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Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bad Movies: Pixels

Bad Movies: Pixels

Daenerys Targaryen: “I’m not going to kill you.”

Tyrion Lannister: “No? Banish me?”

Daenerys Targaryen: “No.”

Tyrion Lannister: “So if I’m not going to be murdered and I’m not going to be banished…”

Daenerys Targaryen: “You’re going to play a supporting role in an Adam Sandler movie.”

Movies based on and around video games have existed in Hollywood now for over 20 years, and so far, popular consensus has judged only one of them to be worthy of true greatness. That movie was Wreck-it Ralph, which came out just a few years ago and was well-received by just about everyone, tipped a top hat and winked to those who love video games. Although Wreck-it Ralph featured popular characters from the video game universe, it did so clearly as reference points to watching gamers and spoke to us rather than blatantly pry our wallets open. It understood the appeal of gaming. If I was going to try to deduce a second-place winner, it would be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but that’s only arguably a video game movie. Maybe Mortal Kombat if you’re in that school of thought, but Mortal Kombat sucked, and in any case this is only a very distant second anyway.

Even though gaming jumped into a mainstream hobby and art form in the last couple of console generations, gamers still have to contend with the old juvenile delinquent stereotypes that resulted in atomic wedgies and wet willies back in the day. Whenever we think we’re making progress in the anti-stereotype march, though, something like Gamergate walks in and decides to reinforce all the anti-social, woman-hating bullshit we still have to contend with whenever we tell people our hobbies include playing video games. The latest offender is Adam Sandler’s latest movie, Pixels, and gamers aren’t the only ones who are going to be dragged down with it. Dan Aykroyd makes a short feed-me cameo. Martha Stewart and Serena Williams are in here too. Toru Iwatani – the creator of Pac-Man – has both a cameo and an actor who plays a fictionalized version of him. Hall and Oates, Dan Patrick, Robert Smigel, and Steve Koren all cameo while Billy West has a short voice role. Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean, and Brian Cox all play small supporting roles while Michelle Monaghan and Peter Dinklage are both in large, important roles. That’s a hell of an impressive talent heist, and you have to wonder who lost what bets to end up appearing in a Happy Madison movie.

While you could make the argument that Pixels could potentially damage the whole Gamergate thing by virtue of portraying the avatars of what most of its followers probably are, that damage is easily nullified by the movie’s attitude toward women: There are three characters without a Y, excluding the cameos, and all of them are basically used as prizes for the men. Yes, even Monaghan, who plays a military Colonel that loves to create and toy around with weird weapons. It’s so bad that one of the characters – a hopeless, socially stunted dweeb named Ludlow – has a shrine built to Lady Lisa, a warrior woman from a fictional game. When Lady Lisa pops out as one of the pixelated bad guys, Ludlow is able to make a grandiose speech to her which results in her immediately switching sides.

Adam Sandler hates his audiences. That much has been clear for some time. Maybe the Sandler who broke through in the mid-90’s could have made Pixels into something worthwhile, but current Sandler is badly out of touch with everyone old enough to remember when he was making good movies. Sandler used to play to the better parts of humanity, but lately he’s begun to morph into an odd comedy version of Robert Altman. If you’re anything close to the film aficionado that I am, that might seem like a bit of a distance, but hear me out: Altman is the patriarch godfather of the mosaic drama movie, but that’s about the only split between him and Sandler. Other than that, both Altman and Sandler’s movies are driven by stereotypes highlighting all the worst aspects of their characters. Plot takes a backseat in both their movies – both of them basically wrote out their plots on their coffee break napkins because they wanted characters to drive the movies. Then they went about creating their characters by writing out the worst archtypes they could think of and drawing them out of a hat. Both catered movies about low-class people at their worst. Ask some pretentious film asshole about Altman, though, and you’re likely to hear farfetched explanations about the great web of humanity, or looks at the worst of… And I always block them out right there because these people are dicks who are lying to everyone, including themselves, and sometimes well enough to even believe their lies. No. Anyone who likes Robert Altman – or at least thinks of him as a great filmmaker – simply hates poor people and is looking for justification to avoid them.

Fortunately, Sandler hasn’t been allowed to get away with this. This is perhaps because Sandler is more straightforward and honest about his hatred. It took all of five minutes for him to establish his character, Sam Brenner, as an antisocial slob who couldn’t get a handle on his life because he lost a video game competition as a teenager. If you make it through the first five minutes of adult Sam’s introduction without feeling a gut urge to punch him, check your pulse. He is working as an installer for a team like the Geek Squad. Sam’s buddy Ludlow is a different kind of antisocial, with his basement shrine to a video game character and his conspiracy theories. Eddie Plant, a gaming champion who gave himself the nickname “Fire Blaster,” the appropriate soul brother of real-world gaming champion Billy Mitchell here. Only Will Cooper managed to detach himself from the contest that ruined everyone’s lives, but Will is played by Kevin James, and Will is also the President of the United States. Most critics have been complaining that James isn’t believable as the Prez, but I don’t think of it as playing the Prez. I think of it as James playing his usual role as an incompetent boob, which he does as well here as anywhere.

During the big 1982 competition that brought these four together for the first time, the government took footage of the games and sent it out to some random grouping of stars in space, hoping to make contact with an alien race. It worked a little too well. See, the aliens did stumble into the footage, and they sort of took it the wrong way. Instead of “let’s be friends,” the message the aliens took from the probe was interpreted as “let’s have a pissing contest for keepsies.” So they found their way to Earth, in the form of late-’70’s and early-’80’s-era video game characters, rudely issued their challenge, and started knocking down everything in sight. The Army has been preparing odd weapons which could be used to ward off such an invasion, of course, and what those weapons were originally going to be used for is never explained.

Explanations are perhaps not the point, though. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard about Pixels. But I did find the inconsistency of the video game scenes a little odd. During one attack, the aliens are attacking in the form of the bad guys from Centipede while the good guys stand on the ground, firing away. The next attack revolves around Pac-Man, and Pac-Man is the bad guy. The good guys drive cars based off the four ghosts that chase Pac-Man through the maze. The final act is a splurge of references that director Chris Columbus places onscreen but can’t seem to quite be able to field marshall.

That brings me to one of the major problems: The video game references are nothing but references. This is Sandler directly lifting pages right out of The Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer Book of Filmmaking: References don’t have to be anything but references! All they have to do is get the audience to say “hey, look what it is!” The game references don’t do much that’s creative or original with the material. To reference my favorite video game movie again, look at Wreck-It Ralph. It turned the classic video game Root Beer Tapper into a bar where video game characters met and chatted after hours. Tapper’s bar came complete with a lost and found which contained a mushroom from the Mario series, a warning exclamation point from the Metal Gear Solid games, and a pair of Zangief’s briefs. Ralph met up with a group of popular video game villains who were having trouble dealing with being the fall guy all the damn time. The contrast is used perfectly with Q*Bert: In Wreck-It Ralph, Q*Bert was a sympathetic character whose game got taken away from the arcade. We felt for him because he got placed into a bad situation, but later he was the one who clued Felix in to what Ralph was up to. In Pixels, Q*Bert is given away by the aliens as a prize. He’s more or less a MacGuffin, and Pixels movie laws can’t figure out what to do with him. He gives the good guys some useful information after the bad guys give him away, only for the bad guys to refer to him as a traitor after he does so. Um, hey aliens, you do realize Q*Bert was simply playing by your own rules, right? Then he turns into a permanent version of Lady Lisa for Ludlow at the end, a creepy turn of events which even the movie calls itself out for!

This isn’t to denounce Pixels completely. By any measure, the special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They rank right up there with Tron Legacy, Transformers, and those all-time barometers of movie special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Wars trilogy. They become the star in the final leg of the movie, and for a few brief shining moments, Pixels becomes tolerable. And despite my opening mocking Peter Dinklage’s casting, Dinklage is one of the few actors in Pixels who really throws himself into his part as Eddie Plant. Dinklage is delightfully over the top, and his performance – which channels the charismatic egomaniacism of the real Billy Mitchell – is such a joy to watch that it’s almost enough to rescue Pixels from being unwatchable. More moments with him and Pixels could have been elevated from bad bad into fun bad. Also, Sandler’s buddy, the insufferable Nick Swardson, isn’t in here to obliterate it. Unfortunately, it’s too little, and you’ll get more out of the two-minute short from Patrick Jean.

51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

In March of last year, Time Out Chicago published a list of particular sentences and thoughts which people who had lived in Chicago for awhile could use to identify you as not being from Chicago. People loved the damn thing, and I dropped into a few other city blogs to check if other places followed suit. New Orleans did, and Portland tried, although no one ever published a full list for that city. Now, its been about a year and a half since Time Out Chicago published it, and after giving it some thought, I’ve decided its time for a Buffalo booster to punch up a list of 51. True to Buffalo’s form, though, no one here seems to have found out about Time Out Chicago’s idea. Buffalo is, of course, always three decades behind the times and current trends, so although it took me a years and a half to create my own list in response, I’m actually well ahead of the curve in Buffalo time. Note that if you’re stupid enough to say some of these things in public here – like number six – the people in this city are legally obligated to kill you.

1 – “Buffalo wings.”

2 – “Let’s be honest: The Bills never stood a chance against the Giants in that Super Bowl anyway.”

3 – “Main Place Mall is obviously the best hangout spot. There’s always a lot to see there.”

4 – “Don’t worry about having beer if you get snowed in. Tea is a fine substitute.”

5 – “Why go all the way to Mighty Taco? Taco Bell is closer. It’s just as good.”

6 – “I’m glad Buffalo Wild Wings is in the area. They know how it’s done!”

7 – “Why go to Canada to drink underage? You can buy a perfectly good fake ID here.”

8 – “The NFTA is working exactly like it’s supposed to. It’s doing a great job.”

9 – “I got caught in a traffic jam on the skyway during rush hour.”

10 – “Dolphins are mammals, not fish!”

11 – “Buffalo ’66 needs a sequel.”

12 – “Call the ballpark by its proper name: Coca-Cola Field.”

13 – “Nobody gives a crap about Irish lineage!”

14 – “I’m sensing an impending boom in heavy industry.”

15 – “I just don’t understand the logic of carving a chunk of butter into a lamb shape.”

16 – “Look, I don’t know my neighbors, so I don’t see why I should dig them out of five feet of snow just because.”

17 – “The Convention Center really adds to the aesthetic of the city.”

18 – “UB’s North Campus is easy to get to. You just can’t miss it.”

19 – “Tim Horton may be a hockey legend, but his donuts suck.”

20 – “I would prefer the pleasant natural smells of a typical city downtown area to the Cheerio smell infesting our downtown.”

21 – “All those one-way streets make navigation downtown a snap!”

22 – “Albany really sticks its neck out for us. We’re lucky to have them.”

23 – “Why does everyone like Rob Ray so much? He was a thug who never did anything for the community!”

24 – “Not having salt potatoes for the Fourth of July barbeque isn’t the end of the world.”

25 – “Ani DiFranco? That name doesn’t ring any bells.”

26 – “Who could possibly go running in this snow?”

27 – “The people in University Heights are so quiet and well-mannered.”

28 – “Summer here is gross. An average high of 80 degrees? Way too high.”

29 – “The view from the American side is just as good.”

30 – “I wish we had more New York City-style pizza joints. They do the best pizza downstate.”

31 – “The Albright-Knox doesn’t have anything interesting.”

32 – “All those Wrights and Sullivans need to be razed for more modern steel buildings.”

33 – “The Skylon is perfect for a first date.”

34 – “The Taste of Buffalo is just a low-budget version of the Taste of Chicago.”

35 – “Coffee? Starbucks, of course!”

36 – “I’m glad Niagara Falls axed the Festival of Lights.”

37 – “The city’s 4 AM Closing Time is absurd and needs to be cut back a couple of hours.”

38 – “What’s a weck?”

39 – “No, I don’t think my relatives would be interested in seeing The Falls.”

40 – “You know, it wouldn’t kill anyone to hold the annual pond hockey tournament at an indoor rink for once.”

41 – “William McKinley had it coming.”

42 – “$700 for a single-bedroom apartment is a steal. If you get that price, jump on it.”

43 – “Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer? Overrated. Now The Buffalo News – there’s a shining beacon of great journalism!”

44 – “Three words when it comes to grocery shopping: Anywhere but Wegman’s.”

45 – “I wish Buffalo was more like New York City.”

46 – “The 1999 Stanley Cup Final was a long time ago and Brett Hull scored a good goal. Get over it!”

47 – “Another parking lot downtown would really improve the view.”

48 – “Don’t worry about potholes. They don’t exist here.”

49 – “Why would you move to North Carolina?”

50 – “I don’t see why this city thinks it’s so tough.”

51 – “I’m still waiting for Brian Higgins to run for President.”

No Cycling Allowed

No Cycling Allowed

I took to trudging across the Transit Road bridge recently and picked up six nails. SIX. This is one of the major quirks I developed after I turned into a cyclist: Every time I’m out just walking, I stop and pick up every nail and screw I see discarded along the side of a road. I certainly wouldn’t want anything sharp puncturing my tire, especially if I’m far from either my house or a bicycle shop where I can get a quick fix.

I don’t think I’m making some far-out, absurd request by wanting a road shoulder free of debris so I can ride my bicycle without worrying about anything. Finding nails and screws on the side of a bridge is a very special kind of weird, though, because it isn’t like anyone has their houses or garages set up along the shoulder of the bridge. Most of these dangerous video game spikey points aren’t old and worn out bits which fell off the back of an old pickup truck, either – they’re new and ready to make their first stabbin’. This begs the question of how these pieces of debris manage to find their way out onto a bridge which is suspended a hundred feet in the air and which takes five minutes to walk across on foot. This bridge is dangerous enough as it is; the shoulder is maybe 18 inches, and that’s a generous estimate. There’s no sidewalk, which I guess is natural of a spot designed to keep people away from civilization at every possible cost. The section of road the bridge is placed on is essentially a freeway, and the only other way to cross the creek at this section of it is to walk over a mile along a twisting road to a whole other bridge which also lacks a shoulder, but is elevated much lower and is much shorter.

When I pick up the screws and nails, I just throw them out. What I would like to do is throw them out in the middle of the street in the hopes that they start popping tires in endless succession. Maybe they could cause a pileup.

Okay, I’m just ranting right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that debris-filled road shoulders present one of those great frying-pan-or-fire dilemmas for cyclists: Do we risk getting run over in the main road, or risk the debris on the shoulder? The dilemma itself doesn’t exactly stand on its own, but is instead a symptom of a larger problem: The city’s problem with bicycling. This is something Buffalo like to pretend doesn’t exist, and the city’s boosters love to hold up the shiny Bronze-level award given to it by the League of American Bicyclists to say “look at how great we are to bicyclists!” The Bronze-level award, though, is basically a door prize. Here’s the uncomfortable truth regarding the bicycle-friendliness awards handed out by the League of American Bicyclists: That Bronze-level award is the lowest of five tiers of bicycle-friendly awards. To be fair, I’m assuming the requirements to meet the League’s top-level statuses are pretty demanding. The Diamond-level award, which is the top level, was handed to precisely zero cities. Platinum-level is the second-highest, and it was given out to only four cities: Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon. My thoughts on that selection go like this: First, you knew Portland was going to be there. Second, of those four cities, the places people would actually visit are Portland and maybe Boulder.

The further you get down the awards list, the more the League loves handing them out. The Silver-level tier has a whopping 75 cities on it. There are at least a couple hundred sitting on top of the Bronze-level seats. It’s clear the League is giving out its Bronze-level awards to any city that isn’t actively outlawing bicycling. The Bronze-level list also includes suburbs: Batavia and Naperville, relatively close suburbs of Chicago, both have Bronze-level awards. North Little Rock is pretty much exactly what and where is written on its tin, and is similarly honored even though the real Little Rock didn’t make the cut.

This begs the question: What creates a bicycle-friendly community? Although the League of American Bicyclists claims it decides for “providing safe accommodation and facilities for bicyclists and encouraging residents to bike for transportation and recreation,” it seems to be flying solely by infrastructure, which is a mistake. A few miles of bicycle paths doesn’t make a city bicycle-friendly, and let’s be honest: A few miles of bicycle paths don’t necessarily mean the city added bicycle paths, either. They mean the city painted a few arbitrary lines on a road which is sometimes a little too narrow, which can endanger the cyclists. One website recently called out a popular bicycle publication because the publication placed New York City at the top of its list of best cycling cities, even though the argument for the city’s bicycle scene consisted almost solely of bicycle paths.

A quick Google search pops up a single result for bicycle tours in Buffalo: Buffalo Pedal Tours. Buffalo Pedal Tours offers bicycle tours at a price that’s a steal… For Buffalo Pedal Tours. The privilege of having a professional guide show you the pedal-view of Buffalo is close to $150 per hour. In the meantime, Chicago has Free Tours by Foot, which is a misleading name that offers bicycle tours and still has a name-your-price option. Their website brags about tours which cost about $40 per person. Bobby’s Bike Hike’s most expensive tour is $60. Looking for bicycle rentals in Buffalo brings up five results, all of which are primarily dealers or mechanics. Chicago has nine or ten places where you can rent. Although most of them are also shops and mechanics, there are at least three that deal exclusively with rentals.

Let’s talk about the one factor no one wants to mention: Peoples’ attitudes toward bicycling. Attitude is the angry elephant. It’s the difference between an onlooker asking a few curious questions or assaulting you, and whether or not your assailant gets away with it. Buffalo’s attitude toward cycling is to basically liken it to a form of witchcraft. Even if those little nuts and bolts I mentioned in the opening were removed, cars in Buffalo are still mistaken for weapons when a cyclist is spotted on the side of the road. Those while lines which are supposed to designate the bicycle lanes are more or less suggestions, and if a motorist is approaching while particularly close to the side of the road, the chances of them moving or give or take, even if they have all the space in the world on the other side. Some of these people have the gall to honk or even scream at you on the way by. I ride my bicycle to visit my bank which, despite being several miles down the road, is only a half hour away on the pedal. The distance gets treated like some insurmountable obstacle course involving several canyons and volcanoes, even by people who know I once worked as a bicycle messenger and have therefore lost all concept of the term “cycling distance.”

You would think Buffalo would have a little more understanding of how useful bicycles are. They’re cheap, you don’t have to buy gas for them, they’re accessible to places you can’t get cars into, and the suburban infrastructure is basically laid out in a lot of places so the people have to cross the furthest possible distances to get to civilization. Then again, we’re up against gas and automobile companies which view anything less than living in your car as a blowout loss.

Buffalo isn’t anything close to an ideal bicycling city. For it to improve, we need to see a mass influx of better cycling services, more bicycle rental and tour places, trails that aren’t painted on, and a friendlier infrastructure. But for that to happen, the people also need to start looking at bicycling as something greater than a game they learned as kids.