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by Nick Dinicola

5 Jun 2009

Having recently finished Far Cry 2 I found myself wondering what I should play next. I had embraced the holiday rush last year, so I had plenty of games to choose from, and I browsed through my collection looking for one that sparked my interest. Since this happened to coincide with E3, I bombarded myself with press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, and suddenly my collection didn’t seem as interesting as it did last week. I found myself getting more excited for those upcoming games than for the games I already own.

So much of the gaming culture revolves around upcoming games. Previews make up a major part of any news coverage, especially during the build up to E3. Gamers’ desire for the “next big game” is so strong that a ten second trailer for Modern Warfare 2 is cause for a surprising amount of fanfare, and companies make announcements of announcements in order to start the hype as soon as possible. Many people sell older games in order to afford newer games, and Gamestop’s record profits are a testament to how common the practice is. It makes sense then that E3 is the biggest event of the gaming industry. Whereas movies and music have the Oscars and Grammys, award shows that focus on what has come out in the past year, gaming’s major show is a preview event that looks ahead at what’s coming out in the next year.

This kind of attitude is necessary for an industry that relies so heavily on technology. New tech is always being introduced to the gaming world, so developers must always be looking ahead and thinking of new ways to incorporate that tech into their games. Just this week, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all showed off new forms of motion control, so now it falls to developers to figure out how to integrate that new kind of control into games. The future of gaming is always changing, so it’s understandable that the industry would focus more on its future than its past.

A problem arises when consumers adopt this point of view, and become more concerned with what lies in the future rather then the present. I remember times as a teenager when I would be playing a game and all I could think about was what I wanted to play next. I’d continue playing the first game just to beat it, feeling an odd obligation to finish it before moving on, but the moment I was done with it I would never think of it again. Even if I loved a game, once I beat it I no longer cared about it. Such an attitude is not only a disservice to the game and its creators but to me as a gamer. Instead of savoring my time with those games, I’d rush though them so I could stay up-to-date with each new release: Games were a disposable media to be used once and then forgotten.

I enjoy E3. I enjoy the press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, but I think it’s important not to get too caught up in the hype. I was giddy with every mention of Assassin’s Creed 2, Uncharted 2, and (to my pleasant surprise) Scribblenauts, but I’ve also recently become enthralled with the voice recognition of EndWar and the wonderful absurdity of No More Heroes. In the wake of E3, I’d encourage every gamer to play a game from last year or even from last console generation just to put things in perspective: older games are still worth your time.

by Chris Barsanti

5 Jun 2009

A wonderfully well-intentioned flock of stock American-indie scenarios wrapped up in a cosy, folky soundtrack and lavished with charming comic interludes, Away We Go never strives to be much of anything and succeeds quite well in its aims. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, as all works of art should always know their limitations, but it seems like somebody might have tried a little harder. Maybe it’s asking too much, but for the screenwriting debut of two literary wunderkinds (married duo Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) that just happens to be shot by a director (Sam Mendes) whose last film was one of the great literary adaptations in recent memory (Revolutionary Road), one expects at least a couple attempts to swing for the fences.

It’s possible that the film’s lackadaisical attitude came about quite organically after coming up with such a sparklingly perfect and well-tuned cast. As Burt and Verona, the low-key early-30s couple who set off to find a new place to live after Verona becomes pregnant and they discover Burt’s parents are moving abroad, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Their muted, lo-fi way of living is more than just some hipster statement like the soulful voices always murmuring on the overused soundtrack; their easy-come easy-go attitude and lightly jabbing verbal interplay feeling as lived-in as their junked-up and falling-down house in the sticks.

As Burt and six-months-pregnant Verona make their way around the country in search of a new home, they’re thrown into prepackaged comic encounters whose excellent players almost overcome the caricatured nature of the writing. A fiery Allison Janney and gloomily apocalyptic Jim Gaffigan present a sun-dazed picture of suburban psychodrama, while Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton perform a breathtakingly obnoxious satirical take on foggy-brained college-town intelligentsia smugness. Both segments—in addition to a too-brief appearance by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s alarmingly selfish parents—appear as self-contained little playlets whose sudden rush of freakish energy leave the rest of the film unbalanced.

Mendes, whose instincts have remained more theatrical than cinematic, throws so much effort into these sequences that the thinness of what holds the rest of the film together becomes readily apparent. When Eggers and Vida’s screenplay calls for Burt and Verona to meet up with comparatively normal people—a couple of college friends in Montreal, or Verona’s lovelorn sister—the resulting scenes play like something from another film. The screenplay’s sketchy, post-slacker, underdeveloped adult melodrama never finds a workable mix with its interruptions of Meet the Parents-like manias. And Mendes’ decision to just string it all together with chapter titles (“Away to Montreal,” etc.) and an amped-up soundtrack meant to carry too much weight makes the whole affair come off like a pack of dashed-off index-card scenes flung into some order and forced to stand on their own. As a filmmaker, the British Mendes seems more at home in stylized settings like the glossy living dead suburbs of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road than the fly-by-night road-trip Americana he wrestles with unsuccessfully here.

Like its leads, Away We Go doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about any of its components, a decision that leaves many of its more meaningful (and sometimes quite lovely) ruminations on love and finding one’s place in the world stranded without context. What’s left is a finely pedigreed comic road film that, when all is said and done, is too finely-tooled for the NPR set to have much life left in it.

by Rob Horning

4 Jun 2009

In the New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews The Program Era, a book by Mark McGurl about the institutionalization of creative-writing programs. Creative writing classes are an easy target for cynics (including me) who don’t believe that “creativity” can be taught or should even be isolated and reified as a concept, yet are also skeptical of the idea of transcendent genius separating the true Wordsworthian artists from the rest of the plebes and philistines. Neither McGurl or Menand seem to be as cynical as that—McGurl argues (and Menand agrees) that creative-writing programs as an institution are the most important development in the history of American literature since World War II, and in many ways is more significant than any particular author produced by the programs. Menand writes:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

by Sean Murphy

4 Jun 2009

While I could appreciate where Quentin Tarantino was coming from with Kill Bill and the ways he dutifully pays homage to old school pop culture icons, there were a couple of reasons that movie did not resonate with me. One, protracted and pyrotechnically-proficient fight scenes aside (for the record, Uma Thurman’s womano a womano brawls with Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah were quite satisfactory; the over-the-top and ludicrous fight vs. the Crazy 88s not so much), it was a pretty medicore flick. Both of them. (But more on Tarantino’s general post Pulp Fiction irrelevance another time.) Two, for people of my generation, it simply wasn’t all that cool to see the great David Carradine ostensibly ressurected as Bill; sure, he had sauntered out of the limelight, but he did not seem particularly anxious to stroll back into it. In other words, his role was not the type of career-saving reclamation project as it applied to, say, John Travolta and Bruce Willis circa 1994. Carradine was what he was: an old school legend who had been there, done that. He was Kwai Chang Caine for Christ’s sake.

Anyone who hesitates for a single second, or even has to ask who that is, will be unable to understand why cats of my ilk (kids of the ’70s) identify Carradine with the role he was born to play: Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu. (Of course, this immortal, if somewhat short-lived TV show was namechecked not only in Office Space, but in the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, which in hindsight seems like an appropriately reverential bit of foreshadowing on Tarantino’s part.)

by shathley Q

4 Jun 2009

Morpheus, the eponymous Sandman, has died. The anthropomorphic manifestation of hopes, fears, dreams, and storytelling has passed from perception. As they sleep, dreamers have gathered in wake, mourning this passing. In this panel, Dream’s familiar, the raven Matthew, responds to an offer of some wine. Off-panel chief librarian for the Dreaming, Lucien confirms Matthew’s sobriety with an enigmatic quotation.

In more than one sense, this panel marks a moment of realization for readers. After this panel, there is no going back. Morpheus will not be returning. The last moments of his story really have played out on the final pages of issue #69. For regular readers, in a very real sense, the Dream has died.

But in a wholly other sense, The Sandman marks a point of no return in comics publication. Writer Neil Gaiman brought a literary quality to the series that along with such works as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus brought critical acclaim to the comics medium. At the height of this critical and commercial success however, Gaiman petitioned publisher DC to terminate the series. Agreeing to this, DC prioritized artistic creativity over commercial concerns. This decision would have lasting ramifications for both mainstream publisher-owned and independent self-published comics series. Almost from this moment, comics stories could end, something that had never happened before. There would be no going back.

But this panel also offers a secret betrayal of the “mature readers” project. The quote offered by Lucien comes from writer Alan Moore’s run on another DC publication, Saga of the Swamp Thing. More than a decade before “The Wake”, Moore kills off a Swamp Thing supporting character in a drunk driving incident. Consumed by fear and frustration, Matt Cable steadily turns to drink. When he finally decides to face his frustrations, he grabs the car keys and braves the night. As the car swerves, hitting a tree, Moore offers the sobering thought, “The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober”. In finally revealing the dependable raven Matthew to be none other than Matt Cable, Gaiman offers Moore’s character a redemption. But with redeeming the ghost of Matt Cable, Gaiman also gestures at DC’s mainstream superhero continuity. In the era of creator-owned, terminable series that Gaiman helped usher in, such gestures become increasingly impossible.

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