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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Link to Someone New, Part 3
Time is short and it's been a while since I've done this, so here are three posts from blogs I've never linked before:
  • Domino Computation: A computer is basically a series of switches. Granted, they're very small switches, and there are millions of them in most computers, but the basic theory of the linked post is that you can do some computation using primitive means - in this case, dominoes. It's a pretty amazing post if you're interested in this sort of thing, and the author has lots of pictures and even videos of how he set up his domino calculator.
  • pdb Vs Matlock Jr.: pdb owns a video game and movie store and likes to make fun of his customers, as in the linked post which has a very Acts of Gord type feel to it..
  • Dreary Queen: This blog focuses on the corporate logo niche. In the linked post, they tackle Dairy Queen's new logo, which is very lame. "Dairy Queen's ellipse is one of the most highly recognizable marks, it is (was) unique, memorable and impactful. Despite this equity, Dairy Queen considered it was time to change and make the wrong moves in all the wrong places"
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2007 at 08:35 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Vandread: Initial Thoughts
So I've seen the first 8 episodes of Vandread, and I should be finishing the first series early this week. So far, it's pretty good. I'm holding off on pronouncing any final verdict until I reach the end, but I have to admit that I'm enjoying myself so far and I'm kinda looking forward to a long-term story that has an actual ending.

American TV has recently experienced an explosion of the sprawling, multi-season story. This has been bolstered by the emergence of the TV DVD market, which makes it possible to catch up with a series really quickly. The problem is that I honestly think this Writers of Lost parody is a fairly accurate representation of what goes on in the writing office for some of these series. I gave up on Lost after watching the first season on DVD and I won't watch another episode until someone tells me there's a definite ending and that it's a good ending that actually makes sense. I actually enjoyed watching the first batch of Heroes episodes, but I get that same sorta feeling that the writers are just screwing around and making it up as they go along. As Dalton Ross writes in a recent editorial in Entertainment Weekly, "As much as I love all the drawn-out mysteries and soap opera shenanigans, there's something I crave even more -- closure."

This is one of the things about Anime that really appeals to me. I'm sure there are a bunch of ongoing series, but it seems like a lot of the series have definite ends, and thus have good, long yet concise character arcs, etc...

Vandread has its share of mysteries and open questions (especially in the first couple of episodes), but the series has progressed nicely, and I'm looking forward to the ending. Indeed, I already put Vandread: Second Stage in my Netflix queue. If the ending of the first series stinks, I can always remove it, but I don't anticipate any major issues.

As usual, I'm noticing little bits and pieces of culture that I'm not familiar with. For instance, when Dita first encounters Hibiki, she makes some sort of greeting gesture with her hand (I added screenshots in the extended entry below). Dita appears to be a UFO nut, so maybe that gesture is some sort of universal greeting or something (like the lights and tones at the end of Close Encounters). Hibiki returns the gesture (further supporting the universal greeting theory), and then promptly runs away. Did I mention that in the Vandread universe, men and women have segregated themselves to different planets and are pretty much at war with one another? I thought this was a little strange, but it makes for some interesting dynamics (and I'm sure it will play a role in the progression of the series).

Dita chases Hibiki

More screenshots & comments in the extended entry below... When Dita first encounters Hibiki, she makes a greeting gesture with her hand, like so (the small pictures are kinda hard to make out, but if you click on the image you can get a bigger version):

A stunned Hibiki then returns the gesture:

Again, I'm assuming this is some sort greeting, though I've never seen it before.
Posted by Mark on March 25, 2007 at 07:48 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Listy McFriday
Roy says that Fridays are list day, but I'm not sure I believe him. I figure I should do it anyway, just in case.

Random 10 Songs
  • Tool - "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)"
  • Aphex Twin - "Alberto Balsalm"
  • UNKLE - "Nursery Rhyme / Breather"
  • David Bowie - "Heroes"
  • Eels - "Lone Wolf"
  • Franz Ferdinand - "The Fallen"
  • Steroid Maximus - "Chain Reaction"
  • Peeping Tom (Featuring Amon Tobin) - Don't Even Trip
  • Vince Guaraldi - "Cast Your Fate to the Wind"
  • Beck - "Devils Haircut"
Five Signs I'm a Geek
Aside from the obvious and overt ones.
  1. Sometimes when I want to find a particular passage in a book, I wish I could just press CTRL + F and search. Alas, most books don't have a keyboard. (In addition, I wish I could do this to podcasts.)
  2. I'm so addicted to mouse gestures that I often find myself attempting to use them in other applications. (Also a sign that I'm a geek: I know what mouse gestures are.)
  3. I tend to optimize my walking patterns, especially through areas I have to navigate frequently, like the parking lot at work. (Strangely, it appears that I'm not the only one).
  4. The number of times I've seen certain movies has reached triple digits. Yes, I said movies, plural. (Bonus points to anyone who can name them. There's at least one really obvious choice, and they're all pretty geeky. As such, my knowledge of intricate details in said movies is also pretty geeky.)
  5. I can name all of the Colonial Marines in the movie Aliens from memory (see previous bullet, bonus points nullified for this particular movie).
Ok, I guess the fouth item in the list could be classified as "obvious and overt." Sue me.
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2007 at 07:42 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Thermopylae is a wedge issue!
It's All Geek to Me by Neal Stephenson: After a lengthy absence, Stephenson returns with an oped in the NY Times. He tackles the film 300 from various geeky angles, and in the process, he hits on a few ideas that I've been thinking about recently.
Critics at a festival in Berlin walked out, and accused its director of being on the Bush payroll.

Thermopylae is a wedge issue!

Lefties can't abide lionizing a bunch of militaristic slave-owners (even if they did happen to be long-haired supporters of women's rights). So you might think that righties would love the film. But they're nervous that Emperor Xerxes of Persia, not the freedom-loving Leonidas, might be George Bush.
This seems to be happening more and more these days. Somebody makes a movie without any intention of making a political statement, and then liberals and conservatives fall all over themelves in an attempt to spin the movie in their favor. This isn't limited to movies or other forms of art either (nor is it limited to politics, for that matter - people often spin things in subjective ways). For instance, talk to anyone who has strong opinions about politics and they'll tell you that the media is biased against them. It's amusing, really.

When I saw 300, the thought that this might be applicable to our current political situation occurred to me, but I dismissed it pretty quickly. I'm sick of politics and have been for a while now, which brings me to another point Stephenson makes:
When science fiction tackles classical themes, the results may look a bit odd to some, but the audience - which is increasingly the mainstream audience - is sufficiently hungry for this kind of material (and, perhaps, suspicious of anything that's overly polished) that it is willing to overlook the occasional mistake, or make up for it by shouting hilarious things from the balcony. These people don't need irony or campiness self-consciously pointed out to them, any more than they need a laugh track to enjoy "The Simpsons."

The Spartan phalanx presents itself to foes as a wall of shields, bristling with spears, its members squatting behind their defenses, anonymous and unknowable, until they break formation and stand out alone, practically naked, soft, exposed and recognizable as individuals.

The audience members watching them play the same game: media-weary, hunkered down behind thick irony, flinging verbal jabs at the screen - until they see something that moves them. Then they'll come out and feel. But at the first hint of politics, they'll jump back behind their shield-wall, just like the Spartans when millions of Persian arrows blot out the sun, and wait until the noise stops.
I've been thinking a lot about politics in art, and I don't think it's as influential as it once was. The modern world is so saturated with politics and hyperbolic outrage that yet another movie or album that decries war or globalization or secularization or whatever is just, well, lame. You look at someone like George Orwell and you can see why he wrote what he did and why he wrote how he wrote. If he were writing today, I bet it would seem gimmicky and lame.

Alas, at the end of the article, it didn't mention that Stephenson would be releasing a new book anytime soon. I know he's working on the Diamond Age Miniseries, but I'm still impatient for his next book, whatever it may be. These NY Times opeds are nice and all, but they seem too short for Stephenson. I like it better when he rambles on for a few hundred pages.
Posted by Mark on March 21, 2007 at 08:22 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Every couple of years, someone gets the bright idea to adapt Alan Moore's classic graphic novel Watchmen into a movie. Some work is done, then the project falls flat. To get an idea for how long this has been going on, I wrote about it on this blog over five years ago, and at that point, it had already been stuck in "development hell" for over a decade.

For a long time, Terry Gilliam was attached to direct. He was a big name, but he was also quite ambitious and known for getting mired in long, failed productions. By the end, he wanted to make a 12 hour film (or mini-series) out of the comic. One would have to applaud that sort of ambitious thinking, but it's easy to see how Gilliam didn't get anywhere. In any case, he eventually fell off the map, and in one of the more retarded Hollywood moves of recent history, screenwriter David Hayter was brought on not only to revise the existing Sam Hamm script (which was good, except for the changed ending) but also to direct. Hayter had achieved some clout because of his involvement with the X-Men films, but handing such a complex story to a first-time director seemed quite foolish. Luckily, that period didn't last long, and a few years later, up-and-coming indie director Darren Aronofsky attached himself to the project. This was all kinds of cool and the film geek community was delighted. Actors started clamoring for roles, including Jude Law, who's apparently quite the fanboy. Alas, it was not to be. Aronofsky left the production to focus on his dream project, The Fountain.

Paramount was still anxious to get the film started, so they sought out a replacement and eventually settled on Paul Greengrass. Though not as well-known as Gilliam and not as hip and trendy as Aronofsky, the choice of Greengrass was inspired and of all the directors who've expressed interest in Watchmen, I think he would have been my favorite. Like Aronofsky, Greengrass is an up-and-coming director. However, unlike anyone else attached to the project, Greengrass has also proven to be quite adept at making movies with a political element that doesn't suck (United 93, Bloody Sunday), while at the same time being able to direct a decent character-based action movie (The Bourne Supremacy). Watchmen would involve interweaving elements of both, among other thematic material. Unfortunately, an executive shuffle at Paramount meant that Watchmen would again get the boot. This is understandable. When a major studio undergoes a change in leadership, all greenlit projects are scrutinized. Watchmen had a long history of false-starts, a big budget, and a story that was... not family friendly (to put it nicely). Put yourself in the position of a newly appointed studio head, and then ask yourself if you'd really want to start off by attempting to make what many consider an unfilmable movie?

So the plug was pulled yet again, and Greengrass went on to make United 93 instead (and it's a masterpiece, imhbco). The movie sat in limbo until about a year ago, when director Zack Snyder, who was in post-production for the now-released hit 300 (an adaptation of Frank Miller's classic comic), was tasked with bringing Watchmen to the screen. 300 was released last week and ground it's way to an astounding $70 million opening weekend. I saw it, and while I enjoyed it, I have to admit that I'm not sure he's going to be able to handle Watchmen's complex themes. He's certainly talented, and I'm not counting him out, but his previous work simply doesn't tackle anything as ambitious as Watchmen. He directed a spirited remake of Dawn of the Dead that was quite entertaining (certainly among the best of the recent spate of horror movie remakes) but not exactly challenging. Ditto for the cliched but gorgeous and action-packed 300. I have to admit that I'm intrigued by the possibility of a Watchmen movie, and Snyder isn't a bad choice. Indeed, the unexpected success of 300 augurs well for the Watchmen production, which is now slated to start shooting this summer. For that alone, Snyder deserves some credit, as he might be the one who will finally bring it to the screen.

Indeed, Snyder appears to have begun some early concept work on his new project. Last summer, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Snyder and Miller showed some footage from 300 and did a Q and A. The footage was too bloody for an official widespread release, but of course, you can't stop the signal. It appeared on You Tube shortly after the comic-con and has supposedly played an important role in the marketing of 300. However, just a few weeks ago, someone discovered a little secret burried in the footage. Hidden between warring Spartans and Persians is a single frame of what appears to be Rorschach (perhaps the most recognizeable character from the Watchmen comic):


Well, it's a little dark (click the image for a much higher resolution image), but it's definitely Rorschach. The high resolution image was released by Harry Knowles, who also confirms that it is an official "test shot" that Snyder worked on (i.e. it won't be a part of the final film, it's just a concept shot).

I think it looks great, though it's a little difficult to tell with a static image how they're really going to do the mask (in the comic, the ink blot pattern changes from frame to frame, though there are some duplicates and consistency at work).

My guess is that after all this time, Watchmen is finally on its way to the big screen. Will it be good? The talent is certainly there, from the producers to the screenwriters to the director (though I really wanted to see what Greengrass would do with it, I'm sure Snyder will do fine and may even surprise me), but I'll believe it when I see it. I have to admit that I'm a little hesitant about how this film will turn out though, and I worry that it will fall into the same traps that V for Vendetta did. Watchmen seems to be very much a product of its time, for instance, and I'd worry that the filmmakers will want to update it. To be fair, I have not heard that this will be happening, though I was mildly disapointed by the change to the ending that I read in Sam Hamm's original script (however, I read that script a long time ago -- Hayter has supposedly revised the script to be more faithful to the source material, but time will tell). Adaptations in general are challenging, as some of the things that make a piece of art work in one medium don't necessarily translate well to another medium. In the end, I'll still be excited to see this finally reach the screen... and for the first time in many years, it looks like there's a fair chance that it's going to happen.

Unrelated to Watchmen, but pretty funny, is that the tendency to sneak a single frame into a trailer is apparently becoming somewhat common: see the hidden frame in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto trailer. Hilarious.
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2007 at 06:25 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Is List Day, Again
Let's try this again.

Random Ten:
  • Faith No More - "Evidence"
  • The Beta Band - "Troubles"
  • Led Zeppelin - "Bring it on Home"
  • The Secret Machines - "Sad and Lonely"
  • Propellerheads - "Take California"
  • Hotei, Tomoyasu - "Battle Without Honor or Humanity"
  • Pink Floyd - "Sheep"
  • Pearl Jam - "Present Tense"
  • MDFMK - "Get Out of My Head"
  • Audioslave - "Doesn't Remind Me"
Video Games I've Played Recently:
  • Hitman: Blood Money - A lot of fun for a DIAS game. Of course, you have to figure out what you're supposed to do first, and that's not always easy. Seriously, how am I supposed to know that I need to put a sedative in the donut box in the caterer's van because the caterer will take the donuts to the guys in the surveilance van, who will eat the donuts, pass out, and allow me to steal one of their suits, thus allowing me to enter the guarded house without arousing suspicions. Dammit, I can't even describe it without taking 4 lines of text! Luckily, after you complete a few missions, you make enough money to stock up on weapons and ammo, thus allowing you to bypass all the sublte trickery in favor of just killing everyone. This actually has a lot of replay value, and I actually kinda like that you can fire the game up and just pick one of your favorite scenarios.
  • Half Life 2 and Half Life 2: Episode One: An excellent game, with lots of fun, action-packed sequences, but the story left me a little baffled. As it turns out, they've opted to continue the story with a series of "episodes," but after playing Episode One (which came with the HL2 box I bought), I wasn't too impressed. I got the same feeling about the storyline that I get from Lost and Heroes. The writers are just making it up as they go, with no real idea how they're going to end the story (this Writers of Lost spoof sums up why I won't watch that show again until I know there's a good ending worth getting to). Anyway, storyline concerns aside, it's still a fun game and I really enjoyed it.
  • Oblivion: A very interesting game. Sorta the Grand Theft Auto of RPGs. I'm not sure I love the FPS fighting system for using swords and other close-quarters combat, but the game is a blast because of it's open-ended structure. Freedom of movement in the world, and lots of possible side-quests make this a true time-sink. Alas, not much time to play lately, so I haven't gotten all that far.
Movies from the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival I Definitely Want to See:
  • Exiled: I'm a fan of director Johnny To's The Mission, but his other films are hit and miss (though I've only seen a few, and he's quite prolific). Even still, I'm looking forward to this one, described as Johnny To’s homage to spaghetti westerns. Asian gansters get their own category in this year's festival (instead of being lumped into "Danger After Dark" like last year) and there are a couple of other films in the series I'd like to see as well.
  • Severance: I discovered the emerging British horror scene during last year's festival (I saw two excellent British horror films, The Descent and Evil Aliens), so I'm looking forward to this movie which is described as: BBC's “The Office” re-imagined as a horror movie.
  • In the Shadow of the Moon: I admit it, I'm a sucker for space race films and documentaries. So a documentary boasting never-before seen footage of space along with humorous first-hand commentary is right up my alley.
I'm not sure how much time I'll be able to devote to the Philly Film Festival this year, but I definitely want to see a few films, so expect some posts in early/mid April. I haven't gone through the schedule in detail yet, but the above films jumped out at me (my initial impression is that this year isn't as good as last year, but again, I haven't gone through this stuff in enough detail).
Posted by Mark on March 16, 2007 at 10:52 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mental Inertia
As I waded through dozens of recommendations for Anime series (thanks again to everyone who contributed), I began to wonder about a few things. Anime seems to be a pretty vast subject and while I had touched the tip of the iceberg in the past, I really didn't have a good feel for what was available. So I asked for recommendations, and now I'm on my way. But it's not like I just realized that I wanted to watch more Anime. I've wanted to do that for a little while, but I've only recently acted on it. What took so long? Why is it so hard to get started?

This isn't something that's limited to deciding what to watch either. I find that just getting started is often the most difficult part of a task (or, at least, the part I seem to get stuck on the most). Sometimes it's difficult to deal with the novelty of a thing, other times a project seems completely overwhelming. But after I've begun, things don't seem so novel or overwhelming anymore. I occasionally find myself hesitant to start a new book or load up a new video game, but once I do, things flow pretty easily (unless the book or game is a really bad one). I have a bunch of ideas for blog posts that I never get around to attacking, but usually once I start writing, ideas flow much more readily. At work, I'll sometimes find myself struggling to get started on a task, but once I get past that initial push, I'm fine. Sure, there are excuses for all of these (interruptions, email, and meetings, for instance), but while they are sometimes true obstacles, they often strike me as rationalizations. Just getting started is the problem, but once I get into the flow, it's easy to keep going.

Joel Spolsky wrote an excellent essay on the subject called Fire and Motion:
Many of my days go like this: (1) get into work (2) check email, read the web, etc. (3) decide that I might as well have lunch before getting to work (4) get back from lunch (5) check email, read the web, etc. (6) finally decide that I've got to get started (7) check email, read the web, etc. (8) decide again that I really have to get started (9) launch the damn editor and (10) write code nonstop until I don't realize that it's already 7:30 pm.

Somewhere between step 8 and step 9 there seems to be a bug, because I can't always make it across that chasm.For me, just getting started is the only hard thing. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. There's something incredible heavy in my brain that is extremely hard to get up to speed, but once it's rolling at full speed, it takes no effort to keep it going.
It's an excellent point, and there does seem to be some sort of mental inertia at work here. But why? Why is it so difficult to get started?

When I think about this, I realize that this is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I don't remember having this sort of difficulty ten years ago. What's different? Well, I'm ten years older. The conventional wisdom is that it becomes more difficult to learn new things (i.e. to start something new) as you get older. There is some supporting evidence having to do with how the human brain becomes less malleable with time, but I'm not sure that paints the full picture. I think a big part of the problem is that as I got older, my standards rose.

Let me back up for a moment. A few years ago, a friend attempted to teach me how to drive a stick. I'd driven a automatic transmission my whole life up until that point, so the process of learning a manual transmission proved to be a challenging one. The actual mechanics of it are pretty straightforward and easily internalized. Sitting down and actually doing it, though, was another story. Intellectually, I knew what was going on, but it can be a little difficult to overcome muscle memory. I had a lot of trouble at first (and since I haven't driven a stick since then, I'd probably still have a lot of trouble today) and got extremely frustrated. My friend (who had gone through the same thing herself) laughed at it, making my lack of success even more infuriating. Eventually she explained to me that it wasn't that I was doing a bad job. It was that I was so used to being able to pick up something new and run with it, that when I had to do something extra challenging that took a little longer to pick up, I became frustrated. In short, I had higher standards for myself than I should have.

I think, perhaps, that's why it's difficult to start something new. It's not that learning has become harder, it's that I've become less tolerant of failure. My standards are higher, and that will sometimes make it hard to start something. This post, for example, has been brewing in my head for a while, but I had trouble getting started. This happens all the time, and I've actually got a bunch of ideas for posts stashed away somewhere. I've even written about this before, though only in a tangential way:
This weblog has come a long way over the three and a half years since I started it, and at this point, it barely resembles what it used to be. I started out somewhat slowly, just to get an understanding of what this blogging thing was and how to work it (remember, this was almost four years ago and blogs weren't nearly as common as they are now), but I eventually worked up into posting about once a day, on average. At that time, a post consisted mainly of a link and maybe a summary or some short commentary. Then a funny thing happened, I noticed that my blog was identical to any number of other blogs, and thus wasn't very compelling. So I got serious about it, and started really seeking out new and unusual things. I tried to shift focus away from the beaten path and started to make more substantial contributions. I think I did well at this, but it couldn't really last. It was difficult to find the offbeat stuff, even as I poured through massive quantities of blogs, articles and other information (which caused problems of it's own). I slowed down, eventually falling into an extremely irregular posting schedule on the order of once a month, which I have since attempted to correct, with, I hope, some success. I recently noticed that I have been slumping somewhat, though I'm still technically keeping to my schedule.
Part of the reason I was slumping back then was that my standards were rising again. The problem is that I want what I write to turn out good, and my standards are high (relatively speaking - this is only a blog, after all). So when I sit down to write, I wonder if I'll actually be able to do the subject justice. At a certain point, though, you just have to pull the trigger and get started. The rest comes naturally. Is this post better than I had imagined? Probably not, but then, if I waited until it was perfect, I'd never post anything (and plus, that sorta defeats the purpose of blogging).

One of the things I've noticed since changing my schedule to post at least twice a week is that it forces me to lower my standards a bit, just so that I can get something out on time. Back when I started the one post a week schedule, I found that those posts were getting pretty long. I thought they were pretty good too, but as time went on, I wasn't able to keep up with my rising expectations. There's nothing inherently wrong with high expectations, but I've found it's good every now and again to adjust course. Even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time, and so we must calibrate ourselves from time to time as well.

Update 3.15.07: It occurs to me that this post is overly-serious and may give you the wrong idea. In the comments, Pete notes that watching Anime is supposed to be fun. I agree wholeheartedly, and I didn't mean to imply differently. The same goes for blogging - I wrote a decent amount in this post about how blogging is difficult for me, but that's not really the right way to put it. I enjoy blogging too, that's why I do it. Sometimes I overthink things, and that's probably what I was doing in this post, but I think the main point holds. Learning can be impaired by high standards.
Posted by Mark on March 14, 2007 at 08:14 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

In case you can't tell, I like movies. A lot. I'll watch just about anything, and indeed, I've spent a fair amount of time seeking out the strange and offbeat films that most of my friends have never heard of. When it comes to this sort of thing, I tend to go into phases. Hong Kong Action, Italian Horror, and Japanese Yakuza films (among many other genres) have captured my attention for a time. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that I've seen my fair share of Japanese animation. For the most part, my exposure has been limited to films, but I've seen a few series as well.

Now, I've consumed enough anime, and I read enough blogs in the Otakusphere, to know what I'm getting into here. I recently played along with the Filmspotting podcast's Animation Marathon, which contained a bunch of anime films (several of which I'd already seen, but welcomed the chance to revisit). The marathon is over, but I feel like I'm just getting started. The only problem is that I'm not sure where to go from here. So, in an attempt to figure this out, I'm going to list out what I've seen, what I'm looking for, and some series I know about but haven't seen yet. If you have any recommendations, feel free to drop a comment, but I've been cautioned to take recommendations with a grain of salt (which you kinda have to do for anything subjective like this).

What I've seen: (in rough chronological order)
  • Akira: My first forray into anime (unless you count Voltron) was largely unappreciated by me, thanks mostly to a horrible translation and bad transfer. I basically thought it was an incoherent mess (and I stand by that, given the crappy VHS experience), but when I revisited it during the marathon, I saw the new translation and digital transfer and was pleasantly surprised. I didn't love it, as the characters were annoying and generally unlikeable, but my opinion had greatly improved.
  • Ninja Scroll: At the recommendation of a friend, I rented this once. I have almost no recollection of this movie at all. I wanna say there was a scene on a boat at one point. I remember liking it, but not loving it.
  • Ghost in the Shell: I enjoyed this movie the first time I saw it, but I have to admit that it was a little out of my teenage self's league. I have since seen it several times and have grown to appreciate some of the challenging and thought provoking questions it raises.
  • Princess Mononoke: I distinctly remember watching a documentary on animation sometime around 1998 and seeing some clips from this movie and being awestruck. When it was finally released in the states, I jumped at the chance to see it and absolutely loved it. It's a fantastic film... yet, I have to admit that I haven't seen it since then and many of the details escape me. This is probably worth revisiting at some point.
  • Spirited Away: As much as I liked Princess Mononoke, this movie topped it, and when I learned that it was the same filmmaker, I was somewhat astounded. I rented it because it had won an Oscar, not because I knew it was from the makers of Princess Mononoke. It's a great film, and I gave it the best film award in the animation marathon.
  • Haibane Renmei: There was a bit of a gap between Spirited Away and this series (which happens to be my first actual anime series), and I hold Haibane Renmei responsible for my more recent interest in Anime. I checked it out because of the enthusiastic recommendations of Steven Den Beste, and, well, just about everybody else who has ever mentioned it. Put simply, this series is superb. Some have claimed that it's almost too good, and that everything else that follows will be a letdown. This might be true, but I've had about a year to cool off, and I think I should be fine:P
  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie: I cought this on Comcast OnDemand, and thought it was great. Unlike most of what I'd seen before, this was just good, clean action-packed fun. The music was so great I went out and bought a bunch of soundtrack CDs and listen to them often. As far as anime gateway drugs go, I'd think this would be a good choice (right behind Miyazaki films, natch).
  • Serial Experiments Lain: This was my next series, and boy was it a doozy. I'd heard good things and the technological themes appealed to me, so I netflixed it. At this point, I'm still not sure what the heck it's all about. As I mention in the linked post from the Kaedrin Forum, I think it's perhaps a little too obtuse and deliberate, but also quite good. Once I figured out the "unreliable narration" angle, a lot of things clicked into place, but I need to watch the series again sometime to really work things out.
  • Grave of the Fireflies: One of the few movies in the animation marathon I'd never seen before, and, well, it's great, but I'm pretty traumatized by this. Since this was the last new thing I've seen, I think my next movie/series should be something a little more upbeat. Please.
  • Miscellaneous Stuff: I've seen a handful of episodes from a bunch of series on Adult Swim, but this is far from ideal. I've seen a few episodes of Inuyasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, Witch Hunter Robin and a bunch of other series. For the most part, this stuff just went over my head, probably because I was jumping into the middle of various series, and so I never really got into anything there. I vaguely remember watching Vampire Hunter D a long time ago, but remember very little about it (I also remember watching some othe vampire hunter anime show, but again, don't remember much). I remember attempting to watch some Mecha related anime movie on cable. For the most part, it didn't make sense and I never finished it (don't even remember the name). I watched Steamboy and was blown away with the visuals, even if I had totally lost interest by the end of the movie (same issues here as with Akira, which makes sense because it's made by the same people). I also recently went back and filled in most of Miyazaki's catalog, though there are still a few films I've yet to see. They're all great, though I don't think any approaches Spirited Away (Howl's Moving Castle was awesome until about 2/3 of the way through, at which point it began to unravel).
That's pretty much it. I'm sure I missed a few things here or there, but that should give you a rough idea where I'm at and what I think of the genre. Overall, it's actually been pretty good to me, and there aren't many movies/shows I disliked. However, at this point, I'm not really sure where to go next.

What I'm looking for: For the next series I watch, I'm going to impose a few somewhat strict guidelines. I want to watch a series, but not something too long. I don't want to have to wade through 18 DVDs or anything absurd like that. A 13 or 26 episode series would be fine. At some point, I'm sure I'll move on to longer series, but for now, let's keep it relatively short. Sort of related, I'd like the story to be complete (or at least, the arc should be complete). I don't want to have to wait for new DVDs to come out before I can finish the series! I'd like something that has a good story arc (i.e. a character or plot based narrative), and preferably one that doesn't have a downer ending (I've had my fill with Grave of the Fireflies, thank you). I'm also looking for something that's a little more action-packed and fun than what I've been watching recently (i.e. not something like Serial Experiments Lain). I don't mind kid's shows, but that's not exactly what I'm looking for (I'm flexible on this one though). All recommendations are welcome, as I'll certainly need something after this... but this is what I'm looking for at the moment. Oh, one last requirement, the series needs to be available on Netflix.

What I'm currently considering: I seem to have fallen into reading a significant portion of the Otakusphere (SDB, Fledge, Shamus, Pixy, Alex, Pete, and a couple of others), and even if I have no idea what they're talking about most of the time, I'll occasionally notice a title here or there, so I have some ideas as to what could come next. Two pages I've been referring to while writing this post are Steven's reviews and Steve Yegge's Anime post. Unfortunately, I've already had to nix a couple of series, but I haven't looked real hard at most of these.
  • Cowboy Bebop: When I think about what I want for my next series, I keep thinking about the Cowboy Bebop movie. That's exactly what I'm looking for, so you'd think this series would be a perfect fit. However, my understanding is that it has something of a downer ending. I'll definitely be watching this series, and probably sooner rather than later, but not next.
  • Martian Successor Nadesico: I seem to recall hearing that this was an excellent series to start with, however, it sorta fails the Netflix test: disc 5 is not available (the other discs are). The series is apparently out of print, and apparently Netflix's copy of disc 5 took a beating. This is most frustrating, as this sounds exactly like what I want. I might check to see if I can download the episodes on disc 5 and netflix the rest, but that just seems like a hassle. It sounds like a blast though, and I'd really like to check this one out.
  • Noir: I considered this because it sounds really interesting... unfortunately, it doesn't seem to fit what I'm looking for right now. However, I am intrigued and will most likely watch this at some point.
  • Angelic Layer: Sounds interesting, but I need to look into it more.
  • Twelve Kingdoms: Based mostly on Steve Yegge's enthusiastic recommendation. A quick quote from his post which has broad applicability to anime and foreign movies in general:
    You know how little kids at a certain age like to watch the same movie over and over and over again, for up to a year, and child psychologists say that each time they see it they're seeing it from a new perspective? Well, 12 Kingdoms was like that for us. There's so much for a Westerner to take in. We missed a lot of it the first time around. It took at least 3 or 4 viewings before the patterns started taking shape in our minds.
    Cool stuff. Still, I need to look into this series a little more. SDB was a little frustrated because it wasn't finished yet, but at this point, I think it has finished (but I'm not sure)
  • Last Exile: Another Steve Yegge recommendation, though I've heard this has a bit of a downer ending too (but I need to look into that).
Well, since I'm significantly past my midnight deadline, I figure this is as good a place as any to stop. At this point, I'm not at all sure what to get. Maybe I'm being too specific with my requirements... Let me know what you think. Again, all recommendations are welcome and I'll probably consider a bunch more than are listed above... or maybe I'm overthinking this and will be bitten by the paradox of choice.
Posted by Mark on March 11, 2007 at 10:50 PM .: Comments (22) | link :.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday is Apparently List Day
After several years of blogging, I've finally figured out that Friday is list day. So here are a few lists:

Random Ten:
  • Guster - "Two Points For Honesty"
  • Amon Tobin - "Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track)"
  • Radiohead - "Optimistic"
  • Four Tet - "As Serious As Your Life"
  • The Bad Plus - "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass"
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird" (Yee ha!)
  • Yoko Kanno & Seatbelts - "Clutch"
  • Franz Ferdinand - "Michael"
  • Pink Floyd - "Money"
  • Nine Inch Nails - "Awitha Teetha" (Well, it's really just With Teeth, but I prefer Meathead's title because it more accurately reflects the way the song sounds. Incidentally, I didn't remember how Meathead spelled that, so I mistakenly googled for "awith teetha." Google, ever thoughtful, corrected my spelling. This is mildly amusing.)
The Two Greatest Reviews of NIN's With Teeth:
  • The Aformentioned Meathead Review: Overall score of [AWITHA_TEETHA]: 9,116 out of 9,652 stars
  • Tiny Mix Tapes Review: Concise but informative, and actually somewhat accurate. Sadly, Trentie Poo doesn't seem likely to reverse the trend with his new album, Year Zero (which comes out in just a few weeks, only two years after Awitha Teetha and 17 years ahead of my speculation), but we shall see, I guess. If you're interested, there's a thread in the Kaedrin Forum where we talk about the new songs that have been "leaked" (link to the songs in the thread) and the lame political overtones to the new album.
Three Documentaries I Watched Recently:
  • This Film Is Not Yet Rated: Or "Mocking the MPAA's rating process." And there's plenty to mock. It's a little gimmicky and sanctimonious, but it makes some good points and is pretty entertaining to watch (after all, most of the films that are covered are ones that get the dreaded NC-17, and that generally only happens because of sex scenes). Worth a watch if you're interested in the subject or you want to see a bunch of uncensored... uh... art...
  • Aliens of the Deep: Who wouldn't love to be James Cameron? The dude makes the biggest movie evar, then decides to take a break from filmmaking for a while and engage in expensive hobbies (and hang out with his brothers) like deep sea diving. He did this before in a movie called Ghosts of the Abyss, where he chronicles an expedition to the Titanic wreck (that film is only so-so, imho). This time around, he brings along a bunch of Nasa scientists who observe the preternaturally weird lifeforms that thrive deep in the ocean where no sunlight reaches and speculate on alien life forms. Take a look at this one:

    What the heck is this thing?

    Zoinks! That thing is amazing. The extended cut of the movie on the DVD is good and worth watching, but it can get a bit slow or meander a bit at times. Still, fascinating stuff.
  • Grizzly Man: Werner Herzog's portrait of grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 years among the grizzlies before they inevitably killed him (and his girlfriend). This movie is creepy on many levels. Treadwell himself would be creepy enough even if we didn't know what eventually happened to him, but his death looms over the entire film. The worst part is that Treadwell is constantly proclaiming his love for the bears and nature in general, but you can clearly see (even early in the film, long before his death) how absolutely and completely the bears do not reciprocate in any way. Treadwell was clearly aware of the dangers (at least on an intellectual level), and often loudly trumpets them, but he thinks he is somehow exceptional. He thinks he's been accepted by the bear community because he loves them. It's almost like a greek tragedy or something. The grand majority of the footage was provided by Treadwell himself, who had compiled nearly 100 hours of footage on the last 5 of his trips to Alaskan bear country. Herzog sifted through all that footage and intercut it with the requisite interviews with family, friends, and experts. It's quite a good film, though a little disturbing and not all that pleasant. It was actually a little interesting to watch this after watching Aliens of the Deep, as the contrast between people who treat nature with a degree of awe and respect (i.e. people who don't invite death) and Treadwell, who clearly loves and cherishes nature, but tragically doesn't respect it...
I like this list day thing. Expect more in the future (not all of which will be book and music related, I promise).
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2007 at 12:02 AM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A System of Warnings
Josh Porter recently wrote about some design principles he uses. As Josh notes, people often confuse design with art. Art is a form of personal expression, while design is about use.
The designer needs someone to use (not only appreciate) what they create. Design doesn't serve its purpose without people to use it. Design helps solve human problems. The highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do in Art, but that it is well-used.
I think one of the most recognized and perhaps important designs of the past twenty years or so is the Nutrition Facts label. Instantly recognizable and packed with information, yet concise and easy to read and use. It's not glamorous, but it works so well that we barely even notice it. It's great design.

While nutrition is certainly an important subject worthy of a thoughtful design, I recently stumbled upon a design project that is intriguing, difficult and important. In the desert of Southeastern New Mexico lies the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an undeground radioactive waste repository. Not a pleasant place. During the planning stages of the facility, a panel of experts were tasked with designing a 10,000-year marking system. It's an intriguing design problem. The resulting report is an astounding, powerful and oddly poignant document (excerpts here, huge .pdf version of the full report here). They developed an interesting system here; note, they didn't just create signs, the entire site (from the physical layout to the words and imagery used) was designed to communicate a message across multiple levels, with a high level of redundancy. It's not just a warning, it's a system of interconnected and reinforced warnings. The authors also attempted to anticipate a variety of potential attacks as well. What is the message they wanted to convey? Here's a brief summary:
  • This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!
  • Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
  • This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.
  • What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
  • The danger is in a particular location... it increases toward a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.
  • The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
  • The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
  • The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
  • The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
  • All physical site interventions and markings must be understood as communicating a message. It is not enough to know that this is a place of importance and danger...you must know that the place itself is a message, that it contains messages, and is part of a system of messages, and is a system with redundance.
As James Grimmelmann notes, this is "frightening, apocalyptic poetry." I find the third bullet to be particularly evocative. The assumptions the authors had to make in working on this design are interesting to contemplate. They're assuming that the audience for this design will be significantly different, perhaps not even human (in any case, the assumption is that something bad has happened and we're no longer around). Again, this is an intriguing design problem. I think they've done a pretty good job thinking about the problem, even if some of their more exotic designs didn't make it into the final system.
Posted by Mark on March 07, 2007 at 08:38 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Animation Awards
To wrap up the animation marathon (which should have taken six weeks, but took around four months instead), the Filmspotting podcast gave out some awards. I'll do the same, and I'll make some other closing comments.
  • Best Character: This one has to go to the Iron Giant. He's this wonderful childlike character who has a great arc in the film. You would expect the movie to be more about how the Giant changed everyone else's lives (which it does, and I don't mean to diminish that), but it's really about the robot itself, and how it grows and overcomes it's original programming. The way we learn about the Giant and how the arc is handled by the filmmakers just makes this the most compelling character in the marathon.
  • Best Villain: This is a tough one, as there are more good choices here. All the films have a compelling villain, but I'm going to go with Akira. Even though we don't see Akira until the end of the film, his presense looms over everything that preceeds it, and I kinda get the feeling that Akira is behind it all. Akira, to me, seems to be more than the physical manifestation of a young boy, but rather the catastrophic force that is unleashed as a result of human meddling (so, in a sense, Tetsuo is kinda part of this villain).
  • Best Scene: This is another hard one, but I'm going to have to agree with Adam from filmspotting in picking the brutal "Setsuko death montage" towards the end of Grave of the Fireflies. It's quite possibly the most depressing scene I've ever seen, and while I don't ever want to watch it again, I have to admit that it is the most powerful thing I watched in the marathon.
  • Most Visually Stunning: I think it's pretty obvious that this is between Spirited Away & Akira, both of which are truly impressive works of animation. Part of me wants to give it to Spirited Away because of the incredible imagination that went into every visual element of the film, but while Akira's story does not require as much in the way of imagination, it's visual elements truly are spectacular (all the moreso because of the technology available at the time). We'll call this a tie.
  • Best Film: This one is difficult. For me, it comes down to Spirited Away, The Iron Giant, and Grave of the Fireflies. While Fireflies is easily the most emotionally draining of the six films and quite well done in every respect, I can't bring myself to say it's the best film. It's just too heartbreaking. I'll give this award to Spirited Away. It's just so good that I have a hard time talking about it (and not just because I'm afraid of ruining it for others, as I implied in my review). Sometimes this sort of thing can be inexplicably subjective, and Spirited Away is one of those cases.
None of this is to say that Watership Down or Ghost in the Shell were bad films, they just didn't neatly fit into the categories (if there was a "most thought provoking" award, it'd certainly go to Ghost in the Shell). All the films in the marathon were well done and certainly worth a watch, especially if you're not familiar with the genre (or if you're only familiar with the Disney style of the genre).

The one thing that bothers me about the list of films in the marathon was that the Anime portion was almost criminally short. While I think the Anime films in the marathon are all sorta landmark achievements, they are really only touching the surface of the genre, and a few of them are, well, difficult films (especially Fireflies). If I were to introduce someone to the genre, I'd probably start with Spirited Away. In any case, this will not be the last you hear about Anime on the blog, though I'm not sure where I'm headed next. I think at some point, I'll have to list out all the Anime that I've seen and solicit some suggestions... but for now, I've got several live-action films in my Netflix queue that I've been neglecting.
Posted by Mark on March 04, 2007 at 05:47 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.

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