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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Animation Marathon: Grave of the Fireflies
Of the six films chosen for the Animation Marathon, Grave of the Fireflies was the only one that I hadn't heard much about. The only thing I knew about it was that it was sad. Infamously sad. After watching the movie, I can say that it certainly does live up to those expecations. It's a heartbreaking movie, all the moreso because it's animated. Spoilers ahead...

The film begins by showing us a 14 year old boy lying dead on a subway platform, so you can't really say that the filmmakers were trying to hide the tragedy in this film. The boy's name is Seita, and through flashbacks, we learn how he came to meet his end. Set during the last days of World War II, the story is kicked off by the American firebombing of Seita's city. Seita's father is in the Japanese Navy and Seita's mother is horribly wounded by bombing, eventually succumbing to her wounds. The entire city is destroyed, leaving Seita and his little 4 year old sister Setsuko homeless. For a time, they take refuge with an Aunt, who seems nice at first, but gets grumpier as she realizes that Seita isn't willing to contribute to the war effort, or to help around the house. Eventually, Seita finds an unused bomb shelter where he can live with his sister without being a burden on their Aunt. It being wartime, food is scarce, and Seita struggles and ultimately fails to support his sister.

This isn't quite like any other animated movie I've ever seen. It's a powerful and evocative film. It has moments of great beauty, even though it's also quite sad. It displays a patience that's not common in animated movies. There are contemplative pauses. Characters and their actions are allowed time to breath. The animations are often visually striking, even when they're used in service of less-than-pleasant events (such as the landscape shot of the city as it burns).

After I finished the film, I was infurated. Obviously no one really enjoys watching two kids starve, suffer, and die after losing their family and home to a war, but it's not just sad. As I said before, it's infuriating. I was so pissed off at Seita because he made a lot of boneheaded, prideful decisions that were ultimately responsible for the death of his sister (and eventually, himself). At one point in the film, as Seita begs a farmer for food, the farmer tells him to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt. Seita refuses, and hence the tragedy. But at least he's young and thus reckless, which is understandable. While I was upset at Seita's actions, I really couldn't blame only him and the film did prompt some empathy for that character. I can't say the same of the Aunt. Who lets two young kids go off to live by themselves in wartime? Yeah, Seita wasn't pulling his weight, but hell, your job as an adult is to teach children about responsibilities... It was wartime for crying out loud. There had to be plenty to do. Yeah, it's sad. Especially when it comes to Setsuko, who was only 4 years old. But other than that, it was infuriating, and I wasn't sure how I was going to rate the movie. Then I read about some context in the Onion A.V. Club review of the movie (emphasis mine):
Adapting a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata scripted and directed Fireflies while his Studio Ghibli partner, Hayao Miyazaki, was scripting and directing his own classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The two films were produced and screened as a package, because Totoro was considered a difficult sell, while Fireflies, as an "educational" adaptation of a well-known historical book, had a guaranteed audience. But while both films won high praise at home and abroad, it's hard to imagine the initial impact of watching them back to back. Totoro is a bubbly, joyous film about the wonders of childhood, while Fireflies follows two children as they starve, suffer, and die after American planes firebomb their town.

...Nosaka, who lost his own young sister under similar circumstances, apparently intended his book in part to chronicle his shameful pride, while Takahata explains ... that he wanted viewers to learn a moral lesson from Seita's hubris. Instead, he reports, they mostly sympathized with the boy, which is easy to do.
It turns out that my feelings about the film were exactly what the filmmakers were going for, which kinda turned me around and made me realize that the film really is brilliant (in other words, my expecation of the film as having to be "Sad" made me feel strange because, while it was certainly sad, it was also infuriating. Now that I know the infurating part was intentional, it makes a lot more sense.) As the Onion article brilliantly summarizes, "not so much an anti-war statement as it is a protest against basic human selfishness, and the way it only worsens during trying times." And that's sad, but it's also quite annoying.

The animation is very well done, and while some might think that something this serious would not be appropriate in animation, I'm not sure it would work any other way. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film shows the two children using fireflies to light their abandoned bomb shelter. It's a scene I think would look cheesy and fake in a live action film, but which works wonderfully in an animated film. Roger Ebert describes it well:
It isn't the typical material of animation. But for "Grave of the Fireflies," I think animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. Animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination more play; freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations.
In the end, while this is definitely an excellent film, I find it difficult to actually recommend it (for what I hope are obvious reasons). This type of movie is not for everyone, and while I do think it is brilliantly executed, I don't especially want to watch it again. Ever. In an odd sort of way, that's a testament to how well the film does what it does. (***1/2)

Filmspotting's review is not up yet, but should be up tomorrow. Check it out, as they are also reviewing The Fountain (which I reviewed on Monday).

(In a strange stroke of coincidence, I had actually watched Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro just a few days before Fireflies, not quite mimicking the back to back screenings mentioned in the Onion article, but close enough to know that it was an odd combo indeed (and I can't imagine the playful and fun Totoro being a "harder sell" than the gut-punch of Fireflies.))
Posted by Mark on November 29, 2006 at 11:25 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Fountain
Emergent systems fascinate me. Systems comprised of a number of simpler parts acting together often develop more complex behaviours as a collective than they would by themselves. In simple terms, these systems are more than the sum of their parts.

After watching Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited The Fountain, I couldn't help but think that it is less than the sum of its parts. If you break the film down into its various pieces, you'll find some technically impressive work. Almost every aspect of this film is done incredibly well. Yet somehow, when you add it all up, something is missing. It's one of the most visually stunning films I've seen in years, and all the technical aspects of that (cinematography, photography, special effects (which were not CGI) etc...) are exceptionally well done. I was seriously slack-jawed at the visual compositions for much of the movie (the same way I am when I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that The Fountain owes a great debt to). In short, it's an absolutely gorgeous film (watch the trailer for a taste - interestingly, the trailer is almost a microcosm of the film itself - it's also gorgeous, but I can't imagine most people being swayed by anything by the visuals). The music was fantastic. The acting was great. The story was rather simplistic, but it's not like a traditonal love story can't be interesting. Ultimately, it's probably the story and the characterization that is at fault here, though I'm not really sure why. Spoilers ahead, for those who care...

The story's science fiction elements have been played up in the marketing, which stresses the three major time periods in which the film takes place (1500 A.D., 2000 A.D., and 2500 A.D.) and asks "What if you could live forever?" But the film's primary focus is on the contemporary setting, where Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist working to find a way to treat his wife, Izzie (Rachel Weisz), who has an inoperable brain tumor. Izzy, it turns out, is writing a novel about a Spanish Queen (also played by Weisz) who sends a Conquistador (also played by Jackman) on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. And the future plot thread shows a bald man (also Jackman) travelling through space in a neat looking orb (his only passenger being a neat looking tree). It's unclear if the futuristic portion of the film is a continuation of Izzie's novel, or if it is really happening. In any case, both the past and future portions of the film exist to emphasise what happens in the contemporary portion of the film. There are obvious parallels in each of the narratives.

There's a lot to chew on here, which is part of why my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, the film displays such a rich and ambitious vision that's difficult to deny. On the other hand, the rampant symbolism and split narrative structure seems to distract from the story rather than enhance it. In an interview, Aronofsky described the story thusly:
I think it’s a really simple love story at the core. It’s really about a man and a woman in love. One of them is going away and the other one’s not coming to terms with it. Eventually he does come to terms with it. There’s sort of a big anti-thinking, anti-intellectual message in the film even though it’s kind of told in a very different way that you think it makes you think. It’s really very simple the film and that’s why I kind of messed with the structure, taking a very simple idea but then encasing it in a puzzle structure that makes people think about how it all fits together and talk about how it fits together. But at the core it’s a very simple emotional story I think.
I think perhaps he got a bit carried away messing with the structure, as I found myself more interested in decoding the visual language of the film than the actual characters in the film. There are some moments of levity in which you see the love these characters have for one another and there are some interesting dynamics to their relationship, but these details aren't fleshed out very much. Maybe because of that, I didn't really connect on an emotional level (though there are instances in which I do, they are ultimately fleeting). I could recognize the emotion on an intellectual level, but I wasn't able to fully lose myself in the story.

This movie is certainly not for everyone. Lots of people will see it as a pretentious art film filled with pompous, but beautiful, imagery (I think even the films detractors recognize Aronofsky's visual flare). Some will note that they didn't want to see Hugh Jackman cry for an hour and a half. However, I'm willing to bet that it will make lots of critics' best of the year lists, and despite my objections, I'm not sure they're wrong to include it. The film snob in me acknowledges the technical brilliance of the film, but the populist in me simply doesn't buy it. Symbolism, visual density, ambition, and ambiguity are good things, and they're all evident in this film, but it's possible to go overboard and you need something more than just those things. I feel like something is definitely missing. Maybe after repeated viewings, I won't feel that way. There are a lot of visuals to parse in the film, moreso than in others, but I'm not sure that will be enough.

This is Aronofsky's third feature film and even though I don't think The Fountain is as much of a success as his first two films, my opinion of him hasn't changed much. I'm still looking forward to whatever he makes next, and I'm confident that it will be worth seeing. If I were to consider it a strike, it would be a foul ball - one that narrowly missed the pole in left field too (so close that I had trouble seeing it at first). He definitely made solid contact, but something was just a little off. Otherwise, it would have been out of the park. (**1/2)
Posted by Mark on November 27, 2006 at 09:33 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Animation Marathon: Watership Down
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Filmspotting (a great movie themed podcast) was going to do an Animation Marathon where they viewed six important animation films that they have not yet seen (see my original post for the full list of movies and my initial thoughts). (I meant to post this around the same time Filmspotting posted their review (the review doesn't start until about 1 hour into that episode), but the holiday complicated matters a bit, so this is actually a few days after their review.)

The first film in the marathon was Watership Down, an adaptation of the novel by Richard Adams. With a glance at the plot summary, this looks to be a little like a typical Disney animated feature. It's the cute & cuddly bunnies who play the protagonists that gave me that feeling, but it didn't take long for the film to eschew normal Disney traditions. Indeed, it starts by recounting the rabbits' mythology, which is unconventional not only because of it's animation style, but also because of its rather violent nature. The mythology tells the story of how the rabbits came to be and how they came to be hunted, and it concludes with this memorable quote:
All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when ever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you: digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
This prologue actually captures the feel of mythology while still relating it to rabbits, which is an interesting feat. By the end of the film, it's pretty clear that it isn't meant for young children (though there is perhaps a separate discussion to be had about that).

As I already mentioned, the story follows a band of rabbits. At the start of the story, a bunny has a rather disturbing vision of the future (which basically shows humans developing the land thus killing many rabbits), so a bunch of bunnies resolve to avoid that fate and set off on a quest to build a new warren. But the world is a dangerous place, and they encounter many challenges along the way. It sounds pretty simple, but it ends up being somewhat complex. There are obvious correllations between the rabbits and human beings, and some vague social/political themes can be seen in the story (especially with respect to fascism). The other major theme seems to be dealing with death (both avoiding it and accepting it).

The thing that was really shocking, though, was the violence. It's hard to describe, because we're so used to the typical Disney way, where violence is only really hinted at or dealt with tangentially. Watership Down faces the violence of the animal kingdom head on and it doesn't flinch. It gets vicious and bloody, which is certainly something you don't normally see in animated films featuring fluffy bunnies and which can be a little unsettling if you're not prepared for it.

Bloody Rabbits

Fighting Rabbits
Not your typical Disney movie

The animation is a bit simplistic, but well done and better than most animation I've seen from the era (which is probably not that much, but still). The voices are comprised of mostly British actors, and they do a well enough job (though, as they mentioned on Filmspotting, there is something a bit odd about it). All in all, they do a good job visually, though it's nothing truly breathtaking.

There are many people who seem to be profoundly affected by this movie. Personally, I don't think it reached that level. While I did enjoy it and I could recognize it's many admirable traits, I wasn't tremendously moved by the story either. In the end, I think it actually kicks off the marathon on a good note, as it has a style all its own (i.e. not like Disney and not quite like Anime either). The next film in the marathon will be Grave of the Fireflies, a 1988 Anime film. I'm going to try to watch that in the next few days and get my review up by Wednesday.

I've actually seen quite a few movies recently that I'd like to post about, including the new Bond flick (which was great) and Darren Aronofsky's much-anticipated The Fountain (which was a visually stunning and intriguing... failure? My thoughts are mixed.) Look for at least one other post this week in addition to the animation review and the regular Sunday entry. [a hat tip must go to Catherine, as I lifted the above screenshots from her post]
Posted by Mark on November 26, 2006 at 09:08 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Link Dump
Time is short this week, so a few quick links:
  • The 1,000 Greatest Films: Aggregated from 1,193 individual critics' and filmmakers' top-ten lists. They've got all sorts of different ways to look at the numbers, including a way to keep track of which ones you have seen. As you might expect, the list is diverse and somewhat contentious, with lots of foriegn films and some very questionable choices. There are tons of films I've never even heard of. The list is somewhat skewed towards older films, as they use some older lists (some of the lists used are as old as 1952), but then, that's still to be expected. Older films tend to get credit for their importance, and not as much because of their entertainment value today (I'm horribly understating this issue, which could probably use a blog entry of its own). As an aside, the list sometimes reads like the Criterion Collection catalog, which is pretty funny. I used the listkeeper site (which is pretty neat and might help make these type of memes a little easier to deal with), and I've apparently seen somewhere around 16% of the list. Given the breadth of the films covered in the list, I think that's pretty impressive (though I'll probably never get past 30%).
  • Shuttle Launch Seen From ISS: Photos of a Space Shuttle launch as seen from the International Space Station. Neato.
  • A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates: Ok, so this is a book comprised solely of a bunch of random numbers, and that's it. Nothing funny or entertaining there, except the Amazon reviewers are having a field day with it. My favorite review:
    The book is a promising reference concept, but the execution is somewhat sloppy. Whatever algorithm they used was not fully tested. The bulk of each page seems random enough. However at the lower left and lower right of alternate pages, the number is found to increment directly.
    Ahhh, geek humor. [via Schneier]
  • BuzzFeed: A new aggregator that features "movies, music, fashion, ideas, technology, and culture" that are generating buzz (in the form of news stories and blog posts, etc...). It's an interesting idea as it's not really a breaking news site, but it seems to have it's finger on the pulse of what folks are talking about (on the homepage now are sections on the Wii, PS3, Borat, and (of course Snoop Dogg's new line of pet clothing). It's not like Digg or Reddit, and thus it doesn't suffer from a lot of their issues (unless they branch out into politics and religion). I'm sure some people will try to game the system, but it seems inherently more secure against such abuse.
That's all for now.

Update: This Lists of Bests website is neat. It remembers what movies you've seen, and applies them to other lists. For example, without even going through the AFI top 100, I know that I've seen at least 41% of the list (because of all the stuff I noted when going through the top 1000). You can also compare yourself with other people on the site, and invite others to do so as well. Cool stuff.
Posted by Mark on November 19, 2006 at 10:59 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Bag O' Crap: Close, but no cigar
The term "woot" (or more accurately, "w00t") is slang for expressing excitement, usually on the internet (especially popular in chat and video games). The etymology is a little unclear (many speculated origins), but the word itself just sounds celebratory. In any case, there is an online store that has appropriated the term and "focuses on selling cool stuff cheap." They basically sell one item a day, and that's it. Talk about your simple concepts. I should also mention that their product descriptions are awesome - they have a lot of fun with it, so that even though I don't think I've ever bought a Woot, I still stop by frequently. For instance, a while ago, their description for a JVC Camcorder was written as a letter from Osama Bin Laden to his subordinates:
To: Media Relations Division
From: OBL

Well guys, we're starting to see the infidel press reviews of our latest audio release, and they're not good. First of all, the heathens had to subject the thing to two days' worth of analysis just to be sure it was my voice! Then CNN said "Poor quality." CBS called it "Insignificant." And the most devastating criticism of all came from Pitchfork Media: "badly-recorded, smug pontificating for those who find the spoken-word releases of Jello Biafra too funny and incisive." They gave it a 2.4! No distributor will touch it now!
Heh. Anyway, when that item sells out, the site starts selling alternate items in what is called a "Woot-Off." These alternate items are typically in shorter stock than the original Woot, so they don't usually last long, and you see a lot of items during the rest of the day (as each Woot-Off item sells out, it is replaced by the next item, and so on).

Now, the holy grail of Woot is this thing called the Bag O' Crap. Basically, instead of selling an item, they offer a grab bag that is typically filled with dollar store junk, but which sometimes contains things of significant value (I heard of someone getting a decent quality graphics card in a BOC). Naturally, this is a popular item, and it usually sells out within minutes. I have never even seen one, though I always know when I've missed it. Quite frustrating, but today was different. I go to Woot this afternoon, and I get a "Server Too Busy" error message. This essentially means that they're selling a BOC, and everyone is going to the site in a furious attempt to purchase one (well, typically you purchase 3 at a time), clogging up their servers. A few reloads later, and I see it (click for larger image):

Woot: Bag O Crap (click for larger image)

Overjoyed, I attempted to get one. After several minutes of tense refreshing to get past server errors, I finally get to the page where you confirm your order, I click, and I get the message:
Sorry, we're now sold out of this item or we don't have enough left to complete your order.
Khaaan! You win this round, Woot. But I'll be back. I'll get that Bag O' Crap someday.
Posted by Mark on November 17, 2006 at 07:14 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stupid T-Shirt
How awesome is the internet? A little while ago, I was watching David Fincher's far-fetched but entertaining thriller, The Game. If you haven't seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.

At the end of the movie, some pretty unlikely things happen, but it's a lot of fun, and I think most audiences let it slide. One of the funny moments at the end is when a character gives Michael Douglas' character a t-shirt which describes his experiences. After watching the movie, I thought it would make a pretty funny t-shirt... but I couldn't remember exactly what the shirt said. Naturally, I turned to the internet. Not only was I able to figure out what it said (from multiple sites), I also found a site that actually sells the shirt.

The Game t-shirt: I was drugged and left for dead in Mexico - And all I got was this stupid T-shirt.

They've even got a screenshot from the movie. Alas, it's a bit pricey for such a simplistic shirt. Still, the idea that such a shirt would be anything more than some custom thing a film nerd whipped up is pretty funny. I mean, how many people would even get the reference?
Posted by Mark on November 12, 2006 at 09:45 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Choice, Productivity and Feature Bloat
Jacob Neilson's recent column on productivity and screen size referenced an interesting study comparing a feature-rich application with a simpler one:
The distinction between operations and tasks is important in application design because the goal is to optimize the user interface for task performance, rather than sub-optimize it for individual operations. For example, Judy Olson and Erik Nilsen wrote a classic paper comparing two user interfaces for large data tables. One interface offered many more features for table manipulation and each feature decreased task-performance time in specific circumstances. The other design lacked these optimized features and was thus slower to operate under the specific conditions addressed by the first design's special features.

So, which of these two designs was faster to use? The one with the fewest features. For each operation, the planning time was 2.9 seconds in the stripped-down design and 4.6 seconds in the feature-rich design. With more choices, it takes more time to make a decision on which one to use. The extra 1.7 seconds required to consider the richer feature set consumed more time than users saved by executing faster operations.
In this case, more choices means less productive. So why aren't all of our applications much smaller and less feature-intesive? Well, as I went over a few weeks ago, people tend to overvalue measurable things like features and undervalue less tangible aspects like usability and productivity. Here's another reason we endure feature bloat:
A lot of software developers are seduced by the old "80/20" rule. It seems to make a lot of sense: 80% of the people use 20% of the features. So you convince yourself that you only need to implement 20% of the features, and you can still sell 80% as many copies.

Unfortunately, it's never the same 20%. Everybody uses a different set of features. In the last 10 years I have probably heard of dozens of companies who, determined not to learn from each other, tried to release "lite" word processors that only implement 20% of the features. This story is as old as the PC.
That quote is from a relatively old article, and when I first read it, I still didn't get why you couldn't create a "lite" word processor that would be significantly smaller than Word, but still get the job done. Then I started using several of the more obscure features of Word, notably the "Track Changes" feature (which was a life saver at the time), which never would have made it into a "lite" version (yes, there are other options for collaborative editing these days, but you gotta use what you have at hand at the time). Add in the ever increasing computer power and ever decreasing cost of memory and storage, and feature bloat looks like less of a problem. However, as this post started out by noting, productivity often suffers as a result (and as Neilson's article shows, productivity is more difficult to measure than counting a list of features).

The one approach for dealing with "featuritis" that seems to be catching on these days is starting with your "lite" version, then allowing people to install plugins to fill in the missing functionality. This is one of the things that makes Firefox so popular, as it not only allows plugins, it actually encourages users to create their own. Alas, this has lead to choice problems of it's own. One of my required features for any browser that I would consider for personal use is mouse gestures. Firefox has at least 4 extensions available that implement mouse gestures in one way or another (though it's not immediately obvious what the differences are, and there appear to be other extensions which utilize mouse gestures for other functions). By contrast, my other favorite browser, Opera, natively supports mouse gestures.

Of course, this is not a new approach to the feature bloat problem. Indeed, as far as I can see, this is one of the primary driving forces behind *nix-based applications. Their text editors don't have a word count feature because there is already a utility for doing so (command line: wc [filename]). And so on. It's part of *nix's modular design, and it's one of the things that makes it great, but it also presents problems of it's own (which I belabored at length last week)

In the end, it comes down to tradeoffs. Humans don't solve problems, they exchange problems, and so on. Right now, the plugin strategy seems to make a reasonable tradeoff, but it certainly isn't perfect.
Posted by Mark on November 05, 2006 at 11:50 PM .: link :.

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