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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Banner of the Stars: Initial Thoughts
Still working though the original set of Anime recommendations, next up is Banner of the Stars. Netflix didn't have it in stock, so I had to delay a bit, but I found a cheapo thinpack and bought it. I'm about halfway through the series. Assorted thoughts, comments, questions, and screenshots below.
  • The series follows a war between The United Mankind and the Abh Empire. The story is told through the eyes of Abriel Lafiel and Lin Jinto. Lafiel is a princess of the Abh Empire and the captain of a small attack ship, the Basroil. Jinto is her supply officer and secretary. He's also royalty, though he's the last surviving member of his family, and his membership in the Abh Empire seems to be more of a legal formality than a race thing (this is one of the interesting things about the universe this story is set in - more later in this post). This is a war story, but so far the emphasis seems to be on Lafiel and Jinto. There's some romantic tension there, and I can see the beginnings of a love triangle. Again, I'm 6 episodes into the series. So far, so good, though I'm getting the feeling that I probably should have watched Crest of the Stars first (I assume most of the backstory between Lafiel and Jinto is covered in that series).

    Jinto & Abriel
    Jinto & Abriel

  • So far, the story is told entirely from the perspective of the Abh. From what I can understand, the Abh are a race of humans who have been genetically engineered for life in space. For instance, they seem to have developed a new sensory organ that helps with space navigation (they use headpieces to interface with it, which is why it looks like all the characters are wearing a tiara). As previously mentioned, Jinto is technically Abh, but he's also a "grounder" (i.e. someone who was born and grew up on a planet) and I think his status as a member of the Abh is more legal than genetic (though I guess if your race is defined by genetic modification, a human could change to that race pretty easily). Interestingly, Jinto is referred to as a "Count" which I believe outranks "Princess" in terms of nobility, yet Princess Abriel is Jinto's military superior. We don't actually see much of the United Mankind empire, but one interesting thing about them is that they don't seem to be demonized. They're not the Nazis of the Banner universe, they're just enemies. Also, there don't seem to be any secret weapons or invincible ships on their side (something I saw in Vandread and Martian Successor Nadesico). Though neither side knows of the other side's true fleet strength, the focus seems to be more on tactics and strategy than simple brute force or secret weapons. This tends to make for a more believable and interesting universe...
  • So far, I've only seen one major battle in the series. I admit that some of the strategy and tactics went a bit over my head, but I like how this series is progressing. Other space opera series (like, for instance, Vandread) seem to have a battle every episode, which can get a bit tiresome. Banner is taking its time, arranging various elements and strategies before jumping into battle. It looks like the series is building towards a big climatic battle during the last 4 episodes, which I'm told is fantastic.
  • The music in the series bears a strong resemblance to the music in the Galactic Civiliazations II video game. Since this series was produced several years before Galciv II, I'm guessing that the composer for Galciv II was familiar with this soundtrack... In any case, I do like the music, and it seems to fit well with the space opera theme.
  • The animation quality doesn't seem all that spectacular, but it's serviceable. There seems to be an abundance of closeups (where the only thing moving is the character's mouth) and a lot of reused background stuff. This is all rather common though, and didn't really distract me much. Character design is a little interesting. I don't know why, but the eyes in this series seem larger than normal (or maybe it's the proportions of the various pieces of the eye that are catching my attention). Anime is infamous for having larger eyes than normal, but this series seems even more excessive than usual. Perhaps I'm just becoming more and more obvservant of eyes in Anime (in other news, closed eye syndrome continues unabated). Also, perhaps because the eyes are larger than normal, some characters have eyes with pupils (Lafiel and Jinto have pupils, see screenshots), and others seem to be entirely iris (Ekuryua, the person on the right in the below screenshot, doesn't seem to have a pupil). In animation, you can sometimes get away without drawing a pupil if the eyes are small enough, but since some of the eyes are still huge, it can be a little strange... The other interesting thing about the character designs is that some characters have long, pointy ears, while others have more normal human ears. The people that have the long pointy ears seem to be nobility (for instance, there are two people from the Abriel family in the series and they both have pointy ears, see the screenshots of Lafiel and Admiral Abriel (his screenshot is further down)), but then, some nobles don't have them either (Jinto doesn't and neither do the Biboth brothers). The noses also seem pointier. Not sure if there's any significance to any of this (perhaps these are indications of various genetic enhancements the Abh have implemented), or if I'm just being overly picky.

    Abriel & Ekuryua
    Abriel & Ekuryua have big eyes

  • The first scene in the series is quite confusing - it doesn't seem to have been translated into english (on either the dub or the subtitle). For a while, I thought I had messed something up with the setup of the subtitles and audio. In any case, after that first scene, everything seems to be fine. Not sure what the deal is there. The only other annoyance is that sometimes the subtitles are rendered right on top of what appear to be Japanese subtitles, making them hard to read (this is particularly annoying during the OP when you hear a voice describe events leading up to the current war). A bit strange, but after I got used to it, it's fine.
I should be able to finish the series this week, and I'm told that I'm going to want to watch the last 4 episodes all at once. Hopefully, I'll have my final review done next week.

A few more screenshots and comments below the fold... This is Admiral Abriel, apparently a relation of Lafiel. He shares the distinctive pointy ears of the Abriel family. This screenshot also shows one of the odd features of the animation... namely, that you can see through his hair. Sometimes this is more prominent than others, and it's usually fine, but shots like this are a little odd..

Admiral Abriel
Admiral Abriel

One of the interesting things about SF in general is how little things change. For instance, the Abh apparently salute using only two fingers.

Jinto Saluting
Jinto Saluting

One of the things I like about the series is that strategy and tactics seem to be the focus, rather than just the combat. The series follows Operation Phantom Flame, an offensive by the Abh empire. Here's a screenshot of the general strategy. There's a primary thrust up the middle to attain the main objectives, followed by a pincer movement to pick up other systems along the same path. Apparently, there are allies on the other side of this screen which the main Abh force hopes to hook up with.

The Pincer Movement, diagrammed
The Pincer Movement, diagrammed

As previously mentioned, the music in Galciv II is very similar to the music in this series. As such, I thought it was funny when this screen came up - a screen that is very similar to the graphs in Galciv II. Of course, this is more of a coincidence than anything else (it's not like the Banner folks invented the line graph), but the interfaces are very similar.

Resources Graph
Resources Graph

That's all for now. Again, more later in the week...
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2008 at 08:58 PM .: link :.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday is List Day
Another Friday, another list day.

Random 10: The Guitar Hero Edition
Ok, perhaps not random, but 10 songs from Guitar Hero III that I like
  • Social Distortion - "Story of My Life"
  • The Strokes - "Reptilia"
  • The Killers - "When You Were Young"
  • Weezer - "My Name Is Jonas"
  • Muse - "Knights of Cydonia"
  • Kaiser Chiefs - "Ruby"
  • Senses Fail - "Can't Be Saved"
  • Naast - "Mauvais Garçon"
  • Backyard Babies - "Minus Celsius"
  • DragonForce - "Through the Fire and Flames"
Incidentally, I was finally able to actually complete "Through the Fire and Flames" on medium difficulty this week with a whopping 68% of notes played. I'm not sure if I'm really any better at Guitar Hero so much as I've memorized the songs and developed muscle memory, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to give myself arthritis if I keep playing the game a lot.

10 Favorite TV/Movie Robots
In honor of WALL·E, here are 10 great movie robots (not necessarily great movies though:P) Ok, I cheated and put some cyborgs on the list. In no particular order:
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2008 at 10:32 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Anathem Music Update
Apparently the advanced reader copies of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem are starting to arrive... along with an unexpected musical accompaniment in the form of a CD. According to Al Billings:
There is a note with it stating that “In order to conform to the practices of the avout, this disc contains music composed for and performed by voices alone.”

I’ve just listened to several of the songs on this CD and, frankly, this is some weird shit. I say this without reservation. The musical styles are all over the map except that they all only use human voices (and occasionally hands). Some of it is similar to Western, Christian, styles of chanting. Other tracks are more Classical vocal arrangements with singing. The rest of the tracks seem to be heavily influenced by Eastern, Buddhist, styles of chanting, especially Tibetan Buddhism with its use of harmonics and overlaying voices. It varies quite a bit from song to song. Additionally, when there are recognizable words, they are not in English (nor in any language that I recognize). “Celluar Automata” is the weirdest track of this sort with multiple voices weaving in and out, along with some clapping and exclamations in an unknown language. “Thousander Chant” would be at home on some of the collections of Tibetan chanting that I have and whoever is performing it is obviously trained in the throat chanting used by Tibetans and others in Asia.
Interesting. I wonder if this is something that will come with the book once it is released... or if it's just an added bonus for those lucky enough to be selected for an early reviewer book like Al. In any case, Cory Doctorow notes that the music was created by Dave Stutz, a retired Microsoft employee who apparently advocated open source software, but now owns a winery and makes strange music.

And so this Anathem thing gets more and more interesting. September 9 can't get here fast enough! [Thanks to Tombstone for the links]
Posted by Mark on June 25, 2008 at 08:30 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

70s SF Marathon Awards: The Damn Dirty Apes
Filmspotting finished up their 70s Sci-Fi Movie Marathon by handing out awards, titled The Damn Dirty Apes (in honor of Charlton Heston's contribution to the marathon). I followed along with their marathon, so I figured I might as well give out the awards as well...
  • Best Special Effects: I'm going to agree with Adam and Matty here and go with Silent Running. The film has many flaws, but special effects is not one of them. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, and would go on to do effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. There are several sequences in this movie that must have influenced George Lucas when he made Star Wars. Most notably, the escape pod sequence from Star Wars seems lifted directly from Silent Running.
  • Best Actress: This is a really tough award because there weren't really that many great female roles in the movies (indeed, Silent Running didn't feature any female characters). Basically, it comes down to Jenny Agutter in Logan's Run or Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Filmspotting guys went with Agutter (and she deserves some credit for bringing some humanity to an awful film), but I think I'm going to go with Candy Clark. I didn't like where here performance ultimately went, but I think that was more because of the character than the performance, and the opening scenes made a pretty good impression. I wish there were more choices here though, and sadly, it doesn't look like we're in good shape these days...
  • Best Actor: It was tempting to agree with Adam's pick of Charlton Heston's campy performance in The Omega Man (or even Soylent Green, which contains some great Heston outbursts, particularly the end of the film). And though I disagree with Matty's pick of Bruce Dern, I do think he makes a surprisingly effective argument, highlighting the "misplaced activism" of the character. Ultimately, however, I couldn't help but give it to David Bowie for his near catatonic (uh, in a good way) performance as the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'm not sure how much of this is just perfect casting, as Bowie's physical appearance is absolutely perfect for the role. His wiry, androgenous frame and gaunt face makes him look other-worldly, and his mannerisms and line delivery are pretty good as well.
  • Best Supporting Performance: Filmspotting rightly praises Edward G. Robinson's performance in Soylent Green, but I'm going to go with Kate Reid as the no-nonsense Dr. Ruth Leavitt in The Andromeda Strain. She gives a fantastic performance and also provides a refreshing contrast to the modern tendency to cast super-models as scientists (think Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough). Unlike most of today's films, I actually believe she's a scientist (the same goes for most of the other no-name actors in the film - they're all pretty ordinary looking folks).
  • Best Moment/Scene: This is another tough one as there are a lot of scenes/moments in the films that would be worth picking. In the end, I'm going with Soylent Green for two scenes. First is the scene where Edward G. Robinson "goes home" by watching this nature montage of the way earth used to be. It's a moving scene, and one not ruined by Chuck Heston hysterics. Speaking of which, the other moment in the film I love is the ending, which does feature a wonderful Chuck Heston line reading. Another moment I considered was the opening scene from The Andromeda Strain in which two soldiers encounter the organism... but the scene is brilliant because it's told almost entirely through audio.
  • Dystopia You Would Most Like To Live In: Depending on how you define a Dystopia, only a few of the films feature one. I can say without a doubt that the one I'd least like to live in would be Soylent Green. The Omega Man has it's plusses, but there are too many disadvantages as well. If you consider Silent Running a dystopia, that would definitely be my choice. We don't actually see earth in the film, but from what is described, it doesn't sound too bad. The only thing that sucks is that there is apparently no vegetation or fresh food. Finally, Logan's Run would be ok, though as someone who is nearing their 30th birthday, I think their disadvantages hit a little closer to home than I'd like. Incidentally, we need more SF movies that don't feature dystopias. Someone get on that.
  • Best Picture: I agree with Adam that Soylent Green was the most surprising film in the series (I expected it to be much worse than it was), but I was really taken with The Andromeda Strain, and that's my pick. It's not a perfect film (the standard action movie climax featuring lasers is a bit of a stretch), but it's definitely my favorite of the series, and I think it's also the best made. It's certainly the most scientifically rigorous of the films (basically a science procedural), yet it doesn't sacrifice tension or pacing to achieve that feat. Director Robert Wise does an excellent job with the visuals, and I think the pacing is due to his work. Also worth noting is the exceptional set-design in the film. Despite the ending (which isn't bad so much as it doesn't really fit with the rest of the film), this is a great film and well worth a watch.
All in all, it was an interesting marathon. I think the biggest different between Filmspotting and me is that I loved The Andromeda Strain (which was strangely not even mentioned in their awards), while they really got into some of the movies I didn't care for.
Posted by Mark on June 22, 2008 at 01:39 PM .: link :.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Friday is List Day Caper
It's been a long time since a proper list day, so here's a few lists. First off comes a meme from Aziz that will take the place of the usual random ten songs:

Seven Songs I Am Into Right Now
  • DragonForce - "Through The Fire And Flames"
  • Weezer - "Only in Dreams"
  • Tool - "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)"
  • The Heavy - "That Kind of Man"
  • Radiohead - "Bodysnatchers"
  • UNKLE - "Nursery Rhyme / Breather"
  • Mr. Bungle - "Carousel"
So basically, I need to start listening to some new music. Heh.

Top 5 Heist Movies
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001): Probably the most purely entertaining films of this century, and very well made too.
  • Heat: Michael Mann's brilliant cops and robbers story contains some of the more memorable realistic heists, including one of the best gunfights in film history. Perhaps a little long and a little unfocused, but it all works for me.
  • (tie) Bob le flambeur and The Good Thief: Yes, I'm cheating, this is a tie. However, The Good Thief is a remake of Bob le flambeur, and they're both pretty good examples of the heist genre. The newer film has more of the modern conventions of heist films (and it does a good job subverting them as well), while the original helped establish the conventions of heist films (the original is a little slower than the remake, but still worth a watch). The ending of both approaches what Roger Ebert describes as "cosmic irony."
  • The Killing: Before Stanley Kubrick made a name for himself, he worked on a couple of genre pics, this being one of the finest examples of film noir and heist films.
  • The Bank: Underrated Australian caper flick that might be a little out of place on this list, but I wanted to put it on because almost no one has seen it and it's worth a watch...
This was hard, there are lots of movies I wanted to put on the list, but fell off for various reasons, including The Usual Suspects (the capers really aren't the focus of the film though), The Asphalt Jungle (pretty much the blueprint for the modern heist film), The Killers (not really a heist film, though it does feature a heist shown with a great tracking shot), Heist and Die Hard

Top 5 Heist Movies I should Have Seen Before Compiling the Above List Interestingly, it seems that most of these films are on Filmspotting's next marathon. Score.

5 More Good Heist Movies I forgot to mention earlier Ok, so now that I've mentioned 20 heist films (without mentioning Dog Day Afternoon!), I guess I should stop.
Posted by Mark on June 20, 2008 at 10:27 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

70s SF Marathon: The Man Who Fell To Earth
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed most of the movies from Filmspotting's 70s Sci-Fi Movie Marathon. The one movie from their marathon that I had not yet seen at the time was The Man Who Fell to Earth. I had actually caught parts of this movie before, and to be honest I was not particularly impressed. After watching the whole movie, I can say that my thoughts about it have changed very little.

There are two things I really like about this movie. Unfortunately, they're overshadowed by the rest of the movie. I love the premise: An alien travels to earth to get water for his dying planet. To fund the return trip to his planet, he patents several pieces of his own technology on Earth. He starts a company that quickly grows into one of the largest technology providers on the planet. However, he doesn't account for things like love, television, alcohol or excessively ruthless business competition. Alas, director Nicholas Roeg doesn't seem too interested in the SF portions of the film, instead attempting to delve deeper into the critique of human excesses by portraying the downward spiral of an alien who eventually succumbs to the various pressures of human life. As such, the plot ends up being razor thin and filled with holes. SF stories almost always boil down to basic human dramas, so I don't blame Roeg for being more interested in telling that part of the story, but the movie is quite sloppy with its science (the film is based on a novel, so I'm actually not sure all the blame lies with Roeg). I think Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review with this line: "...there's nothing more frustrating than asking logical questions about a movie that insists on being visionary."

David Bowie and Candy Clark

The other thing that really works well in the film is the casting of David Bowie as the alien visitor. His gaunt, androgynous appearance is an eerily perfect fit. His subdued performance is good as well, though as Ebert notes, he "flirts with the catatonic." Supporting roles are somewhat interesting. Candy Clark plays a naive hotel worker who falls for Bowie. This odd relationship starts out very interesting, but progresses awkwardly and doesn't end well. Rip Torn plays a scientist who works for Bowie and eventually figures out what Bowie really is. Buck Henry has an interesting part as the lawyer who runs Bowie's company. His character also appears to be in a gay relationship, but this is only hinted at.

Come to think of it, the entire film is really a series of interesting ideas that are only hinted at - a perfect example of playing obscurity for depth. Some films can get away with this because they require you to piece the story together for yourself, but that didn't work so well for this movie. Roeg tries his best to stylize the movie, and there are indeed a lot of interesting visual shots in the film. He uses cross cutting a lot, though I'd say the editing of the film in general isn't very well done. There is a lot going on in the movie, but none of it seems to fit together very well.

In the end, it's an interesting movie with some good ideas, but I found the execution lacking. Most critics seem to love it even though many acknowledge the complaints I mention above. On the other hand, Kaedrin commenters noted that the film was "BORING" and "extremely tedious," so it's nice to know that I'm not alone. Filmspotting will be handing out their marathon awards on Friday, at which point I'll probably post my own... ** (out of 4)
Posted by Mark on June 18, 2008 at 10:48 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rewatching Movies
One of the cable channels was playing Ocean's Eleven all weekend, and that's one of those movies I always find myself watching when it comes on (this time, I even went to the shelf and fired up the DVD, so as to avoid commercials). Of course, there are tons of new, never-seen-before things I want to watch. My Netflix queue currently has around 140 movies in it (and this seems to be growing with time, despite the rate at which I go through my rentals). I've got a DVD set of Banner of the Stars that I'm only about 1/3 of the way through. My DVR has a couple episodes of the few TV shows I follow queued up for me. Yet I find myself watching Ocean's Eleven for the umpteenth time. And loving every second of it.

In actuality, I've noticed myself doing this sort of thing less and less over the years. When I was younger, I would watch and rewatch certain movies almost daily. There are several movies that have probably moved up into triple digit rewatches (for the curious, the films in this list include The Terminator, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Phantasm). Others I've only rewatched dozens of times. As time goes on, I find myself less and less likely to rewatch things. I think Netflix has become a big part of that, because I want to get my money's worth from the service, and the only way to do that is to continually watch new movies. In recent years, I've also come to realize that even though I've seen way more movies than the average person, there are still a lot of holes in my film knowledge. I do find myself limited by time these days, so when it comes down to rewatching an old favorite or potentially discovering a new one, I tend to favor the new films these days. But I still relapse (focusing on novelty has its own challenges), and I do find myself rewatching movies on a regular basis.

Get away from her you bitch!

Why is that? There are some people who never rewatch movies, but even with my declining repeat viewings, I don't count myself among them. Some films almost demand you to watch them again. For instance, I recently watched Andrei Tarkovsky's thoughtful, if difficult, SF film Solaris. This is a film that seems designed to reveal itself only upon multiple viewings. Tarkovsky is somewhat infamous for this sort of thing, and there are a lot of movies out there that are like that. Upon repeated viewings, these films take on added dimensions. You start to notice things. Correlations, strange relationships, and references become more apparent.

Other films, however, are just a lot of fun to rewatch. This raises a lot of interesting questions. Why is a movie fun even when we know the ending? Indeed, why do some reviewers even include a rating for rewatchability? In some cases we just like spending time with certain characters or settings and don't mind that we already know the outcome. I've made a distinction between these films and the ones that demand multiple viewings, but many of the same benefits of repeat viewings are mutual between the two types of movies. Rewatching a film can be a richer, deeper experience and you start to notice things you didn't upon first viewing. Indeed, one interesting thing about rewatching movies is that while the movie is the same, you are not. Context matters. Every time we rewatch something, we bring our knowledge and experience (which is always changing) to the table. Sometimes this can be trivial (like noticing a reference or homage you didn't know about), but I've always heard about movies that become more poignant to people after they have children or as they grow older. Similarly, rewatching a movie can transport us back to the context in which we first saw the movie. I still remember the excitement and the spectacle of going to see Batman or Terminator 2 on opening day. Those were fun experiences from my childhood, even if I don't particularly love either movie. Heck, just the thought of how often I used to rewatch some movies is a fun memory that gets brought up whenever I think about those movies today...

I ll be back when you watch this movie 200 more times...

There are also a lot of fascinating psychological implications to rewatching movies. As I mentioned before, we sometimes rewatch movies to revisit characters we consider friends or situations we find satisfying. In the case of comedies, we want to laugh. In the case of horror films, we want to scare ourselves or feel suspense. And strangely, even though we know the outcomes of these movies, they still seem to be able to elicit these various emotions as we rewatch them. For movies that depict true stories, they can feature suspense or fear even when we know how the story will turn out. Two recent, high-profile examples of this are United 93 and Zodiac. Both of those films were immersive enough upon first viewing that I felt suspense at various parts of the story, even though I knew on an intellectual level where both films were heading. David Bordwell has explored this concept thoroughly and references several interesting theories as to why rewatching movies remains powerful:
Normally we say that suspense demands an uncertainty about how things will turn out. Watching Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time, you feel suspense at certain points-when the champagne is running out during the cocktail party, or when Devlin escorts the drugged Alicia out of Sebastian’s house. That’s because, we usually say, you don’t know if the spying couple will succeed in their mission.

But later you watch Notorious a second time. Strangely, you feel suspense, moment by moment, all over again. You know perfectly well how things will turn out, so how can there be uncertainty? How can you feel suspense on the second, or twenty-second viewing?
Here's one theory he covers:
...in general, when we reread a novel or rewatch a film, our cognitive system doesn’t apply its prior knowledge of what will happen. Why? Because our minds evolved to deal with the real world, and there you never know exactly what will happen next. Every situation is unique, and no course of events is literally identical to an earlier one. “Our moment-by-moment processes evolved in response to the brute fact of nonrepetition” (Experiencing Narrative Worlds, 171). Somehow, this assumption that every act is unique became our default for understanding events, even fictional ones we’ve encountered before.
He goes into a lot more detail about this theory and others in his post. Several of the theories he covers touch on what I find most interesting about the subject, which is that our brain seems to have compartamentalized the processing of various data. I'm going to simplify drastically for effect here, but I think the general idea is right (I'm not a nuerologist though, so take it with a grain of salt). When processing visual and audio data, there is a part of the brain that is, for lack of a better term, stateless. It picks up a stimulus, immediately renders it (into a visual or audio representation) then shuttles it off to another part of the brain which interprets the output. This interpretation seems to be where our brain slows down. The initial processing is involuntary and unconscious and it doesn't take other data (like memories) into account. We don't have to consciously think about it, it just happens. Something similar happens when we first begin to interpret data. Our brain seems to be unconsciously and continually forming different interpretations and then rejecting most of them. The rejected thoughts are displaced by new alternatives which incorporate more of our knowledge and experience (and perhaps this part happens in a more conscious fashion). We've all had the experience of thinking something that almost immediately disturbed us because we wonder where that thought came from. Bordwell gives a common example (I've read about this exact example at least three times from different people):
Standing at a viewing station on a mountaintop, safe behind the railing, I can look down and feel fear. I don’t really believe I’ll fall. If I did, I would back away fast. I imagine I’m going to fall; perhaps I even picture myself plunging into the void and, a la Björk, slamming against the rocks at the bottom. Just the thought of it makes my palms clammy on the rail.
So perhaps one reason it doesn't matter that we know how a movie will turn out is that there is a part of us that is blindly processing data without incorporating what we already know. Another reason we still feel emotions like suspense during a movie we've seen before is because we can imagine what would happen if it didn't turn out the way we know it will. In both cases, there is a conscious intellectual response which can negate our instinctual thoughts, but such responses seem to happen after the fact (at which point, you've already experienced the emotion in question and can't just take it back). One of the most beautiful things about laughter is that it happens involuntarily. We don't (always) have to think about it, we just do it. Dennis Miller once wrote about this:
The truth is the human sense of humor tends to be barbaric and it has been that way all along. I'm sure on the eve of the nativity when the tall Magi smacked his forehead on the crossbeam while entering the stable, Joseph took a second away from pondering who impregnated his wife and laughed his little carpenter ass off. A sense of humor is exactly that: a sense. Not a fact, not etched in stone, not an empirical math equation but just what the word intones: a sense of what you find funny. And obviously, everybody has a different sense of what's funny. If you need confirmation on that I would remind you that Saved by the Bell recently celebrated the taping of their 100th episode. Oh well, one man's Molier is another man's Screech and you know something thats the way it should be.
Indeed, humor generally disappates when you try to explain it. You either get it or you don't.

I could probably go on and on about this, but Bordwell has done an excellent job in his post (there's an interesting bit about mirror neurons, for instance), and unlike me, he's got lots of references. I do find the subject fascinating though, and I began wondering about the impact of people rewatching movies so often. After all, this is a somewhat recent trend we're talking about (not that people didn't rewatch movies before the advent of the VCR and DVD, but that technology has obviously increased the amount of rewatching).

We're living in an on-demand era right now, meaning that we can choose what we want to watch whenever we want (well, we're not quite there yet, but we're moving quickly in that direction). If I want to rewatch Solaris a hundred times and analyze it like the Zapruder film, I'm free to do so (and it might even be a rewarding effort). In the past, things weren't necessarily like that though. James Berardinelli recently wrote about rewatching movies, and he provides some interesting historical context:
30 years ago, if you loved a movie, re-watching it involved patience and hard work. A big Hollywood picture might show up in prime time (ABC regularly aired the James Bond movies on Sunday nights) but smaller/older films were relegated to late night or weekend afternoon showings. Lovers of High Noon (for example) might have to wait a couple of years and religiously check TV listings before being rewarded by its appearance on "The Million Dollar Movie" at 12:30 am some night.

One reason why pre-1980 movie lovers are generally better educated in cinema than their post-1980 counterparts is that TV-based movie watching in the '60s and '70s meant seeing what was provided, and that typically covered many genres and eras of film. I can recall watching a silent film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) on a local station one afternoon in 1977. When was the last time a silent movie aired on any over-the-air television station? The advent of video in the early 1980s and its rapid adoption during the middle of the decade allowed viewers to "program" their home movie watching. They could now see what they wanted to see rather than what was on TV.
Again, this trend has continued, and the degree to which you can program your viewing schedule is ever increasing. Even during the 1980s when I was growing up, I found myself beholden to the broadcast schedules more often than not. Sure I could tape things with a VCR, but I usually found myself browsing the channels looking for something to watch. There was a certain serendipity to discovering movies in those days. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Spaghetti Western (For a Few Dollars More), getting hooked, and watching a bunch of others (Cinemax was running a series of them that month). The last time I remember something like that happening was about 5-6 years ago when I caught an Italian horror marathon on some cable movie channel. And the only reason I watched that was because I had seen Suspiria before and wanted to watch it again. It was followed by several Mario Bava films that were very interesting. Today, I look back on some of the films I watched in my childhood, even ones I cherished, and I wonder why I ever bothered to watch it in the first place. It was probably becaues nothing else was on. The advent of digital cable has changed things as well because digital cable doesn't encourage blind television surfing. There's a program guide built right in, so you can browse that to find what you want. Unfortunately, that means you could skip right over something you would otherwise like (and that may have caught your eye if you saw a glimpse of it). There's also a lot more to choose from (perhaps leading to a paradox of choice situation).

Of course, there are other ways for film lovers to discover new films they wouldn't otherwise have watched. On a personal level, listening to various film podcasts, especially Filmspotting and All Movie Talk (which is sadly now defunct, though still worth listening to if you love movies), has been incredibly helpful in finding and exploring various genres or eras of film that I had not been acquainted with. One effective technique that Filmspotting has employed is the use of marathons, in which they watch 5-6 movies from a genre or filmmaker they are not particularly familiar with. Of course, this, too, is subject to the whims of listeners - many (including myself) will avoid films that don't have an immediate appeal. Still, I've found myself playing along with several of their marathons and watching movies I don't think I would ever watch on my own.

One interesting film experiment is currently being conducted by a blogger named Matthew Dessem. He wanted to learn more about foreign films and found that the Criterion Collection was an interesting place to start. It contains a good mix of the old, new, foreign, and independent, and it goes in a somewhat random order. He started writing a review for each movie at his blog, The Criterion Contraption. He's about 80 or so movies into the collection, and his reviews are exceptionally good (apparently the product of about 15 hours of work each). In an interview, Dessem explains his reasoning for watching the collection in order and why he writes reviews for each one:
I began writing about the films simply as a way of keeping myself intellectually honest: thinking about how each movie was supposed to work, paying attention to what was effective and what was not. Given the chance to not engage with a difficult film, I'll usually take it, unless I have to come up with something coherent to say about it.
Later in the interview, he expands on why he watches the films in the order Criterion put them out:
Mostly, it keeps me honest. If I had the choice to watch the films in any order, I would quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting. That means I'd miss out on a lot of discoveries, which was one of my main goals to begin with. But jumping around from country to country and decade to decade has its own rewards: like any good 21st century citizen, I have a pretty good case of apophenia, so I'll often see connections that don't exist between films.
I can definitely see where he's coming from. Looking through the catalog of Criterion, I see a lot of movies that I'd probably skip if I didn't require myself to watch them in order (as it is now, I've seen somewhere around 10% of the movies, and there's no particular order I've gone in - I sorta fell into the trap where I "quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting". Except, of course, I haven't decided to watch all the Criterion Collection movies.) Indeed some of the movies I have seen, I probably wouldn't recommend except in certain circumstances (for example, I wouldn't recommend Equinox to anyone but die-hard horror fans).

However, while there are ways for us film lovers to seek out and expand our knowledge of film, I do wonder about the casual moviegoers. Is the recent trend of remakes (or reimaginings or whatever they call them these days) partially the result of this phenomenon? I wonder how many of the younger generation saw Rob Zombie's limp remake of Halloween and then sought out the brilliant original? That is perhaps too high-profile of an example. How about the original Ocean's Eleven? As it turns out, I have not seen that movie, despite loving the remake. I've added it to my Netflix queue. It rests at position 116 right now, which means I'll probably get to it sometime within the next five years. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to rewatch The Empire Strikes Back. It is my destiny.

I have seen this a hundred times, but I get the chills during this scene every time...

Update: Added some screenshots from movies I've watched a bazillion times. Also just want to note that while I spent most of my time talking about movies here, the same goes for books and music. I don't tend to reread books much (perhaps due to the time commitment reading a book takes), but on the other hand, music gets better with multiple listenings (so much so that no one even questions the practice of listening to music multiple times).
Posted by Mark on June 15, 2008 at 08:21 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Screenshots of the Recently Viewed
I'm back from my trip to Vegas, but I'm still a bit out of it, so here are a few screenshots and quick comments from recently viewed movies. I'll leave the titles off if you want to guess, though this isn't really a screenshot game like I've done in the past. The answers are below the fold in the extended entry...

Screenshot 1:
Smoking Cigars

Screenshot 2:

Screenshot 3:
This guy looks an awful lot like Spike from Cowboy Bebop, does he not?

Again, answers and quick comments in the extended entry... Here are the answers:
  • Screenshot 1: Election - An interesting Triad ganster flick from one of my favorite Hong Kong direcors, Johnny To. It's not really an action film, instead relying on plot and characterization. It works pretty well. There is a sequel to this movie which is also quite good. ***
  • Screenshot 2: Les Diaboliques - Brilliant French thriller that calls to mind the films of Alfred Hitchcock (the director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was a contemporary and rival to Hitchcock). There is an American remake of this film, but it is awful, see the original instead. ****
  • Screenshot 3: The Animatrix - From the segment titled "A Detective Story" comes this character who bears a striking resemblance to Spike from Cowboy Bebop (with shorter hair). Of course, this makes sense, as the segment in question was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the writer/director of Cowboy Bebop. I got similar vibes for a couple of other segments in this series of shorts, most notably with the segment titled "Matriculated," which was directed by Peter Chung, creator of the Aeon Flux cartoons. As a whole, I don't think this is great, but certainly worth a watch, and about half of the segments are very well done. **1/2
Posted by Mark on June 11, 2008 at 08:18 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Link Dump
Time is short this week and I will be travelling this weekend so no entry on Sunday (perhaps one on Tuesday when I get back). Anwyay, here are some links to chew on while I'm away: That's all for now. Again, probably no entry on Sunday, as I'll be out of town with no access to internet...
Posted by Mark on June 04, 2008 at 10:44 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

'70s SF Movie Marathon
I've been following along with Filmspotting's '70s Science Fiction Marathon. I've followed along with several of their marathons before, and other marathons I've been pretty familiar with before they did their thing, and as marathons go, this one has actually been somewhat disappointing. There's still one movie left in the marathon, but from what I've seen of it, I don't think my opinion will change much. Still, there were some surprises and bright spots here too, and I took the opportunity to check out some other 70s SF movies I'd been wanting to see. Here's the marathon so far:
  • The Omega Man (1971): Things kick off on a campy note with this adaptation of Richard Matheson's brilliant novella I Am Legend. Like every other adaptation of the book, this one completely misses the point, though that doesn't seem to matter. I suppose there's some social commentary here, but the real reason to watch this (assuming you want to) is to revel in its campy glory. Since the story concerns the last human on earth, these movies always have to come up with some plot device that will allow the main character to talk... in Will Smith's recent version, he talked to a dog. In The Omega Man, Charleton Heston talks to a bust of Ceasar. He also looks at himself on a closed circuit video feed and comments "Hi, Big Brother, how's your ass?" And he talks to a dead car dealer too: "How much for a trade-in on my Ford? Oh, really? Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard..." Heston's delivery of lines like this is priceless. The villains are completely different than the book or other movies (I still can't figure out why people don't want to make the villains vampires like the book... instead, we get "The Family" in this movie, which are diseased humans, and the CGI monsters of Will Smith's version). Unfortunately, there's not much to love about this movie. It's worth a watch, but nothing very special. **
  • The Andromeda Strain (1971): Based on Michael Crichton's book of the same name, this movie follows the outbreak of an alien organism on earth and the team of scientists who investigate it. It's essentially a science procedural (and I'm having trouble thinking of another example... at least, another example that is as rigorous) mixed with a thriller. The first act sets the stage and immediately starts ratcheting up the tension (particularly good use of audio here), then the movie settles down at the Project Wildfire base where the scientists begin their investigation. Surprisingly, this part of the movie works really well, even though the majority of this section portrays the tedius repetition of the scientific process as they try to figure out the organism through slow, methodical, systematic steps. Some have complained that this section was a little too long, but I loved it. I don't see much of a difference between this any any number of other procedurals that follow other subjects like medicine, law, or police. Indeed, while watching this movie, I thought of All the President's Men, a film that stresses the tedious minutiae of journalism instead of the sensationalism of the results. Anyway, the one area of the film that doesn't work as well as it could is the ending in which one of the scientists seeks to disarm the automatic nuclear detonation device. It's a standard action movie cliche (complete with lasers!), and it plays as such. I guess it's not terrible, but it's out of place in a movie that was primarily concerned with intellectual thrills. There were a lot of things I really liked about this movie. Robert Wise's direction is well done, and I think a large part of the film's solid pacing is due to his work. The set design, particularly of the Project Wildfire base, is utterly brilliant. And the no-name actors do a good job. There's an effective undercurrent of paranoia and distrust of authority that works really well. Incidentally, this movie was recently remade into a 4 hour mini-series... and it's absolutely awful. Everything that was good about the original film is missing from the mini-series, and the things they added were absurd and ridiculous. Bad acting, bad writing, bad science - it runs the gamut of badness. Don't waste your time. The orginal is riveting entertainment, and one of the better science fiction films I've seen. ***1/2
  • Silent Running (1972): Due to a poorly explained plot point, plants and trees can no longer grow on earth, so humans create a giant nature reserves in space. But the ships are expensive and in demand, so the companies that run them decide to jettison the forests. And for good measure, let's nuke them too! But one of the crew members goes renegade and attempts to escape with the last of the forests. Making it look like an accident, he gets away with it for a while, but eventually he understands how stupid this movie is. I mean, he realizes the error of his ways. This is one of those movies I kept thinking to myself, but why?. Earth is no longer capable of sustaining plantlife, but why? Humans create nature reserves in spaceships, but why? The reserves are to be destroyed, but why? And so on. I just didn't buy the setup. It's actually more entertaining than I'm making it out to be, in large part because it's visually interesting. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on special effects for 2001, the aforementioned The Andromeda Strain, and would go on to do effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. There are several sequences in this movie that must have influenced George Lucas when he made Star Wars. The acting is, uh, a bit over the top. Bruce Dern bears most of the load, and not so well. Still, his relationship with the little robots on the ship was kinda interesting, but ultimately unfulfilling. In the end, I didn't much like this one. **
  • Soylent Green (1973): I think the biggest surprise of the marathon was that I enjoyed this movie. A Chuck Heston film that depicts a future in which the Earth is overpopulated and food is rationed. The Soylent corporation provides artificial foodstuffs, and their most recent variation, called Soylent Green, is quite popular. Heston investigates the murder of the President of the Soylent corporation and eventually finds out the disturbing secret behind Soylent Green. Again, surprisingly good stuff here. Not great (my enjoyment is probably a matter of lowered expectations), but solid and entertaining. I kinda bought into the setting of the story, something that didn't happen with a couple of other movies in the marathon. Of course, the infamous ending is almost funny at this point (should I even bother with hiding the "surprise?" I guess I am, but if you don't know, go watch the film and let us know what you think. I'd like to get the perspective of someone who didn't know the ending.) and again, Heston's delivery is priceless (on par with his Planet of the Apes meltdown). Decent stuff. ***
  • Logan's Run (1976): After a horrible war, survivors are holed up in domed cities that care for their every need... with one catch: Life must end at 30. There's a possiblity of "renewal" at an event called Carousel, but many people attempt to escape when they turn 30. These "runners" are hunted down and killed by "Sandmen" (basically police). Logan is a Sandman who gets caught up in a scheme to find "Sanctuary" outside of the domes, and he has to become a runner. I've heard a lot about this movie, and I have to say that it was really disappointing. It's got an interesting idea at its core, but it doesn't explore much of it and instead wants to use it as an excuse for action scenes and a big chase. Unfortunately, the action and the chase are rather tame, and the details of the plot are rather dumb. There are lots of things this film could have explored, like the reality and implications of faith (people seem to cling to their illogical and destructive beliefs with religious fervor) or how a society becomes brainwashed, but it seems that you're just supposed to accept those things without thinking about them. One other thing that was constantly ruining the immersion of the film was the bad special effects (the models were particularly jarring). This wouldn't matter so much if the film had a better story or even better action sequences, but as it is, it just detracts from the film. Ultimately, I'm a little confused as to why this movie has a decent reputation. *
  • Bonus Film! Solaris (1972): Andrei Tarkovsky's brooding, thoughtful masterpiece about a psychologist (named Kris Kelvin) who travels to a space station on the planet Solaris where mysterious things are happening. The oceans of Solaris are thought to be a host to some sort of intelligence, and the psychologist eventually succumbs to madness brought on by the appearance of his long dead wife. This film went a little above my head. It's not an easy film to watch. Its slow and deliberate pacing demands a thoughtful examination of the ideas presented within, and Tarkovsky's visual flare embues the film with a trippy, dreamlike quality. Tarkovsky is quite effective at establishing atmosphere. For instance, when Kelvin arrives at the station, the film becomes saturated with a tremendous and disturbing sense of dread. It perhaps lingers on some shots too long and could have otherwise used some pruning. It also gets to be a little on the pretentious side as it explores the human condition. Then again, it's examination of the human condition is what makes it a good film. This is the sort of movie that doesn't seem to reveal itself with only a single viewing, so my thoughts are a bit tentative here. There's a lot to chew on, and I haven't quite gotten there yet. For now, let's say that it's a thoughtful, if difficult, science fiction film. ***
Coming up next on the list: I think the biggest trouble I have with some of these films is that I don't buy the world they're set in. Both Silent Running and Logan's Run had serious logical issues in their setups that prevented me from becoming immersed in the story. Other films might have had their issues, but were at least internally consistent and their plots moved forward somewhat logically. Suspension of disbelief is important in SF movies more than most (because they're speculating about much more than most other films), so when something ridiculous appears onscreen, it's hard to swallow. Anyway, there were definitely some bright spots in the marathon and most of the films are certainly worth a watch. I'm looking forward to the remaining films, though I'm still a little wary of a couple of them.
Posted by Mark on June 01, 2008 at 09:25 PM .: link :.

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