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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Screenshots of the Recently Viewed
I'm about to head out, so I'm just going to post a few screenshots from recently viewed movies. This isn't a continuation of the screenshot game, but I'll leave the titles off in case you want to guess... The answers are in the extended entry. (Hints in the alt tag and you can click on the images for larger versions...)

Screenshot 1:
This is not Ghengis Kahn

Screenshot 2:
There are two characters pictured here, only one is human

Screenshot 3:
He is not a zombie yet, though he has been resurrected

Again, answers and quick comments in the extended entry... And the answers are:
  • Screenshot 1: Mongol - This was a film I meant to catch up with at the Philly Film Fest this year, but I missed out and had to wait for DVD. It's a historical epic charting the rise of Ghengis Kahn (called Temudgin in the film). It has strong visuals and solid battle sequences, interspersed with a couple of interesting relationships, but little else. The battle sequences are bloody and chaotic, and they're shot beautifully, but never really approach the greatness of other historical action sequences. You do get a feel for Temudgin's flare for strategy, but that's not the focus either. It's enough to make the film worth a watch, but I was left wanting more. Perhaps this was the intention, as my understanding is that this is the first in a trilogy chronicling the life of Ghengis Kahn... ***
  • Screenshot 2: The Ruins - I was actually surprised by this movie. It's a well worn premise - teenagers in the woods fighting off monsters (in this case, a carnivorous plant, which is a subgenre that is itself cliched and actually rather silly) - but writer Scott Smith and director Carter Smith steer clear of tired plot devices and focus in on the psychological horror of the situation. There's some gore too, but it takes a back seat to the tension that builds as the 5 teenagers attempt to survive this ordeal. It's not a terrribly optimistic picture, but it is quite effective. ***
  • Screenshot 3: Versus - This Japanese action spectacle is about a forest which brings the dead back to life as zombies. There's also something about these two warriors who have been battling for centuries, but it's all just an excuse for people to shoot a lot of guns and swing a lot of swords (the mixture of gunplay and swordplay is not something you see all that often, but it's used a lot here). It's all framed with super-cool visual poses and spinning camera moves, and I'll admit that it is somewhat effective in those respects. Unfortunately, the movie goes on far too long and the action sequences begin to feel tedious and uneccessary after a while. The plot, such as there is one, is simplistic and yet difficult to understand. It's perhaps worth a watch for action fans (which I am) or zombie movie fanatics (which I'm probably not), and perhaps video game fans would get a kick out of it too (all that repetition and action makes it feel kinda like a violent video game). **
Posted by Mark on November 30, 2008 at 10:32 AM .: link :.



Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Geekout: Alien vs. Predator
A while ago, I ran accross this McSweeney's article that pit Alien vs. Predator in a series of unlikely events like Macramé and Lincoln-Douglas Debating. Long time readers will know that I am a fan of the Alien vs. Predator concept, though the recent films have been awful (Alien, Aliens, and Predator are some of my favorites movies though, and the original AvP comic book was fantastic). In any case, I couldn't resist discussing and debating some of the events listed out, and the result was a pretty amusing (and incredibly geeky) conversation.

The first event under question was Breakdancing. I had picked the Alien for this and thought it was the obvious choice. My friend Roy disagreed, noting:
I think you've failed to take into account the unique physiology of the alien. Those tubes on his back? The tail? Those are going to make dancing very difficult. No backspins for him. I think that the Predator's upper body strength will help him to pull of some awesome moves. And, he doesn't have big pipes or tubes coming up out of his back.
I have to admit that he had a point about the tubes on the Alien's back, but I still felt the Alien was the superior breakdancer. My response:
Point taken, but I still see the Alien having much more agility, thus giving them the ability to move more gracefully than the Predator while break dancing. While their backspins might be problematic, they do have that giant head which would enable them to perform some rather spectacular headstands and headspins. And while the tail could get in the way of a back-spin, it would also give them a valuable 5th pivot with which they could pull off all sorts of crazy moves. Back spins are an important part of break dancing, but there are no shortages of upper body, frontal, side, or sliding moves, and indeed, there seem to be more of those than back maneuvers. When you add in the Alien's unique physiology, you get something that would allow for all sorts of variations and indeed, even totally new moves. Really, I think the Alien would revolutionize the break dancing scene. The predator's upper-body streght would allow for some amazing handstand style moves, but in almost every other way they are less limber and agile than the alien or even most human break-dance experts. Indeed, the alien does not seem to have an absense of upper body strength, so it's not like that gives the Predator a decisive advantage (the way the alien's tail does). I suppose it's possible that not all Predators are as bulked up as the ones in the films, but there is no real evidence of that.
Personally, I still believe I'm right on that one. The next event that came into question was Competitive Hot-Dog Eating. My initial pick was Predator, mostly because of his larger mouth and mandibles (when you look closely, the Alien's mouth is actually quite small). Anyway, Roy had some comments about this pick as well:
Totally goes to alien. Aliens are always hungry. They do nothing but eat and kill. We don't even actually know that Predator's eat meat. They're probably a bunch of annoying vegans. ;P
Once again, I think Roy makes a fair point here, but it's ultimately unpersuasive. My response:
This makes more sense to me, though I do maintain that the Alien's multi-tiered mouth is still significantly smaller and thus represents a bottleneck during any sort of competitive eating contest. Yes, their activities are generally limited to eating, killing, building those crazy hives and reproducing, but I see that as just a further example of why they would not be good at competitive eating. Since that's all they do, they do not have to eat fast. It's hard to tell because the alien and it's motivations are so... alien... and unexplored. The Predators, on the other hand, clearly have some sort of civilization with technological capabilities well beyond our own. It stands to reason that they would have less time dedicated to eating, and thus would need to scarf down more in less time... which means they would be better suited towards competitive eating. Your point about vegan Predators is also taken, but what we know of their culture is that it is based primarily on hunting. While I'm sure there are vegan Predators, I think it's fair to speculate that a race of hunters values and prizes meat.
I thought that was pretty good, but someone else stepped in at this point to defend Roy, noting that:
We know they hunt, yes, but in the hunts we've seen they take trophies, not food. I have yet to see a predator field-dress an alien. I mean, hell, how much meat could be on something like that anyway? It's all chitin and sinew, not really a meal at all, and that's before we think about the effects upon the stomach lining of that acid blood (ulcers like you wouldn't believe!!). No, it's not fair to speculate on their eating habits by looking at their hunts. Their hunts are trophy kills, rites of passage, not a means for survival. Everything we've seen of their society, we haven't been given clue one about their eating habits.
This is certainly an interesting take on the matter. My response:
Interesting point, but I think it's reasonable to make some extrapolations based on their hunting culture. It's reasonable to assume that their hunts as portrayed in the movies are indeed trophy hunts and not a matter of survival or food. This makes sense on an additional level because they're hunting alien species and alien physiology may not react well with their digestive systems (as you mention, the alien would be particularly bad in that respect). However, it's also reasonable to assume that the reason for their hunting tradition is that they were required to do so in the evolution of their species. Yes, I'm extrapolating from human experiences here, but there are humans today who hunt purely for trophies. It's reasonable to assume that the reason the Predator race is so focused on hunting is that they were forced to do so on their home planet. Indeed, in such a case, the act of hunting could take on a more meaningful aspect because of symbolic or perhaps even spiritual reasons. The act of hunting clearly goes beyond survival for them, but it's reasonable to assume that it began as a simple survival technique on their home planet, and grew into a more meaningful practice as the race became more advanced.
This thread went on for a few more posts and ultimately resulted in a stalemate, as we really don't know enough about either culture to say for sure. I still think it's reasonable to say that the hunting culture of the Predators implies a history of hunting and meat-eating.

The next topic under debate was the Wet T-Shirt Contest, which I had originally given a tie. After all, for the most part, we see both the Alien and the Predator without their shirts on, so what's the point of a Wet T-Shirt Contest? However, someone interjected a brilliant point that totally convinced me that I was wrong; the Alien would undoubtedly win this event.
Wet T-shirt: Alien. Preddy has been noted on several occasions to be "one ugly motherfucker."
There is simply no arguing with that one.
Posted by Mark on November 26, 2008 at 11:32 PM .: link :.



Sunday, November 23, 2008

Another Link Dump
I try not to make a habit of just throwing up a bunch of links, but when time grows short, it's difficult to give certain subjects the thought and attention they deserve. I've started a couple of posts, but they're both turning out to be monsters. One is a review of Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Anathem, which I finished this week and have been thinking about a lot. It might take me a bit to sort through it all. The other is a discussion of ratings systems for movies - a subject that seems relatively simple at first, but which grew more complicated the more I thought about it. Unfortunately, I was traveling for most of this weekend, so I didn't have much time to devote to either of these ideas... and this week promises to be busy as well. In the mean time, here are a few things I've run across lately that are worth watching or reading:
  • The Website is Down: This is a hysterical 10 minute video that featues a bunch of supposedly true stories from tech support hell. Supposedly a sequel is in the works, but this one is pretty funny in itself.
  • The Last Lecture: Ostensibly a talk about achieving your childhood dreams, this talk wound up being much more (the childhood dreams angle is what he'd call a "head fake"). It's actually quite heartbreaking when I think about it. The talk is given by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specialized in Virtual Reality. He was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer about a year before he gave this talk, but during the presentation, he is extremely upbeat and humorous, choosing instead to focus on his message rather than his medical situation. He died this past summer, which is why watching this video now is a bit heartbreaking. It's a long video, but it's well worth a watch.
  • Authors @ Google: Neal Stephenson: While promoting Anathem, Neal Stephenson stopped off at Google for a Q&A that turns out to be quite interesting (as usual)... Another long video, but interesting if you're a Stephenson fan.
  • The Dukes: A new indie heist movie? Why have I not heard of this until now? It sounds great though... Consider this near the top of the list I posted about the holiday movie season. Hopefully, I'll find some time to go see it this week...
  • Crosstalk: The state of horror cinema: Noel Murray and Scott Tobias of the Onion A.V. Club discuss the state of horror cinema as of October 2006. Things haven't changed too much, but I've been thinking a bit about the state of modern American horror films (another potential post that I haven't spent enough time thinking about and researching), so I found this discussion interesting.
So there's at least two and a half hours of compelling video content there as well as some light reading. Light posting will probably continue through Wednesday's post (which I believe will be a recap of a ridiculous discussion I had with my friend Roy at a discussion board - let's just say it involves aliens and breakdancing)... Next Sunday's post may be a bit light as well, but we'll see. That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on November 23, 2008 at 07:06 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

SF and Real Life Space Exploration
This summer, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin criticized fantastical Science Fiction TV shows and movies, claiming that they are responsible for a lack of interest in real space exploration.
"I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today," Aldrin said in an interview during an ice cream party held by the National Geographic Channel at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., this week. "All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It's not realistic."
This caused a bit of a stir this summer and just recently, SF Signal posted a series of responses by popular SF authors. Several responses are worthy of note. First, let's get John Scalzi's response out of the way:
Absolutely. This also explains why the unrealistic science in CSI has completely killed interest in forensic pathology. And why the upcoming show Buzz, The Cranky Old Astronaut What Shakes His Fist at the Kids These Days will ruin the joy of illicitly playing on Aldrin's lawn for generations to come.
Heh. Ok, so most of them take a more serious approach to the material. Ultimately, most of the responses boil down to "He kinda has a point, but not really." But there are some good points made in the process. First, Jack McDevitt actually agrees with Aldrin... but then he also claims that without SF, we'd never have had interest in the first place (and presumably, Aldrin thus wouldn't have had the chance to go gallavanting around the moon). J. Michael Straczynski makes the obvious point:
The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin's statement is that it's not true.

For proof, all you have to do is talk to any number of scientists and engineers and, yes, even some of the more recent crowd of astronauts to discover that many of them began to first show an interest in space technology as the result of watching science fiction movies and TV series that opened up the possibility of space flight. Once we see it being done, even fictionally, we can get behind it and start making it happen.
Mike Brotherton makes some excellent points and also has a few good suggestions:
Real space exploration has been slow, expensive, and dangerous, a far cry from rugged, unintellectual heroes and their droids popping into hyperspace, or taking a quick excursion to blow up an Earth-destined asteroid the size of Texas.

... Advocates of space exploration need to go make their own case to the public. More books, movies, and TV shows should be created about the real deal. There are a few bright points: The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and October Sky come to mind. These were all terrific, exciting stories about the real thing, and the existence of Star Wars doesn't diminish their power. A top ten TV show about colonizing the moon or visiting Mars would do wonders. NASA and the National Science Foundation already provide funding for public education, and good public education would also be inspiring, engaging on a personal level. I would love to see NASA sponsor script contests, or produce movies that were realistic about space exploration and possessed some educational component (just getting the science right would count in my book). There's already a lot that these organizations do, but astronauts visiting colleges to give speeches doesn't have anything like the impact of a popular movie or TV show.
Personally, my first thought was that Aldrin was nuts. Then I realized that he only really mentioned TV and movies... and when I really thought about it, it began to make a little more sense. I don't believe for a second that fantastical TV shows like Star Trek actively discourage people because they feature FTL drives and transporters, but at the same time I can't think of many SF shows or movies that really do focus on the realities of space travel. In general, true hard science fiction is poorly represented in TV and film. In books, it's a different story. They tend to also contain McGuffins like FTL drives, but they try to minimize that in favor of scientific rigor. But books seem to work better at that than visual mediums. As Mike Brotherton noted above, space travel is slow, expensive, and dangerous. The "dangerous" part would probably make for good TV, but the tedious, slow and expensive parts probably don't. The fact is that realistic space travel isn't anywhere near as glamorous as it sounds at first... a fact that is completely antithetical to TV and movies. That doesn't mean that great stories can't be told in a realistic and engaging fashion, and I would gladly watch a show like that if it were aired, but I'm not holding my breath. Would such a show really spark that much interest in the space program? I'm not sure. In general, I tend to believe that art reflects the culture it was created in... and that this hypothetical hard SF show we're talking about would only really become popular in a society that was already interested in space travel. Fortunately, I don't think it's that hard of a sell. It may not be as glamorous as it seems at first, but that's a problem all technological fields face... and technological advances don't seem to be slowing either...
Posted by Mark on November 19, 2008 at 06:36 PM .: link :.



Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Holiday Movie Season
I know this tends to be an annual refrain for some people, but this year is not shaping up to be a particularly good year for movies. By this time in 2006 or 2007, I had already seen the grand majority of the films that would show up in my top 10 movies for both years. This year, I've seen two movies that are definites. There are a few other borderline picks as well, but few films that could compete with the past two years (and I thought 2007 was a distinct step down from 2006). We're also coming up on the time of the year when Hollywood eschews the traditional big-budget blockbuster and starts putting out their prestige fare in the hopes of garnering an Oscar... but this year is not looking especially strong in that respect either.

I'm not sure what the issue is here. Perhaps we're still seeing the effects of the writers strike earlier this year. Or maybe the independent arms of the big studios are in a bit of a crunch. Whatever the reason, the upcoming holiday movie season seems lacking. Will there be enough to round out my top 10, or will I need to reduce the list to a top 5? Regardless, here are some films I'm looking forward to:
  • Trick 'r Treat: This is the "wishful thinking" pick, as I'm pretty sure it won't be released this year (this despite the fact that the film has been in the can for well over a year and has garnered almost universally positive reviews). It's obviously meant for a Halloween release, but at this point, I'll settle for any release date and I've seen some rumors of a late December release (though again, I think those rumors have been squashed). The movie itself is a horror anthology featuring 4 different stories. I've tried to avoid learning too much about the movie because I don't want to ruin it for myself, but it seems to be a real crowd pleaser.
  • Slumdog Millionaire: This movie is in limited release right now and will be going a bit wider in the coming weeks (not sure how wide it will go). The story follows an Indian teen who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?" The story is told through flashbacks that accompany each question, detailing how this teen knows the answer. Directed by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later... fame), the film is getting good reviews and sounds like my kinda movie.
  • The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky's portrait of a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler (played by Mickey Rourke, who is getting raves for his performance) on a quest to re-enter the spotlight for one final showdown with his former rival. It doesn't sound like much, but neither did Requiem for a Dream, and that blew me away. Still, I was disappointed by Aronofsky's The Fountain, and I'm a little wary of this one.
  • The Brothers Bloom: I loved writer/director Rian Johnson's 2006 high school noir film, Brick, so I'm naturally a little excited about this long-con movie. I have to admit that the trailer doesn't do a whole lot for me, but I'm willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt.
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: This is another film where the trailer underwhelms me, but I definitely curious to see David Fincher's film about a man who ages in reverse.
  • Other Junk: Other films I'm not so sure about, but may check out anyway include Frost/Nixon, Australia, Waltz with Bashir, Gran Torino (I wasn't going to include this one until I saw that trailer, which features an aging Clint Eastwood literally saying "Get off of my lawn!") and Milk. Not sure I'll get to all those, but they're on my radar.
  • Stuff to see on DVD: Some movies that came and went earlier in the year that I want to catch up with include Man on Wire, Kung Fu Panda, Funny Games, Splinter, Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, The Recruiter, and My Winnipeg. Some of these might be rather difficult to catch up with, but I'll give it a shot...
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like a lot of the above films will be getting very wide releases (some will go wide in mid-January though). There are a few mainstream movies that could also pop up, and I'll definitely be watching a bunch of them, but I'm not expecting anything particularly great... Will I be able to fill out my top 10 spots with the films above? It's certainly possible, but I have my doubts. This season's lineup isn't that great. Here's to hoping that my low expectations will lead to some surprises this holiday season...
Posted by Mark on November 16, 2008 at 03:34 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hellsing: Assorted Thoughts
I mentioned the other week that I wanted to try out a horror Anime series. I initially wanted to watch Vampire Hunter D because I'd seen the original and I'd heard it was just as good if not better than that film. Alas, it was not available on Netflix, so I had to find something else. Keeping with the theme of vampires, I found a couple of good reviews of Hellsing. This was an interesting experience, because my usual guides to the world of anime had almost nothing to say about Hellsing. It didn't even warrant consideration on Steven's Future Series page (not that he'd like this series, as it easily meets two of his criteria for rejection: "grim and gritty" and "blood and gore")! In any case, it seems to have good reviews and it was a short series (13 episodes), so I figured checking out the first disc was worth it. Below are some assorted thoughts and the extended entry has more screenshots and thoughts as well...
  • The series follows the exploits of the Hellsing Organization. Run by descendents of Abraham Van Helsing (the famous vampire hunter from Dracula), the Hellsing Organization hunts down and destroys vampires. In an interesting twist, the Hellsing Organization employs vampires for this task, including one particularly powerful vampire named Alucard. Alucard is implied to be Dracula himself (his name would thus be an anagram), and could possibly be the oldest and most powerful vampire in existence. He's egotistical and arrogant, and rather than merely destroy the vampires he hunts, he often toys with them first, hopeing to break their spirit as well as their life. He seems kinda bored and is always hoping for an opponent who will finally be able to put up a good fight. On the other hand, he is clearly devoted to the current head of the Hellsing organization, Integra Hellsing. He also gets along well with Hellsing butler and armorer, Walter Dornez, and he seems to have a fatherly relationship with his fledgling, Seras Victoria. Apparently in the original Manga, he is somewhat sad and envious of humans. Unfortunately, the series doesn't really explore this aspect of his personality. Alucard is basically your typical badass anti-hero. He clearly does some evil things, but compared to the pitiful creatures he hunts, he's a saint.

    Alucard and Integra Hellsing
    Alucard and Integra Hellsing

  • The other main character in the series is Seras Victoria. A police officer who got caught up in a battle between Alucard and some rampaging vampire, she was turned into a Vampire by Alucard. As such, she gives the audience their introduction to the world of Hellsing. She seems to have a little trouble accepting what she has become (for instance, she hesitates to drink blood, even the stuff the Hellsing Organization provides in convenient Capri-Sun style packages), but by the end of the series she's well on her way. Her relationship with her master, presents an interesting dynamic, as it seems to imply that he has a more sensitive side than you'd typically see. It might have been nice to get a larger character arc here, but this series seems more interested in providing cool action scenes and visuals with people pointing guns directly at the camera (which, I'll grant, is pretty badass).

    Seras Victoria
    Seras Victoria

  • One of the interesting things about this series is that it's set entirely in the UK. The english dub of the series actually uses british accents, which makes the dub more desirable than the subtitles (with the potential exception of the voice for Alucard, whose Japanese counterpart seems to have a much deeper and menacing voice). This is something I haven't seen in any other Anime title, so I found it rather interesting.
  • One of the big problems with the series for me is actually that Alucard is way too powerful. There are several villains who crop up in the series, but most don't even come close to Alucard's power, and even the one climatic battle in the series is kinda lacking in suspense because even when it seems like Alucard has been defeated, he always manages to come back somehow. The only villain who seems to have a chance is Alexander Anderson, a paladin who works for Vatican Section XIII, Iscariot. He's a regenerator, so he seems mildly invinciible too and survived two run ins with Alucard. There also seems to be a strange conflict between Hellsing and Iscariot. Apparently the Vatican frowns on the Hellsing's practice of fighting fire with fire. In any case, the series ends without really resolving either of these conflicts.
  • Sort of an extension of the above point, the mythology behind the vampire's powers is not explored in much detail and thus some of their abilities seem rather outlandish. It kinda acts like magic, but there don't appear to be any bounds on what is possible. This sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Hellsing does a decent job of this, but ultimately I get the feeling that the creators just wanted to show some cool imagery, which this series has in spades. Various abilities are sometimes hinted at, but the series never goes into that much detail. For instance, a vampire who serves a human master seems to be able to take on more abilities than a vampire who lives on their own. This is an interesting idea, one that is mentioned a few times when Alucard battles Incognito (the most powerful other vampire in the series - and he also serves a human master, though we never find out who), but it is really only hinted at. Unfortunately, when it comes to creating suspense, this sort of vague magic makes it difficult to really establish any real tension. It makes for some damned cool visuals though.

    Alucards Magic Hands
    Alucard's Magic Hands

  • The series presents some interesting threats to the Hellsing Organization as a whole, but ultimately ends with a whimper. For instance, one of the root causes of the problems experienced during the series is that someone has figured out a way to create artificial vampires, and these creatures are not the elegant and civilized villains that "real" vampires are. But this threat isn't utilized in the series very well. Another threat introduced in the series is the existence of a mole in the Rountable that helps Hellsing hunt vampires, but that too ends abrubtly. Indeed, the series ends with two rather unceremonious text messages stating that MI-5 is still hunting down the people responsible for creating artificial vampires with the freak chip, and also that the mole in the roundtable has been captured. I'm guessing that the Manga has continued on much further than the series went, and that someday there will be another series.
  • All that said, the series is a lot of fun to watch. While I would have liked it to delve deeper into some of the issues or provide more of a character arc to Alucard or Seras Victoria, there's some interesting material that is implied in various relationships and there's also plenty of entertaining action in the series. The battle sequences really comprise the series greatest strength. Visually, the series has an artistic flare that successfully mixes victorian horror with modern military motifs. The music is also exceptional - some of th best stuff I've heard since the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. Indeed, stylistically, this series reminded me a lot of Cowboy Bebop. Ultimately, the series works as pure entertainment. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping for a little more.
As usual, more screenshots and thoughts in the extended entry...

Update: Author comments. I must be somewhat frustrating to other members of the Otakusphere in that I'm not constantly posting about Anime and will sometimes go through prolonged droughts while I work through some other obsession (most recently, the 6WH marathon). This time, I was delayed in part because I went back and watched Crest of the Stars and got a little sidetracked while I waited for the final disc from Netflix (incidentally, the final disc did come at some point, and I stand by my recommendation not to skip Crest before watching Banner.)

Fledgeling Otaku also comments. He's intrigued by Alucard's invincibility and draws parallels with Avatar: The Last Airbender and even Superman (who is just about the opposite of Alucard in every way except for their theoretical invincibility - perhaps Alucard is more like General Zod?). It's an interesting perspective...

Alucard and his big gun
Alucard and his big gun

Did I mention that the series has lots of uber-cool shots of people pointing guns directly at the camera? That seems to be one of Alucard's favorite moves.

The big gun, in more detail

Here is one of Alucard's guns. Because of his superhuman strength, Alucard can cary bigger, heavier guns than a mere human. As you can see, this particular gun uses .454 Casull ammunition. This is a real caliber, and for a short time, it was the most powerful commercially produced handgun round on the market (it has since been eclipsed). I've actually shot a .454 Casull handgun, and let's just say it's a rather powerful round. Later in the series, Alucard even upgrades his weapon to a more powerful round, but he still keeps this gun around in case he wants a gun in each hand.

Alexander Anderson


Also Alexander Anderson, in silhouette form

This is Alexander Anderson. As previously noted, he works for the Vatican's vampire hunting wing, the Iscariot Organization. He's also a Regenerator, and thus he doesn't seem to be able to die. Devoted to hunting down and killing monsters, he seems to disagree strongly with the Hellsing Organization's use of vampires, and thus he has attacked Alucard and Seras Victoria on multiple occassions. He has survived his encounters with Alucard though, and seems to be able to hold his own (though he's clearly not as powerful as Alucard).

Incognito

This is Incognito, the second most powerful vampire in the series (behind only Alucard). It is mentioned that he is from "the dark continent," presumably a reference to Africa. It's also mentioned that he serves a human master, though we never really find out who that is or why it's important (as I mentioned above, this might be a source of strength for vampires, though it isn't really explored in detail).

Alucard emerging from the smoke

Did I mention that this series seems to revel in creating neat visuals like this one of Alucard emerging from the smoke? Yes? Good.

Alucard


Alucards mustache

The name Alucard itself implies that he is actually Dracula (Alucard backwards is Dracula - this is an alias used in Bram Stoker's original novel), but just in case you don't follow, the series really rams it home with this quick flash, followed by a picture of one of Alucard's enemies impaled on a spike.

Alucard says bye!

And that about wraps it up for Hellsing. Overall, I enjoyed the series. Though I would have preferred a little more depth, they made up for it with lots of neat battle sequences and a lot of implied details...
Posted by Mark on November 12, 2008 at 08:46 PM .: link :.



Sunday, November 09, 2008

Link Dump
It's been a little while since the last link dump, so let's see what's queued up in my del.icio.us account:
  • Saw V hit theaters this Halloween and seems poised to make the Saw franchise the top-grossing horror franchise of all time (in unadjusted dollars). I have to admit that I lost interest towards the beginning of Saw III, but I don't really get the hatred this series seems to have garnered by critics and horror fans. I think Dellamorte over at CHUD brought up an excellent point a few weeks ago:
    IF YOU GREW UP IN THE 1980'S YOU CAN'T COMPLAIN ABOUT THE SAW FRANCHISE: If you think the Saw films are shit, but have a soft spot for Friday the 13th Part V: The New Blood, or any Nightmare on Elm Street sequel past the third film, or pretty much any of the Halloween sequels, then you can't suggest that the rapid-fire sequels that have been born of the 21st Century deserve to be ridiculed any more than the rapid-fire releases of the 80's.
    Exactly. I actually thought the first Saw was a pretty good movie. The sequels seem to be repetitious and unoriginal, but so what? Weren't most of the the 80s horror movies (especially slashers) repetitious and unoriginal? And didn't they get the same sort of curt dismissal as the current crop of remakes and "torture porn" films? To me, part of the joy of horror movies is that even when they're bad, they're good. Sure, that won't work for everybody, but some movies aren't made for everybody. The other movie series Dellamorte mentions in his post is the High School Musical series, which I have absolutely no interest in... and that's ok. The only thing that does bother me a bit about the Saw series is that studios seem to have ceded Halloween to the series instead of trying to challenge it with new and interesting movies like Trick 'r Treat (or so I've heard, because I can't find this thing anywhere!) There's probably a lot to be said about the state of modern American horror movies, but I don't think it's as clear-cut or simplistic as this sort of discussion usually tends to play out. I suppose the studios are still focused on remakes and reboots, but there are still plenty of interesting American efforts going on (it would perhaps be nice if those movies didn't have so much trouble getting made or distributed though). This seems like fodder for a longer post...
  • A Cartoon-off between XKCD and the New Yorker. Hilarious. I think the New Yorker cartoonist really gave XKCD a run for his money, though it should be noted that XKCD was deprived of one of the key components of its success (the alt tag!)
  • PG Porn - James Gunn, who directed the excellent horror flick, Slither, recently started this series of short films that are basically porn films without the sex. Basically, some typical porn plotline starts up, complete with bad dialogue and stilted acting, then something horrible happens. The first episode, titled Nailing Your Wife, stars Nathan Fillion (of Firefly/Serenity and I suppose I should also mention Dr. Horrible fame) and real-life porn-star Aria Giovanni. It's kinda twisted, but darkly funny. Amusingly, it seems to have caused something of a controversy because some people can't comprehend black comedy.
  • I know it's after the election and all, but this politics by way of D&D post is hilarious, and of course, the Obama/McCain danceoff is amazing.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on November 09, 2008 at 08:29 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Anathem is Referential
I am surprisingly only about halfway through Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. Of course, this has nothing to do with the book itself and is more a result of a certain baseball team's improbable World Series win (Go Phils!), a particularly eventful election season and, of course, watching ridiculous amounts of horror films in preparation for Halloween. Also, since Stephenson only tends to put out books at a rate of about once every 3-4 years, I figure it's a good thing to savor this one. So far, it's excellent, and I can't wait to see where it's going.

There are a couple of interesting questions that keep popping into my head though, one of which has to do with the referential nature of the setting. The story takes place on an alien planet named Arbre. This planet is remarkably similar to Earth in many ways. The civilization on Arbre is a few thousand years beyond where we are, but again, there are many parallels between Arbre's history and Earth's history. Since it's an alien planet, there are different names for lots of things or historical figures, but it's often very clear who has inspired various ideas in the book. The book actually has a glossary in the back and peppers various dictionary definitions throughout the book to keep the reader up to speed on various differences between the planets. This can be a bit tricky at first, but after the initial shock, I realized that it was pretty easy to follow and even fun to puzzle out the various connections (in other words, I don't think the glossary is as necessary in Anathem as it is in a book like Frank Herbert's Dune, where I found it necessary to frequently reference the glossary). However, I can't help but wonder, why place the story on an alien planet at all? Why not just set it far enough into the future that you can still hint at the various historical connections and ideas without having to specifically call them out? Perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye. As I've mentioned in an earlier entry about Anathem, decoding all the references is part of the fun of SF.

And indeed, I do get a kick out of reading Stephenson's description of Hemn Space and thinking to myself, that sounds an awful lot like a Hilbert Space! It was oddly satisfying to recognize some obscure reference like Project Orion just from the description of a cosmological observation made by some of the characters. And there are a ton of these: Protas is a philosopher who is clearly supposed to be analogous to Plato, Adrakhones is like Pythagoras, Gardan's Steelyard is similar to Occam's Razor, and so on. When I did a quick search, I found that there were tons of other references that I didn't even pick up on... One of my favorite references is actually rather trivial, but it makes sense in terms of the story and it gives us SF nerds something to geek out on. (from page 47 of my edition):
"...what is the origin of the Doxan Iconography?"

"A Praxic Age moving pictures serial. An adventure drama about a military spaceship sent to a remote part of the galaxy to prevent hostile aliens from establishing hegemony, and marooned when their hyperdrive is damaged in an ambush. The captain of the ship was passionate, a hothead. His second-in-command was Dox, a theorician, brilliant, but unemotional and cold."
The series is obviously an analog to Star Trek and Dox is clearly a reference to Spock. If I had more than 5 readers, there'd probably be one who was really into Star Trek and they'd probably be fuming right now because the description above doesn't match exactly with the real Star Trek (I mean, duh, the Enterprise's mission was to explore space, not to attack an alien race!). Perhaps Stephenson set the story on Arbre so that he could avoid such nitpicks and get people to focus on the story. Indeed, this wouldn't be the first time he sought to avoid the nitpicking masses. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson's characters ran around using computers with the Finux operating system, an obvious reference to Linux. Stephenson has an FAQ where he explains why he did this:
> Neal, in Cryptonomicon why did you call Windows and MacOS by
> their true names but used the fictitious name 'Finux' to refer
> to what is obviously 'Linux?' Does this mean that you hate Linux?

Since Finux was the principal operating system used by the characters in the book, I needed some creative leeway to have the fictitious operating system as used by the characters be different in minor ways from the real operating system called Linux. Otherwise I would receive many complaints from Linux users pointing out errors in my depiction of Linux. This is why Batman works in Gotham City, instead of New York--by putting him in Gotham City, the creators afforded themselves the creative license to put buildings in different places, etc.
So perhaps setting the story on Arbre just affords Stephenson the creative freedom to tell the story as he sees fit, instead of having to shoehorn everything into Earth history and worry about people missing the forest for the trees. In the process, the story becomes more cognitively engaging (in the way most referential art is) because we're constantly drawing parallels to Earth's history.

As previously mentioned, this is a somewhat common feature of the science fiction and fantasy genres. It's one of the reasons SF/F fans enjoy these books so much... Alas, it's probably also why true SF doesn't get much of a mainstream following, as I can't imagine this sort of thing is for everybody. In any case, I'm really enjoying Anathem, and now that my various distractions have calmed down a bit, I'll probably tear through the rest of the book relatively quickly.
Posted by Mark on November 05, 2008 at 08:45 PM .: link :.



Sunday, November 02, 2008

Blu-Ray
At ZDNet, Robin Harris makes a mildly persuasive argument that Blu-Ray is dying and will end up becoming a videophile niche format like laserdisc. When Toshiba threw in the towel and gave up on HD-DVD about 8 months ago, it looked like a major victory for Sony on multiple fronts. First, they were the uncontested heir to the HD movie market and second, fence sitters in the next-gen gaming console market had a reason to plunk down a little extra for a PS3. But 8 months later, things haven't changed a whole lot. Standalone BR players have come down in price and will be reaching affordable levels shortly. PS3 sales received a bump, overtaking the XBox sporadically during this year, but it looks like Microsoft's price cut has reestablished PS3 as the loser of the next-gen gaming market (of course, both are being clobbered by Nintendo). Sony is betting on the release of several highly anticipated games for the PS3 this holiday season, which should sell consoles and thus increase BR market penetration.

There are lots of things to consider here:
  • Blu-Ray is better than DVD, but the difference is not as great as between DVD and VHS. One of the big issues with VHS was that the format degraded the more you watched it. DVD was thus a huge step forward in quality that would not degrade. On a personal level, as a huge movie nerd with a relatively large HDTV, I'd love a better solution for watching movies so maybe it would still be worth it for me.
  • The format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD really took all the steam out of the enthusiasm for HD discs. I sat on the fence during the war, and I have to admit that I really dislike Sony as a company (more on this a little later).
  • Blu-Ray was counting on the fact that standard DVDs didn't look that great on HD televisions... but they missed the advent of relatively cheap upconverting DVD players. Perhaps if the format war ended sooner, this wouldn't have been that big of a deal, but it's too late for that. I have a large DVD collection and don't need to replace most of them with BR discs because they look good on my cheapo upconverting DVD player.
  • Harris notes an interesting part of the industry: While consumers are indifferent to the format, only really large producers can afford to release discs in the format. Harris has the details in his article, but it doesn't seem likely that we'll see a lot of small indie or foreign flicks on Blu-Ray unless the price of producing discs comes down significantly. As a movie nerd, this hurts. Hopefully, things would improve if market share increased.
  • While standalone BR players are coming down in price, Sony has repeatedly stated that the PS3 is not (at least, not for the upcoming holiday season, which is when you'd expect it). Sony is counting on their upcoming slate of games to drive sales. This is interesting since the two other next-gen gaming consoles both cost around half of what the PS3 costs. Gaming consoles have the time-honored tradition of selling their console at a loss so that they can pick up market share and make a boatload on games. The PS3 seems to be attempting to buck that trend. This may be because they were too ambitious with their system... I bet they're already losing lots even at the $400 price point. For a variety of reasons, the PS3 is the only BR player I'm really considering. I like video games and from what I've seen, the PS3 is probably the best BR player out there anyway.
  • The current economic woes do not bode well for BR. If we weren't looking at a 2 year recession (at least), then maybe Sony's bullish attitude would be warranted. As it stands, I'm at little confused by their strategy here. They're attempting to wring every last dollar out of every angle. High console prices, high authoring costs and high disc prices make it difficult to really get behind this format.
  • On the plus side, if BR doesn't work out and HD downloads become the way of the future, the PS3 has that built in as well... Of course, they'll have to work out some of the bugs in that system, like the dumb DRM scheme that does not allow you to redownload movies you purchased. DRM plays a big role in why I absolutely hate Sony, so it's distressing to see that they still don't get it. But then, most downloadable movie services have similar issues. That is the one big hurdle downloads will have to clear before going mainstream... and given the way things have gone so far, that's probably going to be a challenge.
  • As a Netflix customer, it's mildy annoying that I'd have to pay a surcharge to be able to rent BR discs. It's an understandable position on Netflix's part - the format is more expensive and the amount of BR customers is low - but it's still annoying.
  • One advantage of the PS3 over the XBox is that their online component is free, while you have to pay for XBox Live. On the other hand, XBox Live is by all accounts much better than PS3's online offering, and the PS3 network's terms of service seem to indicate that they really just don't get it.
  • It's only been 8 months since the death of HD-DVD. Perhaps everyone is being a bit too harsh jumping on BR. Sales have been steady, just not stellar. And it turns out that HD-DVD wasn't the only challenge that BR faced. You've got upconverting DVDs, HD Downloads, and now a bad economy to overcome. It's no wonder BR hasn't dominated.
All of that said, I'm still considering a PS3 system. Perhaps that means that the format isn't dying after all... or perhaps it just means that I'm a niche videophile customer. While Sony doesn't seem to be considering price cuts, I'm hoping for some sort of holiday deals. Last year, Moriarty picked up a PS3 and got 15 free movies along with it... Now that the format war is over, I doubt we'll see anything that extreme this year, but something along those lines would definitely get me interested.
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2008 at 01:02 PM .: link :.



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