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by Bill Gibron

11 Aug 2008

That’s it. I’ve had it. I am officially at my character actor capacity. Nothing personal on the man in question, but after a summer where it seems like he shows up in every movie made, I am over Danny McBride - just about. Again, this is not meant to be an individual criticism or a knock against who he is off screen. But in a world where thousands of actors remain unemployed or underemployed, is it really fair to feature this funnyman over and over again?

I first became aware of Danny’s jarhead joking in last year’s lamentably awful Heartbreak Kid remake. There, he was the bone brained brother of Michelle Monaghan’s Amanda. It was also here where I was initiated into the McBride “type” - not quite hillbilly, not actually intelligent, just a beefy buffoon with a bad haircut and a head full of Red State resentment. It was a persona he would carry on to his next supporting part, as a homeless pal of the title character in the disappointing Drillbit Taylor.

As Don, a casual criminal with a definite psychotic streak, McBride more than made up for the scripts underwhelming attributes. Even better, his scenes were short and sweet, never overstaying their welcome or announcing their arrival. In fact, it’s safe to say that, at this point, I was willing to tolerate this beery bumpkin in carefully controlled creative bursts. Use him right, and his appearance would only add to the onscreen mayhem. But use him wrong and, well…

Oddly enough, all careful consideration was thrown for a loop when I finally saw The Foot Fist Way. Made back in 2006, this starring vehicle for the Georgia-based actor found McBride playing a pompous, self-important Tae Kwon Do instructor who tries to corral his action hero idol into a personal appearance at his failing martial arts school. So real in its mock doc execution and brave in its outright arrogance that it was scary, this film found a way to take McBride’s inherent ill-advised machismo and make it multifaceted. Even better, it signaled that he could stretch beyond the white trash troublemakers he seemed to excel at.

Thanks to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Foot Fist finally got a wide distribution, and with such a profile, McBride has become almost omnipresent. This month alone he turns up in two of the Summer’s most highly anticipated releases. In Pineapple Express, he’s the urban idiot dope peddler Red, attempting to address all of his problems both personal and criminal with a smile and smatter of misinformed rap lingo. Even with his limited time onscreen, he rivals James Franco for best overall performance in this clever action/stoner amalgamation. Then, in Tropic Thunder, he is Cody, the special effects artist who has a bad case of hero worship for those he works with, and an even shakier grasp of pyrotechnic professionalism.

In both instances, McBride is very good. While relying on a similar skill set - one that trades on his flabby physicality while adding a satisfying and unwashed stupidity - he manages to make each lummox likeable and different. In each film, he creates such a compelling presence that you can’t wait for his next anticipated manifestation. Red, in particular, provides some last act heroics that help sell Pineapple‘s switch over into ‘80s styled stunt spectacle. Indeed, it’s safe to say that in each instance mentioned, MrBride adds to the movies he’s in. He’s the true definition of a supporting (or in the case of Foot Fist, starring) presence.

So why am I so fed up? Why am I praising this man only to argue for his future limited use? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Maybe it’s because he’s so good at what he does. It could be his purposeful pigeonholing into the aforementioned personality types. Perhaps it’s because, like all Hollywood decisions, his casting comes off as being as much about laziness and lack of vision as it is talent. Watching him work, one can literally hear the suits saying to themselves “that McBride sure makes a great blue collar cretin. Instead of that Cable Guy, let’s get him”.

This is obviously meant in jest, and stands as a gross overgeneralization of why McBride is seemingly everywhere at once. But never underestimate Tinsel Town’s track record of tendencies. In the last two years alone, balding boob Rob Corddry has been in 11 films - 11! - and always playing the same insecure schlub with either an anger management issue or an advanced case of marital emasculation. Similarly, David Koechner has racked up 16 such turns. Usually employing a stereotypical drawl to accent his Southern Comfort crackerdom, he’s another of these supposedly bankable morons. One can just see a casting director, looking over head shots and sighing “Oh HELL!, Just get me Koechner (or perhaps Corddry)”.

Again, this is not meant to take away from these otherwise talented men. But since movies are no longer based in artistry, but instead rely on a baffling business model which hopes to guarantee successful before a single frame is shot or screened, past performance - including the all important box office receipts - rule most decisions. In Corddry’s case, he’s got Old School, Blades of Glory, and the nauseating I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry pushing his paydays. Koechner gets the aid of the Apatow touch, supposedly helping Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Talladega Nights earn its considerable keep. They can fail together as well. Both were in the bafflingly unfunny Get Smart update.

Naturally, these men were ancillary to such success, but studios sometimes fail to see the forest for the financial windfall. McBride may just be the latest example of such a schema. Or perhaps it’s all about ability. After all, no one is questioning his (or anyone else’s) worthiness. But what those in charge fail to recognize is that familiarity, while maybe not breeding actual contempt, creates reservations in the audience’s mind. When we see a certain face standing next to our above the marquee A-lister, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming, and since most are hired merely to create such easy awareness, constant repetition leads to more and more pre-knowledge. Soon, we are guessing the beats that will color their performance and wondering why they were brought on in the first place.

And since I like McBride (for now), I don’t want to see him stifled. I don’t want him standing in the backdrop, mangled mullet substituting for actual characterization. There seems to be so much more that he can offer a project (again I am reminded of his work in Pineapple Express) that he doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. By proclaiming my tolerance topped off, perhaps others will join in. Call it a boycott or a non-focus group lesson, but Hollywood needs to learn that not every facet of a successful film will, individually, work the same magic. Danny McBride’s borderline overexposure won’t only prove this out, but it threatens to destroy a career just starting to spark. And even though I’ve had my fill, he clearly deserves better. 

by L.B. Jeffries

11 Aug 2008

I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title—many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?

 

Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.

 

With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.

 

A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.

Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.

by Chris Barsanti

11 Aug 2008

As 2008’s sultry midpoint has come and gone, the looming tower of incoming books and comics often begins to attain critical mass. Perhaps it’s the approach of the holiday season that spurs the increase, or maybe it’s nothing more than the recalcitrant procrastination of the receiving writer. Unfortunately, these books aren’t going to review themselves, though hopefully such plans are in the works at Amazon’s R&D department. One can dream…

Whatever the truth may be, the year has so far been an impressive one for graphic novels, whether they’re of the brooding caped superhero type or your standard-issue shoe-gazer indie introspective. The sheer number seems to grow from year to year, but so too does the quality increase, with a respectable stream of praiseworthy work coming out of a number of the smaller houses, who haven’t let the major publishers’ forays into the field crimp their style. And so, on to looking at what’s worth reading, graphic novel-speaking, before fall comes calling.

Good-Bye by Yoshohiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly)

Though the two artists would seem to share precious little in artistic style or worldview, if there were a Will Eisner for Japan, Yoshohiro Tatsumi would probably be it. Little known these days in Japan, and even less so here, Tatsumi’s work has nevertheless been slowly eking its way back into view, due to Drawn & Quarterly’s worthy effort to republish his shorter pieces in a series edited by Adrian Tomine. An implacably dark collection of short stories originally published in 1971 and 1972, Good-Bye has more in common with disaffected American urban novelists from the period like Bernard Malamud and John Cheever than the hyped-up sugar candy manga Japan is better known for these days. Each revolving around a different breed of lonely man (one unhealthily obsessed with the Hiroshima bombing, another anxious to enact revenge on a wife he hates), the stories are suffused with anxious, desperate sex and the dehumanizing greyness of the era’s overcrowded and ramshackle cities. While little turns out well for the men and women depicted here, there’s an appreciative humanity to Tatsumi’s work that begs attention. You can see a .pdf preview of the book here.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (First Second)

One has to throw at least a squib of appreciation towards a book whose first frame reads, “The amazing, remarkable LEOTARD empties his fortitudinous bowels. He combs his imposing, resplendent mustachios. And only then does he make his death-defying LEAP…” Eddie Campbell proved his mettle for dense historical graphic fiction with Alan Moore back when they were creating the masterpiece From Hell, but his sense of humor has rarely been so well displayed as in this hilarious adventure. Theoretically based on the famous acrobat who popularized the leotard, the book is really more an excuse for Campbell, and co-author Dan Best, to goof around with the increasingly outrageous and unbelievable antics that befall a fractious circus troupe trying to make its way at the end of the Victorian era. Campbell and Best rope in everything from the Titanic to Jack the Ripper, talking bears, battling dwarfs, and a giant lion-tiger hybrid called the “Ti-Lion,” blasting open the fourth wall whenever they feel like it, and generally having a blast.

Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

Somewhere there’s a filmmaker who could make a minor masterpiece out of Nate Powell’s suburban nightmare of a book. Equally as informed by David Lynch and Donnie Darko as it is by the darker fringes of indie graphic fiction, Swallow Me Whole initially reads as just another closely-observed mumblecore take on adolescent ennui, with its repressed family and teenage girl protagonist who can’t quite connect with anything that’s going on around her. But then she starts seeing the hordes of bugs that nobody else notices, and there’s the divine messages she starts receiving. It isn’t long before the book flies right through the looking glass into a world of drowning black terror that’s all the more frightening for how quietly and precisely Powell’s pen delivers it.

Tōnoharu: Part One by Lars Martinson (Pliant)

Everybody’s heard about those great teaching jobs one can get in Japan where local language skills are barely necessary, just the ability to stand in front of a classroom and pronounce English. Easy money, in other words. Lars Martinson’s autobiographical graphic novel shows just how wrong such assumptions can be, particularly when the protagonist is a dull-faced twenty-something slacker who doesn’t seem to have any hobbies besides sleeping, watching TV, and not learning Japanese. Martinson’s art has an exquisitely etched, woodcarved look to it that’s just a hair shy of being fussy (not surprisingly, Martinson gives thanks to Chris Ware in the acknowledgements). While the book’s style can lead to some sameness in facial expression, Martinson’s depth of perception renders the aching social awkwardness being portrayed all the more potently. And this is only part one…

by Mike Schiller

11 Aug 2008

Much like the odd little release schedule of two weeks ago, there are two releases this week that are valiantly fighting for my own personal affection, one of which is a tremendous, big-ticket release, and the other of which happens to be an Xbox Live Arcade download.

Seriously, Xbox Live Arcade is on a roll this month, a roll that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

In only a matter of time, I'll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.

In only a matter of time, I’ll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.

Rather than cop out as I did those two weeks ago and choose co-winners, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room and just acknowledge that the release that everyone has their eye on this week is Madden NFL 09.  The cultural phenomenon surrounding the tremendous franchise once known as simply John Madden Football is nothing short of fascinating, and despite the fact that every year I caution myself away from getting swept up in the unavoidable torrent of hype surrounding this yearly event, I can’t help but want to absorb every detail that might be hidden in every word written about the thing.  Sometimes I buy it, sometimes I don’t, but despite all of the advances that have come about in multiplayer gaming over the years, there’s still very little that is as exhilerating as getting the phone call: “I’ve got the new Madden.  You coming over?”

Of course, unfortunately for EA, much of the attention given to the new Madden game this year centers on its cover and not on any of the gameplay and graphics tweaks that it’s given the latest model of the flagship EA Sports franchise.  Specifically, there’s the presumed-to-be-retired Brett Favre, in glorious Packer green and gold, ready and willing to deliver a pass.  The cover was supposed to be a celebration of the player who exemplified the love of the game, a tribute to a man who in so many ways exemplified the best qualities of the game he played.  Now, of course, Brett’s a Jet, the airwaves have been saturated with the “saga” of his “battle” to return to the playing field, and nobody’s sure anymore whether his presence on that cover is helping or hurting the game that he is supposed to be symbolizing.

That aside, I almost want to get the Wii version of the game simply so that I can play the exclusive 5-on-5 mode.  As a playground touch football veteran myself, it may well trigger flashbacks of the “glory days”.

(drool)

(drool)

Of course, it’s impossible to hide my biases, and that’s why it actually crossed my mind to hand this week’s spotlight to Bionic Commando: Rearmed, the remake of perhaps my favorite game of all time.  Just having a good excuse to bust out the bionic arm again is going to be reason enough to not want to leave the house on Wednesday morning.  I can only pray that Capcom has retained the ability to take multiple approaches to beating a level, and I can’t wait to try out the Scorpion “get over here” mechanic of actually being able to use the bionic arm to pull enemies into close range.  My fingers are getting excited just thinking about this…if it lives up to the original, Bionic Commando: Rearmed might be the most fun I have with a video game all year.

Even past those two games, there are a couple more goodies on the way this week.  The DS gets Bangai-O Spirits, which should satisfy space shooter fans lamenting the dearth of such games on the Nintendo DS, and the Wii gets Line Rider 2: Unbound, which will at least be an interesting study in how to (or, perhaps, how not to) translate a flash game into a full-fledged retail title.  I mean, Line Rider is a killer little waste of time.

Check out the full release list, and let me know what you’ll be buying this week!  A Madden trailer is just past the jump.

by Jason Gross

11 Aug 2008

Once upon a time, there was a small Texas paper called Montgomery County Bulletin.  It was run and published by a guy named Mike Ladyman who did everything from delivering it to apparently taking out the garbage.  He had a writer on staff called Mark Williams who wrote a lot of the music material there.  There was a little problem with Mark’s work though.  He seemed to have copied and pasted large portions of his work from other sources and didn’t attribute any of them.  One of the people he copied was Jody Rosen of Slate Magazine, who was tipped off that this was happening.  Rosen did some online legwork and found that the extent of Williams’ unattributed writing was pretty humongous.  Rosen confronted Ladyman about this and though he was polite, according to Rosen, he wasn’t very forthcoming with details.  Rosen published details of what he found in Slate. Not long after that, the Houston Press reported that the Ladyman was closing MCB, under pressure from the criticism he’s received regarding Williams’ ‘work’ (by the way, the comments to that article are very lively and instructive, including question Williams’ very existence).  In the HP article, Ladyman provides some reasons about why Williams work slipped by him and that he let him go.  In the same article, we see a response from Williams about the affair where he lashes out at Rosen, who in turn had his own response for HP not long afterwards.

OK, so what’s to be learned from this?  Obviously both Williams and Ladyman are wrong.  Williams’ letter that HP published is a masterful example of lashing out against vicitms and actually (as pointed out in the HP comments) probably the strongest piece of writing he’s done, even if it’s all bluster and unnecessarily defensive.  No matter how much work Ladyman did for the paper, to be most charitable, he was over-extended and should have at least gotten some volunteer help so that he could really edit the paper.  Plagiarism isn’t something unique to small papers- remember Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair?  The question is, what do you do when you find out that you have problems like this?  Ladyman should have responded faster and more forthright to Rosen’s requests as the whole reputation of his paper was on the line.  He did the right thing by letting Williams go and even going further by ending his disgraced paper (even if he provided some lame excused to HP about the affair).  What bigger apology can you get than that?

Plagiarists can be a tricky bunch.  Just as Glass carefully deceived his editor for a while, I found myself in the same situation with a writer once.  When I found out that they had appropriated material from elsewhere (like Rosen, I was tipped off by a reader), I confronted the writer about this and they had a similar, angry self-righteous response as Williams.  They said how hard it is to write a story and that appropriated some parts of other stories was no big deal.  I agreed on both points but that didn’t justify what they did and I decided not to work with this writer anymore.

In the Net age, it’s a lot easier to catch these things but that doesn’t mean it’s easy per se.  Diligent readers may notice egregious similarities between stories but no one’s able to scan the span of the Web to find out when and where it’s happening (and that’s not even taking into account some articles that don’t make it onto the web).  So no doubt that this will go on in small and large ways with the writers and editors thinking they’re not doing anything wrong and/or thinking that they won’t be caught.  So, what’s to be done about this problem?  Unless you have some huge program to scan the web for similarities between each new article published and other ones out there, this is going to keep happening.

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