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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Incompetent Boobery of a Solar Empire
A few months ago, I picked up Sins of a Solar Empire, and promptly ran several galactic empires right into the grave. I learned a lot during those first few failures, and I finally managed to win a game. It turns out that all I needed to do was set the difficulty to "Easy." Yet, even after that victory, I wasn't able to keep the streak going. After mismanaging another two empires into extinction, I gave up on the game. It was taking an awful lot of time and effort for me to kill these empires, and continually losing doesn't exactly do wonders for motivation.

The game definitely has a high learning curve. At least, for a casual gamer like me, it does. In one of my posts, I wondered what a more active gamer like Shamus would do with the game. And it appears that he's finally picked up the game and given it a try:
I decided to just run through the tutorials. The most important thing that I learned was that under no circumstances should I ever be allowed to run a galactic empire. It’s harder than it sounds, and the consequences for failure are rather dire. During the tutorial I was taught a few short lessons about some buttons. Apparently there are buttons, and they need to be pressed sometimes. There were some other details in there about economies and spaceships, but they eluded me once the tutorial had run its course. I’m still pretty sure about the button thing, though.

... I built a small collection of spaceships, which were sent to an adjacent planet where they were murdered by space pirates. I built a trade center which sat idle, since I didn’t have anyone with which to trade. I built a series of scout ships and sent them to auto-explore, after which I never heard from them again. I built a capital ship and subsequently misplaced it. I pushed some other buttons related to the running of my main planet, none of which seemed to have any real effect except to deplete my coffers. Then I found some ships I didn’t remember building, flying around my world. They didn’t respond to my commands, and it wasn’t until just before they began bombing the place that I realized why.

A half hour into the game I was running an inept empire whose only accomplishments were staggering financial and military losses. I felt like I was playing Soviets in Space.
He's much better at expressing the futility of a first time player than I was (the comic he created that accompanies his post is utterly hilarious), and I'm somewhat reassured by the fact that even a more experienced gamer had similar problems (reading the Sins forums was disheartening - most everyone there seemed to immediately grasp everything necessary for the game and they all sat about debating minutiae). While his post is very humerous and snarky, he does end up recognizing the game's learning curve:
This is not too say the game is too hard or complex. It’s just different, and you can’t really build on what you’ve learned in other games to help you along here. The tutorial teaches you how to use the interface, but figuring out what you should be doing is your job. At the start of the game there are dozens of possible actions to take, without any real hint as to which ones are a good idea or why. I imagine I’m going to lead a couple more doomed empires into history before I get a handle on the thing.
This is very true, and Shamus is good enough that I'm sure he'll have the game figured out in a few games. Is the game too hard? It was hard enough that I wasn't having much fun towards the end. That doesn't make it a bad game, it was just too much work for me... though I have to admit, reading Shamus' post made me want to fire it up and slaughter my people.

The last game I played was one of the specific scenarios. It was a small map, with only a handful of planets, and three players. Furthermore, the map was shaped in such a way that you really can't take advantage of choke points (which usually helps in other games, even the ones where I lost). Anyway, the last time I played it, I got lit up by the two enemies. But I was careful to save a bunch of times, so I loaded one of my older saved games where I was still in good shape and gave it a shot. I threw caution to the wind and sent two of my capital vessels and a fleet of support ships to attack one of my enemies. This actually turned out to be a mildly successful tactic... for a while. Eventually, the other enemy caught on and attacked my home planet. I was able to fend them off, but my population was decimated and my economy went into the tank. I had to retreat from my attack for a bit to rebuild my forces too. Eventually, I was able to resume my attack, but my enemy seemed suspiciously fortified. It turns out that my two weenie enemies had joined together and had a ceasfire and trade relationship going. I was basically screwed. I could spend another hour watching my empire die a slow, torturous death, or come here and finish this blog post. Guess what I did. I don't know, maybe I could turn it around. It seems that I need to read up on how to do some of that diplomacy stuff.
Posted by Mark on April 30, 2008 at 09:18 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Netflix Activity
The recent bout with myTV on DVD addiction necessitated an increase in Netflix usage, which made me curious. How well have I really taken advantage of the Netflix service, and is it worth the monthly expense?

If I were to rent a movie at a local video store like Blockbuster, each rental would cost somewhere around $4 (this is an extremely charitable estimate, as I'm sure it's probably closer to $5 at this point), plus the expense in time and effort (I mean, come on, I'd have to drive about a mile out of my way to go to one of these places!) Netflix costs me $15.99 a month for the 3-disc-at-a-time plan (this plan was $17.99 when I signed up, but decreased in price two times during around two years of membership), so it takes about 4-5 Netflix rentals to recoup my costs and bring the price of an average rental down below $4. I've been a member for one year and ten months... how did I do (click for a larger version)?

My Netflix Activity Chart

A few notes on the data:
  • The chart shows both DVD rentals and movies or shows watched online through Netflix's "Watch Instant" service. There are certain distinctions that should be made here, namely that DVD rentals are measured by the date the DVD was returned, while Watch Instant rentals are measured when you watch them. Also, when watching a TV series on Watch Instant, each episode counts as a separate rental (if I were watching on DVD, there's usually 3-4 episodes on one disc, but since I'm watching on the Watch Instant service, each episode counts as a separate rental).
  • As you can see, my initial usage was a little erratic, though I apparently tend to fall into a 4-5 month pattern (and you can see two nearly identical curves in 2007) where DVD rentals range from 6-13 per month. 13 appears to be my ceiling for a month, though I've hit that several times.
  • I've only fallen below the 4 disc per month ratio needed to bring the average rental down below $4 once (twice if you count July 2006, but that was my first month of service and does not constitute a full month's worth of data). To be honest, I don't remember why I only returned 2 movies in January 2007, but that was the first and only time I fell below the necessary 4 rentals.
  • My Watch Instantly service usage started off with a bang in July 2007 but quickly trailed off until 2008, when usage skyrocketed. This is when I discovered the TV show Dexter and quickly worked my way through all of the first season episodes (13 in all). Following Dexter, I started in on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and I just finished that today (expect a review later this week), so that means I watched 26 episodes online. Expect this to drop sharply next month (though I still plan on using it significantly, as I'll be following along with Filmspotting's 70's SF marathon, which features several movies in the Watch Instantly catalog). All in all, it's a reasonable service, though I have to admit that watching it on my computer just isn't the same - I bought that 50" widescreen HDTV for a reason, you know...
  • You'll also notice that both March and April of 2008 have me hitting the ceiling of 13 movies per month. This is the first time I've done that in consecutive months and is largely due to watching BSG season 3 and my discovery and addiction to The Wire.
  • As of April 2008, I'm averaging 9 movies a month (I've rented 198 DVDs). Even if I were to use my original price of $17.99 a month, that works out to around $2 a DVD rental. When you factor in the price drops and the Watch Instantly viewing (I've watched 51 things, though again, in some cases what I'm watching is a single episode of a TV show), I'm betting it would come out around $1.50-$1.75.
So it seems that the service is definitely worth the money and is indeed saving me a lot. Plus, Netflix has a far greater selection than any local video store (with the potential exception of TLA Video, but they're too far from my home to count), thus allowing me to indulge in various genres that you don't see much of in a typical video store. The only potential downside to Netflix is that you can't really rent something on impulse (unless it's on the Watch Instantly service). There are also times when new or popular movies take some time before they're actually available to you, but you have to contend with that from video rental stores as well. Indeed, I can only think of 3-4 times I've had to wait for a movie (this is mostly due to the fact that I tend to rent more obscure fare where people aren't exactly lining up to see it...) For the most part, Netflix has been reliable as well, almost always turning around my returns in short order (I mail it one day, and get the next films two days later). There have been a few mixups and I do remember one movie that wasn't available on the east coast and had to be shipped from California, so it came after a wait of 3-4 days, but for the most part, I'm very happy with the service.

This has been an interesting exercise, because I feel like I'm a little more consistent than the data actually shows. I'm really surprised that there are several months where my rentals went down to 6... I could have sworn I watched at least 2-3 discs a week, with the occasional exception. Still, an average of 9 movies a month is nothing to sneeze about, I guess. I've heard horror stories of where Netflix will start throttling you and take longer to deliver discs if you go above a certain amount of rentals per month (at a certain point, the cost of processing your rentals becomes more than you're paying, which I guess is what prompts Netflix to start throttling you), but I haven't had a problem yet. If I keep up my recent viewing habits though, this could change...
Posted by Mark on April 27, 2008 at 11:09 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Top 5 Anticipated Summer Movies
The first few months of 2008 has been a real movie wasteland. A couple of interesting releases, but nothing all that great. As summer approaches, things are looking up a little. The guys at Filmspotting will be doing a top 5 anticipated summer movies on Friday, so in an effort to beat them to the punch, here's my top 5:
  • It goes without saying: As a twenty-something geek, there are certain movies that are just way too obvious to put on this list (otherwise, my list would look like everyone else's list). In no particular order: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk (these last two worry me a bit, but I will most assuredly be seeing them).
  • The International: The most art-housey of the films on my list sounds like one of my favorite kinds of art house movies: the art house crime pic. Director Tom Tykwer infamously combined art house and crime in his brilliant 1999 film, Run Lola Run and while I don't expect this film to be that good, I think it still shows a lot of promise.
  • Trailer Trash: The funniest part of the Grindhouse double-feature last year were these "fake" trailers for non-existent movies (for example, Werewolf Women of the S.S.) that they played between the two main features. Director Eli Roth (who did the hilarious Thanksgiving preview, a pitch perfect parody of the original Halloween trailer) had the idea to make an entire movie of fake trailers. It's a high concept, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and Roth seems like a decent choice to head this sort of thing up.
  • The Happening: M. Night Shyamalan gets a bad rap because everyone loved his first few films but not his most recent films. The impression is that he's just getting worse and worse but from my perspective, I've never been all that impressed with him in the first place. Sure, I enjoyed his first few movies a lot, but I didn't consider them masterpieces. I think both The Village and Lady in the Water are flawed yet entertaining movies and I really don't understand the almost universal dislike of these two movies (though I will note that I saw both of these films with very low expectations, which could be part of why I enjoyed them). For the most part, my opinion of Shyamalan's work hasn't changed much. I tend to enjoy his movies, and so I'm looking forward to this one.
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Guillermo del Toro has emerged as one of the better fantasy/horror directors out there, and the first Hellboy was quite enjoyable (I mean, come on, monsters, the occult, nazis, Cthulhu-like creatures from another dimension - what's not to like?). This second film looks to be an even more eclectic mixture of "folklore, myth, and fantasy" (as he describes it). I love this quote from del Toro: "...he's saving the world from an archvillain who's determined to do, you know, very arch things."
  • Pineapple Express: I like stoner comedies. I like action movies. What's not to like about a stoner action film? This movie, the latest from the Apatow juggernaut (written by Seth Rogen and starring a bunch of Apatow gang members), follows two stoners who go on the run after witnessing a murder. It doesn't sound like much, but then a couple of years ago, two fellas set out for White Castle and it ended up being one of the more enjoyable movies of that year (there's a sequel to that one coming out soon too, but it doesn't look so great). Probably not fine oscar-caliber cinema, but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless.
  • Honorable Mention: The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Step Brothers, Hancock, WALL-E, and Speed Racer
And there you have it. Honestly, this year isn't shaping up to be all that great, though there are some promising movies coming out later in the year (including new films by David Fincher, the Coen brothers, and maybe even Darren Aronofsky).
Posted by Mark on April 23, 2008 at 09:44 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I've been watching a lot of TV on DVD (or Netflix Watch Online) lately. It can be quite an addictive experience, as the shows don't have commercials and many episodes end with something interesting (not necessarily a cliffhanger, but enough to make you want to see what happens next). I usually end up watching a bunch of episodes at once. In the past few months I've watched a bunch of shows in this fashion, including Dexter (seasons 1 and 2), Battlestar Galactica (season 3), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (seasons 1 and 2), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and The Wire (seasons 1 and 2). It helps that all of these shows are pretty good, but I began to wonder about the impact of watching shows on DVD versus broadcast television. I also started to wonder what the ideal length of a TV episode should be and why most Anime series, even dramatic ones, tend to be only a half-hour, while the best American drama series tend to be an hour per episode...

A few weeks ago, I finished up BSG season three and in my post on the subject, I said:
I'll be able to watch season 4 as it happens. This presents an interesting contrast though, as I've watched the first three seasons on DVD. I've been wondering lately what impact this sort of schedule has on the perception of a series. It's certainly fun to watch. Addicting, actually. Will watching only a single episode a week (as opposed to 4 commercial-free episodes at a time) have a positive impact on my perception of the show? It's obviously a highly subjective question, but I guess I'm going to find out.
So we're a few episodes into season 4 of BSG, and I have to say that I'm not enjoying it as much as when I was watching it on DVD (though the latest episode was pretty good). It's hard to tell if it's the notion of having to wait a week between episodes, or if it's just that the quality of the episodes is bothering me, and there's no real way to accurately test this, though I suppose if I do it more often (i.e. watch a series on DVD and catch up to the broadcast) I could get a better idea of how this impacts a show. Season 3 of Dexter is supposed to start up sometime this summer, so I guess that's my next chance...

I'm particularly interested in this when it comes to Anime episodes, because most of us Westerners pick up DVD sets and watch multiple episodes at a time. Perhaps it's the typical half-hour duration that Anime uses (more on this later), but I wonder if a series would get frustrating if I had to wait a week between episodes. For GitS:SAC, there are some episodes that fit well into the series when watching it all at once, but that I think i'd find frustrating if I had to wait a week to see the next episode. For instance, the entirety of episode 9 takes place in a chat room where a bunch of people talk about the Laughing Man (a cyber-terrrorist whos is being chased throughout the series). I guess some interesting stuff comes to light in that episode, but if I was watching that series as it aired, I might have been a little more underwhelmed. I love Haibane Renmei, but I have to admit that it's probably not something I'd have stuck with if I had to wait a week between each episode (at least, not until DVD). And so on.

I think part of that is that the duration for the grand majority of Anime seems to be a half-hour (with commercials, OPs, and EDs, it works out to around 22-23 minutes an episode), and I'm not sure that's the ideal length for some of the stories that are being told through Anime. Of course, lumping all Anime together is foolish, as it's extremely broad and some series work fine.

So what is the ideal length of a TV episode? Let's take a look at the typical lengths (emphasis is on American series, as that's what I'm most familiar with, but I'll also go a little into Anime):
  • 3-15 Minute Episodes: These series aren't common except on the Cartoon Network's late night programming block, Adult Swim, which features many series that fit this format, including Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, etc... Each episode airs in a 15 minute timeslot, though with commercials, that ends up being around 11 minutes per episode. However, all of these shows are broad comedies or parodies, and often don't tell a single coherent story, instead relying on one-liners, funny situations (though I wouldn't classify these shows as sit-coms) and short parodies. There also isn't much of a continuity between episodes, which perhaps explains why we don't see much dramatic content being pushed out in this sort of timeslot. However, one high-profile exception to this is the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series. Volume 1 of the series featured a whole slew of 3 minute episodes, while volume 2 featured 12 minute episodes. It's a good series, though again, I've only ever seen the DVDs where all the episodes are strung together... It's worth noting that all of the examples I could come up with for this short duration are animated series...
  • Half-Hour Episodes: Probably the most common duration of a television show. Without commercials, episodes weigh in at around 22-24 minutes long. In general, though, half-hour shows still tend to be comedic in nature. Most sit-coms are a half hour long, for instance. The major exception here is Anime, most of which, even dramatic series, are a half-hour long. However, as I hinted at above, I think this might not be ideal for some of the stories being told through Anime. None of which is to say that a half-hour isn't enough to tell a story, but it is telling that the most successful half-hour episodes are ones that tell rather small stories. Seinfeld is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sit-coms in history, and it's famous for being a show about nothing. Of course, each show has a subject, but they're small subjects and things we can relate to (perhaps adding our own context to the story, thus making it a richer experience), things like getting lost in a parking lot or waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant. These are brilliant episodes, but there isn't that much of an impact to them, and a lot of sit-coms lose their touch when they try to do something more dramatic (I suppose Scrubs has done a reasonable job of mixing comedy with dramatic tension in only a half-hour episode). One other thing to note about the half-hour format is that it seems to match well with the average human attention span, which is around 20 minutes or so. (this is almost perfect if you're watching it on DVD, though broadcast might be a little worse... then again, commercials give you a break, which might not be a bad thing).
  • One Hour Episodes: The impression I have is that one hour shows are becoming more and more popular. Without commercials, they usually clock in at around 42-46 minutes an episode, and this is where you start to see more drama and less comedy. There's more time here to establish characters and grow a conflict while still keeping it at a manageable attention level. You start to get to a point where you can tell a complete narrative in the time alotted, though where things are really going is to have each episode be part of a larger story arc. There can be some overlap with mini-series here, especially when you get away from network television and start talking about original series made by HBO or Showtime. Since those are pay channels, they don't have to have commercials and those episodes often clock in at a full 50-65 minutes. What's more, you tend to see much more of a continuity in these series, to the point where they do start to resemble a 12 or 13 hour movie instead of a show with discrete episodes. The Wire is probably the best example of this - there's no stand-alone episodes in The Wire. Each season tells a complete 12 or 13 hour story.
  • Mini-Series: Mini-series are typically a limited set of 1 or 2 hour blocks, typically broadcast for a limited time. Big examples of this include Roots, V, Salem's Lot, From the Earth to the Moon, and Band of Brothers. In some cases, a miniseries is really a collection of smaller tales, connected in some way (as with Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon). Mini-series aren't common elsewhere in the world (and really, there aren't that many here either) because most series are actually limited in scope from the start. Anime is generally like this, with either 13 or 26 half-hour episodes to a series, and that's it. Sometimes there will be a sequel, and I'm pretty sure there are some long running series, but for the most part, they tend towards a more limited run. I think mini-series are interesting in theory, but their quality level varies drastically. Part of the reason for that is that a two hour installment is more difficult to produce than a one hour segment, and more is riding on each installment of a miniseries than each episode of a regular series. A one hour show probably has the best balance between story, budget and expectations.
As previously mentioned, many one hour TV series are blurring the line between TV shows and miniseries, with long and complex story arcs that last an entire season or longer. For instance, both Dexter and The Wire tell a single story over the course of a season, then start a new story featuring the same characters the next season. This is something that wasn't that common in the past. There was a series in the 1980s called Wiseguy that had two story arcs each season, connected by some of the characters. Then you have Twin Peaks, a murder mystery that captured the nation for a season. However, once the mystery was solved, interest declined considerably. The X-Files made a name for itself in the 1990s by mixing stand-alone episodes with continuity episodes, though ultimately I think many got fed up by the open-ended nature of the long-term story.

These days there are too many long-form TV shows to list. A big part of this is that people have broken away from broadcast television and consume their media in different ways (DVRs, torrents, even waiting for a DVD set), so they don't really have to worry about missing an episode and losing track of what's happening in the story. There's also a notion that television series have gotten much more complex and referential to be more cognitively engaging for the audience (Steven Johnson makes a compelling case for this sort of thing in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You). It's much easier to develop a multi-threaded story comprised of a complex network of relationships in 12-24 hours than it is in one or two hours.

Interestingly, television used to be the domain of the short form narrative, where a story was crammed into a 23 or 46 minute timeframe. Movies told more of a long form story that took 90 minutes to 3 or even 4 hours to develop. However, as time goes on and our ability to time-shift television programming gets better, television and film have become inverted. Television now tells the long form stories, and because they have even more time than movies, their stories can be that much richer and more complex. Of course, this all depends on how well done the television show is. The Wire would certainly hold its own with most movies, but it's also a bit of an outlier. Most shows are not done at the same quality level as The Wire.

Given the above, I have to wonder why there aren't more Anime series that have a one hour format. I think hour long episodes tend to be better for telling a complete narrative (or contributing a more meaningful chunk of an overall story arc) than a half hour episode, so I think it would be interesting to see an Anime series take on that sort of format. For instance, I think GitS:SAC would benefit greatly from a little more time to flesh out the characters and their universe (which, as I've noted before, can sometimes be a little confusing - though I should note that SAC is better at this than the feature films, which have even less time to spare). Instead, I get a rushed feeling from some episodes (and I had a similar reaction to some episodes of of Vandread and Cowboy Bebop too). In many cases, Anime series are already telling a long form story, so it would be interesting to see if an hour long format would make that long form story better (or worse?)
Posted by Mark on April 20, 2008 at 03:53 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Link to Someone New: Philly Film Fest Edition
You know the drill. Blog reading often becomes a closed loop where you find yourself constantly reading and linking to the same group of blogs. I'm as guilty as anyone (plus, I have a tendency to not link other blogs at all), so in an effort to combat the blogging equivalent of inbreeding, here are links to several blogs I've never linked before, all of whom have also been blogging about the Philadelphia Film Festival (for reference, see my posts):
  • Melissahead saw a bunch of movies that I didn't see (and one that I did).
  • Futuregirl had a little more overlap with my schedule, but also some that I didn't see, including Film Noir, a rotoscoped animation film, which was something I wanted to see but couldn't find the time for...
  • Philly Chit Chat attended several of the events and big screenings with guests... and took lots of pictures too!
  • David Dylan Thomas saw lots and lots of films and has a significant overlap with my schedule... plus a whole lot more (including some that I wish I found time for, like Vexille) We seem to have similar tastes, with the potential exception of The Wackness....
That's all for now. If you have a blog where you've been writing about the PFF, feel free to let me know...
Posted by Mark on April 16, 2008 at 06:29 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Philadelphia Film Festival: Recap
I had meant to write reviews as I went, but things didn't work out that way, so here's a recap of all the films I've seen this week. Star ratings are out of 4 stars.
  • Pistoleros (Saturday, Prince Music Theater): Chilean born Dutch filmmaker Shaky González makes a modern-day spaghetti western, complete with a heist-gone-wrong, hidden loot, a trail of clues, betrayals, gunfights and mexican standoffs galore, with a little martial arts thrown in for good measure. An interesting and entertaining mix, though a little uneven in its execution. **1/2 [Read full review]
  • Confession of Pain: From the same writers and directors as the Hong Kong hit, Infernal Affairs, this film is perhaps not as clever, but it's still interesting and complex, mixing noir-like story elements like betrayal and revenge. *** [Read full review]
  • Storm: A confounding and pretentious character study that attempts to disguise its true nature by employing elements of science fiction, video games, comic books, and Matrix-like action and themes. It doesn't work well at all. It's well made and stylish, but by trying to spice up the story with stuff like science fiction and comic books, it manages to present a lot of incomplete ideas that don't even really impact the story much. I don't mind a movie that leaves questions unanswered, but this is ridiculous. It starts out promisingly enough. Two women are being chased through some industrial complex because they've stolen a mysterious metal box. They manage to fight they're way out, but while fleeing, one of them runs into Donny, a 20-something slacker. This seeminly random encounter propels Donny into the action, but it turns out that he's actually the focus of the story. Other interesting things about the beginning of the film: The news on TV and the radio keeps mentioning this mysterious and powerful storm that's wreaking havoc all over the world. One of the women from the beginning looks a lot like a character in a video game. The main villain has a nice Agent Smith mixed with a Vampire vibe going for him. But the film doesn't actually explore any of these elements, instead it focuses on Donny. In a sequence that is actually quite striking, Donny is transported back to his hometown (which is eerily desolate and foggy) and observes a few events from his past. This is the true heart of the film, Donny confronting and accepting his childhood demons. But you know, I didn't particularly like Donny all that much, which you'd think would be important. You're never really sure if what you're watching is real or not. There is a certain dreamlike quality in the way the film throws out ideas and then abandons them, but it just didn't work for me, and it works even less now that I've had some time to think about it. The movie reminded me a lot of the stylish Night Watch and Day Watch films... but considering that I don't particularly care for those movies, that's not a good thing (and I didn't find Storm nearly as entertaining as them). *
  • Soo: Yet another Korean revenge flick (what is it with Koreans and vengeance?), this film is miles beneath any of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy films. It reminded me much more of a film I saw at the 2006 Philly fest, A Bittersweet Life, though this film is not as good as that. It tells the story of two brothers who were separated as children, one turning to a life of crime, the other becoming a police officer. When they're finally reunited, tragedy strikes, and one of the brothers seeks revenge by impersonating the other brother. A mildy clever concept that doesn't actually play very well. The first 3/4 of the film isn't so great, but the final showdown is kinda amazing. It doesn't really fit, but it's a riot to watch. Our hero takes so much punishment - he's hit by a baseball bat or crowbar like 300 times, he takes a knife to the leg, gets stabbed in the gut, and is shot two times. By this time, everyone is on the floor, and in a hilarious scene, our hero and the main villain (both having suffered major injuries) see each other and crawl towards a confrontation. The camera hanges back in a long shot and you see the two crawl towards each other. It's hilarious. When they finally get to each other, our hero gets the bad guy, but apparently takes a sword to the neck and gushes blood (not in a campy, Kill Bill way, but in a more realistic way). Then he gets up and stumbles out of the room. It's unbelievable and very funny. One performance I did want to call out was Soo's female costar (the materials for this film are sparse, so I'm not sure of her name), who has a couple of great scenes. Unfortunately, that stuff really isn't enough to save this film, though it may be worth watching for fans of the genre (still, I'd recommend A Bittersweet Life before this). **
  • Epitaph: Gorgeous Korean ghost story that is reminiscent of A Tale of Two Sisters, both in terms of the subject matter and the confusing nature and structure of the plot. There are really three stories here, each taking place in a Korean hospital occupied by the Japanese during WWII. Each story involves ghosts, each story has a "twist," and taken individually, each story works reasonably well. The atmosphere of the film is fantasticly creepy, and the perfomances are well drawn and believable. There are several tense and scary sequences, and the film is simply gorgeous to look at. The problem is that I'm not sure if there's a problem or not. This is a film that kinda demands a second viewing because the structure of the plot is very confusing. It starts in the 1970s, flashes back to the 1940s (where the bulk of the story takes place), then flashes back 2 days, then flashes back 3 days. Each flashback is told from a different perspective and you start to see how the three various plot-lines intersect. This sounds interesting, and if it all fits, it would be pretty cool, but I couldn't tell if it fit upon my first viewing. I don't know if there is a "lost in translation" element here, but I think at least part of the problem is the editing. The surreal nature of many of the visuals makes it difficult to tell what's going on at times, and I think that contributes to the confusion. But I'll be damned if it isn't a pretty film. Again, it's very much like A Tale of Two Sisters, though I think that film is a little better. The confusing nature of the story makes it difficult to give this a great rating, but it is very well made and creepy. **1/2


  • The Wackness: Before the festival, there was a film on the schedule called "Mystery Film" which gave no explanation other than that the festival organizers got a last-minute entry that was a hit at Sundance. I bought a ticket and it ended up being this film. This is your typical indie-flavor stoner comedy, heavy on the indie. I love stoner comedies, but I didn't care much for this film. There are a few laughs here and there, but in the end, this film overreaches and becomes a little heavy-handed and self-congratulatory. Set in 1994, it tells the story of Luke Shapiro, a pot dealer who is nonetheless not very popular, and his shrink Dr. Squires (played by Ben Kingsley) who trades therapy for weed. Luke becomes enamored with Squires' daughter and hijinks ensue. The setting is mildly interesting (I was in high school at the time, so I guess I can relate) and the filmmakers hit a lot of the "hip" lingo, etc... The performances are mediocre. Josh Peck plays Luke with a near constant open-mouthed stoner smirk, and while Kingsley does his best to chew scenery and go over-the-top, he ends up with a Dustin Hoffman-like performance. Then again, Kingsley is responsible for most of the film's laughs. Still, any charm this film has wears off as it attempts to hammer home it's themes in much too literal a way. In perhaps the worst titular justification ever, Squires' daughter explains to Luke that the difference between them is that she looks at “the dopeness” of life while he sees nothing but “the wackness.” It was mildly entertaining and I'm betting this will be a mainstream hit, but it's just not my bag. **
  • Black House: Another Korean horror film, albeit a significantly more conventional one. A mild-mannered insurance agent investigates a suspicious suicide and tries to warn an impending victim. Again, this is a pretty conventional thriller that generally progresses in predictable ways (one "twist" really isn't much of one). It's executed in a competent and steady fashion, making for a watchable but ultimately forgettable film. The pace picks up towards towards the end, and another unexpected twist is revealed. It's probably an above average horror/thriller film and worth watching for fans of the genre, but you wouldn't be missing much if you didn't see it... **
  • Timecrimes: An intricate Spanish time-travel thriller, and my favorite film of the festival. Hector and his wife have just moved into a countryside house in Northern Spain. Sitting in the backyard, Hector peers through his binoculars and spies a woman undressing in the woods. He follows her to investigate, but is stabbed and chased by a mysterious bandaged man. He takes refuge in a house that turns out to be a lab, and eventually finds the sole employee, who tells him that he can hide in a large circular pod. He emerges from the pod about a hour and a half in the past, where he can watch events unfold a second time, from a different perspective. Naturally, time-travel causes more problems than it solves, and the film doesn't shy away from that, despite keeping a pleasant tone. There is actually quite a bit of humor and wit in the script, and none of it seems forced or silly. It's a complex and fascinating film, but unlike other complex films in the festival, this film manages to maintain a clarity that was refreshing to me. The film requires you to think, but all the pieces fit, and the film addresses the time-travel pitfall of paradox by employing a "circular causation" style (as used in The Terminator, 12 Monkeys, and, uh, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Perhaps it's just my affinity for time travel stories, but I loved this movie. It may get a limited release in the U.S., but I believe it's also being remade (I have mixed feelings about that - if you don't mind subtitles, this is defiintely worth checking out). ***1/2

    The mysterious bandaged man...

  • Son of Rambow: Written and directed by Garth Jennings (he did The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a film I enjoyed despite it not living up to the source material), this is a smaller, more personal story of an imaginative child who becomes friends with the school screwup after they discover a mutual love for First Blood and attempt to make their own film, titled "Son of Rambow." There are, of course, obstacles to their friendship, including an overbearing religion and a French exchange student named Didier. I think the interesting thing about this film is that it captures the way a child will latch on to certain movies. As an adult, I don't find this happening much, but I can think of dozens of films from my childhood (good and bad, it doesn't really matter), that thrilled and inspired me. A fun crowd-pleasing film, I believe it's going to be released mainstream sometime this year, and it's definitely worth watching. ***

    Son of Rambow

  • Triangle: A strange little caper flick helmed by three Hong Kong masters: Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Kaedrin favorite, Johnny To. Each director apparently worked on a third of the movie, though there don't seem to be any obvious transitions between the three "segments" (difficult to call them such, as it's all basically one story). In all honesty, the first two thirds of the movie aren't all that special. However, the final act brings various plot elements together nicely and a couple of neat set pieces and gunfights take place here. I believe this is the portion of the film directed by Johnny To, though again, it's difficult to tell, and I think you can see the hand of Tsui Hark in the last section as well. It's worth watching for that final third of the movie, but it's also not an especially spectacular effort on any of the filmmakers' parts. **1/2
While I don't have much of a frame of reference for film festivals, I'd say this was a middle-of-the-pack sorta year. I didn't see as many movies at the 2006 festival, but 3 of the films shown in 2006 ended up on my top 10 for that year. At the most, I can see two films accomplishing that this year (Timecrimes and Son of Rambow). Of course, I also chose to focus mostly on the Danger After Dark series, mostly avoiding the other fare, of which there are apparently many good films. My understanding is that the DAD leadership had some problems this year, though I'm short on the details on what's involved in those rumors. In any case, I certainly still enjoyed myself and will probably make the effort again next year.

Update: Made some edits, specifically to the Storm review... Also removed the The Last House in the Woods entry, as I didn't end up seeing that film...
Posted by Mark on April 13, 2008 at 04:08 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Philadelphia Film Festival: Confession of Pain
One of the more successful Hong Kong films of recent years is Infernal Affairs, a story of an undercover cop and a police department mole. It was remade in the U.S. as The Departed and it netted Scorcese's first oscars (among others). The symmetrical plot of Infernal Affairs is cliever and complex, but the real strength of the film is the psychological struggle of people who've been undercover for so long they're not sure who they are anymore. Confession of Pain is from the same writers and directors as Infernal Affairs. The plot doesn't feature the clever symmetry of Infernal Affairs and the psychological aspects aren't as deep, but the stakes are still high and the story is still complex and interesting.

After his girlfriend commits suicide, Detective Yau Kin Bong quits the force and becomes a private investigator. He also becomes an alcoholic. His former partner and friend Lau Ching Hei keeps tabs on him, and when someone murders Hei's father-in-law, Hei's wife hires Bong to investigate the suspicious circumstances of the murder. It sounds like a pretty standard plot, but the filmmakers manage to wring a lot of complexity out of it by employing a lot of noir story elements and maybe some of the Infernal Affairs-like symmetry. It ends up being a story of betrayal and revenge, and there are numerous surprises along the way.

The lead performances by Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro are great, and the visuals are sleeker and more cinematic than Infernal Affairs. It moves a little slowly and there are some confusing hiccups along the way (perhaps a lost in translation sorta thing), but in the end, it's a very well executed noir-like mysery/thriller. Apparently, a U.S. remake of this film is also in the works, though I'm not sure this one will go over as well... *** (out of 4 stars)
Posted by Mark on April 09, 2008 at 03:24 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Philadelphia Film Festival: Pistoleros
The first film I saw at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Pistoleros. Chilean born Dutch filmmaker Shaky González makes a modern-day spaghetti western, complete with a heist-gone-wrong, hidden loot, a trail of clues, betrayals, gunfights and mexican standoffs galore, with a little martial arts thrown in for good measure. An interesting and entertaining mix, though a little uneven in its execution.

The story follows Frank Lowies, the toughest, meanest gangster in Copenhagen. He catches wind of a plan to transport a large sum of money by train, and recruits two other gangsters to help pull it off: a Pakistani named Shameer and an Argentinian named Ramirez. Naturally, things don't go as planned, and the three end up in jail. As urban legend has it, Frank hid a large portion of the money before getting nabbed by the police and hid it. The only clues to the whereabouts of the loot are a series of tatoos spread out amongst Frank's friends. A few years later the folks involved in the heist get out of jail and start looking for the hidden loot.

Pretty standard stuff, really, but the manner in which it's told is... interesting. The film employs a very unusual structure, and to be honest, I'm not sure it entirely works. On the other hand, without this structure, it probably wouldn't work as well. The story is told mostly in flashbacks. A documentary filmmaker named Martin and his producer Camilla meet up with a washed-up gangster named Crazy Uffe, who is supposedly very knowledgeable on Frank Lowies and the story of the hidden money. The story doesn't come out directly, though. Instead, we get a flashback withinin a flashback. Crazy Uffe tells the story of how he told Frank Lowies' story to another gangster named Yugo Ivan. Uffe owed Ivan money, so he told the story in the hopes of paying off his debts with Lowies' hidden stash. In the middle of telling his story, he gets interrupted by someone else at the bar, who tells the story of how the heist was conceived and how it went wrong, at which point we return to Uffe's story. Finally, someone else joins in and says they're all wrong, and that the money is still out there.

So we've got all kinds of flashbacks within flashbacks and unreliable narration, and it's tempting to attribute a Rashômon-like signifigance to it all, but I think that's probably giving this film too much credit. As you can probably tell from the descriptions above, it's a bit confusing and the structure is awkward to say the least. There is definitely some ambiguity left at the end, especially considering the sequence shown during the credits of the film (don't stop watching once the credits start rolling!), but really, the whole story and structure is just an excuse to partake in some action-packed fun.

Sonny Lowies

The atmosphere is wonderful, though I think the film could have done more with it's intriguing mixture of spaghetti western tropes and modern-day imagery. The music deserves some mention, as it's evocative of Ennio Morricone's brilliant scores from Sergio Leone's classic films. There are a couple of great scenes where we see our heroes driving their motorcycles (in place of horses) throughout Copenhagen (in place of the old West) with the spaghetti western score blaring in the background. It struck me that this sort of thing hasn't been done much (if ever), and that I'd love to see more modern-day spaghetti westerns. There are references galore. Obviously, the spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (the plot of Pistoleros is most reminiscent of this film, and someone even refers to a character as "blondie") and Once Upon a Time in the West get many homages, but there's more than just that. Robert Rodriguez is definitely an influence on this film, and you can see lots of other references to gangster films. Oddly, there's also a bit of martial arts thrown in for good measure, but that works better than I thought it would. The action sequences are energetic and well staged, and while the editing and pace of the film is quick, you don't lose track of what's going on.


Ultimately, it's a decent film that could have used a tighter story or perhaps a structure that wasn't so haphazard. I'm guessing that we're going to see more from writer/director Shaky González, and while this film isn't perfect, it's definitely an interesting effort and I'd love to see what he comes up with next... **1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Posted by Mark on April 06, 2008 at 01:51 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Summoner Geeks
Via Haibane.info, I stumbled across this:

It's pretty funny and I got a little curious about the history of this thing. Apparently a sketch comedy troupe in Wisconsin called the Dead Alewives put together an album featuring a parody of Dungeons & Dragons. The audio skit is pretty funny by itself, and it's been making the rounds on radio and the internet ever since the mid 1990s. In 2000, a bunch of developers at a video game company, Volition (they made Descent, Red Faction, and of course, Summoner), made an animated version, and distrubuted it along with their games (it's in some promotional material and if you win the game, you see it there as well). So it went from an improvisational comedy group, to a CD they made, to the radio, to the internet, got mashed up with visuals from other video games, and has now finally made its way to me (about 12 years later).
Posted by Mark on April 02, 2008 at 10:42 PM .: link :.

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