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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Early Movie Memories
VHS Tape: The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the JediIn the most recent Filmspotting podcast, the hosts recount their top 5 early film memories. As you might imagine, their memories are peppered with early 80s standards like Drive-In theaters, The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Top Gun, and others.

One thing I realized about my early movie experiences is that none of them are memories of going to a movie theater. For whatever reason, my family didn't go to the theater that often when my brother and I were young. As such, most of my movies experiences came from HBO and the VCR. Since my parents recently cleaned out the VHS tape drawer, I got a hold of some of the old standards. For the most part, I've replaced these movies with DVDs, but I'll probably keep the tapes out of sentimental value. Anyway, without further delay, here are my top 5 early movie memories (in no particular order).
  • The Terminator: I could be wrong, but I believe this to be the first non-cartoon movie I ever saw. Not exactly children's fare, but it totally blew me away. When my family finally got a VCR, this was amongst the first movies we taped and I rewatched it countless times. We're talking at least triple digits here. To this day, this remains one of my favorite movies of all time.
  • The Last Starfighter: When my parents finally broke down and purchased a VCR, this was the first movie we taped. It's not fine cinema, but it's fun stuff and it was the first movie I watched and rewatched. Ultimately, I think we ended up taping over this, but it still holds a certain sentimental value (like The Terminator, it was one of the first non-cartoons I had seen). This film is also the source of one of the single geekiest moments of my adult life: this movie came up during a lunch discussion, and someone asked what that special weapon they used at the end of the movie was called. Without hesitation, I responded "Deathblossom." I don't know why I would remember such a thing, but it was quite a moment.
  • The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: Of course, these need to be on the list. More films that I captured on tape and watched over and over again (the tape label is pictured to the right). You'll note that the original Star Wars is not on the tape. This is because that movie wasn't on HBO that night, it was just Empire and Jedi. I don't think it would have fit on the tape anyway. Also worth noting is that this is the pre-special edition version of the films, complete with crappy composite special effects (particularly funny looking when it came to tie fighters - I wish I had a video card that had video inputs so I could really show the difference between the old and the new). Nevertheless, those were the versions of the film that I fell in love with. A pity that we'll probably never get those films re-released properly (and apparently the one coming in september is a crappy re-release of the old Laserdisc version). I vaguely remember this being in theaters (and the long lines stretching blocks away from the theater), though I was only 5 at the time and I'm pretty sure I didn't see it in the theater. In any case, a cherished part of my childhood movie experience.
  • Batman: This was definitely not the first film I saw in the theater, but it is one of the most memorable. It was the first time, I think, that the hype of Hollywood really got to me (and apparently everyone else) and seeing the movie in the theater was a ton of fun. I specifically remember this because my family was on vacation in Ohio (visiting relatives) and I was pretty sure I was going to miss opening weekend, but it seemed that the family was into the idea so we did end up seeing it on opening night. I remember loving the movie, though I think I've grown out of that opinion a bit. I still like it, but it's not as great as I once thought. In any case, this, to me was the start of hype and summer blockbusters for me. It seemed that there was a big movie like this every summer. I think I started to come down from that buzz by the time Terminator 2 let me down and the idea completely died with Independence Day.
  • Spaghetti Westerns: I vividly remember one summer where Cinemax was running a Western retrospective. I didn't much care for Westerns and never really got why John Wayne was such a star (and still don't, though I'm willing to bet I would if I went out and watched more of his movies!), but one Wednesday night at midnight, I caught For a Few Dollars More and it blew me away. Who knew a Western could be interesting? Come to think of it, this may have been a Clint Eastwood marathon too, because I remember watching a lot of his movies around the same time too. In any case, I remember the Spaghetti Westerns the most because they came on every Wednesday at midnight (and it was summer, so I didn't have to worry about getting up for school in the morning - this may have contributed to the appeal) and each successive one I saw was better than the last (though I think I watched them in the wrong order). The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was my favorite, and would probably show up in my favorite all time movies list...
  • Honorable Mentions: Ghostbusters, Real Genius (I actually tried to build a laser after watching this movie. Unfortunately, flashlights and magnifying glasses do not a laser make.), Back to the Future, Top Gun, Commando, Predator, and Trading Places. Special notice goes to Halloween and Aliens for introducing me to the horror genre (I was a scaredy cat for most of my childhood, but those films started an interest that still holds today. I was forced to watch Halloween on, well, Halloween night one year when I was staying with a friend. I watched Aliens because someone told me that it was made by the same people that made The Terminator... In both cases, I realized that I liked the tension of the experience, and so I got over my fear of horror villains and monsters and started devouring horror movies). Really, there are a ton of others and I'm probably leaving some out here, but those were the ones that came to mind...
Because the grand majority of these were not seen in the theater, I find it difficult to place these experiences on a timeline. I saw most of them on cable (HBO for a time, then we switched to Cinemax when the family moved), which means it could be anytime up to a few years (and in some cases, a few decades) after the film was originally released (I had this same issue with my Atari retrospective because I only got gaming systems once the price came down significantly, so all my memories are displaced by a few years).

Also, there really needs to be an easier way to insert IMDB links into an entry or something. It looks like there might be some Movable Type hacks for this, but nothing that looks too comprehensive or stable. Maybe I should put on my programmer's hat for a change (but don't count on it).

Feel free to post your early movie memories in the comments!
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2006 at 08:36 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Via Twenty Sided (by way of Lileks):
Mike Nelson, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame, has a new project out called Rifftrax. It’s a continuation of the MST3k theme, except that you have to provide the movie yourself. You rent whatever movie he’s riffing on, and watch the movie while you listen to his comments on your iPod.

Unlike in MST3k, he doesn’t need permission from the owners of the movie to do it, which means he can take on larger, more mainstream and big-budget films that would never give their consent to a MST3k-style airing.
As Shamus notes, this is brilliant and it allows the opportunity to make fun of movies that would never show on MST3k because of licensing fees. Imagine all the big-budget crap that comes out, made better by some quality MST3king. Shamus mentions Star Wars, which would make a great candidate, but to be honest, I think MST3k could work with any movie, even a really good one. Let's see an MST3k of The Godfather or Pulp Fiction. It's easy to make fun of movies with bad writing, acting, and direction. Let's see something good get slaughtered.

Though this is the first I'm hearing of the idea, it's apparently something of a trend, complete with overactive fan base (with way too much time on their hands) and even software to aid in synchronization. Also, it appears that Kevin Smith will be releasing his own commentary for Clerks II on iTunes (though I can't seem to find it), perhaps in an attempt to get people to see the movie multiple times in theaters.

Have I ever mentioned that Kevin Smith's commentaries are the best examples of the oft-maligned DVD commentary genre I've ever heard? There are tons of crappy commentaries out there on special edition DVDs, and a lot of mediocre ones, but Kevin Smith's are almost as good as his movies (to some of you, I'm sure that's not saying much, but I really enjoy both his movies and his commentaries). He's even great when he does the commentary for movies other than his own, like Donnie Darko (and he's apparently provided commentary for a newly-released deluxe edition of Road House. Yes, that Road House.) The idea of letting someone who's just a fan provide a commentary is a great one, though you rarely see it (indeed, it appears that Mike Nelson has provided a commentary track for a recent release of Plan 9 from Outer Space).

Speaking of Kevin Smith, this whole Joel Siegel thing is a riot, mostly because of Smith's response:
So last night, at a press screening of “Clerks II” in New York City, “Good Morning America” movie critic Joel Siegel decided he’d had enough of my shenanigans, and walked out of the flick at the forty minute mark. You’d imagine this would bother me, and yet, I’m as delighted by this news as I was with the eight minute standing ovation “Clerks II” received in Cannes.

I mean, it’s Joel Siegel, for Christ’s sake. As Paul Thomas Anderson once said of the man, getting a bad review from Siegel is like a badge of honor.
Read the whole thing, and then listen to the Audio clip of the Opie and Anthony Show where Siegel and Smith go at it (the clip is at the bottom of Smith's Response). It is downright hilarious. Clerks II is also pretty good, if you're in the mood for a raunchy comedy.
Posted by Mark on July 23, 2006 at 08:00 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The main body of text in many books is often preceded by an introduction. For most of my life, I have pretty much ignored introductions, for a number of reasons:
  • The types of books that have introductions are generally somewhat old literature. As such, the tone of these introductions is somewhat stuffy, academic, and, quite frankly, boring.
  • I tend to read mostly fiction, and the introduction is often written as if the reader has already read the main text. This sometimes has the effect of ruining some of the story and making me wonder why it's at the beginning of the book (on the other hand, it can also be useful to start reading a book while having a basic understanding of the story or, in more pretentious terms, it aids in the Hermeneutic Circle).
  • The grand majority of these types of books were read in school, which tells you how much motivation I had to read the introduction. They weren't required reading and I generally got the necessary context and analysis in class from my professor.
The most important of these, I think, is the latter. In school, I learned the benefits of placing a historical work in its cultural and historical context, most notably with respect to the Bible (a book that reads much differently when you know it's cultural and histoical context), but this was almost always done as an exercise in class and not by reading some dull introduction.

Since I graduated, I have read some introductions, but usually after I have read the novel. I sometimes found this rewarding, as with Thomas Pynchon's introduction to 1984 and China Miļæ½ville's introduction to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, but I don't know that I would have appreciated them much had I read them before the main text. This always confused me about introductions.

In any case, about a month ago, I picked up The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, which recounts a 1527 expedition to America. As you might expect from what amounts to a translated 16th century history book, it was somewhat slow going. Of course, I had skipped the introduction entirely, for reasons I've already belabored. I immediately lost interest and moved on to something else (plus, I had to travel, and such material doesn't make good airplane reading even if I did find it interesting). So a few days ago, I picked it up again and started reading the introduction (which I just finished now). It has that stuffy academic feel to it, but once I got into it, it started to shed some real light on the text.

There were a lot of things that initially mystified me about the main text, but which now made sense because of certain contextual clues in the Introduction. For instance, there are two versions of the book, one written explicitely for the Holy Roman Emporer Charles V in 1542, the other an edited version split into chapters with titles and a new preface targeting a broader readership in 1555 (the text had not changed much, but the preface did). This explains some of the "formality and decorum" of the account, and it's noteworthy that Cabeza de Vaca used his book as a sort of resume; he was trying to garner support for another expedition to the Indies (which would place his story under a bit of suspicion, though it apparently has been corroborated by multiple accounts.)

All of which is to say that the Intoduction for this book, unlike most books I've read, was actually useful before reading the book. It's still got that stuffy academic tone, and it is perhaps a bit too long (38 pages as compared to the ~140 pages of the main story), but it still did a decent job. I wonder if my observations make any sense, in that they are borne almost entirely out of ignorance, but in any case, all that remains for me is to actually read Cabeza de Vaca's account (this time secure in the knowledge that I actually understand what's going on from a cultural and historical context). I can already see that it will be less mystifying and more interesting this time around.
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2006 at 11:58 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

God of War
For the past few weeks, I've been playing the PS2 game God of War. It's quite good, though I'm not sure it reaches the astronomical heights that most reviews seem to place it. It does a lot of things right, but there are some aspects of the game that are downright annoying. I'm more of a casual gamer, and to be honest, I'm not to familiar with action/adventure games like this (I've never even played any of the Tomb Raider games), so it's possible that I'm blowing some of this out of proportion.

Based on Greek Mythology, the game focuses on fighting and puzzle solving, with the occassional cutscene and annoying jumping/balancing exercise. It's a pretty brutal game, in terms of adult content and themes, so be warned. When I bought the game, the store clerk said "Ahh, good game, good game. Easy to learn, hard to master." Yeah, he's obviously a tool, but it actually makes sense. It's easy to get going, but to progress far in the game, you will need to master some of the more obscure elements of gameplay. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
  • Combat: The mechanics of combat are intuitive, easy to learn, and fun to use. This is a good thing, because fighting represents the majority of the game, and indeed it is the funnest thing about the game. Your main weapon is a pair of blades that are attached to your arms with chains, thus giving the ability to swing them at a distance. Later on, you get access to other weapons and magical spells. The system works extremely well, allowing you to do certain attack combinations that do more damage or take on a more defensive posture. When fighting big enemies and bosses, once you reduce their heal level to a certain point, you're given a certain sequence of buttons to push (or other actions). These "mini-games" might not sound like a lot of fun, but they actually are. All in all, the combat system is very well thought out and fun to use.
  • Bosses: I had to single out the bosses from the combat section because these enemies are just a blast to fight. Unfortunatly, there are only three bosses in the game... but they're all great. The first boss is the Hydra, and it's a very well conceived combat sequence, with multiple stages that are both challenging and fun. The second boss (don't know what this one is called) is not as elaborate (and the circular motions required in the "mini-game" takedown were a pain to get right), but was also more challenging due to the fact that I had very little life or magic power left. Still the animations were great, and the way you had to kill the thing was neat. The final boss is Ares, the Greek God of War (more about this will be mentioned below in the story section), and this is another one of the multi-stage bosses. Like the other bosses, each stage is challenging and fun. For some reason, defeating Ares was surprisingly easy for me. The first stage wasn't that hard, though I died on my first try. The second stage had me worried for a bit, but I got through it without dying (Thank you, Army of Hades! That spell saved my ass on the first two stages.) Now, the third stage, that took me about 10 seconds to defeat. I must have just gotten lucky or something. Still, it was great fun and one of the best parts of the game.
  • Puzzles: The game interweaves various puzzles with the action sequences and cutscenes, a feature I'm told is common with other action/adventure games. The pacing of the game is excellent as it never gets carried away with any particular type of gameplay, and it cycles through them often enough to keep you interested. The puzzles themselves are often interesting and sometimes challenging. Maybe a couple of them are too challenging, but I was able to get past all of them eventually. Many involve pushing or aligning blocks, or depressing buttons on the ground to trigger various contraptions. It's funny how games these days try so hard to eschew the "Find the Key" dynamic present in so many earlier games... keys are so boring, you know? But there are a couple of equivalent things in action here. That's not a problem with the game, and in fact, most of the triggers are rather clever and well thought out.
  • Obstacles: Along with combat and puzzles, the game will sometimes throw in some obstacles that you need to jump over, climb up, or balance-walk across. For the most part, these tasks are just exercises in tedium. For example, towards the end of the game, you end up trying to escape from Hades. This is the most obsctacle-laden level of them all, and the most frustrating part of the game. One particular obstacle really got on my nerves. Towards the end of the level, you have to climb up these spinning cylinders and they have spikes where if you touch one of them, you fall all the way back down to the bottom (you have to climb a long way's up too). After I fell off for the 100th time, I almost turned off the game forever and put in the new Castlevania game. Eventually, I got through it, but what ended up happening was that I had mostly memorized the rotations and blade positions. That's just stupid. Most of these tasks were just as annoying and basically fell into the Do it again, stupid! theory of game design. It's the worst part of the game. Thankfully, the truly frustrating ones don't occur that often.
  • The Camera: One other thing that annoyed me was the inability to control the camera. I always wanted to be looking around, and there were even times in the game where the designers knew you couldn't see an area and used that in their designs. Frustratingly, some of the walk-the-plank obstacles were made more difficult because of the position of the camera. Most of the time though, the camera was ok (and sometimes, like when you're walking down a spiral staircase, it looks fantastic), but it was disorienting when I started playing. I'm used to being able to look where I want. Also, there were times when their cues for what to do next were kinda difficult to find. For instance, when running around in Athens, you get to a roadblock. It took me a good 5 minutes or so (an eternity when playing a game) before I figured out that you could just cut the barricade down. Then it took another 5 minutes to spot the tiny rope that lets you swing across the ditch. Frustrating. I have to admit though, that for a fixed camera game, they do a pretty good job (I just don't like it).
  • Visuals and Audio: The designs in the game are extremely well done, from the main hero to the various beasties to the ancient Greek architecture and landscapes. Interweaved with the combat and the puzzles (ok, and the annoying obstacles) are various cutscenes which also look great. Everything about the game just looks fantastic, which I think is something of a rarity. The audio is also very good, though it gets a little repetitive. A little more variety would be nice, but what's there is great.
  • Story: The story is mostly told in the cutscenes, which are thoughtfully spaced out throughout the game, further contributing to the game's well paced experience. The story is a little on the dark and brutal side, and indeed the game has all sorts of adult themes including very graphic violence and even nudity. The main character, Kratos, isn't that likeable of a guy (except in asmuch as he's a badass and his end goals are noble), but once his background gets filled in a bit, he becomes a little more understandable. For those not worried about spoilers, the story fleshes out how Kratos came to make a deal with Ares, the Greek God of War, and how Ares eventually betrayed Kratos, who vowed revenge. Ares seems to be a little upset with his father (Zeus) and Athena, as you see Ares laying waste to Athens all throughout the game. The other Gods aid you in your quest to destroy Hades. One mildly annoying thing about the story is that the end-goal of the game is to destroy Ares, and you encounter him very early on in the game... only to be wisked away to a labrynth to get Pandora's Box (which you need to defeat Ares). The majority of the game is encompassed with finding Pandora's Box, and then once you find it, you're sent down to Hades. So the game basically feels like it's moving the goalposts all the time. As I said, it's a minor quibble, but I did find it a bit odd.
  • Usability: One of the most impressive things about the game is the lack of "Loading..." prompts (bane of the PS2). The game seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes and back again, giving the game a much more immersive quality than most others I've played (I assume this is accomplished with the use of precaching techniques). As I've already mentioned, the game is very well paced, deftly switching between combat, puzzles, obstacles, and cutscenes. Save points are well spaced too, and the game includes various auto-save features that make some of the more frustrating battles or obstacles much easier to deal with. The combat system and gameplay is simple, yet deceptively powerful. The game explains how to accomplish most tasks as you go, so there's no need to rtfm. The menus, text screens and other prompts that come up are easy to read and use. Many of these things are typically overlooked in games like this, with the developers choosing to spend most of the time on the graphics or the animation. To have a game with both excellent visual design and usability is pretty impressive.
Overall, it's a great game, but there are a few flaws that I'm surprised are not noted more in reviews. Or, I should say, in the ratings, as many reviews I've read call out the problem areas, but still end up rating it in the astronomical 9.5-10 range. I guess the game does so many things so well that it's hard to give it a worse rating, but I'd be fine giving it a rating between 9-9.5...

After completing God of War, I've moved on to the latest Castlevania game, which is theoretically in the same action/adventure category as God of War. However, it's a distinct step down. It's not that it's a bad game (though I suppose I haven't played enough to really make up my mind), it's just that it immediately rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, you're not playing one of the Belmonts. A trivial point, to be sure, but the person I'm playing is a bit of a tool (and the story is correspondingly lame). The attacks and combinations are nowhere near as fun as GoW, and the level design seems to be much more monotonous. I have a feeling that it won't be long before I'm begging for one of those annoying "do it again, stupid" exercises in GoW. The other thing that was immediately and noticeably annoying was that every time you go into a different room, you have to endure a "Loading..." screen. This is one of those things that I loved about God of War, but I think I started to take for granted. Comparatively, this game stinks... so perhaps the high ratings weren't too high after all.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2006 at 06:26 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Big U and Journalists
I finished reading The Big U (Neal Stephenson's first novel) tonight. Stephenson himself describes this as "a juvenile work," and now that I have finished it, I can see where he's coming from. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but the story becomes a bit unhinged towards the end. At the beginning of the book, it's obviously a satire, but as the story progresses things begin to slow down a bit and Stephenson starts to take the satire over-the-top in an attempt to compensate. Each chapter in the book corresponds to a month of the school year, starting in September and ending in May. By the time you get to November/December, things slow down a bit, and in March things begin to get a bit more absurd... this leads to a sudden (absurd) explosion of events in April, followed by the conclusion in May. Again, I enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would be turned off by the sudden turn of events. Sure, it's ridiculous, but if you can get past that, there are still a few gems along the same lines as the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago...

Spoilers ahoy, if you care...

So at the beginning of April, an all out war breaks out in the Plex (for those who don't know what the plex is, see my last entry). By "all out war," I mean a literal war, with guns and bombs and plenty of deaths. Various groups of students, administration officials, and the bizzarre Crotobaltislavonians (yet another of Stephenson's fictional nationalities) have fought it out and carved up their own spheres of influence. Things have calmed down a bit, and the narrarator is making a trek towards the library to recover a fellow professor's research notes (this is an absurd motive, but everything is so surreal at this point that I was willing to let it ride). To reach the library, they must cross several "stable academic blocs" including the journalism bloc. The journalists have negotiated several treaties with various other blocs in exchange for safe passage and weapons for their guards. In exchange for an interview and allowing a camera crew to follow them, our narrarator's group is able to make it through the journalism zone. The narrarator has some questions:
"You've got a hell of a lot of firepower. You guys are the most powerful force in the Plex. How are you using it?"

The student shrugged. "What do you mean? We protect our crews and equipment. All the barbarians are afraid of us."

"Right, obviously," I said. "But I noticed recently that a lot of people around here are starving, being raped, murdered -- you know, a lot of bum out stuff. Do those guards try to help out? You can spare a few."

"Well, I don't know," he said uncomfortably. That's kind of network-level policy. It goes against the agreement. We can go anywhere as long as we don't interfere. If we interfere, no agreement."

"But if you've already negotiated one agreement, can't you do more? Get some doctors into the building maybe?"

"No way, man. No fucking way. We journalists have ethics."
Heh. Again, this book was published in 1984. Was that considered over-the-top satire at the time? Seems rather tame by today's standards.

Stephenson has a reputation for bad endings that just sort of happen without warning, but that doesn't really happen here. To be sure, it's not a great ending (like the rest of the book, it's slightly absurd as it hinges off of one of the groups' fanatical religious devotion to a giant neon sign), but it was better than expected. Overall, I'd say the book is worth reading for die-hard Stephenson fans and maybe geeky folks who don't mind that he goes off the deep end about 200 pages in...
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2006 at 11:58 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Recent Viewings

At first I thought I would fill this guest spot with something connected to the recent theme of video games as art but it would appear I had less to add to that topic than I thought so, without further ado, I've decided to review and compare two films based on the same story, having recently finished watching them both:

I had watched Red Dragon a few weeks before, which I liked well enough, but I was curious to see Manhunter not only because it was the first time this story had been converted to a film but also because it was directed by Michael Mann, whose later films I've found expertly directed (particularly Heat, which I consider one of my favorites).

I was surprised at first by how similar the two films are on the surface, sharing a good deal of dialogue and basic story line, but where the two really differ seems to be character focus and intent in shooting. While both films follow the character of Will Graham (played by Edward Norton in the latter adaptation and William Petersen in the earlier) as he tracks down a serial killer, Red Dragon spreads the focus out, capitalizing on the gravitas of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and showing off who the killer is and how he goes about his life early on. Manhunter is strictly focused on the character of Will Graham, how he hunts serial killers, and the psychological issues he creates for himself in doing so by forcing himself to think just as they do. The Will Graham in Red Dragon seems like he could be any highly skilled FBI agent while the Will Graham in Manhunter comes across as someone with a unique skill. It makes sense in Manhunter for one of Graham's collegues to so desperately want him to work on a particular case.

In terms of how each film is shot, Manhunter clearly aims to be an artistic piece. There are long, thoughtful type shots, ambient drone-ish music to complement them (aside from the few times some 80s pop song works its way in), and the film as a whole has this feel that it aims to be something heavier than just the telling of a story. Red Dragon comes across more as the basic telling of a story, which is not to say it lacks production values or good acting, but that it doesn't present itself as being hard-hitting beyond 'here's Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter again!' and 'here's another crazy serial killer!'

Unfortunately, the artistic intent of Manhunter seems to go a bit over the top at times and the worst of these moments is the climax of the film. The finally realized confrontation between Will Graham and the Red Dragon killer is plagued with repetitions of shots during the fight and the overuse of slow motion. A scene following this climax, meant to further illustrate Graham's psychological issues with getting into the minds of those he hunts, only comes across as awkward rather than ominous. These two troubled scenes would probably bother me a lot less if they didn't come at such a crucial time in the film.

Nevertheless, Manhunter is certainly a film worth checking out, moreso than its newer counterpart. As a Michael Mann fan, it's also interesting to see his particular style of film-making when it was less developed (such as shots reminiscent of those he would make in later films but not quite as refined as they would become). I also found Brian Cox to be a surprisingly effective Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins no doubt nailed the role in Silence of the Lambs but considering the character's role in the Manhunter/Red Dragon story, I thought Brian Cox presented a more menancing Hannibal than Hopkins did in Red Dragon. I think this is likely due to expectation. When presented with Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon, we're expecting the same level of intelligent malevolence we were shown in Silence of the Lambs. This story doesn't belong to Hannibal Lecter however, and his small but influential role in Manhunter comes across more poignantly than it does in Red Dragon, where it seems the character is given more screen time than necessary simply because of who he is and who he's played by.

Posted by DyRE on July 09, 2006 at 08:45 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Another Guest Blogger
I'll be travelling yet again this weekend and thus won't have much time to blog. However, long time Kaedrin compatriot DyRE will be posting in my absence (at least once on Sunday, as per the schedule). I feel confident that DyRE's geek credentials will more that suffice. Have a good weekend everyone!
Posted by Mark on July 07, 2006 at 12:14 AM .: link :.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More on Video Games & Art
Last week, guest poster Samael explored some interesting ground regarding the artistic merits of video games. Like Sam, I agree that it's quite possible to argue that some games (though perhaps not all) have some value as art, even if they are mass entertainment. This week, I ran across a couple of links which I think add to the discussion nicely:
  • The Ten Greatest Years in Gaming: It's an interesting list, in part, because I never considered any of these years particularly great. Why? Because I was never a bleeding edge gamer. For example, the first year they mention (1977) was before I was even born. 1986 started the NES trend, but I didn't get mine until 3-4 years later. What this really means is that my favorite years are lagging behind the actual years... An interesting note, in 1993, when technology had progressed enough that games began to take on more artistic characteristics:
    CD-ROM drives were now available, and people bought them en masse, bolstered to a large extent by Nintendo PlayStation almost-ran Myst – a game which would become, and remain for some years, the highest-selling PC game of all time. Between Myst and The 7th Guest, the template was essentially down for mass-market PC games: actors, big budgets, ray-traced graphics, and arbitrary puzzles. It all seemed neat at first. They were almost like movies!
    When you look at some of the things that were done (and are still being done) in gaming, it's difficult to categorize their artistic merits. Take Silent Hill 2 (from 2001):
    Every element in the game, from the inventory to the monsters, reflected an element of the main character's personality. Every action the player took – even inaction – was tracked and analyzed in psychological terms. Depending on what the player's actions said about the main character's state of mind, the game ultimately read a different motive for the protagonist, therefore gave him a different conclusion to his journey.
    So this game is not only telling a story, it's changing the story on the fly based on how you play the game. I've never actually played that game, but it sounds like art to me, and it sounds like it's something that goes above and beyond traditional art (which I guess you'd expect from a more interactive medium). Other games that year played with people's perceptions and otherwise began to show a more mature
    Those new fans were mostly made up of people who had been growing restless with the brainless, essentially unquestioning nature of videogames to date – those Nintendo fans who had grown older still and now were looking for some deeper meaning in their hobby – not so much legitimacy as an art form, as just some kind of actual inspiration – some emotional or intellectual meat to keep them interested. And this was the year that they started to get their wish; that, in place of real hardware or design innovations, videogames began to innovate in the realm of mature expression.

    People started to think differently of videogames: thus the (frankly kind of misguided) "games as art" and "new games journalism" movements. People began to write about them differently, analyze them differently. Take them more seriously – because games were starting to appear that were worth taking seriously. And there was much conflict.
    Have we really turned the corner, though? Gaming has certainly grown a lot over the years, to the point where I think a lot of games can tell a story that is worth telling, but is the medium where it really needs to be? This leads to the next article I ran across:
  • Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet): John Scalzi responds to the question of why video games, today's dominant form of mass entertainment, have yet to develop a body of interesting criticism. Scalzi is extremely thorough in answering the question. For example, video games haven't been around all that long:
    Video games are no longer anywhere near new -- the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary -- but it's only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it's only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we're talking less than a decade's worth of games worthy of criticism.

    Now, let's go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism -- and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.
    Another reason we don't have prominent critics:
    You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you've got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You're done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.
    The post is excellent and highly recommended.
  • The End of the Affair: Tying in more with the Novelty discussion from a few weeks ago, Clive Anderson's article in Wired begins with a perfect example:
    One day a few weeks ago, I picked up Burnout: Revenge -- the superb new car-racing and -smashing game -- and within an hour I was hooked. I abandoned all work, blew my writing deadlines and ignored my wife. The few moments when I could pry myself from the console, I'd fantasize about when I could return. It seemed like I'd never be able to stop, and indeed, like any addict, I didn't want to.

    Until suddenly, after two weeks of monomaniacal play, everything ended. I finished a three-hour binge of racing, clicked off my Playstation 2, and ... it was over. My compulsion had vanished. I still enjoyed the game, and had plenty more challenges to complete. But I didn't need to play it any more.
    I think we've all had this experience with a few games. A little while ago, I wrote a series of posts on the excellent Galactic Civilizations II, which I had played almost non-stop for a few weeks... but then, I haven't played the game since then. This happens all the time. In fact, I recently picked up God of War for the playstation 2. I've played for a significant portion of the weekend and enjoyed myself (for the most part), but I can already feel it slipping from my consciousness. If I haven't finished the game in a week or so, I doubt I ever will...
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2006 at 07:46 PM .: link :.

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