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by Lara Killian

1 Sep 2008

This will surely be the last time I mention Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling YA series, Twilight.* Until the publishers release a four volume set just in time for the holidays (hint, hint).

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About two weeks ago, a coworker mentioned that her teenage daughter is obsessed with the series and had pre-ordered the final volume, Breaking Dawn from a well known online purveyor of books which shall remain nameless. I sighed in envy, not having pre-ordered, and then commiserated when I heard that after waiting two weeks past the release date, and checking in several times with the equally well known shipping company, the box finally arrived—empty.

Luckily the horror ended there. Another copy was sent overnight and feverishly consumed over a weekend. Coming in at a walloping 768 pages, it is a testament to Meyer’s storytelling ability that a teenager is able to sit down and get through such a tome. Of course, today’s reading teenagers have been well-trained by the magical Harry Potter.

I managed to borrow Breaking Dawn to read over the following weekend and can attest that Meyer tells a good tale. She consistently surprises me; I can never tell where the story is going next. I was very surprised (I’ve done well at keeping my head down since the 2 August release date, staying off the author’s home page and related online forums) at the turn the story takes in the final volume, and was only faintly discouraged by the continued development of the vampiric characters into X-men-like superheroes. Over the course of the series the characters become more and more fantastic (in the unrealistic sense) and while some escapism can be fun, I do miss the original Bella, with her klutzy moves, Edward with his frequent loss of self-control, and Alice with her girly love of satin, sequins and hair curlers.

That said, I’d read this series again – once that four volume set is available. I’m looking forward to seeing what Meyer does next – and yes, I’ve already read The Host.

*I make no promises about the movie release scheduled for November.

Do you have any thoughts about what the next YA series craze will be?

by Mike Schiller

31 Aug 2008

Quick—think of the last Spore-related article you read.  It could have been yesterday, it could have been last week, but think about it: What was it about?

EA's Spore

EA’s Spore

It makes me sad to even type this, but it’s my estimation that for something around 90% of you, the last Spore-related article you read was about penis monsters, mammary trolls and the like.  The fallout of releasing the Spore creature creator almost three months before the full game was released is that every sexually-challenged goofball out there who thought he or she was being absolutely hilarious (RoFL WoFLs!) decided to make a monster that looks like human sexual organs.  Some of the more enterprising souls released the results to YouTube.  In fact, the “Sporn” phenomenon has grown so quickly and placed in such a prominent position in the mainstream coverage of the game thus far as to have all but completely overshadowed the incredibly ambitious nature of the full-length game.

The mere idea of Spore has been making gamers, particularly PC gamers, drool for some years now, and it’s unfortunate that the pre-release press for the game is so focused on the juvenile.  Still, if Spore even approaches the mere idea of itself, the press post Sunday’s release should focus on the changing face of the simulation genre as a whole.  Spore is the one to watch this week, maybe the one to watch this year.

Square Enix's Infinite Undiscovery

Square Enix’s Infinite Undiscovery

Elsewhere, there’s a whole pile of releases for the Xbox 360 this week, including Infinite Undiscovery, Square Enix’s next venture into non-franchise role-playing.  Given the incredible response to The World Ends With You, Infinite Undiscovery has a lot to live up to.  Facebreaker looks like it could be good for a laugh or three, and hey—some people actually liked Vampire Rain, so maybe PS3 players have something of their own to look forward to.

So what are you picking up this week?  Scope out the release list, check out the Spore vid, and let us know in the comments!  Oh, and enjoy your Labor Day!

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2008

It’s the annual end of Summer holiday. Time to reflect on the final week of the popcorn moviegoing experience, the upcoming end of the year awards anarchy, and all things Fall. Of course, no Labor Day would be complete without a visit from the genius himself, Jerry Lewis. Here is our tribute to the comic titan from last September. Enjoy!

Depth of Field: Jerry Lewis - GENIUS!

by Rob Horning

31 Aug 2008

More and more, it seems as though a psychological corner has been turned. There is a growing sense that the consumer-credit bubble is over, and as a result the gap in lived experience between the rich and the poor (who lived richer thanks to credit) are about to widen, as Steven R. Waldman explains here:

Of course, the poor spend more than they earn primarily by taking on debt. In the halcyon days of 2006, that was no problem. Credit flowed like honey, and what could always be refinanced need never be repaid. It’s a wonder we didn’t do away with the whole “money” thing entirely. If you can spend all the way down to negative infinity, it hardly matters whether your starting wealth is one dollar or a billion dollars. Why keep track?
But, alas, people did keep track. They also stopped lending to people who might not be able to repay, people who, you know, spend more than they earn. Which means, even putting aside the terrible hardship of bankruptcy, or struggling to pay down old loans, all of a sudden the lived experience of inequality must come very much to resemble those unpleasant income inequality statistics. Are we cool with that?
In a way, the credit crisis comes out of a tension between the broad-middle-class America of our collective imagination and the economically polarized nation we have in fact come to be. We borrowed to finance an illusory Mayberry. The crisis won’t be over until this tension is resolved. Either we modify the facts of our economic relations, or we come to terms with a new America more comfortable with distinct and enduring social classes….
I’m sure this is a bit polemic, but I don’t think it is much overstated. Credit was the means by which we reconciled the social ideals of America with an economic reality that increasingly resembles a “banana republic”. We are making a choice, in how we respond to this crisis, and so far I’d say we are making the wrong choice. We are bailing out creditors and going all personal-responsibility on debtors. We are coddling large institutions of prestige and power, despite their having made allocative errors that would put a Soviet 5-year plan to shame. We applaud the fact that “wage pressures are contained”, protecting the macroeconomy of the wealthy from the microeconomy of the middle class.

For the rest of us, as we are weaned off the tendency to live beyond our means and keep up with the levels of consumption touted in the culture industry as normal, we can now embrace thriftiness, the Aldi alternative.

Accordingly, thrift is beginning to trump branding in retailers’ efforts to reach customers, if you take anecdotal evidence like this post seriously—it details efforts Whole Foods is making to seem cheap, and has a link to an article about Target’s suddenly struggling because of its “classier” image.

As Target released its second-quarter earnings Tuesday, the Minneapolis-based discount retailer said it will not meet long-term expectations if consumer cutbacks continue. Part of the problem is that, much as Target has tried to trump up the “pay less” side of its slogan, consumers don’t believe it.
“The perception is that because it’s more visually appealing than Wal-Mart, that prices are higher,” said Stephanie Hoff, a retail analyst with Edward Jones in New York. “They’re just going to have to figure out a way to communicate that to their customers better. They’re trying to do that, but it could take some time.”

Also, efforts to restigmatize borrowing are starting to permeate economic commentary. There is a general sense that consumer behavior needs to adapt to dwindling credit and make do with less immediate gratification. Easy credit enabled more people to participate in a sort of protracted drama of shopping, in purchasing big-ticket items as a kind of experience. Marketing theory more and more began to argue that the experience was more significant to consumers than the purchased good in the end, and retailers, recognizing the superior margins to selling experiences to goods, embraced this ideology and emphasized it. Brands took on new significance as the starting points for consumer fantasies, and advertising worked to make the brands into more effective triggers for those fantasies.

But without easy credit, the model no longer works as effectively. Daniel Gross, too, proclaims the end of the credit-card-fueled economy in this Slate article. “The endless willingness of lenders to lend and borrowers to borrow—...kept the consumer economy humming uninterrupted from the early 1990s, straight through the brief recession of 2001, until the credit meltdown of 2007.” But now

Retailers who freely extended credit to any customer with a pulse are deploying bean counters armed with sophisticated software to sniff out potential deadbeats. And when higher rates and fees don’t deter their borrowers, credit-card companies resort to slashing credit lines. “We predicted there would be some degree of spillover from the mortgage meltdown,” said Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. “But the credit line reductions by big credit card companies in the last six months have been fairly unprecedented.”

Gross notes that the absence of credit confronts consumers with the “pain of paying,” the reality of what things actually cost, which is an obvious deterrent to spending. This inhibits the popular notion that shopping is an “experience” rather than a transaction.

Consumers may have to recalibrate their expectations of what a shopping experience is and adapt to consuming unbranded goods. No more will shopping seem designed to single individuals out, flatter them and encourage them to see the retail universe as fashioned specifically for them. Shopping is more likely to be the semi-alienating Wal-Mart or Aldi experience, where you wander through piles of unbranded goods in cardboard boxes on the floor, than the repeat engagement with brand-inspired fantasies. Perhaps, we will shop less to foster identity than to simply acquire more fundamental necessities, and identity could be developed in some other social arena outside of amassing possessions and brandishing brands, through some other means than being catered to by retailers and orchestrating a lifestyle through curating and displaying the correct set of belongings.

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2008

Someone once said that all men live lives of quiet desperation. For those in middle management, said anxiety can be anything but silent. It’s never the big picture issues - the purpose of their productivity, their place within the larger corporate scheme. Instead, it’s the smaller things - petty differences, personality clashes, bumbling bureaucracy - that carry the biggest impact. So advancement is typically based on how well you maneuver the various minor concerns. Make a mistake, and it will cost you. Traverse it all successfully, and you still have to battle nepotism, the omniscient cronies, and the notion of being locked in something more or less dead end for the rest of your days. A movie like The Promotion understands this problem all too well. Too bad it doesn’t deliver the message in a consistently droll manner.

Donaldson’s Supermarket is about to open a new store in suburban Chicago, and longtime assistant manager Doug Stauber really wants the top job. While his current boss considers him a shoo-in, a recent transfer from Canada named Richard Welhner also seems up for the position. Initially, Doug’s not too concerned about the competition. He feels he has the inside track. But soon, Richard is working the coveted inside position, taking over important contacts like Pepsi. Doug, on the other hand, is dealing with the lot, and the gang of local thugs who intimidate and ridicule the customers. Corporate is not pleased with either candidate, and gives them time to shape up or ship out. Naturally, the men begin to instinctually undermine each other, doing whatever it takes to please their family and land that promotion. 

The Promotion (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) is the very definition of a human comedy. Again, it’s not uproariously funny, or even laugh out loud clever most of the time. It doesn’t dial into the new “anything for a giggle” movie mystique, nor does it try to deliver mirth with over the top antics and outsized caricature. Instead, Steven Conrad’s likeable little film falls somewhere between heartfelt and hopeless. Thematically following the foibles of two men who’ve allowed their job to define their purpose, what we wind up with is an inconsistent entertainment that never ceases to stumble over moments that should simply just soar.

Some of the sequences (the abusive gang members harassing the customers) are clearly played for stock shock value. Others try to find that ironic insight that all post-millennial movies must now strive to attain. But thanks to the acting, and some interesting narrative choices, we wind up championing most of what happens. It’s not like The Promotion is out to trick us, or provide some manner of plot point misdirection. Conrad’s approach is clear - take tiny little moments, slices of every workaday existence and link them together to tell a recognizable story.

In what is rapidly becoming a New Age film genre, we are once again confronted with the ‘male alone” syndrome. Locked in a somber situation of their own making, and unable to let their partners or friends make up the difference, we get several scenes of leads Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly staring pensively off into the distance. Realizing that it’s no longer a man’s world, but forced into an instinctual need to hunt, gather, bring home the bacon, and increase their professional power, they are lost and forlorn. Even when they try to connect among each other, the pheromone scented posturing prevents any kind of asexual intimacy.

Like Fight Club predicted nearly a decade ago, the new male is really a dude, a dumb animal offshoot that tends to crap where it eats, and likes it quite a bit. Most of The Promotion is taken up with this kind of testicular one-upmanship, Doug digging Richard as he plots to put him down. We never really understand the internal motivation for such a circumstance - both men are genuinely decent and likeable - but the lure of Donaldson’s managership (and the accompanying cash) seems to drive both to distraction. While their battles make for some amusing sidebars, they never really seem to contemplate the consequences. All the brown nosing and butt kissing can’t overcome a failed drug test, or a dreaded inter-store complaint.

Part of the problem with The Promotion (and the facet that also keeps it from failing outright) is Conrad’s skill at observation. He understands the world of work, how people function as colleagues and employees. The stand offs with the Board (featuring a soulless Gil Bellows as the corporate speak executive) have a realistic ring, and when Scott and onscreen spouse Jenna Fisher discuss their privacy free apartment dwelling, we instantly recognize the repartee. But then there are times when Conrad’s scrutiny goes cheap, as when he has Reilly asking a Hispanic female cashier about her “p*ssy” sauce (it’s all part of a stock boy set up). Similarly, the gay banjo player interrupting Seann and Jenna’s closeness seems lifted from a bad SNL sketch. 

Luckily, the first time director (noted for his screenplays The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness) has that wonderful cast to keep him afloat. As a matter of fact, it’s something he acknowledges as part of the DVD’s intriguing audio commentary. Seann William Scott is truly emerging as a sharp leading man. While some of his American Pie posturing is still intact, he comes across as far less mannered here. Additionally, Fisher finds the right note as the more than willing to compromise spouse. But Reilly is the real revelation here. So internally tortured and pent up that he seems permanently constipated, his about to crack Canadian provides a uniquely engaging side to the actor. We are used to seeing him blustery and befuddled. Here, he seems to be living every mistake he ever made over and over again in his mind.

Elsewhere, the extras argue for the limited budget Conrad had to work with. While this does not excuse the film’s shrunken scope, it does explain why we don’t see more of its Midwest locale. Indeed, The Promotion is a small film, and as such, warrants equally limited expectations. If you base your potential response on what Scott and Reilly have done in the past, you’ll be bored before the first moment of comic clarity. But if you recognize that this movie wants to say something rather significant about the human experience, to showcase how some men are born to faux greatness while others are continually beaten to the professional punch, you’ll enjoy the 90 minute ride. Work may not truly define us, but it tends to make the most of its first impression. The Promotion suggests that, somewhere between exaggeration and exactness lies the reason for our desperation - quiet or otherwise. 

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