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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Subterranean Stephenson
Interesting article about geeky dads who worry that their kids won't become geeks, too, and how they try to instill a sort of geeky work ethic in their kids.
Science fiction author Neal Stephenson once told me something memorable as we were hanging out in his back yard. He pointed to an unfinished kayak under a tarp. He said he was slowly working on it, in part to mentor his kids, even though they did no work on the boat, nor express the least bit of interest in this project. None-the-less he continued puttering on the undertaking while they were home. Stephenson said when he was a kid, his dad was constantly tinkering on some garage project or another, and despite Neal's complete indifference for any of his dad's enthusiasms at the time, he was influenced by this embedded tinkering. It was part of the family scene, part of his household, like mealtime style, or the pattern of interactions between siblings. Later on when Neal did attempt to make stuff on his own, the pattern was right at hand. It felt comfortable, easy. Without having to try very hard, he knew how to be a nerd.
Interesting stuff. And speaking of Stephenson, Warren Ellis apparently finished the Baroque Cycle lately:
I have just finished reading The Baroque Cycle of Neal Stephenson, and feel like giving up writing entirely.
I guess he liked it? Further thoughts on his blog:
I finally got to finish reading the last of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I'd never normally recommend you read a 3000-page work, but the Cycle is just a towering piece of work, and I think you should read it before you die. A hundred pages from the end, I got that terrible longing sadness, the one that comes when you realise you're near the end of something and you'ĺl never have the joy of reading this in the same way again.
I've had that feeling before. I definitely had it while reading the Baroque Cycle, but that was more just because I'd been reading the thing for 2 years. And it had one of Stephenson's better endings, I think. I had the same feeling while reading Cryptonomicon, except I had it more like three or four hundred pages from the end. Heh. [Warren Ellis links via No Mod Required]

Update: Shamus joins in the discussion Alex and I had about Cryptonomicion.
Posted by Mark on February 27, 2008 at 09:47 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Liveblogging
As is traditional, I'll be liveblogging the Oscars tonight. If you're interested, here are previous installments: 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004. Check back for frequent updates (starting around 8:30 pm EST), and feel free to hang around and leave comments to play along...

Anyway, here are my picks for the major awards:
  • Best Picture: For the first time in, well, ever, I've actually seen all of the Best Picture nominees. The category essentially boils down to No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Juno has an outside chance, except that comedies don't usually do well in this category, and often movies like this will be rewarded with a Best Screenplay nod, which Is what I'm betting on. Michael Clayton, while a fine movie, has inexplicably garnered a lot of attention. Nevertheless, a hot new director and Hollywood's most popular actor probably aren't enough to beat out the competition. In the end, I'm going with No Country for Old Men. It's about time the Coens got a best picture/director win.
  • Best Director: Again, going with the Coen brothers here for No Country for Old Men. It's pretty rare for best picture and director to be split. The only other person I could see taking the award is PT Anderson. Jason Reitman is good, but I'm honestly surprised to see him get the nomination, let along win the award. Julian Schnabel's film didn't get a best picture nom, which means he's pretty much dead in the water. Tony Gilroy is a dark horse I guess, but I can't see him winning.
  • Best Actor: I've got to go with Daniel Day-Lewis for this. No one else commands attention on the screen the way he does, even when he's spouting off about milkshakes and such. That said, some folks will be put off by the scenery-chewing ending, so I guess there's a possibility for someone else to take the award... but I just don't see anyone in this category taking it (despite not having seen a couple of the films here)
  • Best Actress: With the exception of Juno, I haven't seen any of the films these actresses are nominated for. The buzz seems to be with Julie Christie's turn as an Alzheimer's patient, but Ellen Page is also a decent bet. I'm torn, but I'll say Julie Christie (though I'd rather Ellen Page won, as I think she's a fantastic actress).
  • Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, playing the chilling, unstoppable killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, hands down. No real contest here, though some people might go for Hal Holbrook as a sympathy vote.
  • Best Supporting Actress: This might be the toughest of the major categories. Everyone loves Cate Blanchett, and her gener-bending turn as Bob Dylan seems to have impressed a lot of folks (I didn't see it, but I can't picture anyone else pulling this sort of gimmicky thing off without it seeming gimmicky). Ruby Dee might get a sorta career achievement award for her performance in American Gangster, but that's all she really has to go on. Amy Ryan has an excellent, showy performance that's sure to garner attention, while Tilda Swinton's role require more of a quiet, vulnerable intensity. I'm going with Swinton here, because Michael Clayton isn't likely to win any of the other awards it's nominated for, but the Academy will still want to award it in some way (and best supporting nods are often a way of doing so). Plus, you know, it's a good performance.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Juno is the film everyone loves, but not enough to give it a best picture win, so I'm betting the Academy will throw the screenplay award to Diablo Cody's script, which despite the too-cool-for-school hipster dialogue that occasionally grates, probably deserves the award. Another outside chance for Michael Clayton, but it's just not as clever or charming as Juno.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country for Old Men will get this, I think, though there's an outside chance that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will pull an upset. There Will Be Blood is too loosely based on it's source material, and it's streghths are with the way it's filmed and acted, not the writing.
  • Editing: For some reason, this award often tracks with best picture, so I'm going with No Country for Old Men. I suppose there's an outside chance that The Bourne Ultimatum will win, though I think enough people will be put off by the frenetic cutting and shaky camera.
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins may get the most votes, but they'll be split between No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which both seem to be gorgeously photographed, though I've only seen one of them), so I'm going with Robert Elswit's work on There Will Be Blood.
  • Visual Effects: I think Transformers will take this one. For some unknown reason, people seem to like this movie, and I'll admit that the effects are pretty good.
  • Musical Score: Well, not sure about this. The typewriter-laden score for Atonement makes the biggest impression (perhaps because it's overused:P), but I think Ratatouille's score is pretty good too. I'll go with Atonement, just because it is striking (no pun intended).
  • Best Song: For the second year in a row, a single film has garnered 3 nominations for this category. And I'm learning from last year's mistake and guessing that votes will be split up between those three, and thus none will get enough votes to beat "Falling Slowly" from the popular film Once. Musicals just ain't my thing, but I have to admit, I got chills from Once on a number of occasions, so that's my pick.
  • Makeup: No idea. I'll just say La Vie En Rose as the other two nominees don't seem like the type to inspire a lot of votes (I mean, Norbit? NORBIT!?)
  • Best Animated Film: Ratatouille is a great film and my pick, though I guess there's an outside chance that Persepolis will win this.
  • Best Documentary: No End in Sight is the favorite here. Yay Iraq!
  • Best Foreign Language Film: I've only even heard of one of these, so I'm betting that's going to win. So my pick is: The Counterfeiters.
That's all for now. Check back around Oscar time for lots of updates! Feel free to post your picks in the comments...

Oh, and Alex has posted his picks (we only really disagree on Best Supporting Acress... he picked the one person I didn't even consider), and he may be liveblogging (though I think the Aussie broadcast is behind the U.S. broadcast... so he'll be delayed).

Update 4:00 pm: The fine folks at Greencine will also be liveblogging...

Update 7:39 pm: I'm sorry, but does Barbara Walters actually not realize who Ridley Scott is? And she's got this job why?

Update 8:03 pm: I'm sorry, I can't take this pre-Oscar, red carpet crap. I'll be back at 8:30, when the updates will come more frequently.

Update 8:27 pm: Regis just called Javier Bardem "Xavier" Bardem, and the best part about it was that you could tell that Regis knew he was saying it wrong, but he went ahead anyway like nothing was wrong. Well played Regis. Well played.

Update 8:32 pm: And the show begins with a montage thingy. You know, I wonder how the show would have been if the WGA strike was still going strong. There was apparently some super secret plan that was in the works, but obviously didn't see the light of day. And John Stewart is hosting again? Huh, I didn't think anyone would want to host multiple times. Not bad so far.

Update 8:36 pm: "Too often, the Academy ignores movies that aren't good" Heh. Oh, and again with the sunglasses, Jack Nicholson? Again?

Update 8:42 pm: Oh boy, the costumes award! Let's just say there's a reason I didn't pick one above. And what a shock, the most absurd, showy costumes get the win. Holy crap, I blinked and she was done her speech. Well done, woman I've never heard of!

Update 8:50 pm: "Hi, I'm George Clooney, I'm going to mention a bunch of things you wish would happen at this Oscars, like a streaker running across the stage." Depending on how you classify the opening, this is Montage #2. We're only 20 minutes into the broadcast. What's the over under for montages? I'm going to say 18. Place your bets!

Update 8:53 pm: Good presentation by Steve Carell, and best Animated Film goes to Ratatouille! I'm one for one so far, and Brad Bird gives a mildly amusing speech, followed by the typical thank yous and the music ushering him off stage.

Update 8:56 pm: Were there really so few movies to nominate for Best Makeup? And holy crap, my shot in the dark guess is correct - I'm two for two!

Update 8:59 pm: As is traditional, the first best song nominee performance warrants a break so that I can start drinking alcohol. I do like Amy Adams a lot though...

Update 9:03 pm: First music performance down, and I'm still alive (mmm, beer). A good sign. I actually am kinda looking forward to "Falling Slowly" from Once. In case you can't tell, musicals ain't my thing, but I kinda enjoyed Once and I think it deserves this award.

Update 9:08 pm: Can you smellllll what the Rock is cooking? It's apparently the visual effects award. Again, I have to wonder why there are so few nominees. What the - The Golden Compass wins the award? Huh. I could have sworn Transformers was a shoe-in. I actually never saw The Golden Compass... And I'm 2 for 3 so far.

Update 9:12 pm: Art Direction award goes to Sweeney Todd (another movie I haven't seen, but given Tim Burton's work, I'm not surprised this won for Art Direction). I guess we're getting all the "small" awards out of the way first, eh? Heh, people with accents are funny. Almost makes the traditional "Thank You" speech bearable.

Update 9:17 pm: Montage #3! Though at least we're getting to a good award early. Best Supporting Actor goes to ("Call it, friendo") Javier Bardem. Shocking! I love it when people speak a foreign language in their acceptance speech. I think they bleeped him too. I'm 3 for 4.

Update 9:22 pm: Javier Bardem's speech was not a classic Oscar moment. It could have been, if his entire speech was in Spanish. That would have been awesome. Are you kidding me? Montage #4. For binoculars and periscopes. Seriously? I guess it was a joke, but still. #4. And wow, #5. Bad dreams, an Oscar salute. Making fun of montages with more montages still counts as a montage, right?

Update 9:26 pm: Music performance #2, and I'm on beer #2. This does not bode well for me. You'll be lucky if I'm conscious by the end of the Oscars, let alone able to piece together coherent sentences.

Update 9:30 pm: Are the short film awards really necessary? Not to belittle the films themselves, but it's not like the grand majority of the audience has ever even heard of these things. And Seinfeld is still pimping his Bee Movie stuff? With another montage (#6)!

Update 9:38 pm: Yet another montage (#7). I'm beginning to think that the "super secret Oscar plan" for if the WGA strike was still going was just to show non-stop montages. And best supporting actress goes to Tilda Swinton. Yes! In your face Alex! I'm 4 for 5. And a decent speech too.

Update 9:41 pm: The little asides before commercials where former winners comment on their award has also got to be part of the "super secret Oscar plan" for if the WGA strike was still going.

Update 9:44 pm: I Watch Stuff is also liveblogging: "Tilda Swindon wins, dressed as half a wizard. Or possibly as an art piece: 'Woman Emerging From Satin.'"

Update 9:48 pm: Jack Nicholson "I'm going to have you killed, Josh Brolin." And best adapted screenplay goes to No Country for Old Men. Er, interesting speech? Keep it simple, Ethan. I like it. Incidentally, this does not bode ill for No Country, but it doesn't necessarily bode well either. Best screenplay awards tend to go to movies that are too cool to win the best picture awards. But I still think No Country will win.

Update 9:54 pm: Ahhhh, another song. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss Antonio Banderas. (For those who don't know or remember, Banderas performed one of the best song nominees in 2005 in what has become one of the better unintentionally funny Oscar moments).

Update 9:58 pm: It's been like, 20 minutes, since the last montage. I'm going through withdrawal pains.

Update 10:06 pm: Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill are awesome, imitating Dame Judi Dench and Halle Berre (that would make sense if you were watching - incidentally, how does one become a "Dame"?). And best editing goes to The Bourne Ultimatum. Darn, I'm 4 for 6. This also does not bode so well for No Country though at least There Will Be Blood didn't win, which would be a really bad sign for No Country. And Sound Editing (an award I didn't pick) also goes to The Bourne Ultimatum. Perhaps this isn't too surprising. Lots of people like that movie (including me - it's in my top 10 movies of 2007), so it makes sense that it would be given these smaller awards.

Update 10:08 pm: Montage #8! I feel better now.

Update 10:14 pm: Cate Blanchett is scared of herself, I think. Or maybe she's just thinking, "I can't believe I got nominated for being in a film no one saw or liked." And best actress goes to... Marion Cotillard? Huh? Ok, I guess. I wasn't expecting that, but then, I didn't see most of the films in this category. Foreign people are funny. I'm 4 for 7.

Update 10:20 pm: Fourth nominated song. So close. Oh, and this is the one I actually like. And it's performed by the actual people in the movie. Seriously though, the song loses something without context. But I'm still rooting for this one.

Update 10:20 pm: Jack Nicholson, what the hell? You've replaced your lame sunglasses with trendy ones? Montage #9! Best pictures of the past.

Update 10:29 pm: I'm a moron. Apparently the earlier award for editing was actually "Sound Editing." But The Bourne Ultimatum wins this one too, so my thoughts then remain. Also, I remain at 4 for 7. Heh, John Stewart: "Someone just took the lead in their Oscar pool with a guess." Hehehe.

Update 10:32 pm: Who the hell is Robert Boyle? I bet a montage will tell me why this guy is getting an Honorary Oscar. Yep, montage #10. Score.

Update 10:34 pm: Some other livebloggers: Update 10:43 pm: Best foreign film goes to The Counterfeiters. Huzzah! I'm 5 for 8. Incidentally, I'm obligated to say that the process for nominating films for this award is retarded. That is all.

Update 10:50 pm: The crowd is clearly with "Falling Slowly" for best song. It better win. And it does! I actually like the best song winner. Shocking! Make Art, Make Art! Awwww, she didn't get to say anything. Poor girl... I'm 6 for 9.

Update 10:54 pm: Montages I'm looking forward to:
  • Cinema's Greatest Bowel Movements (with emphasis on Dumb and Dumber)
  • Great Moments in Lawn Care (with emphasis on My Blue Heaven)
  • The Oscar Tribute to Vomit (with emphasis on The Exorcist)
Update 10:57 pm: They let Markéta Irglová come back out and give an acceptance speech. That's actually kinda nice of them.

Update 11:00 pm: Hehehe, blondes are dumb and can't pronounce cinematography. And the award goes to There Will Be Blood. I'm 7 for 10. Oh my, Paul Thomas Anderson looks absolutely diabolical.

Update 11:02 pm: Yay dead people! Montage #11.

Update 11:09 pm: And best score goes to Atonement and it's stinkin' typewriters. I'm 8 for 11 though. Who is that sitting next to James McAvoy (on the left)? She looks like a zombie.

Update 11:15 pm: All of the nominees for documentary, short subject are about Iraq. Several of the full documentary nominees are about Iraq as well. Yay Iraq!

Update 11:20 pm: Just a callout for The King of Kong and My Kid Could Paint That, two documentaries that could be nominated if we didn't demand that documentaries be controversial or about Iraq. And the Oscar goes to... Taxi to the Dark Side. Huh, it looks like we'll get our political statement of the night... and not much of one. Apparently I suck at picking this award. I'm 8 for 12 so far.

Update 11:28 pm: Original Screenplay goes to Juno, which pretty much means it won't win best picture. Still, it's a worthy win, and I'm glad. I didn't expect someone named Diablo to cry, but good on her. It was her first script, after all, and it was pretty darned good. I'm 9 for 13.

Update 11:35 pm: Montage #12! Oh, they chose to show a bad scene for Daniel Day Lewis, but he's going to win anyway. Look at Johnny Depp grinning maniacly like he knows he's going to win. Whoa, look at Viggo's beard. And best actor goes to, big surprise, Daniel Day Lewis. I'm 10 for 14.

Update 11:37 pm: I'm sorry, did he say his grandfather was Michael Bolton? It can't be! Ok, I just rewound, and it sounds more like Michael Bolkin or something. Phew. I thought we had a time travelling no talent ass clown on our hands.

Update 11:40 pm: Montage #13! And the best director oscar goes to Joel and Ethan Coen! Great reprise Ethan! Oh wow, I want to see Henry Kissenger, Man on the Go. Well done guys, you deserve it.

Update 11:45 pm: And best picture goes to No Country for Old Men. A complete surprise? Yeah right!

Update 11:50 pm: Only 3.5 million hours. Not bad. I came in at 13 for 17 (I think I lost count somewhere in there), which is 76%. Not too shabby, and about average for my picks the last few years. All in all, a decent show this year, though nothing too special seemed to happen. Oh well, there's always next year. And they're ending the show with the Mission Impossible theme song? What the heck? Well, that's my cue, have a good night folks.

Update 2/27/08: Alex has posted his thoughts on the awards, and he's got a new theme on his website too.
Posted by Mark on February 24, 2008 at 12:30 PM .: link :.



Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday is List Day: Oscars Edition
The Oscars are this weekend, so here's a few lists for your enjoyment including some movie related ones. Oh, and of course, I'll be liveblogging the Oscars (as I did last year, and even a few years before that). Feel free to stop by and play along!

Random Ten
  • Eels - "Rock Hard Times"
  • Guster - "I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today"
  • Weezer - "The Good Life"
  • Mr. Bungle - "Egg"
  • The Who - "Pinball Wizard"
  • The New Pornographers - "Twin Cinema"
  • Mansun & 808 State - "Skin Up Pin Up"
  • Tool - "The Pot"
  • KMFDM - "Blame"
  • Radiohead - "Bodysnatchers"
Top 5 3 Oscar Pseudo-Blunders
Everyone does Oscar Blunders lists, but there are some that I've always thought were being a little too harsh. Were the below wins really a "blunder"? Probably, but I think it's worth considering that the films that won...
  • Rocky beats 3 classics - I think Rocky's sequels have irrevocably ruined the reputation of the first film, which is a lot better than most people seem to give it credit for. On the other hand, is it really a better film than Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men (other nominees that lost)? That's a tough lineup to beat, to be sure, and I'm conflicted. Taxi Driver is indeed one of my favorite films, but so is Rocky and if I had to watch one of them right now, I'd probably pick Rocky. It's perhaps not objectively a better-made film, but subjectively, I could definitely see Rocky winning.
  • Titanic wins best picture: This movie gets unfairly maligned, I think, because it just didn't go away. The film was in theaters for months, we had to listen to that stupid song for months, and we had to watch all those teenage girls swoon over Leo. Nevertheless, Titanic is a good film, and it didn't have much in the way of comptetition. The only other nominee that puts up a fight is L.A. Confidential, which I agree is a good film, but is this really a huge blunder?
  • Annie Hall beats out Star Wars: On a personal subjective level, there's no way Star Wars should have lost to Annie Hall. But now that I'm older, and now that I've had the Star Wars franchise knocked down a peg or two by the prequels, I think it's fair to say that, you know, the first Star Wars film was poorly made and it pales in comparison to The Empire Strikes Back. But then, I really don't like Annie Hall at all. I recognize it as a well made film and it did make me laugh a few times, but hell, we're talking Star Wars here! Ok, maybe this is a huge blunder.
Alright, so this list didn't go so well and I can't think of any more. Fleh. See you Sunday.
Posted by Mark on February 22, 2008 at 08:27 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Anathem
Holy crap! I just found out that Neal Stephenson's new novel is to be titled Anathem, and according to Amazon, it's set to be released on September 9, 2008. Also, it's 928 pages. I don't know how I missed this, but apparently, some details about the novel leaked last September, in this LJ entry:
He's writing a science fiction novel unrelated to Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. It's set on another planet and has aliens and so on. It's really about Platonic mathematics, but he needed the aliens and space opera-ish elements to spice it up a little bit, just like the pirates kept people engaged in the Baroque books. He's nearly finished writing it, and if he doesn't finish by the end of the calendar year he'll have to give some money back. If everything proceeds according to schedule, it should be available in stores in about a year.
Damn! Looks like my US Civil War era prediction was a bit off, though I do think my prediction is still in place for the next Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle style novel will feature at least one portion set in the US Civil War Era. Or something. In any case, I'm psyched. (via this wikio page I found in my referrers)

Update 3.31.08: Lev Grossman, geek blogger for Time magazine, reports on the plot:
Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides that only these cloistered scholars have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his cohorts are summoned forth without warning into the Unknown.
Interesting. No mention of other planets or aliens, but a promising plot, I guess.
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2008 at 10:35 PM .: link :.


Sins of a Solar Empire: Victory!
I won a Sins of a Solar Empire game last night. It turns out, all I had to do was play on "Easy." Heh. Actually, I think the thing that really did it was the Pirates.

Victory!

Pirates are a faction in the game that periodically launch raids on one of the players. By default, they pick a random player to attack, but you can put a bounty on your opponents (or, in larger games, you can secretly attack your allies, if that's necessary), and if you bid more than your opponents, they'll go bother your opponents. When you're playing against AI, it's easy to win the bidding war, and I think that's primarily why I won this game. Honestly, the Pirates thing got a little annoying after a while. It happens every 10-12 minutes or so, and it's really annoying to have to deal with a pirate attack. Later in the game, when I didn't need the pirates, making sure I won the bidding wars was just a pain in the arse. I don't know if the duration between attacks is configurable, but if it were a longer period, the game would go a little smoother.

The Pirate Bidding Market

Another thing I noticed that I forgot to mention in my last post was that position is everything. There are choke points in the phase lanes, and if you can block off your enemy at one of those choke points, you can fortify your position and build your empire behind it. In at least one of my previous games, I was in an awful position and had a lot of trouble fortifying my empire. In the below screenshot, I was able to narrow it down to two phase lanes, one of which was blocked by the Pirates (actually, by the time I had taken that screenshot, I had expanded into my enemy's empire, so while I still had only one planet exposed, there were three phase lanes going into it). Since I was winning the Pirate bidding wars, I didn't have to worry much about the planet facing the Pirates, so I really only had one planet to worry about. I fortified it with mutiple capital ships and a couple hanger defenses, and all was well. Of course, if someone managed to get past those defenses, I would be screwed, as the rest of my empire was relatively free for the taking.

Choke Points

And finally, I found playing with The Advent to be much better than playing with the TEC. Perhaps because I had a better idea of how to use their ships (having been annihilated by them a few times in the past, and thus knowing how to populate my fleet). I still haven't played with or against the Vasari Empire yet, but I did find their backstory, as described by Brad Wardell (owner of Stardock, and I'm pretty sure he's also the author of the AI which keeps kicking my ass), interesting. Basically, The Vasari were tremendously powerful, but are now the equivalent of "Battlestar Galactica, a ragtag, fugitive fleet fleeing something horrific." Interesting. I should try them out sometime. I've honestly only played a couple of the many available scenarios, so I'ev still got lots of stuff to go through with this game.
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2008 at 07:35 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire: Lessons Learned, Sorta
So I've been playing more of Sins of a Solar Empire this week, and while I'm still having fun, I don't seem to be doing very well. I haven't had a ton of time to play the game, but I actually haven't won a game yet. It being a real time game, I had trouble remembering to take screenshots as I played, but the below thoughts are what I remembered and what I've learned from my first few failed attempts.
  • In my previous post on the subject, I talked about this game having a bit of a steeper learning curve than the other Stardock games, and I think that's about right. I got annihilated in my first attempt at the game, and have learned several strategies that improved my survival... but I still haven't won a game (I've played about 4 games).
  • The first thing I learned was that I had to expand my empire as much as possible to take advantage of resource mining and trading (to increase funding). Having a solid resource and economic base improves things vastly, and in my first game I spent too much time in my own planet's system. In later games I recognized the virtues of sending a scout ship on auto-explore around the solar system, discovering all the planets and large asteroids (which are big enough to put a colony on.) And then I had to make sure that I expanded my empire, creating colonies on nearby planets and asteroids (and mining resources and setting up trade). The screenshot below shows the largest empire I managed to build, which consists of about 5 planetary bodies (2 planets and 3 large asteroids). Not only that, but I also seem to be in a relatively isolated position of the solar system... alas, things turned bad shortly after I took this screenshot. The bottom right colony was attacked with a large fleet of enemy vessels. I had to shift my military power from other colonies to fend off the attack, which I managed to do, but not without leaving my other colonies vulnerable.

    My Empire

  • Combat has proven to be relatively tricky (for me, at least). After the first game I did some reading around and found out that you start the game with the ability to create a "free" capital ship, which helps enormously in expanding your empire (most "unclaimed" planets still have low-level enemies that you must defeat, and they're generally no match for an invasion fleet with a capital ship). Now, which capital ship to make is still a bit of a mystery. In the game I'm chronicling, I opted to use KOL Battleships and Marza Dreadnoughts, as they seem to have the most powerful weapons. Since I was under attack, that's really what I was looking for. However, I kept having trouble fending off attacks, and my enemies seemed to have no problem taking out my capital ships. I later found out that the ships that caused me the most problems came from one of my enemies called the Advent, and their capital ship type called the "Progenitor Mothership." The below screenshot shows me actually destroying one of these motherships. At this point, the number of ships on the screen has been drastically reduced. Towards the beginning of the battle, it resembled the first scene in Star Wars Episode III - all these ships firing at each other. The Sins interface allows you to zoom in and out with ease, and it was neat to be able to zoom in close enough to see the bullets flying, but then also be able to zoom out a bit and get a more global outlook.

    Battle

  • Capital ships aside, I've also realized I drastically underestimated the necessary size and makeup of a good fleet. I'd have a capital ship and maybe 5 frigates, but from reading around the Sins forums, it seems like what I really need is at least 1 capital ship, 10-15 frigates, and maybe some long range ships that launch support fighters/bombers (and honestly, I'm probably still lowballing that). Part of the reason I keep losing is that I run out of frigates and so all I have is a capital ship where the enemy can concentrate all it's firepower. And honestly, in the screenshot below, I'm destroying another mothership, but you can plainly tell from the stuff on the left of the screen that the bad guys badly outnumber me (they're green, and most of my stuff are immobile logistics structures, not fighters). (Oh, and I took a bunch of screenshots in a row, trying to capture that explosion, so I had to block out a portion of the screeshot that showed the file structure where my screenshot was saved - sorry).

    Kaboom.

  • So I like the game and I'm learning (sorta), but I keep losing, and that's not especially fun. One of the things the game seems to be getting dinged on in the press is the lack of a gameplay mode that features a sort of progression or story. Personally, I don't mind the lack of a story, but other real-time games like Warcraft and Command & Conquer always started you off with easy scenarios and walked you through them so that you could get a handle on all the details. Now, the game does come with 5 short tutorials that go through a bunch of issues and they do indeed help you learn the controls, but they're a little lacking. They don't cover an actual scenario, they just sorta show you how to use the interface. The truth is that I'm still figuring out the basic strategy of the game, which is getting a little annoying. Maybe it's just that I'm a casual gamer and haven't ever been really good at real time games (again, I've played them, but I don't think I ever finished one). In any case, a better way of learning the ins-and-outs of the strategy portion of the game would be a help. As it is now, I might have to resort to reading the manual (and you know how I feel about manuals!) I'm still having fun, and I still want to try out some strategies. I don't mind being challenged by a game, but on the other hand, it would be nice to win a game every once in a while... I think my general temperment isn't aggressive enough with these types of games. I tend to like to build up huge, powerful fleets if I'm going to be militaristic, but in games like GalCiv, I usually ended up winning a cultural victory or a technology victory. This game seems to require a more aggressive military strategy. I guess I shouldn't just be sitting around waiting for people to attack me...

    Defeat!

That's all for now. I'll continue playing this game because it is genuinely pretty cool... but I just haven't gotten the hang of it. I guess that game's not made for casual gamers who don't have a lot of time on their hands... I wonder how a more experienced gamer like Shamus would do with this game (and I know he likes Stardock and was looking forward to Sins, so I'm guessing we'll find out at some point in the near future - I think maybe he's waiting for Impulse (Stardock's new digital distribution software) to come out first...)

Update: Seems I'm not the only one who's having trouble getting started. Some interesting suggestions are given there. Of course, some of them would bother me. For instance, playing the game on slow might give me some more time to read the tooltips and develop a better strategy, but as it is now, I get frustrated having to wait for my resources to fill up so that I can do this or build that... Also found this Tips for New Tyrants guide which looks promising...
Posted by Mark on February 17, 2008 at 08:08 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thoughts on Cryptonomicon
Alex has some choice words for one of my favorite books, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. In all honesty, I don't really blame him. It's not necessarily that I agree with all his comments so much as I can see why some people would be bothered by some of the things in the book. For a 900+ page book, it sure doesn't seem to have a lot of plot. What it has instead is a whole bunch of tangential stories and anecdotes revolving around what basically amounts to a treasure hunt. There are lots of other subplots. There's a war story, a couple of romantic threads, lots of technology, some history, and a bunch of other junk thrown in for good measure, but in the end, the plot is about Nazi gold.

What follows might seem a bit defensive, but I want to start with a disclaimer that I just can't resist discussing Stephenson. As I mentioned before, I don't blame Alex for not liking various bits and pieces of the book, I just don't happen to agree about most of them.

Alex says:
I don’t strictly look for a point in the books that I read, but nonetheless I found Cryptonomicon distinctly lacking in the department of points, and I feel like it ate my time.
I can see why someone would say something like that after they finish the book. The ending is mildly lackluster (Alex barely mentions my least favorite part of the book, which is Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior). After the first few hundred pages of the book, I had no idea where Stephenson was going with the story. But hell, I was enjoying myself immensely. I don't mind my time being "eaten" if I'm enjoying the process. Is there a point to the book? Well, it depends on what you want to get out of it. I saw lots of themes that I found relevant and interesting, and Stephenson touches on many interesting topics. For instance, cryptography plays an important role in both the WWII and modern day portions of the book, but it's also a thematic element that permeates the entire book. A large portion of the book is about separating signal from noise, whether it be Randy trying to decode Amy Shaftoe or Bobby trying to decipher why the heck his unit is being asked to do all sorts of strange things. Maybe it's just that I find the world mystifying in the extreme, but I like the way the characters in the book strive to figure out the world. Is that a "point" of the book?

Next:
Amidst all of the whatever going on, there’s some talk of sex. ... Anyway, it’s terrible. You want to personify your protagonist’s prostate, Neal Stephenson? Call him "Little Man 'Tate"? Okay. You want to spend, let me count them … approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess. ... Then, when you come to write the narrative sex scenes, all I can say is wow. ...
I've seen this complaint a few times before, and if you can't tell by all my ellipses above, Alex has a lot more in his post about it. I personally had no issue with it. I mean, sure, it's a little weird, but the book is filled with weird stuff. The characters are weird. The stuff they're doing is weird. Heck, real life is weird. Why single out the sex stuff? And sometimes it has a point. Take the aformentioned "eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture." Why is that important? Because Stephenson is setting up a surveilance technique that will become important later on in the story. In context, those eight pages are important because they're intensely personal and private to the character who is being surveiled, and yet there are these guys in the next room who are able to invade the perceived privacy and security of being alone, all through extraordinary technological means. The chapter wouldn't work if the guy was writing out his grocery list. That's not private. It has to be something personal and perhaps embarrassing for it to make an impact not just on you the reader, but on the characters in the story. So later in the book, when Randy gets into a situation where he's alone in a jail cell, handling sensitive information, well, it makes sense that he would be a little paranoid about it and goes to extreme lengths to obfuscate what he's doing. Did Stephenson need to spend 8 pages setting it up? Did he need to write a scene where a character engages in a mathematical discussion of Concentration as a function of Horniness, complete with graphs? Maybe not, but I kinda like that he did. He lets these situations breath, and that's a big part of why I like his stuff.

Another complaint:
Something that made sense in Snow Crash, it being an alterna-future where the US had split into nation states, was the use of slightly different names for things. I can therefore be forgiven for being confused when Cryptonomicon used the term "Nipponese" all the time while still being set in our own theoretical timeline. This constant, unexplained reference struck me as an act of amazing grease.
I distinctly remember the reason Stephenson gives for this in the book, though he does so in the WWII portion of the novel. It's in a footnote around the time when Bobby Shaftoe gets sent back to America and he's talking to some Colonel about his time in the Phillipines (Look, I found it in Google Book Search at the bottom of page 114). The footnote reads: "Men with experience in Asia use the word 'Nip.' The Colonel's use of 'Jap' suggest that his career has been spent in the Atlantic and/or Caribbean." Now, I suppose that doesn't explain why, two generations later, a bunch of techno-businessmen would go around refering to Japan as "Nippon," but from the earlier reference to "Men with experience in Asia," I'm guessing that Stephenson was trying to imply that, you know, Randy and co. had experience in Asia. Now I can see why someone would think this was a bit weird, but as we've already established, that doesn't bother me.

More criticisms:
Which brings me to my final complaint: all of these disparate characters are supposed to combine for an ultimate goal. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal of … well, whatever it is that they end up with. Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in the WWII segment of the book. Stephenson may as well have written in wholly different characters for all the effect that these ones had. You’re left wondering, at the final page, precisely why everyone went through all of this ...
I've already mentioned that I can see why someone would be underwhelmed by the ending, so that complaint doesn't bother me, but the part about the descendents being untrouched by their grandparents deeds in WWII is a little off in my opinion. Once again, we find the theme of cryptography rearing it's head: the modern day characters are trying to piece together what happened back in WWII, but it's not easy. I don't think it's unusual at all for a grandson to not know what their grandfather did in the war, if only because I had the relatively recent experience of finding out that my grandfather was a freakin' tank hunter in Europe (I still don't know the specifics of this). Anyway, to say that the descendents are untouched by the WWII generation is to miss one of the themes in the book, which is that people of our generation are totally in awe of the WWII generation and feel a little awkward working in our world knowing that our grandparents were literally fending off evil on a worldwide scale. This is something you see all throughout the modern day portions of the book, though not put as baldly (or written as poorly) as that.

And finally:
It’s as I’ve said before: being long is not the same as being epic. Cryptonomicon has many pages, but never once does it feel like a grand adventure.

I really feel like I’m trolling Neal Stephenson, but I’d prefer to think this is not the case. It’s just that somewhere, buried amongst the mountains of digressions, is some interesting material; it’s just a shame that you have to dig through evolutionary badasses, stockings, barely mentioned one-legged crazies, and the apparently insatiable sexual desires of WWII soldiers to get to it.
I certainly agree that being long is not the same as being epic, but I wouldn't call Cryptonomicon an epic. Sweeping? Yes. Epic? No. Also, I think Alex misses the point. The interesting material isn't buried amongst the mountains of digressions, the interesting material is the mountains of digressions. Without the digressions, the book isn't nearly as interesting. In his post, Alex mentions that Snow Crash worked as well as it does because it's relatively compact. Well, I think Cryptonomicon works as well as it does because it's distinctly not compact. Different strokes, I guess.

Again, I'm not suggesting that the book is perfect, and I think Alex makes a lot of valid points, but I love it anyway. Even things that used to bother me about it (like Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior) don't loom as large as they used to. As a commenter at Alex's site suggests, perhaps having read the Baroque Cycle has given me a little more depth into Cryptonomicon, but I don't think that's it (though you do tend to notice many more connections between the characters). If Alex didn't like Cryptonomicon, he'll be doubly confounded by Quicksilver. Even I was complaining a bit that those books needed some editing. But then again, I ended up enjoying them and want to read them again someday. In the end, I love almost everything Stephenson has written, and greatly look forward to his next novel.

Oh, and incidentally, the Australian cover art for Cryptonomicon (pictured in Alex's post) is awful! On the other hand, the Australian cover art for The Yiddish Policeman's Union (also at Alex's site) is awesome (I think I like it better than the American art). And to digress even further, I agree with Alex in wondering how on earth the Coen Brothers will adapt that book to the screen (I suppose if anyone could do it...)

Update: Alex responds at the bottom of his post and in the comments here. I may respond later, but it's late now, and I need to go to bed...

Update 2/27/08: Shamus comments
Posted by Mark on February 13, 2008 at 09:48 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire: First Impressions
Sins of a Solar Empire came out this week. While I am a casual gamer and thus don't typically buy new games right when they come out, there are a few reasons I picked this one up. First, it's from Stardock, developers of the Galactic Civilization games (which I'm a big fan of). Stardock is also one of those neat companies that doesn't treat its customers like criminals and makes it easy to download and play the games (no annoying DRM or CD copy protection come with the game). Given my feelings on DRM, it's nice to find decent games to support, and Stardock's user-friendly approach has earned them a free pass in my book. So I'll buy anything even remotely interesting that they put out. Anyway, I bought the game and installed it this morning, so here are some initial thoughts and first impressions on the game:
  • The one annoyance with purchasing the game online was that I actually went for a TotalGaming.net subscription and then I had a little trouble finding the game in Stardock Central (which is their distribution software). Still not sure what happened there, but when I logged into the TotalGaming.net website, I could spend my tokens there, and then the game showed up in Stardock Central and I was on my way. Anyway, it looks like Stardock has been working on a replacement for Stardock Central called Impulse, and it looks neat. It's supposed to be released within a few weeks, so perhaps I should have waited. Anyway, this is was only a minor speedbump on my way to downloading and installing the game (which took about 20 minutes total - not bad considering the size of the game).
  • Sins mixes some elements from Turn-Based 4X Strategy games like GalCiv II with Real-Time Strategy games like Starcraft and Command & Conquer. While I've played both types of strategy games (real-time and turn-based), I'm not really an expert, but it seems like an interesting concept and I look forward to exploring the gameplay a little more than I have.
  • Again, I'm a casual gamer, so it will probably take me a little longer get up to speed with the game's mechanics. It does seem to have a steeper learning curve than the GalCiv games. Still, after playing for a little while, I think I've got a handle on the basics of gameplay and all the various stats and controls. The HUD is packed with lots of info, though I haven't played enough to say whether or not it's completely successful (but it's not a disaster either, so that's a definite plus). One of the things Stardock games are cool about is automating the tedius aspects of the game (for example, in GalCiv, you can designate "Governers" who automatically act to update the improvements of a planet... that way, you don't have to manually do so). I haven't played enough to find many of these features, and given that this game is now a RTS, I've already found myself surprised by events on other planets and frantically switching back and forth between them. But I'm still trying to figure out the lay of the land (er, lay of the starsystem? Whatever.)
  • The look and feel of the game is relatively consistent with GalCiv II, and it looks great. Naturally, there are lots of differences, and the game overall has better graphics (as you'd expect), but you can tell it's coming from a similar lineage. Everything I've read about the game says it's been developed by a gaming company called Ironclad and distributed by Stardock, but a lot of the features bear a resemblance to Stardock's games, so I'm not sure what the deal is with that. But hey, it looks good.

    A Frigate

  • The game seems to be doing really well, despite having just come out and there being almost no "reviews" in the common publications. As they note: "After years of being told that PC gamers are really just console gamers but with different game controllers (mouse and keyboard) and that in-depth strategy was dying, we now have some conclusive evidence that no, that serious strategy games are alive and kicking. ... People are buying this game sight unseen despite relatively little coverage, PC gamers so much want a real time strategy game that has 4X depth that they are going out, en masse to find out more about this game and buying it. "
Again, I haven't gotten too far in the game, and am still trying to get my bearings, but it's been a lot of fun and I'm really enjoying it. Hopefully, I'll be able to put together a game example like I did for GalCiv II.
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2008 at 07:31 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Adaptation
Via Author, I found this question posed by Iwa ni Hana:
Why would fans want to experience / creators want to tell more or less the same story with more or less the same characters in different formats, be it manga, TVA, OVA, feature film, CD drama, novel, live action movie or live-action TV series?
The structure of the question pretty much demands a two part answer (one for fans and one for creators), and I'll tack on some tangents while I'm at it.

I imagine that the creators question has the easier answer, though there are really several possible reasons why a creator would want to adapt their work to other mediums. Perhaps the creator always wanted to make a movie, but lacked the resources and expertise to create one, so they started with a comic book/manga/web comic instead (Author notes this in his post - "formats form a vague hierarchy of expense, with cheaper works (such as manga) forming the base and being adopted into more expensive arts."). Another big reason could be because the creator wants their story to reach a wider audience. A corollary to that would be that the creator would assent to an adaptation because they were paid well, and if the adaptation is successful, they may be able to achieve a higher degree of independence or creative freedom in their future work. Note that these aren't necessarily good things, but high-cost mediums like film require creators to make a name for themselves before studios will sign off on the budget for a dream project.

This probably isn't that common a scenario, but it's definitely possible, and the history of film shows great filmmakers "slumming it" before they go on to make their classics. Take Stanley Kubrick. He got his start as a photographer for Look magazine. He once did a photo-essay on a boxer named Walter Cartier, which he later adapted into an independently financed short-subject documentary called Day of the Fight. He parlayed that minor success into a few more short documentaries and then into narrative fiction films, doing kinda standard noir thrillers like Killer's Kiss and The Killing. These are fine films, and better than most of their contemporaries, but Kubrick was also paying his dues in the film industry, which is something he continued to do up until Spartacus, after which his career really took off. He had proven himself a bankable commodity. A filmmaker popular with the critics and with audiences (a rarity, to be sure). Again, this probably isn't that true of all artists who do (or allow) adaptations of their own work, but it seems likely that at least some creators would pursue other mediums so that they can tell the stories they want to tell.

The fan's perspective is a little more complicated. Why would you want to watch what basically amounts to the same story you just read? I'm honestly not sure. Personally, there are definitely cases where a book is adapted into a movie and I dread watching the movie (said dread is often justified). But there are a few reasons this could happen. First, it could be a way to introduce a friend to one of your favorite authors or books without nagging them to read the books. Second, there is often a chance, however slim, that the adaptation will add something new and interesting to the source material. Most adaptations are, by necessity, not the exact same story. In the rare instances where they are, they generally turn out a little bland (I actually enjoyed the first two Harry Potter films, but they're also bland and a little boring if you've read the books). Indeed, many of the best adaptations are significantly different than their source material. Not to keep using Kubrick as an example, but The Shining is a wonderful example of a movie that only bears a superficial resemblance to the book, and yet is quite entertaining. It's also one of the few examples of an adaptation that has carved out it's own reputation without affecting the reputation of the source material. In my mind, both the book and movie are classics, but for different reasons. This actually makes sense, as different mediums use different "language" (for lack of a better term) for telling a story. I think this is part of why authors who write the screenplays for movie adaptations of their work often produce disappointing results. For example, take any number of Stephen King adaptations where he's written the script, including even The Shining mini-series, which pales in comparison to Kubrick's film.

This brings up an interesting question about movies that end up being better than their source material. Of course, most often, it's the other way around, but in some instances, lightning strikes. Unfortunately, I haven't read many of the typical examples, but from what I can see, both Jaws and The Godfather took rather conventional source material and elevated them into classics. One I have read that's a better movie is The Bourne Identity. It's not an utterly brilliant movie, but I thought the book was poorly written (though I think I like the story better). Other books I've read that have at least comparable or debatably good adapatations are Fight Club and The Exorcist.

All of which makes me wonder why people don't adapt (or remake) bad stories that have a neat idea. The All Movie Talk podcast had an interesting list of movies that should be remade, and I think it's an interesting concept.

But I digress. Another reason fans might want to see an adaptation is that they're just so enamored with the characters or the story that they revel in any chance to revisit them. As Author notes, other mediums may add something of value to the original work, even if the adaptation is not as good as the original.

So to recap, there are lots of reasons! Personally, I find the most compelling to be spreading the story around to a wider audience, though I do have a soft spot for wanting something new and exciting from an adaptation. Then, of course, you also get totally off the wall stuff like the movie Adaptation, which is based on an oddly recursive story: The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief, but he found the task to be quite difficult and could not seem to make any progress. So instead of actually writing the adaptation, he writes a script about how he is having trouble writing the adaptation. (A quick tangent: Ironically, the one story that Stephen King has sworn not to sell the film rights for is the Dark Tower series, in which King basically pulls the Adaptation trick.) In the end, I think adaptations are good things, even if many of them are of dubious quality.
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2008 at 07:50 PM .: link :.



Monday, February 04, 2008

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
As I made a last minute rush to watch 2007 movies for the recent awards, my netflix queue was whittled down a bit (I'm at a manageable 109 DVDs) and without paying attention to my queue, I ended up getting Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in the mail last week. I enjoyed the first film a lot, and after watching the sequel, I ended up with pretty much the same feeling as the first. It's not perfect, but it is an excellent animated film and it brings up many thought provoking subjects.

Minor Spoilers below...

The first Ghost in the Shell film has a cult following and is rightly proclaimed as one of the essential Anime films that anyone interested in the form needs to see. It was one of the first to be released in theaters in the U.S., though it has been more successful on DVD than in the theaters. It's weighty themes and confusing plot turned off some people, but struck me as being fascinating, and it has also captured the imagination of U.S. filmmakers (you can't watch the lobby gunfight in The Matrix without being reminded a little of the first GitS film, and even the Wachowski brothers have acknowledged the influece of the Anime in their work). 9 years after the first film, this sequel was made.

The story takes place in 2032, and it follows the special officers of Section 9 as they investigate a series of grisly murders committed by gynoids (basically female robots used for, well, take a guess). Many characters from the first film return, including the main protagonist of this feature, Batou. Other members of Section 9, such as Chief Aramaki and Togusa also make appearances. After the disappearance of Major Kusanagi in the first film, Togusa becomes Batou's new partner (Togusa clearly knows he has big shoes to fill, but he works well with Batou, and as Alex notes, one of the joys of this film is the camaraderie they share) and they trace the murders back to a specific model of gynoid, made by a cyborg company called Locus Solus. It appears they're doing something strange to their gynoids which makes them more desirable than other models, but also appears to drive them crazy. As Batou and Togusa get closer to the truth, help arrives in the form of an old friend.

Fembots gone mad!

Like the first film, the plot can be a little obtuse at times, and would probably take a few viewings to fully decipher. I get the impression that this whole series loses something in translation, though I obviously can't be sure. This film is not quite as difficult as its predecessor, but there are still lots of plot twists and complex shifts of perspective. In general, it covers most of the same thematic ground as the first film, but from different angles. The first film was about cyborgs - human beings that were becoming more and more machine - and the philosophical implications of that. I talk about this a little in my review of the first film:
It's a dense story, and the technological advances pose a ton of intriguing questions about the nature of identity. The Major, whose physical body is almost all machine, is understandably a little paranoid about her identity. Is she really who she thinks she is? Is anyone really who they think they are? What makes me what I am? If my consciousness is transferred into an artificial brain, am I still me? This is the sort of thing that will stay with you long after the film has ended.
The first movie was all about how replacing or augmenting humanity with technology changed the nature of identity. In Ghost in the Shell 2, many of the same ideas are covered, but from the perspective of robots that take on characteristics of humanity (instead of the the other way around). There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here, and once again, I found myself asking lots of interesting questions. At what point does a machine become sentient? What's the difference between an artificial intelligence and a human intelligence? Are the two compatible? Can you transfer a human consciousness into an artificial construct? And so on. You'll note a marked similarity between these questions and the ones from the first film, and for the most part, there isn't much that's really new here. That said, it's certainly a subject worth further exploration, and I think this film does a good job of it, making a good complement to the first film.

Major Kusanagi (the protagonist from the first film) makes an appearance in this film, though in an unusual way. Kusanagi and Batou have an interesting relationship. In the first film, it's clear Batou has a sorta cyber-crush on Kusanagi, but they were both full cyborgs. They retained some of their humanity, I suppose, which is why you can see some chemistry (for lack of a better term) between them, but being cyborgs owned by Section 9 had taken its toll. In the second film, Kusanagi no longer exists within a human form, instead opting to take up residence in a global computer network, but she's able to download portions of her consciousness to the physical world in some situations, and Batou refers to her as his "guardian angel." It's clear that even in their respective forms, one a full-replacement cyborg, the other a disembodied consciousness living in a global network, they retain some sort of attraction. Romantic isn't the right word for whatever it is, but neither really is platonic (though it could be argued). It's something new, something different.

While the film explores such weighty topics, it's all done in the form of an entertaining pot-boileresque thriller with plenty of opportunities for action. It's maybe a little more fun that the first movie, though both employ this technique. There are some elements of neo-noir, and a lot of references or familiar influences. Asimov's laws are clearly in evidence, but the most obvious influence is, of course, Blade Runner, and Manhola Dargis makes some interesting comments in the NY Times review of the film:
A study in earth tones and gum-shoe rectitude, Batou is a self-conscious cross between the detective played by Harrison Ford in "Blade Runner" and the runaway android played by Rutger Hauer. Drawn along the same solid lines as Mr. Hauer, Bateau comes clad in the classic world-weariness worn by Mr. Ford, one difference being that Mr. Oshii's tough guy keeps a basset hound. A floppy bundle of love and slobber, the dog is a link to the ghost (human identity) in Batou's machinery and, perhaps, as the hagiographic images of the hound suggest, something else.

Mr. Oshii squeezes charming laughs from Batou's relationship with the dog, but the hound's more essential function is to circle the film back to the fundamental question of what makes us human. Like Sean Young's replicant did with Mr. Ford's blade runner, the dog humanizes the hero and becomes the occasion for some philosophical riffing.


Batou and his puppy

From a technical perspective, the film has made some improvements over the original. It's much more visually spectacular than the first film (see screenshots in the extended entry for more). This is probably due to the striking mixture of traditional 2D animation for the characters and newfangled computer generated 3D animation for backgrounds (which are breathtakingly complex and textured). In some cases, the illusion of depth was noticeably prevalent (I'm sure there are lots of animated films like that, but there's something different here that struck me). The film is filled with epic vistas depicting a mix of industrial and classical architecture, and it sometimes feels like you're watching a painting. The action sequences are more elaborate and entertaining, and the settings are great. The movements of the robots are awkward and creepy, which actually works well. Kenji Kawai did the score for both films, and helps imbue both films with a similar atmosphere. My one real complaint was that the DVD I got was strangely set up: instead of subtitles, it only had an option for closed captioning and thus it includes descriptions of sounds or actions like "Helicopter approaches..." etc... (There was apparently a big controversy when this was first released, as the DVD didn't include a dubbing either. This has supposedly been fixed in newer versions, but the one I got from Netflix was the closed caption one.)

These are the vistas

What you end up with is a very well made, intriguing motion picture. It's not as original as it's predecessor (obviously... it is a sequel), but it's still thought provoking and it makes for an interesting companion to the original, further exploring the same themes from different perspectives. If you liked the first film, chances are, you'll like this too. And if you're like me, you'll find yourself asking a lot of interesting questions... *** (three stars out of four)

As usual, more screenshots and comments (and more specific spoilers) below the fold... Batou is a badass in this film, much moreso than in the previous film. Here he has just fought his way through a throng of killer androids when he encounters Kusanagi, who has downloaded herself into one of the killer androids (incidentally, Kusanagi is still a badass as she demonstrates in the scenes immediately following this one).

Batou and Kusanagi

The cars in this movie are inexplicably retro. Of course, the interiors are futuristic (there's an elaborate "Pursuit Vehicle Checking System" that runs every time they park the car), so perhaps it's just a future fad or something.

Cars

As I mentioned earlier, I got the impression of depth much more than I typically do for animation, and this was one of the first examples. It's a little hard to tell on a still image, but when Batou is walking down this grimy deserted alley, the feeling of motion and depth is downright palpable (as the NY Times article notes, it's a "photo-realist alley so authentically derelict that it's a surprise you can't smell it").

a photo-realist alley so authentically derelict that it's a surprise you can't smell it

At one point, Batou and Togusa head up north to investigate Locus Solus. There are a whole bunch of gorgeous shots as they fly above the industrial city, followed by a startling sequence depicting a Chinese festival set to Kawai Kenji’s moody score. These are gorgeous landscapes, and there's a lot more than I'm showing here...

Batou and Togusa fly above an industrial city

The industrial city from above


A dragon in the architecture


An elephant from the Chinese festival

Again, there's a lot to chew on here, so I could probably go on and on, but this just about wraps it up.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2008 at 05:35 PM .: link :.


Delayed
I was travelling this weekend, so the regularly scheduled Sunday post has been delayed until tomorrow (hopefully). Incidentally, the Super Bowl was pretty good... but as an Eagles fan, I was torn. I adopted the Aliens vs. Predator tagline: Patriots vs. Giants, whoever wins, I lose.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2008 at 02:19 AM .: link :.



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