

If comedy is all timing, then I Love You Beth Cooper is temporally retarded. It is so bereft of laughs that you can actually watch it leeching them out of surrounding films. This is a low point for everyone involved, even those actors and crewmembers who are just starting out in their big screen careers. There is really nothing shocking about an attempting teen burlesque that doesn’t work. Hollywood has been trading T&A for talent in this genre since Sixteen Candles morphed into Some Kind of Wonderful. But aside from some underage drinking and a couple of references to sex, I Love You Beth Cooper is all (enfeebled) brains and no bawdiness. This is the least titillating coming of age saga since This Boy’s Life, and at least that film had Robert DeNiro to up the “va-va-va-voom” factor.

It’s not just that director Chris Columbus has seemingly lost his creative marbles. It’s not just the fact that the first 15 minutes sit there like a fetid fish carcass bloating in the sun. It’s not the bad casting, the anemic acting, the lack of any plot logic or focus. No, the biggest surprise here is how I Love You Beth Cooper can’t generate a single significant emotion - except anger, or course. We don’t care about anyone here. We find Denis and his decisions about as rational as a stalker explaining their human body part collection. Sure, we all have a high school crush, someone who we always thought was out of our league or incapable of dialing into our own idiosyncratic wavelength. But longing does not equal likeability - especially when it is attached to a best friend who can’t stop spewing meaningless movie trivia.

As Denis, Paul Rust is regressive, acting like someone whose IQ drops at random intervals. One moment, he’s quoting quantum physics. The next, he’s running around in Spiderman Underoos. As his “I’m Not Gay” buddy Rich, Jack Carpenter is all mensch and no meaning.  His performance is wound so tightly, and his mannerism so manufactured and false, that we keep wondering when he will let down the façade and show us the truth. It never happens. Indeed, that’s I Love You Beth Cooper in a nutshell. Instead of giving us real people who act in formulaic ways, we get sad stereotypes who try, unsuccessfully, to overcome the clichés involved.

This is especially true of Heroes honey Hayden Panettiere. As actresses go, she’s one short lived TV series phenomenon removed from a stint in reality TV. As a blond blank, she’s barely tolerable. As our lead, she needs to be irresistible and ingratiating, the kind of gal who stirs your loins as well as your intellect. But she’s really just the typical pretty girl with a sad backstory: a dead brother; a seemingly loveless home life; a need to feel special and wanted by the boys in school. What is this, an episode of The Maury Povich Show? How Beth Cooper survived four years of schooling without becoming a stripper of having her own sex tape makes no sense. But since Panettiere is so distant here, we never get a handle on all the hurt. Instead, Denis looks like a douche for idolizing such a superficial subject.

We may expect better from ex-Simpsons scribe Larry Doyle, but his only other screenplays - the horrid Duplex and the semi-successful Looney Tunes: Back in Action - indicate a level of accomplishment that more or less dooms this particular project. Many found the novel unique in its exploration of the dark side of high school life. But when translated to the silver screen, edge is not endearing. Indeed, there are several moments in I Love You Beth Cooper when you question why the police haven’t gotten involved - not that the adults seem to care. After their car and home is destroyed by random acts of adolescent stupidity, Ma and Pa Cooverman smile like lobotomized cretins and simply accept the vandalism.

Indeed, this is a film that feels bereft of all the wit, style, and substance. Instead of looking at the truth behind teenage cliques and the cruelty they can foster, we get standard he/she awkwardness, drunken antics, and more mangled movie quotes than Ben Lyons could honestly tolerate. Anyone tackling this particular genre has their work cut out for them. Between the past and the present, the sniggling naiveté of the ‘80s and the post-millennial mainstream of porn, a teen romp has a tough row to hoe. Superbad managed by emphasizing the foul mouthed and the filthy. I Love You Beth Cooper crashes because it can’t decide how to handle its many competing conceits. You’d figure with the people involved behind the scenes, this would be an easy clash to conclude. Clearly, it wasn’t.

by Rob Horning

9 Jul 2009

This could be a purely personal idiosyncrasy, but I’m wondering if it might indicate something larger about why big-box stores are so successful in America. I’m extrapolating from my weird aversion to going to the local bike shop. I just started to ride my old bike that I had in Arizona, and I’ve quickly realized that I need a few things for riding in New York City—mainly a helmet and new handle grips. Even though there is a local bike shop five blocks from my apartment, I find myself procrastinating about going over there. Maybe I spent too much time in record stores as a teenager, but I have this unshakable paranoia that the people in the bike shop will laugh at me. They will see that I am not a “real” biker; riding a bike around is not my lifestyle, it’s not my brand. I’m not going to ride my bike to work, let alone be one of those guys darting through traffic in midtown, menacing pedestrians and drivers alike. I’m not going to join Critical Mass and try to blockade the transit grid. I don’t wear special gear to bike around in and I am not even sure I know what model of bike I have. (It has gears.) I’m strictly “entry level,” to use Hipster Runoff terminology—I’m a novice, an amateur, too clueless to even know what is at stake with the subcultural signifiers. If I had more strength of character, perhaps, I would brazen it out in the bike shop and get what I need, despite my vague sense that it will be slightly more expensive than it need be since I’d be paying the specialty store/small business tariff. I wouldn’t care what people might think of me.

But instead I am attracted to the possibility of shopping anonymously. I think of going out to Target to get my bike helmet. There I can be assured that no one in the store particularly cares about what I am buying. I might even be required to check myself out at a self-service register, permitting me to have no encounter with another person at all. How convenient!

Anyway, my suspicion is that convenience, anonymity, freedom from other people’s assumptions about our lifestyle, the automatic assumption that we are pursuing a lifestyle inauthentically, the desire to face as little human contact as possible while we are in consumer mode—all these things are intertwined ideologically, and make up the field of consumer capitalism as its experienced by ordinary people—or at least people like me. Big-box stores seem engineered to supply a specific retail experience that protects our anonymity and minimizes our need for human contact, preserving our bubble of narcissistic fantasy as we roam around handling the merchandise. When this bubble gives way—when we seek the nuisance and insecurity of human contact—we mediate the relation through the signaling function of our goods and disappear into the life that they imply.

by Joe Tacopino

9 Jul 2009

Julie Doiron is renowned for her work as a singer-songwriter, as well as with bands such as Eric’s Trip and Mount Eerie. So much so, in fact, that the town of Bruno, Saskatchewan declared June 7th Julie Doiron Day. See her battle the dentist in her new video for “Consolation Prize”.

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