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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Samoas versus Caramel deLites
My favorite Girl Scout cookies are unquestionably the Samoas (Thin Mints and Tagalongs are also quite good, but nothing compares to the mighty Samoa). Several years ago, I went to purchase a box and was surprised to learn that they changed the name to Caramel deLites. And they seemed to taste different too! It didn't take long to notice that Samoas were still being sold, and as it turns out, there are two commercial bakeries that are licensed to make Girl Scout cookies. Little Brownie Bakers have the strange names that we are nonetheless familiar with: Samoas, Tagalongs, Do-si-dos, Trefoils, etc... ABC Bakers are much more prosaic and descriptive: Caramel deLites, Peanut Butter Patties, Peanut Butter Sandwiches, Shortbread, etc...

Generally, both bakeries are pretty good, but the question is, what are the differences and which are better? Let's take a look at Samoas versus Caramel deLites.

Caramel deLites and Samoas

The Caramel deLites are on the left, and the Samoas are on the right. As you can see, the Caramel deLites have a somewhat lighter color to them, and that's partially because they use milk chocolate as opposed to dark chocolate. Wikipedia says they don't have as much caramel as Samoas, but I'm not sure about that. Personally, I think they're chewier than Samoas, and if I had to choose, I'd choose Samoas. But maybe I'm just weird. I asked around, and there didn't seem to be a consensus. Some people loved one variety, others loved the other, most were indifferent.

So I did a test. I put one box of each on my desk, removed any identification, and put a note up that asked people to try one of each and vote for their preferred cookie. This was a single blind test, and the cookies were labeled only A and B. Ok, so it was hardly a stringent methodology and a lot of people knew which were which just by looking at them, but in the end, it appears that Samoas have a slight edge. A sample size of 8 people is statistically significant enough for me, and it came out 5-3 in favor of Samoas. So there, Samoas are empirically better than Caramel deLites. It's scientific!

A couple of us also compared the Thin Mints (which are the only ones I know of that have the same name no matter what baker), but results were mixed. The cookies are clearly different, and the ABC Bakers (the ones with the prosaic names) Thin Mint actually seems more minty, but they're both pretty good. No stats for this one, but anecdotal evidence suggests that people like the ABC Bakers version better. So there you go. They're both good.

Incidentally, if you can get your hands on Edy's® Girl Scouts® Samoas® Cookie Ice Cream, I highly recommend stocking up. It's available slightly longer than the cookies are, but it'll be gone by March, and it's quite possible the greatest ice cream ever created.
Posted by Mark on January 31, 2007 at 09:16 PM .: Comments (7) | link :.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Neal Stephenson is a Wiseass
Time is short this week, so I just wanted to throw this out there. The author bios you normally find at the end of a book are usually pretty sparse. They'll generally list out what previous books the author has written and if you're lucky, you'll get a little blurb about what they did before writing or where they're from. Anyway, I was looking at my copy of Snow Crash and noticed that the author bio was really long, and had quite a strange tone:
Neal Stephenson issues from a clan of rootless, itinerant hard-science and engineering professors (mostly Pac 10, Big 10, and Big 8 with the occasional wild strain of Ivy). He began his higher education as a physics major, then switched to geography when it appeared that this would enable him to scam more free time on his university's mainframe computer. When he graduated and discovered, to his perplexity, that there were no jobs for inexperienced physicist-geographers, he began to look into alternative pursuits such as working on cars, unimaginably stupid agricultural labor, and writing novels. His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists. Snow Crash was written in the years 1988 through 1991 as the author listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music. The Diamond Age was his last novel.

Mr. Stephenson now resides in a comfortable home in the western hemisphere and spends all of his time trying to retrofit an office into its generally dark, unlevel, and asbestos-laden basement so that he can attempt to write more novels. Despite the tremendous amounts of time he devotes to writing, playing with computers, listening to speed metal, Rollerblading, and pounding nails, he is a flawless husband, parent, neighbor, and all-around human being.
He's just screwing with us, isn't he? Curiously, this sort of wiseass bio does not appear in any of the newer editions of his books...
Posted by Mark on January 28, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Top 10 Box Office Performance
So after looking at a bunch of top 10 films of 2006 lists, and compiling my own, I began to wonder just how popular these movies really were. Film critics are notorious for picking films that the average viewer thinks are boring or pretentious. Indeed, my list features a few such picks, and when I think about it, there are very few movies on the list that I'd give an unqualified recommendation. For instance, some of the movies on my list are very violent or otherwise graphic, and some people just don't like that sort of thing (understandably, of course). United 93 is a superb film, but not everyone wants to relive 9/11. And so on. As I mentioned before, top 10 lists are extremely personal and usually end up saying more about the person compiling the list than anything else, but I thought it would be interesting to see just how mainstream these lists really are. After all, there is a wealth of box office information available for every movie, and if you want to know how popular something is, economic data seems to be quite useful (though, as we'll see, perhaps not useful enough).

So I took nine top 10 lists (including my own) and compiled box office data from Box Office Mojo (since they don't always have budget information, I sometimes referenced IMDB or Wikipedia) and did some crunching (not much, I'm no statistician). I chose the lists of some of my favorite critics (like the Filmspotting guys and the local guy), and then threw in a few others for good measure (I wanted a New York critic, for instance).

The data collected includes domestic gross, budget and the number of theaters (widest release). From that data, I calculated the net gross and dollars per theater (DPT). You'd think this would be pretty conclusive data, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how incomplete a picture this paints. Remember, we're using this data to evaluate various top 10 lists, so when I chose domestic gross, I inadvertantly skewed the evaluation against lists that featured foreign films (however, I am trying to figure out whose list works best in the U.S. so I think it is a fair metric). So the gross only gives us part of the picture. The budget is an interesting metric, as it provides information about how much money a film's backers thought it would make and it provides a handy benchmark with which to evaluate (unfortunately, I was not able to find budget figures for a number of the smaller films, further skewing the totals you'll see). Net Gross is a great metric because it incorporates a couple of different things: it's not just a measure of how popular a movie is, it's a measure of how popular a movie is versus how much it cost to make (i.e. how much a film's producers believed in the film). In the context of a top 10 list, it's almost like pretending that the list creator was the head of a studio who chose what films to greenlight. It's not a perfect metric, but it's pretty good. The number of theaters the film showed in is an interesting metric because it shows how much faith theater chains had in the movie (and in looking at the numbers, it seems that the highest grossing films also had the most theaters). However, this could again be misleading because it's only the widest release. I doubt there are many films where the number of theaters doesn't drop considerably after opening weekend. Dollars per theater is perhaps the least interesting metric, but I thought it interesting enough to include.

One other thing to note is that I gathered all of this data earlier this week (Sunday and Monday), and some of the films just recently hit wide distribution (notably Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men, neither of which have recouped costs yet) and will make more money. Some films will be re-released around Oscar season, as the studios seek to cash in on their award winning films.

I've posted all of my data on a public Google Spreadsheet (each list is on a separate tab), and I've linked each list below to their respective tab with all the data broken out. This table features the totals for the metrics I went over above: Domestic Gross, Budget, Net Gross, Theaters, and Dollars Per Theater (DPT).

List Gross Budget Net Gross Theaters DPT
(Mark Ciocco)
$484,154,522 $319,850,000 $164,092,855 16,675 $29,034.75
(James Berardinelli)
$586,767,062 $607,000,000 -$20,674,428 16,217 $36,182.22
(Adam Kempenaar)
$210,592,457 $234,850,000 -$27,159,180 8,589 $24,518.86
(Sam Van Hallgren)
$79,756,419 $152,204,055 -$73,445,839 4,467 $17,854.58
Philadelphia Inquirer
(Steven Rea)
$236,690,299 $239,000,000 -$40,474,006 10,239 $23,116.54
The New York Times
(A.O. Scott)
$104,484,584 $92,358,000 $11,238,032 3,641 $28,696.67
Rolling Stone
(Peter Travers)
$419,088,036 $264,400,000 $119,130,515 14,784 $28,347.41
Washington Post
(Stephen Hunter)
$540,183,488 $362,900,000 $169,683,807 15,394 $35,090.52
The Onion AV Club
(Scott Tobias)
$195,779,774 $191,580,000 $1,308,777 6,844 $28,606.05

This was quite an interesting exercise, and it would appear from the numbers, that perhaps not all film critics are as out of touch as originally thought. Or are they? Let's take a closer look.
  • Kaedrin (Mark Ciocco): The most surprising thing about my list is that every single film in my top 10 made a profit. In addition, my high net gross figure (around $164 million, which ended up being second out of the nine lists) isn't overly dependent on any single film (the biggest profit vehicle on my list was Inside Man, with about $43 millon, or about 1/4 my net gross). The only real wild card here is Lady Vengeance, which only made about $212 thousand. Its budget figure wasn't available and it was a foreign film that was only released in 15 theaters (I saw it on DVD). Given this data, I think my list is the most well rounded of all the surveyed lists. Not to pat myself on the back here, but my list is among the top 3 lists for all of the metrics (and #1 in theaters). Plus, as you'll read below, the lists that appear ahead of me have certain outliers that skew the data a bit. However, even with all of that, I might not have the most mainstream list.
  • Reelviews (James Berardinelli): James is probably the world's greatest amateur critic, and his list is quite good (it shares 4 films with my own list). Indeed, his list leads the Domestic Gross and Budget Categories, as well as Dollars Per Theater. But look at that Net Gross metric! Almost -$21 million dollars. Ouch. What happened? Superman Returns happened. It made a little more than $200 million dollars at the box office, but it cost $270 million to make it. This skews James' numbers considerably, and he would have been around $50 million in the green if it weren't for Superman. He also has two films that were released in less than 25 theaters, which skews the numbers a bit as well.
  • Filmspotting (Adam Kempenaar): Of the two critics on the Filmspotting podcast, Adam is by far the one I agree with more often, but his list is among the more unprofitable ones. This is due in great part to his inclusion of Children of Men, which has only recently come out in wide release, and which still has to make almost $50 million before it recoups its cost (I think it will make more money, but not enough to break even). To a lesser extent, his inclusion of two foreign films (Pan's Labyrinth and Volver) has also skewed the results a bit (both films did well at the foreign box office). Given those disclaimers, Adam's list isn't as bad as it seems, but it still not too hot. It is, however, better than his co-host:
  • Filmspotting (Sam Van Hallgren): I think it's safe to say that Sam takes the award for least mainstream critic. He's got the worst Domestic Gross and Net Gross of the group, by a significant margin. Like his co-host Adam, this can partly be explained by his inclusion of Children of Men and other small, independent, or foreign films. But it's a pretty toxic list. Only two films on his list turned a profit, which is a pretty miserable showing. Interestingly enough, I still think Sam is a pretty good critic. You don't have to agree with a critic to get something useful out of them, and I know what I'm getting with Sam. Plus, it helps that he's got a good foil in his co-host Adam.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer(Steven Rea): I kinda like my local critic's list, and it's definitely worth noting that his pick of the Chinese martial arts epic Curse of the Golden Flower has impacted his list considerably (as a high budget foreign film that did well internationally, but which understandably didn't do that great domestically). That choice alone (-$40 million) put him in the red. He's also got Pan's Labyrinth on his list, which will go on to make more money. Plus, he suffers from a data problem in that I couldn't find budget figures for The Queen, which has made around $35 million and almost certainly turned a profit. Even with those caveats, he's still only treading water.
  • The New York Times (A.O. Scott): I wanted to choose a critic from both New York and LA (due to the fact that most LA critics seemed to have a lot of ties, I decided not to include their lists), and A.O. Scott's list provides a decent example of why. Three of his picks were only shown in 6 theaters or less. This is more or less what you'd expect from a New York critic. They are one of the two cities that gets these small movies, so you'd expect their critics to show their superiority by including these films in their list (I'm sure they're good films too, but I think this is an interesting dynamic). In any case, it's worth noting that Mr Scott (heh) actually turned a profit. How could this be? Well, he included Little Miss Sunshine on his list. That movie has a net gross of around $50 million dollars, which gave Mr Scott significant breathing room for his other picks.
  • Rolling Stone (Peter Travers): I've always thought of this guy as your typical critic that doesn't like anything popular, but his list is pretty decent, and he turns out to be among the tops in terms of net gross with $119 million. One caveat here is that he does feature a tie in his list (so he has 11 films), but the tie consists of the two Clint Eastwood war flicks, both of which have lost considerable amounts of money (in other words, this list is actually a little undervalued by my metrics). So how did his list get so high? He also had Little Miss Sunshine on his list, which, as already mentioned, was quite the moneymaker. But even bigger than that, he included Borat in his list. Borat is a low budget movie that made huge amounts of cash, and it's net gross comes in at almost $110 million! So those two films account for the grand majority of his net gross. However, of all the lists, I think his is probably the most mainstream (while still retaining a critics edge) and gives my list a run for its money.
  • Washington Post (Stephen Hunter): I wanted to choose a critic from WaPo because it's one of the other "papers of record," and much to my amazement, his turns out to have the highest net gross! He seems to feature the most obscure picks, with 4 films that I couldn't even find budget data for (but which seem pretty small anyway). He's got both Little Miss Sunshine and Borat, which proves to be quite a profitable duo, and he's also got big moneymakers like The Departed and Casino Royale. It's an interesting list.
  • The Onion AV Club (Scott Tobias): He scrapes by with around $1 million net gross, though it should be noted that his list features Children of Men (a big loss film) and a couple of movies that I couldn't find budgets for. It's an interesting list, but it comes in somewhere around the upper middle of the pack.
Whew! That took longer than I thought. Which critic is the most mainstream? I think a case could be made for my list, Peter Travers' list, or Stephen Hunter's list. I think I'd give it to Peter Travers, with myself in a close second place and Stephen Hunter nipping at our heels.

Statistically, the biggest positive outliers appeared to be Little Miss Sunshine and Borat, and the biggest negative outliers appeared to be Flags of our Fathers and Children of Men (both of which will make more money, as they are currently in theaters).

Obviously, this list is not authoritative, and I've already spent too much time harping on the qualitative issues with my metrics, but I found it to be an interesting exercise (if I ever do something similar again, I'm going to need to find a way to automate some of the data gathering, though). Well, this pretty much shuts the door on the 2006 Kaedrin Awards season. I hope you enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on January 24, 2007 at 11:40 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Best Films of 2006
Top 10 lists are intensely personal affairs. When it comes to movies (or art in general), you have to walk the narrow line between subjective and objective evaluations, and I inevitably end up with a list that says more about me than the movies I selected. James Berardinelli says it well:
I would be surprised if anyone else (critic or otherwise) has an identical Top 10 list to mine. But therein lies the enjoyment of examining individual Top 10 lists: they provide insight into the mindset of the one who has assembled them. It doesn't matter whether one agrees with their choices or not; that's irrelevant. It's about learning something about a person through the movies they like. I don't like "group" lists. To me, they are valueless - a generic popularity contest that reveals nothing.
I actually kinda like "group" lists, but I digress. The point is that these are generally movies that I like or otherwise moved me. Context matters. Some films are on the list because I had low expectations that were exceeded beyond imagination, and some are there because I had a great theater-going experience (apparently a rarity in this day and age). As I've done in years past, my top 10 is listed in a roughly reverse order, with the best last.

Top 10 Movies of 2006
* In roughly reverse order
  • Thank You for Smoking: The bottom two slots in the top 10 were very hard to fill, as there were essentially 4 films (with 4 very different styles) I wanted to include. I went into this film expecting a bland, heavy-handed activism and found myself astounded. This film somehow manages to make a tobacco lobbyist a sympathetic character without excusing the tobacco industry. That said, big tobacco really isn't the target of the film - it's more about media spin and the power of argument than anything else. Aaron Eckhart turns in a great performance as said lobbyist, and I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled this off. It's a humorous film that displays an almost libertarian attitude towards the power of debate. It has its flaws, but it won me over.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Descent: This was the best horror film of the year, and one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences as well. Solid direction and acting, brilliant cinematography, and well executed scare sequences contribute to a tension filled film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Clerks II: What can I say, I'm just a sucker for Kevin Smith's brand of raunchy pop-culture laden humor. As usual, he mixes the comedy into a more conventional dramatic story, and in this case, he's more than successful. Borat was funny, but Clerks II was both funny and moving.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Casino Royale: I've never been all that enamored with James Bond, but this reboot of the franchise was a revelation - quite possibly the most enjoyable movie going experience and pleasant surprise of the year for me. The film has its flaws, but it overcomes them with its action-packed charm.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Winner of 3 Kaedrin Movie Awards]
  • Inside Man: I'm not normally a fan of Spike Lee "Joints," but this film had me on the edge of my seat. It's a heist film, though it does make use of a historical implausibility and some macguffins. There are hints of Lee's more typical material, but it's done with a surprisingly deft touch (none of the heavy-handedness that I expected from him). Not the best heist film of all time, but a solid and surprisingly entertaining film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Lady Vengeance: The third and final film in Chan-wook Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," this film has a reputation for being the worst of the three films. I, on the other hand, think it might be my favorite, for two reasons. First, it's story is far more believable than the other two, and second, this film actually ends with a touch of hope. The film is perhaps not as twisted as it's sister films, but it's still pretty messed up. The vengeance isn't as layered as the other films, but that only serves to differentiate the films. I enjoyed it a lot.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Hard Candy: It is perhaps an uncomfortable film to watch (especially for the guys), but it is also quite a good film. It deals with pedophilia and features only two characters and one major setting. Given these traits, it's amazing that the film manages to retain a lot of tension and challenge viewers with its shifting sympathies. Excellent performances by both leads, though Ellen Page's performance is particularly noteworthy.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • Brick: Sam Spade goes to high school in this remarkable high-concept mixture of genres. Writer/director Rian Johnson nails the tone of the film, creating a stylized world filed with mixtures of the old and new. Perhaps not for everyone, I thoroughly enjoyed this.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • The Departed: Scorcese returns to form with this violent, stylized remake of Infernal Affairs. Excellent directing, acting, music, and an engaging story that retains the original's feel, while adding some flourishes of it's own.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • United 93: A movie about 9/11 could have come off as horribly exploitive, but director Paul Greengrass managed to create an amazingly emotional experience without being manipulative. Unquestionably the most emotional experience I had at the movies this year (if not ever), for what I assume are obvious reasons.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Honorable Mention
As I've already mentioned above, the first two of the Honorable Mentions listed below could probably be interchangeable with the number 9 or 10 in the top 10. Part of why it was so hard to select was that these four films are just so different from one another. Indeed, the last two has changed back and forth several times (I started this list a while ago).
  • Pan's Labyrinth: This could easily have been 9 or 10 on my list. Guillermo del Toro's visually stunning tale of a young girl who seeks to escape her unpleasant reality with a fantasy world which ends up being... not much of an escape. It's a great film, if a little bit of a downer. It actually ends on a note that is simultaneously tragic and triumphant, which is strange but impressive. Ultimately, I decided against it because it just didn't surprise and excite me the way the other films on the list did.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Matador: Pierce Brosnan plays against character (the anti-Bond) in this quirky film about a hit man (Brosnan) and his unlikely friendship with everyman/businessman Greg Kinnear. Dark humor, a sharp script and a progression that seems strange at first, but makes more sense as the film goes on. Again, this is interchangeable with the 9 or 10 picks above, and it's probably more of a crowd-pleaser than you'd expect.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Proposition: An Australian take on the western, this is a brutal film that is quite original, but also lacking something. Showcasing the grimy desolation of the untamed outback, this film also features one of the best opening scenes of the year (a disorienting gunfight that thrusts you into the story). Ultimately, it doesn't work as well as it might seem, but it's an interesting film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Apocalypto: Mel Gibson's offscreen shenanigans aside, this is actually a decent action/suspense film with one of the better chase sequences of the year. I didn't think I'd be all that enthralled with the setting of the film, but Gibson managed to keep things interesting enough. A well made film that was nowhere near the disaster I thought it would be (seriously, who watched that trailer and thought it would be good?)
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky's trippy exploration of love and mortality is best described by the phrase "Interesting Failure." It is undoubtedly the most gorgeous movie of the year, and all of the technical aspects of the film (direction, acting, cinematography, etc...) are outstanding. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up to a whole lot, though there are deeper themes at work in the story that I admit I haven't taken the time to parse (repeated viewings may fix that).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Mission Impossible III: Tom Cruise's offscreen shenanigans aside (do we see a trend here?), MI III was actually one of the more enjoyable popcorn flicks of last summer. I think a large portion of the credit goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman's small role as the villain. It's probably the most enjoyable in the series, though I still don't mind the first film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Illusionist: One of two good turn-of-the-century magician films, this movie was enjoyable. Writer/director Neil Burger makes some interesting stylistic choices and manages to coax a good performance out of Jessica Biel of all people. Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti are also excellent, of course.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Prestige: The other (and seemingly more popular) turn-of-the-century magician film features an excellent cast and an intriguing story (even though I think they cheated a bit). Director Christopher Nolan is not as stylish as Burger, but he has crafted a good film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Slither: Underrated and fun film in the cheesy horror/sci-fi/comedy tradition of Tremors. It's not the best of its kind, but it was quite enjoyable and well done.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Worth Commenting
These are all decent films, but for some reason, I don't find them as engaging as everyone else.
  • Children of Men: If there is a film that has less faith in humanity, I can't think of one. This is one of the most depressing films of the year, and a few minutes of what I thought was "pretend hope" towards the end of the movie wasn't enough to redeem it in my eyes. It's well made, and there are some harrowing action sequences and long shots that are quite impressive, but it's fundamentally pessimistic - a trait I just can't stand in a movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Little Miss Sunshine: A fine film, but I must admit being a little baffled by the popular response to this movie. It's not your typical Hollywood fare, which might be part of it, but it is emphatically your typical independent movie fare. I liked it, but didn't love it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • V for Vendetta: A decent film that I found to be very sloppy and not all that engaging. The story seemed muddled and unecessarily repetitive and manipulative, and the action sequences were edited to death. It wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't that great either.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Should have seen: Allrighty then! That about wraps it up for the 2006 movie awards, and it's about time. That said, I do have another idea for a post related to my top 10. Don't worry, it's not all about the movies (it's more of a meta-top-10 type post, whatever that means).

In any case, comments are welcome. Feel free to express your outrage or approval in the comments.
Posted by Mark on January 21, 2007 at 10:06 PM .: link :.

Friday, January 19, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Beating the Dead Horse
So the formally announced 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards came to an end yesterday (Casino Royale appears to be the big winner, with a total of 3 awards), but I'm going to wring this particular subject for everything I can get, so here's a few additional awards in the style of Alex's Arbitrary Awards.
  • Most Genres in a Single Film: The World's Fastest Indian - Four movies for the price of one. You've got the initial buddy comedy which morphs into a fish out of water story, then goes on a road trip, culminating in an inspirational sports drama. I really enjoyed this movie, and it would probably also qualify for an "Overlooked" award, if I had one.
  • Best Non-Western Western: The Proposition - I think this movie features the best opening sequence all year. It starts with a chaotic gunfight that immediately disorients the viewer, and consistently thwarts expecations throughout. Ultimately, this doesn't work as well as it sounds, but it's still a good movie and it features some of the most gorgeous photography all year (that is strangely able to evoke beauty while stressing an untamed desolation that's not really that pretty).
  • The About Face Award: The Matador - Pierce Brosnan plays against character as a burnt-out hitman who befriends everyman/businessman Greg Kinnear. It's a surprisingly effective film that doesn't fall into the traps you'd think it would. A bold move by Brosnan.
  • Best High Concept Film: Snakes on a Plane - Duh.
  • Best Magic Tricks: The Prestige - I think I might have actually enjoyed The Illusionist more, but The Prestige had the more memorable tricks.
And that about does it. The only thing that remains is the top 10 list (coming on Sunday).
Posted by Mark on January 19, 2007 at 12:01 AM .: link :.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Action Sequences & Best Plot Twist/Surprise
The nominations for the 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This post marks the end of the formally nominated awards, but I'll post another wrapup post with some miscellaneous awards tomorrow, and my top 10 films of 2006 on Sunday.

Best Action Sequences: Casino Royale

The action sequences in Casino Royale were superb. There were some who didn't appreciate the initial footchase, which seemed to contain the fantastical elements of Wu Xia Pian films (most recently popularized by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers), but I loved it. The race to save the plane in the airport was pure Bond, a more traditional action sequence that was executed perfectly. There are a few other good sequences as well. The stiffest competition actually came from the other spy flick, MI III. A stunning opening sequence, as well as several other great set pieces propelled the film along nicely (though I don't think it quite reaches Bond levels). Apocalypto is notable because of its extended chase sequence, which was well done and impressive. The space shuttle sequence in Superman Returns was the best moment in that film. In the end, Bond was just better than the competition.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise: The Departed

The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong flick Infernal Affairs, and even though I had seen that movie, all of the shocking moments in The Departed were still effective, even though I knew they were coming. This speaks to just how impeccably staged this film is, and it is one of the best films of the year. All of the other nominees were quite good as well, with special mention of X-Men III: for all the film's flaws, one can't say the writers didn't have guts. Unfortunately, X-Men was totally overshadowed by its offscreen shenanigans (i.e. Brett Ratner, Halle Berry, etc...)

This marks the end of the formal awards. Stay tuned for a wrapup post tomorrow (which may contain a few additional awards), as well as my top 10 movies of the year on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on January 18, 2007 at 12:07 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Sequel & Biggest Disappointment
The nominations for the 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts. Here are the awards for Best Sequel and Biggest Disappointment:

Best Sequel: Casino Royale

This was a pretty easy decision. In the nominations, I mentioned that people like to return to characters they love, but that sequels aren't often very good. In this case, I've never been much of a fan of James Bond, but after seeing Casino Royale, I am, and I'm greatly looking forward to the next film. I'm still making my way through all of the previous Bond films, but I honestly think this ranks somewhere in the upper echelon, if not number one (there are some mitigating factors here, but I will save for a later post). MI III was great fun, but completely overshadowed by Bond. Clerks II was a genuine surprise and one of my favorite movies of the year, but Bond still wins out.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fountain

This is actually quite a hard category. In theory, I can measure my dissapointment by taking the difference of my expectations and the actual quality of the film. Of course, both are subjective measures, so it's still quite difficult. I think the reason The Fountain "wins" this award is not that it's such a bad movie, but that my expectations were so very high. I remember reading about this "Untitled Aronofsky Sci-Fi Project" several years ago, and have been waiting patiently for it. I've come to expect a lot from Aronofsky, and while I think he produced one of the most beautiful looking movies in recent memory, I also think it's missing something important. It's an interesting and ambitious failure, which isn't all that bad of a category to be put in. I certainly don't think this movie is any worse than the other nominees (which were at least mildy entertaining or fun, The Da Vinci Code being the notable exception). Again, the big difference is that my expectations for the other nominees were relatively low. I wanted to see them all, and was excited to go to the theater, but for the most part, I felt the movies were mediocre.

On deck: Best Action Sequences and Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Posted by Mark on January 17, 2007 at 12:03 AM .: link :.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Most Visually Stunning & Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
The nominations for the 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts. Here are the awards for Most Visually Stunning film and Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film:

Most Visually Stunning: The Fountain

Pretty much the only reason I included this category was so that I could give The Fountain an award. I didn't love the movie, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the prettiest fucking movie I've seen in years. We're talking jaw-dropping visuals here. I don't think there's a single shot in the movie that isn't absolutely gorgeous. There is some stiff competition in this category, but nothing on the order of The Fountain. Ironically, the only movie that gives Fountain a run for it's money is Pan's Labyrinth, which wasn't nominated because it just came out in wide release this week (I have since seen it, and it is indeed a visually impressive work).

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: The Descent

I think this would be mildly controversial if the competition wasn't so lame this year. The Descent certainly has it's detractors and it's not a perfect film, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It's the only one of the nominated films that evoked sustained suspense, and that means a lot in my book. Hostel did make me squirm (which is no small feat), but was ultimately a little too sloppy and schlockey to compete. Slither was a ton of fun in a Tremors sorta way, but not at all scary. A Scanner Darkly was interesting and visually neat, though it's ultimately a mess. Unfortunately, the Sci-Fi/Horror genre didn't get much attention this year, so there really wasn't much to choose from. Still, when I think of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year, The Descent ranks somewhere near the top (this is undoubtedly because I saw it at a movie festival in a theater filled with movie lovers, as opposed to the typical multiplex filled with obnoxious morons). It has issues and I wouldn't consider it a truly great film, but entertaining, creepy and suspenseful.

Next up: Best Sequel and Biggest Disappointment
Posted by Mark on January 16, 2007 at 12:05 AM .: link :.

Monday, January 15, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Comedic Performance & Breakthrough Performance
The nominations for the 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts. Here comes the Best Comedic Performance and Breakthrough Performance awards:

Best Comedic Performance: Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

There really wasn't much of a choice here. Sacha Baron Cohen so completely embodies the Borat character and follows through on every detail, no matter how embarrassing or strange it may be. It's probably not my favorite comedy of the year, but this is without a doubt the best comedic performance of the year. No one else lays it on the line quite like this. All of the other candidates were also great, but didn't quite display the intensity that Sacha Baron Cohen does. One performance I should have mentioned is John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Reilly is one of those tireless character actors that you've seen a hundred times without ever really knowing who he is... and he held his own with Will Ferrell. If there was a Best Comedic Performance, Supporting Character he'd totally be all over that.

Breakthrough Performance: Rosario Dawson in Clerks II

This was a really, really difficult decision (perhaps because my criteria was so specific and personal that everyone who was nominated was a quality choice). After banging my head against the wall, I was able to whittle the list down to two performances: Rosario Dawson in Clerks II and Ellen Page in Hard Candy. Choosing between these two is nearly impossible because they couldn't be more different. But if I was forced to choose, I think I'd have to go with Rosario Dawson. I knew of her and had seen her in a couple of other movies, but I never really noticed her much... and she was absolutely resplendant in Clerks II. Maybe it was because she was acting opposite a bunch of non-professional actors, but she totally out-performed everyone in the film. She was just a lot of fun and really cool, the type of girl you can see loving. Ellen Page gives an outstanding performance, especially when you consider her age. She scares me, though I guess that was the point (you have to see the movie to understand, but be forewarned, it's no picnic). This is an extremely subjective category, so I don't think I'd expect anyone else to agree with my selections (even some of the other nominations), but I think it's a fun one. What do you think?

On deck: Most Visually Stunning and Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
Posted by Mark on January 15, 2007 at 02:52 AM .: link :.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Villain/Hero/Badass
The nominations for the 2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly a miscellaneous post where I blatantly steal categories from Alex's Arbitrary Awards (featuring categories like Best Stretch of Historical Plausibility for the sake of a Good Story and Best Multilingual Non-Linear Ensemble Movie). Without further ado, the winners of Best Villain/Badass and Best Hero/Badass are:

Best Villain/Badass: Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III

This was a mildly difficult category, but I ultimately settled on Davian because of Philip Seymour Hoffman's outstanding performance. He turns what is essentially a boring stock villain into so much more, raising the bar for action film villainy. The only issue is that he's not featured enough in the film (probably because the writers knew the character, as written, was mildy lame. I guarantee that once Hoffman was on the set, chewing scenery, they tried to give him a little more to do). In response to the nominations, some expressed surprise at MI III's showing and heck, I kinda surprised myself. I think Hoffman's performance is the primary reason I enjoyed that movie so much. When I think about MI III, two things immediately pop into my head. First, the diabolically confident villain. And second, that scene where Tom Cruise throws a pistol at Felicity and she catches it in a fluid motion as she starts shooting (because, you know, that's a badass scene). The competition in this category was mildly stiff, but in the end I decided against Jack Nicholson because, while I thought he was fine in the role, I don't think he brought anything special or unexpected. Le Chiffre from the Bond movie is exactly the sort of forgettable villain that Davian would have been had the role been played by someone other than Hoffman. And I decided against Phoenix because X3 was lame.

Best Hero/Badass: James Bond, played by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

Oh come on, do I really need to explain this? Especially considering this year's weak competition, Bond is a lock. Craig puts his own imprint on the character and makes him interesting again (this is also due to the script and general reboot strategy of the series, but I'm willing to give Craig some of the credit). Casino Royale was quite possibly the most enjoyable movie going experience and pleasant surprise of the year for me. I'm someone who has never been that enamored with Bond, but this movie was a revelation. A short confession: I'd never seen a Connery Bond movie all the way through until about two weeks ago, and the reason for that viewing was because of Casino Royale. Expect a series of capsule reviews on Bond movies in a few weeks.

It's interesting that this year featured two of the best spy genre films in years, both sequels, and both better than most of their previous installments. I'd intended "Badass" to be a category all its own, but when I went through this year's movies, I realized that we had a pretty weak year here. Last year the choices were much more obvious, but this year, the choices were few and far between.

Up next: Best Comedic Performance and Breakthrough Performance. Check back Monday for the winners.
Posted by Mark on January 14, 2007 at 12:45 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Diamond Age Miniseries
It appears that Neal Stephenson's neo-victorian nanotech novel The Diamond Age will be a miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel:
Based on Neal Stephenson's best-selling novel The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, this six-hour miniseries is executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions. A prominent member of a conservative futuristic society grows concerned that the culture stifles creativity, and commissions a controversial interactive book for his daughter, which serves as her guide through a surreal alternate world. When the primer's provocative technology, which adapts to the reader's responses, falls into the hands of a young innocent, the girl's life is accidentally reprogrammed with dangerous results. Neal Stephenson will adapt his own novel for this project, the first time the Hugo and Nebula winning author has written for the small screen.
I have mixed feelings about this. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so I'm thrilled that his work is being adapted. However, adaptations are tricky, and I think part of the reason Stephenson's books haven't been adapted is that they're probably more difficult than most. The choice of The Diamond Age is a baffling one, given that it's universally seen as having an awfully abrubt ending (and has given the author an unfair reputation of writing bad endings). That it's a Sci-Fi Channel original series isn't exactly comforting either. They did a decent enough job with the Dune miniseries I guess, but honestly, this is that channel that brought us masterpieces like Man-Thing and Basilisk: The Serpent King (I'm serious, those two movies were both playing tonight.)

Stephenson's involvement is somewhat heartening, but also a mixed blessing. For one thing, nothing guarantees that a great novel-writer will turn out to be a great screenwriter. It's a different medium and, as such, different conventions and language apply. Given that we're talking about a Sci-Fi Channel original, I'm sure his involvement won't be a negative, but that leaves one other consideration: If he's busy working on the screenplay for this series, he's probably not working on his next book. Gah! It's been a few years, and I want me some new Stephenson.

If it turns out good, I'll be elated, but I'm wary. Think of this post as tempering my expecatations so that it can't possibly be that much of a dissapointment. Incidentally, I just ran across Ben Thompson's beautiful rant about Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies:
Nothing makes me happier when I'm flipping through the channels on a rainy Saturday afternoon than stumbling upon whatever god-awful original home-grown suckfest-and-craptasm movie is playing on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nowhere else can you find such a clusterfuck of horrible plot contrivances and ill-conceived premises careening face-first into a brick wall of one-dimensional cardboard characters and banal, inane, poorly-delivered dialogue. While most television stations and movie production houses out there are attempting to retain some shred of dignity or at least a modicum of credibility, it's nice to know that the Sci-Fi Channel has no qualms whatsoever about brazenly showing twenty minute-long fight scenes involving computer-generated dinosaurs, dragons, insects, aliens, sea monsters and Gary Bussey all shooting laser beams at each other and battling for control of a planet-destroying starship as the self-destruct mechanism slowly ticks down and the fate of a thousand parallel universes hangs in the balance. You really have to give the execs at Sci-Fi credit for basically just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, "well let's just take all this crazy shit and mash it together into one giant ridiculous mess". Nothing is off-limits for those folks; if you want to see American troops in Iraq battle a giant man-eating Chimaera, you've got it. A genetically-altered Orca Whale the eats seamen and icebergs? Check. A plane full of mutated pissed-off killer bees carrying the Hanta Virus? Check.
Brilliant. Ironically, I'm more excited for The Diamond Age miniseries now that I read that. Something's wrong with me.
Posted by Mark on January 13, 2007 at 11:20 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

iPhoneA couple of years ago, I was in the market for a new phone. After looking around at all the options and features, I ended up settling on a relatively "low-end" phone that was good for calls and SMS and that's about it. It was small, simple, and to the point, and while it has served me well, I have kinda regretted not getting a camera in the phone (this is the paradox of choice in action). I considered the camera phone, as well as phones that played music (three birds with one stone!), but it struck me that feature packed devices like that simply weren't ready yet. They were expensive, clunky, and the interface looked awful.

Enter Apple's new iPhone. Put simply, they've done a phenominal job with this phone. I'm impressed. Watch the keynote presentation here. Some highlights that I found interesting:
  • Just to mention some of the typical stuff: it's got all the features of a video iPod, it's got a phone, it's got a camera, and it's got the internet. It has an iPod connector, so you can hook it up to your computer and sync all the appropriate info (music, contacts, video, etc...) through iTunes (i.e. an application that everyone is already familiar with because they use it with their iPod.) It runs Mac OSX (presumably a streamlined version) and has a browser, email app, and widgets. Battery life seems very reasonable.
  • Ok enough of the functionality. The functionality is mostly, well, normal. There are smart phones that do all of the above. Indeed, one of the things that worries me about this phone is that by cramming so much functionality into this new phone, Apple will also be muddying the interface... but the interface is what's innovative about this phone. This is what the other smart phones don't do. In short, the interface is a touch screen (no physical keyboard, and no stylus; it takes up the majority of the surface area of a side of the phone and you use your fingers to do stuff. Yes, I said fingers, as in multiple. More later.) This allows them to tailor the interface to the application currently in use. Current smart phones all have physical controls that must stay fixed (i.e. a mini qwerty keyboard, and a set of directional buttons, etc...) and which are there whether you need them for what you're doing or not. By using a touch screen, Apple has solved that problem rather neatly (Those of you familiar with this blog know what's coming, but it'll be a moment).
  • Scrolling looks fun. Go and watch the demo. It looks neat and, more importantly, it appears to be consistent between all the applications (i.e. scrolling your music library, scrolling through your contacts, scrolling down a web page, etc...). Other "multi-touch" operations also look neat, such as the ability to zoom into web page by squeezing your fingers on the desired area (iPhone loads the actual page, not the WAP version, and allows you to zoom in to read what you want - another smart phone problem solved (yes, yes, it's coming, don't worry)). The important thing about the touch interface is that it is extremely intuitive. You don't need to learn that much in order to use this phone, and the touch screen interface.
  • The phone does a few interesting new things. It has a feature they're calling "visual voicemail" which lets you see all of your voicemail, then select which one you want to listen to first (a great feature). It also makes conference calls a snap, too. This is honestly something I can't see using that much, but the interface to do it is better than any other conference call interface I've seen, and it's contextual in that you don't have to deal with it until you've got two people on the phone.
  • It's gyroscopic, dude. It has motion sensors that detect the phone's orientation. If you're looking at a picture, and you turn the phone, the picture will turn with you (and if it's a landscape picture, it'll fill more of the screen too). It senses the lighting and adjusts the screen's display to compensate for the environment (saves power, provides better display). When you put the phone by your ear to take a call, it senses that, and deactivates the touchscreen, saving power and avoiding unwanted "touches" on the screen (you don't want your ear to hang up, after all). Another problem solved (wait for it). Unfortunately, the iPhone does not also feature Wiimote functionality (wiiPhone anyone?)
  • Upgradeable Interface: One of the most important things that having a touch screen interface allows Apple to do is provide updates to installed software and even new applications (given that it's running a version of OS X, this is probably a given). Let's say that the interface for browsing contacts is a little off, or the keyboard is spaced wrong. With a physical keyboard on a smart phone, you can't fix that problem without redesigning the whole thing and making the customer purchase a new piece of hardware. The iPhone can just roll out an update.
  • Apple could put Blackberry out of business with this thing, provided that the functionality is there (it appears that it is for Yahoo mail, but will it work with my company? I can't tell just yet.). Blackberries always seemed like a fully featured kludge to me. The iPhone is incredibly elegant in comparison (not that it isn't elegant all by itself). This would also mitigate the whole high price issue: companies might pay for this thing if it works as well as it seems, and people are always more willing to spend their companies money than their own.
Ok, you know what's coming. Human beings don't solve problems. They trade one set of problems for another, in the hopes that the new are better than the old. Despite the fact that I haven't actually used the iPhone, what are some potential issues?
  • The touchscreen: Like the iPod's clickwheel, the iPhone's greatest strength could prove to be it's greatest weakness. Touch screens have been in use for years and have become pretty well understood and revised... but they can also be imprecise and, well, touchy. When watching the demo, Steve didn't seem to be having any problem executing various options, but I'm not sure how well the device will be able to distinguish between "I want to scroll" and "I want to select" (unless selecting was a double-tap, but I don't think it was). Designing a new touch screen input interface is a tricky human factors problem, and I'm willing to be it will take a little while to be perfected. Like the scrollwheel, I can see it being easy to overshoot or select the wrong item. I could certainly be wrong, and I look forward to fiddling with it at the local Mac store to see just how responsive it really is (it's hard to comment on something you've never used). However, I'm betting that (again like the scrollwheel) the touchscreen will be a net positive experience.
  • Durability: Steven Den Beste hits (scroll down) on what I think may be the biggest problem with the touch screen:
    I have some serious concerns about long term reliability of the touch panel. When it's riding inside a woman's purse, for instance, how long before the touch panel gets wrecked? Perhaps there's a soft carrying case for it -- but a lot of people will toss that, and carry the phone bare. Nothing protects that panel, and it covers one of the two largest faces on the unit. There are a thousand environmental hazards which could wreck it: things dropped onto it, or it being dropped onto other things. And if the touch panel goes bad, the rest of the unit is unusable.
    Indeed. iPods are notorious for getting scratched up, especially the screens. How will that impact the display? How will it impact the touch screen?
  • Two hands? It looks like you need to use two hands to do a lot of these touch screen operations (one to hold, the other to gesture). Also, when writing an email, a little qwerty keyboard appears on the touch screen... which is nice, but which also might be difficult to use with one hand or without looking (physical keyboards allow you to figure out what key you're on by touch, and also have little nubs - home keys - which don't translate to the touch screen). I don't know how much of an issue this will be, but it will affect some people (I know someone who will type emails on their Blackberry with one hand, while driving. This is an extreme case, to be sure, but it doesn't seem possible with the touch screen).
  • Zooming: The zooming feature in web browsing is neat, but the page they used in the demo (the NY Times homepage) has 5 columns, which seems ideal for zooming. How will other pages render? Will zooming be as useful? The glimpses at this functionality aren't enough to tell how well it will handle the web... (Google Maps looked great though)
  • Does it do too much? This phone looks amazing, but it's price tag is prohibitive for me, especially since I probably won't use a significant portion of the functionality. I love that it does video, and while the 3.5" screen is bigger than my iPod's screen, I have to admit that I've never used the iPod video to watch something (maybe if I travelled more...) Brian Tiemann notes:
    If it weren't for the phone, I would buy this in a heartbeat. As it is, I wish (as does Damien Del Russo) that there were a way to buy it without the Cingular plan, so you could just use it as an iPod with wireless web browsing and e-mail and the like.
    Again, there is a worry that a device that tries to do everything for everyone will end up being mediocre at everything. However, I think Apple has made a very admirable attempt, and the touch screen concept really does cut down on this by allowing applications their own UIs and also allowing updates to those UIs if it becomes necessary. They've done as good a job as I think is possible at this time.
  • Battery Life: This goes along with the "does it do too much" point. I mentioned above that the battery life seems decent, and it does. However, with a device that does this much, I have a feeling that the 5 hours of use they claim will still feel a little short, especially when you're using all that stuff. This is one of the reasons I never seriously considered getting a music/camera/phone a while back: I don't want to run out my batteries playing music, then not be able to make an important call. This is a problem for mobile devices in general, and battery technology doesn't seem to be advancing as rapidly as everything else.
  • Monopoly: This phone will only further cement iTunes' dominant position in the marketplace. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I go back and forth. Sometimes Apple seems every bit as evil as Microsoft, but then, they also seem a lot more competant too. The Zune looks decent, but it's completely overshadowed by this. We could have a worse monopoly, I guess, but I don't like stuff like DRM (which is reasonable, yes, but still not desirable except insofar as it calms down content owners) and proprietary formats that Apple won't license. Will third parties be able to develop apps for the iPhone? It could certainly be worse, but I'm a little wary.
All in all, it's quite impressive. Most of the potential issues don't seem insurmountable, and I think Apple has a hit on their hands. It should also be interesting to see if other cell phone makers respond in any way. The cell phone market is gigantic (apparently nearly a billion cell phones were sold last year), and it seems like a lot of the best phones are only available overseas. Will we start to see better phones at a cheaper price? Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be getting an iPhone anytime soon, though I will keep a close eye on it. Once they work out the bugs and the price comes down, I'll definitely be tempted.

Updates: Brian Tiemann has further thoughts. Kevin Murphy has some thoughts as well. Ars Technica also notes some issues with the iPhone, and has some other good commentary (actually, just read their Infiinite Loop journal). I think the biggest issue I forgot to mention is that the iPhone is exclusive to Cingular (and you have to get a 2 year plan at that).
Posted by Mark on January 10, 2007 at 12:08 AM .: Comments (4) | link :.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

2006 Kaedrin Movie Awards
I watched a lot of movies in 2006, both in the theater and at home. I've always watched a lot of movies, but I usually find myself catching up with present-year movies. I haven't seen many of the Oscar hunting movies that come out in limited release towards the end of the year. This is because, well, they're in limited release and not playing near me. Even still, I think I can come up with something interesting. To start, I'm going to announce some award nominations with slightly different categories than the traditional award shows (i.e. fun awards, more like MTV than the Oscars). I figure that I'll comment on the traditional awards (best actor/actress, screenplays, etc...) when the Oscar liveblogging comes around. I may actually get a top 10 movies of 2006 list out there relatively soon as well.

To start things off, I'm going to list out some categories and nominees. The rules for this are that it has to be a 2006 movie and I have to have seen the movie (and while I have seen a lot of movies, I don't pretend to have seen a comprehensive selection - don't let that stop you from suggesting something though). Also, I suppose I should mention the requisite disclaimer that these sorts of lists are inherently subjective and personal. Part of the reason I'm doing this is just to give some love to films that I like, but which aren't necessarily great or are otherwise flawed (as such, the categories may seem a bit eclectic). Some of these movies will end up on my top 10, but the grand majority of them will not.

Best Villain/Badass
For this category, I'm choosing individuals and not a group of people (or creatures, so no Snakes on a Plane). Winner Announced!

Best Hero/Badass
On the flip side, again limited to individuals and not groups. This actually turns out to be a pretty tough category this year. I feel like I have to be missing something (feel free to suggest alternatives in the comments), but here goes: Winner Announced!

Best Comedic Performance
Comedies aren't given a lot of respect, even when they make us laugh really hard. In terms of comedic performance, I didn't love all of the below movies, but I liked these performances: Winner Announced!

Breakthrough Performance
This is more of a personal breakthrough than a mainstream breakthrough (indeed, some of these people may have already had their mainstream breakthrough). My main criteria here is when I watch a movie, then immediately look up one of the actors/actresses to find out who they are and what else they've done. Sometimes, they're someone I recognized but never thought much of, sometimes not. Winner Announced!

Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can be absolutely gorgeous. Winner Announced!

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
Genre films get no love, but there really weren't all that many good options that I had seen, so I had to combine these two categories. Winner Announced!

Best Sequel
Everyone likes to revisit characters from movies they love. In theory, at least. Most sequels are terrible, but these stood out this year. Winner Announced!

Biggest Disappointment
I wasn't sure if I should include a "negative" category, but I think this one works (for this year, at least). There are two components to consider here. First, the overall quality of the movie. Second, my expecations for the movie. In some cases my expectations were low and the film was bad. In others my expectations were high and the film was mediocre. And so on. Winner Announced!

Best Action Sequences
Since no single action sequence really, really stoodout from the crowd for me, I'm taking into account all the action sequences in the movies listed. Winner Announced!

Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Because of the spoiler potential, you'll need to swipe this category to see the nominees. I'm limiting the info displayed to simply the movie name, which should keep the spoilers to a minimum, but sometimes even knowing that there's a twist can affect your enjoyment, so read on at your own risk.
  • The Departed
  • The Illusionist
  • Inside Man
  • Lucky Number Slevin
  • The Prestige
  • X-Men: The Last Stand
Winner Announced!

Anyone have any suggestions (for either category or nominations)? Comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome, as always.

It looks like Casino Royale, Mission Impossible III, and Clerks II are leading the nominations, with 4 each. The Descent racks up an impressive 3 nominations, while a whole slew of others pick up a respectible 2 (this is not counting the disappointment category). I'm going to give these nominations a week or so to stew in my head. I'll probably also add some nominations as the week goes on and I remember something that I stupidly forgot (or something I just saw, like perhaps Children of Men - again, feel free to help me out in the comments). I figure I'll announce the winners next week, perhaps with only one or two categories a day.
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2007 at 08:45 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Japanese Cootie Shots
One of the things that interests me about foreign films is the way various aspects of culture become lost in the translation to English. In some cases, this is due to the literal translation of dialogue, but in others it's due to a physical mannerism or custom that simply can't be translated. In a post about Lain's Bear Pajamas in the Anime series Serial Experiments Lain, I mention an example of such a gesture that appears in Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Of course, I got the details of the gesture completely wrong in that post, but the general concept is similar. Since Spirited Away is the next film in the Animation Marathon, I got the DVD and took some screenshots. The main character, a little girl named Chihiro, steps on a little black slug and the boiler room man, Kamaji, says that this is gross and will bring bad luck. So she turns around and puts her thumbs and forefingers together while he pushes his hand through (click the images for a larger version).


Now this is obviously some sort of gesture meant to counteract bad luck, but it's a little strange. The dialogue in the scene helps, though the subtitles and the dubbing differ considerably (as I have been noticing lately). The subtitled version goes like this:
KAMAJI: Gross, gross, Sen! Totally gross!
(CHIHIRO puts her hands in the shape of a rectangle.)
KAMAJI (pushing his hand through the rectangle): Clean!
Quite sparse, though the meaning is relatively clear. The dubbed version expands on the concept a little more:
KAMAJI: You killed it! Those things are bad luck. Hurry, before it rubs off on you! Put your thumbs and forefingers together.
(CHIHIRO puts her hands in the shape of a rectangle.)
KAMAJI (pushing his hand through the rectangle): Evil... begone!
I noticed this gesture the first time I saw the movie, because I thought it was stange and figured that there had to be a little more to it than what was really being translated. On the DVD there is a little featurette called The Art of 'Spirited Away' and in one of the sections, the translators mention that they were baffled by the gesture, and weren't sure how to translate it. After researching the issue, they concluded that it's essentially the Japanese equivalent to a cootie shot. Of course, this makes a lot of sense, and it's totally something a kid would do in response to stepping on something gross (this film, like many of Miyazaki's other films, seems to nail a lot of the details of what it's like to be a kid). It also illustrates that the boiler room man isn't quite as gruff as he appears, and that he even has a bit of a soft spot for children. Interestingly enough, this gesture is repeated again by a little mouse (I think it's a mouse), and the soot balls that work in the boiler room, though I don't remember that (I'll try to grab screenshots when I rewatch the whole film)

Again, Spirited Away is the next film in the Animation Marathon, and it's probably the best of the bunch as well. Expect a full review soon, though I'm not sure how detailed it will be. Filmspotting (the podcast that's actually running the marathon) is on a bit of a break from the marathon, as they're doing their obligatory 2006 wrap up shows and best of the year lists.
Posted by Mark on January 03, 2007 at 11:50 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.

Monday, January 01, 2007

State of the Blog
Another year has ended, and I've found it occasionally helpful to take a step back, examine what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, and where I'm going from here. I've been blogging in one form or another for over 6 years, and things have evolved considerably since I started. One characteristic of the blog that has changed since its inception has been the frequency of posts. While I've never been a "post every day" kind of blogger, I came pretty close a few times during my first year of blogging. I've scaled back considerably since then (for varied and sundry reasons), though I have tried to stay consistent by establishing a weekly schedule. Of course, posting once a week (on Sunday) probably isn't frequent enough to really garner a large audience... but I've written before about why I'm fine with that. My reasons for writing are still largely the same:
One of the reasons I write here is to learn. Many of the subjects I write about here are unfamiliar to me, and I use the process of writing about them to learn. This usually means that I will need to familiarize myself with a bunch of material, or spend a lot of time thinking about something and figuring out what it means and how to write about it. This usually takes a lot of time and effort, and I prefer to have a few uninterrupted hours to compose something like that. This is why I post on Sundays, because I have the time then. I honestly don't know how other bloggers do it, especially the really popular ones who still manage to have a large output of original material. As I mentioned above, I tend to view blogging as an exercise in thinking, a way to learn, and a way to have fun.
Naturally, this isn't the only reason I write here - having readers is an integral part of blogging, and the past year has been good to me, thanks to links from generous bloggers (who happen to populate my blogroll). My readership is still relatively small, but growing, which is good.

In any case, I noticed that I posted 12 times in December 2006. This is paltry in comparison to most successful blogs, but it's the most I've posted in a single month since August of 2001, and I think I'm due (perhaps long over-due) for an expansion of the weekly posting schedule. So I'll be posting at least twice a week, once on Sunday and once on Wednesday. I'm sure you're all entralled by this announcement. This actually isn't all that different than what has been happening naturally, but I've found that making this sort of thing formal is important. Hence this post.
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2007 at 09:22 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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