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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Star Trek (Advance Review)
Thanks to the much appreciated kindness of a coworker, I was able to attend an advance screening of the new Star Trek movie tonight. I will try my best to keep my remarks spoiler free. To make a long story short, I liked it. A lot.

A couple of years ago I went to see Mission: Impossible III with pretty low expectations. I liked the first movie, but the second movie was rather terrible (and has not held up well at all), so all I really wanted out of the third film was some nice explosions, maybe a pretty girl or two, and some nice explosions (did I mention explosions? Good.) The director of MI:III was one J.J. Abrams, who had at that point only directed television shows (most of which I did not watch), so my expectations were low. These low expectations might have been why I enjoyed MI:III as much as I did.

So when I learned of Abrams involvement in the Star Trek reboot, my interest was piqued. If he could resurrect the outlandish MI series, why not Star Trek? I should mention at this juncture that I never particularly cared for the original Star Trek series. I came on board with The Next Generation, which is one of my favorite TV series. I suppose I liked the even numbered movies featuring the original crew, but for the most part I never really connected with them. So I wasn't particularly interested in the reboot itself so much as I was in what Abrams would do with it. Considering that he was working with material that I never particularly cared for, it would be an uphill battle. Furthermore, the story that needs to be told here essentially amounts to an origin story, which is something I'm conflicted about. Origin stories are necessary and interesting in their own right, but they can provide a lot of challenges and are often somewhat anticlimatic. I don't think it's an accident that a lot of superhero movie series really come into their own during the second installment (not that their first installment was bad or anything).

Put simply, Abrams succeeded. I'm also pretty sure that my status as someone who never got into the original series worked significantly in Abrams' favor here. Someone who loves the original series may have different feelings about the film. I'm not an expert on the Star Trek cannon and don't know a lot of the history of star fleet, but from what I can gather, there are things here that might not jive well with people who are in love with the original series. There is an explanation built into the story for this and I was fine with it for a number of reasons, but to go into that more would be delving into spoiler territory. I will say that what Abrams did was gutsy and maybe even needed to be done, which I can respect, but I'm sure there are some who will bristle at what he's done.

The new old crew of the Enterprise
Mr. Sulu, set a course for White Castle. Engage!

In terms of the story, it works well and the origin story aspect of it is well integrated into the larger arc. I will say that the main villain of this film (played by Eric Bana) is not the most memorable in the series, but he is well drawn enough to get the job done (villains are often an issue in origin stories and this isn't really an exception, but it's not bad either). I was, however, much more impressed with the cast than expected. When the names were first announced, there were several choices that worried me due to associated with their other work. For instance, the thought of Sylar (Zachary Quinto) as Spock did not thrill me. I wasn't sure about Harold (John Cho) as Sulu, Shaun (Simon Pegg) as Scotty, nor Eomer (Karl Urban) as Bones. It's not that I don't like any of those actors (I Iike them a lot), it's that I couldn't picture them as the Star Trek characters. However, for the most part, they all work splendidly. I was pleasantly surprised at how well each character was introduced and given something to do - and this includes the ones I haven't mentioned, like Chekov, Uhura, and of course, Captain Kirk himself. Movies with ensemble casts often suffer from a lack of focus, but this movie had a good balance. A lot of people were skeptical of actor Chris Pine when it was announced that he'd be playing Kirk, but I think he did a good job.

Again, I'm interested to see how true blue trekkies will receive the film. While there are some things that might not go over so well, there are certainly plenty of in-jokes, catch phrases and references that are made for the enthusiasts. For instances, you get a nice Kobayashi Maru reference and there's a pretty memorable red-shirt moment that you just know was done purposefully. I'd also be interested in how well this movie would play with newcomers. I suspect someone who has no exposure to Star Trek would still enjoy this movie quite a bit. The other thing that surprised me about the movie was just how funny it was. I was laughing out loud quite frequently and often found myself smirking at the screen when a nice bit of snappy dialogue passed by, or when some reference was made and a character spouted off a catchphrase ("Dammit man, I'm a doctor, not a theoretical physicist!"). Even though I never really caught on to the original series, there was an element of nostalgia and familiarity that the movie captured well (though again, I don't think a newcomer would be put off by this). There could have been a little more science in the fiction and there was perhaps more emphasis on action than in other Trek stories, but for the most part, it was quite a fun experience.

It's not a perfect movie, but in the end, it's a highly enjoyable, action packed, crowd-pleasing popcorn film. I think this is about as good as I could have hoped for the film and Abrams seems to have successfully revitalized the Star Trek universe. For the first time since TNG ended, I'm intrigued to see where they take this series. Here's to hopeing they don't pull a Quantum of Solace on me in the next outing. *** (out of 4 stars)
Posted by Mark on April 29, 2009 at 12:16 AM .: link :.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Art vs Entertainment
This may be somewhat repetitive considering some of my recent posts, but I have once again run accross a popular video game designer who bristles at the thought of video games as art. At GDC, there was apparently a "Rants" panel where various guests ranted about one aspect of the industry or another. Some of the rants include concerns about the way people write about games, metacritic scores, character diversity in games, and the uselessness of the old "hardcore" and "casual" labels. However, the most controversial and most-discussed rant was made by Heather Chaplin:
She argued that games' age is not the correct source of blame for the often insultingly juvenile nature of games, the tiresome prevalence of space marines, bikini girls and typified young male power fantasies. Her point: Games aren't adolescent. It's game developers who are a bunch of, in her words, "fucking adolescents."
Obviously, this raised some eyebrows (to put it nicely) in the audience. Game designer David Jaffe (perhaps best known for his work on God of War) wrote a long response on his blog and among many points, he included this (emphasis mine):
I think a mistake folks make- in any medium- is assuming we all want to be artistically relevant and important in the eyes of the intelligencia (sp?) of the world. I have to tell you: I think THAT desire is adolescent and spews from a place of need and want and lack of faith in ones own creative powers. And- most important- it gets in the way of creating truly great work (be it film, games, or books).

I don't WANT to be an artist. I don't WANT to make REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME! I don't want to be the Bob Dylan of games or make the Citizen Kane of games. I want to entertain people and I do not apologize for that. I don't NEED or WANT to go lecture at MIT or USC or any of these other game colleges that have been cranking out some amazing game makers who truly are key in the 'games as art' charge. As much as I love the work of THAT GAME COMPANY (and very much enjoyed your NPR interview last week with them) and as much as I admire work of Jonathan Blow and all the other folks who make the quirky, arty, and yes- perhaps- more meaningful games, I do not want to BE them. And I think I speak for the majority of game makers everywhere when I say that.
This is the third time I've come on this blog and pointed to a renowned video game designer who has basically said that the games they create are not "art". What's going on here? One of the things each of these guys has mentioned is that their true goal is to make games that entertain people. The struggle seems to be that for whatever reason, art is not equated with entertainment... indeed, it seems like most video game designers are worried about art ruining the entertainment value of their games.

This is an interesting conjecture. When it comes to the Are Video Games Art? debate, movies are often brought up as a comparison point (perhaps due to the visual and auditory nature of both mediums). And in the movie business today, there also seems to be something of a schism between "art films" and "popular films". I'm not sure when this happened (perhaps I'm only now coming to this conclusion after a lifetime of watching film and seeking out new and different material, including foreign and so-called art films), but it seems to be very pronounced today, particularly in the independent movie world. A lot of mainsteam Hollywood fare is focus-grouped to death and neutered to a point where no one can be offended by the result (I don't think the degree to which this happens is as large as most though, and think there are plenty of examples to the contrary). You end up with something bland that is made to appeal to everyone, and as such, it appeals to no one in particular. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your typical independent or artistic film which often seems to revel in the freedom to be provocative and controversial (these are often studio pictures too). These are films that revel in self-loathing and "challenge the popular paradigm of dominant culture" or something along those lines. As such, a lot of these films come off as being pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Yes, yes, you're exploring non-traditional narrative structure whilst deconstructing the nature of capitalism and the suburbs, but your film is boring. In other words, I don't think it's an accident that Jaffe used "REVOLUTIONARY ROAD: THE GAME" as his example.

What I just described as mainstream and independent or artistic films are basically stereotypes. Most films probably don't fit much into either category, but I think the stereotype does hold a place in current public perception of the film world. I find this interesting, because video games are similar in a lot of ways. There is an indie movement in video games, and they are roughly analogous to the indie film movement. So perhaps it's not surprising that mainstream designers like Jaffe don't want to be called "artists". For whatever reason, "art" has been equated with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap. Who wants to be that?

The comparison of video games to film also brings the usual questions, most famously, where is the video game equivalent to Citizen Kane? In a recent article, Leigh Alexander wonders if that's really what video games need.
There's nothing wrong with craving watershed moments for video games, of course. But problem with the Citizen Kane question, as with other similar demands, is that it's begun to reverberate wildly without any practical follow-through on what the answer might look like.

Being dissatisfied with the status quo is easy -- proposing practical alternatives or concrete answers isn't. ...

"It's a red herring, because we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy, but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore," says renowned designer and academic Ian Bogost.

If more internet commentators did a quick Wikipedia check before leaping into the debate, they'd see that the Citizen Kane issue is moot, anyway. Although its cinema technique helped movies fully come into their own, films were generally considered "artistically legitimate" right off the bat, so there's really no translatable parallel for games.

"The world doesn't work that way anymore," says Bogost.
I think Bogost has hit the nail on the head here. Back when movies began appearing, "art" hadn't been deconstructed to death, so it wasn't really a question. But since video games were invented after people started challenging the nature of art (and painting stuff like Campbell's Soup Cans and calling it art, to pick an entirely arbitrary example), they're held up to extra scrutiny.

It's also interesting to consider that Citizen Kane is not very entertaining by itself. For film enthusiasts, it's an extremely important and fascinating film because it gathered a bunch of existing techniques, invented some new ones, and mashed it all together to tell a story in a new and exciting way. However, if you're not a film history buff, you'd be bored to tears. What made Citizen Kane great has been appropriated, improved upon and contextualized over the years to a point where most people won't see anything new and exciting in the film. For example, audiences at the time were wowed by Orson Welles' use of flashbacks and deep focus. Today, you won't even notice it because those things are a part of the standard movemaking toolkit. You've seen it a thousand times. So to me, Citizen Kane is an important movie because of the techniques it used, not the story it told. To truly enjoy Citizen Kane, you have to really be invested in the cultural and historical context in which it was produced. Video games have most probably had a series of Kane-like innovations over the years. Perhaps they were spread out over a multitude of games, but when you consider the evolution of games, well, we've come a long way. I'm probably not knowledgeable enough about video games to say for sure, but stuff like Wolfenstein and Doom (popularizing the FPS format) and GTA III (with its open-ended sandbox world) could very well represent Kane-like leaps.

Honestly, I still don't understand the people who question the legitimacy of games as art, and I think all that questioning has driven a wedge between art and entertainment. To be sure, those are two different things, but to me, the best art is entertaining too (and vice versa). The problem is that when you equate art with pretentious, self-indulgent, boring crap (as many people apparently do), it drives designers who are interested in entertaining people to eschew art. The question I'm left with is this: If there was no question that games were art, would game designers be producing better games?
Posted by Mark on April 26, 2009 at 08:04 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Friday the 13th Marathon (parts V & VI)
For the past couple of years, I've watched a whole lot of horror movies in anticipation of Halloween. It seems that this year, I never really stopped watching horror movies, and one of the things I started a couple years ago was revisiting the Friday the 13th series of films. I realized at some point that if I continued at the same pace, I wouldn't be able to finish revisiting the films in the series until 2011, so I sped things up a bit. I still have a few movies left, but I figured it's time to start talking about the films. For some unfathomable reason, I like these movies. I fully recognize how bad these films are on an objective level and, quite honestly, on a subjective level as well. There's a definite element of nostalgia here - I've seen most of these films when I was younger, but often in bits and pieces and usually covering my eyes during the "scary" parts. At this point, I can't help but wonder what on earth I was so scared of (perhaps the absurdly bad acting? the lack of continuity?), but I still have a fascination with the movies. During the last 6 weeks of Halloween marathon, I covered parts II through IV (ironically titled "The Final Chapter" even though we're really only 1/3 of the way through the series), so we'll pick up right where we left off with part V (followed by some shorts, a quick review of part VI, and lots of screenshots.) Incidentally, Major Spoilers all throughout this post, but why do you really care?
  • Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning: The interesting thing about this movie is that it doesn't really feature Jason. Oh sure, there's a dream sequence and some hallucinated glimpses in mirrors and the like, but otherwise, no Jason. Don't get me wrong, there's a killer who is picking off all the teens and he's dressed up in a hockey mask, but he's a copycat killer, and he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids! In essence, this movie plays out like a Scooby Doo episode, and I think that's an interesting idea. Of course, the bad thing about this is that it plays out like a goddamn Scooby Doo episode. At the end of Part IV, it was strongly hinted that young Tommy Jarvis (who repeatedly hacked at Jason with a machete) would take up Jason's cause, and in an amazing feat of continuity, Part V starts off by informing us that Tommy is mentally disturbed and living in a halfway house for troubled teens. Throughout the film, it's implied that Tommy might be the killer, but you find out instead that the killer is some random extra you saw earlier in the film who seeks revenge on all the kids at the halfway house. It's a dumb twist, but whatever. The film doesn't otherwise stand out a whole lot from the rest of the series. The acting and directing are right on par with most of the series, and the kills are mostly unremarkable, though there are a couple of good ones. From what I gather, most fans of the series aren't happy with this Fake Jason concept, but I rather liked the idea and think this movie is unfairly maligned. There are several entries that are a lot worse than this one, and I like the premise, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. **1/2
  • Jason Voorhees cameo on Family Guy
  • Thursday the 12th (Robot Chicken) (Brilliant)
  • Friday the 13th - Angry Nintendo Nerd (video game review)
  • Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI: There aren't many film franchises that can claim that their 6th movie is actually the best in the series, but I think you could make a pretty compelling case for this film. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking about fine cinema here, but there are many things that I love about this film. In a lot of ways, this one of the strangest installments (for instance, it's the only Friday where young kids actually make it to camp and are in danger)... yet if feels like the steriotypical Friday the 13th story. At first, I wasn't sure about this one. The opening sequence has Tommy Jarvis (our hero from the last couple films) and a buddy heading over to Jason's grave. You know, to make sure he's dead. Of course, Jason's rotting corpse gets struck by lighting and he comes alive again, punches a whole through someone's chest and then something amazing happens.

    Jason Voorhees

    Jason turns towards the camera, holding a spear. Then the camera zooms in on his eye, and you see Jason swagger accross the screen, James Bond style, and swing a machete to reveal the title card. It's a brilliant moment, and it sets the stage for a film that is intentionally funny (unlike previous installments, which are unintentionally funny) but still just as scary as any other movie in the series (though that's not saying much). Writer/director Tom McLaughlin seemed to actually care, and there are a lot of little things I appreciated in the movie, so I took some screenshots and made some comments (see the extended entry for most of these). There's something to be said for the way a lot of 80s horror devolved into outright comedy (some series were better at this than others), and I can see why some people don't care for this installment because of its self-reflexive and referential nature, but for my money, it's the best Friday... It's got the best atmosphere, a plot that kinda makes sense (despite the lack of continuity between part V and VI), some of the characters manage to be likeable, and there are several classic kills in the movie. In the end, it's a lot of fun. If someone wanted to watch only 1 movie from the series, this is the one I'd recommend (after that, part IV would be a good one). ***
More screenshots and comments on part VI in the extended entry...

The opening sequence starts

The opening sequence starts

The opening sequence starts

The opening sequence starts

As previously mentioned, the James Bond title sequence is sheer genius. I think Devin Faraci (also a big fan of the series) said it best in his review:
The mood is almost perfectly set, and then McLaughlin goes and makes it utterly perfect: we zoom into Jason's eyeball and all of a sudden his iris is taking up the screen, and Jason walks in from stage right - yes, it's a Jason Voorhees version of the famous James Bond gun barrel sequence. Jason turns to the camera, swipes his machete, blood pours from the wound in reality and the titles happen. It's a glorious moment; one part tongue in cheek, one part homage, one part acknowledgment that, like James Bond, Jason Voorhees will keep showing up in movies for decades to come (that confidence was a little premature, I think).

American Express, Dont leave home without it!

So once Jason is brought back to life, he starts roaming the countryside and eventually stumbles on this car with two camp counselors trying to make their way to Crystal Lake. The woman in the car actually says something to the effect of "I've seen enough horror movies to know when to turn around," but of course, it was not to be, and Jason impales her boyfriend. She tries to get away but falls in a puddle and then actually attempts to bribe Jason with her American Express card (Don't leave home without it!) Jason is not amused.


Jason and an arm

For some inexpicable reason, a company is conducting a team building exercise in the woods near Crystal Lake by playing games of paintball. Jason neatly dispatches three of the paintballers with one swift stroke of his trusted machete. Another employee shoots Jason with a paintball, so jason grabs him by the arm and throws him at a tree, where his blood stains the happy face. Oh, and by the way, Jason never let go of the arm. The way Jason lifts the arm and cocks his head is hilarious. It's never quite explained why this company apparently only has 4 employees and yet needs to participate in team building exercises, but little inconsistencies like that are endearing in a movie like this.

A young girl reading Jean Paul Sartre

As previously mentioned, this movie actually features children put in harms way. I found this particular shot amusing. How many 10 year old kids do you know that read Jean Paul Sartre? It's the attention to detail in shots like this that puts this film above others in the series.

A Manual of Occultism

So after his initial encounter with Jason, our hero, Tommy Jarvis heads to the book store to figure out what to do. He buys several books, among them 30 Years of the Dead, The Dead are Alive, and A Manual of Occultism. Presumably he did this so he could know how to defeat Jason, which is amusing since the method Tommy eventually uses is pretty stupid.

Offscreen murder

There's nothing like seeing the results of an offscreen murder to chill your soul. Or at least, cool it off a little. Like air conditioning. Ok, moving on.

Jason is Defeated

This is how Jason is defeated in this movie. It's a breathtakingly stupid ending, for a number of reasons. Oh sure, they show a boat propeller cutting into his face at one point, but still. Jason's taken way more damage than that and lived, so what's the deal? I guess it's that Jason originally died in a drowning accident, so maybe he just goes comotose in the water or something. Yes, this film is reaching for that sort of thematic depth. And realism too. Because if you tie a chain around someone's neck, their body would float like that. Why? Because apparently only Jason's head has buoyancy.

Well now that I'm starting to complain about realism in a Friday the 13th movie, I figure that's my signal to stop.
Posted by Mark on April 22, 2009 at 08:11 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Link Dump
It's actually been a few months since a link dump, so here are a few interesting links:
  • Uncomfortable Plot Summaries: This is everywhere lately, but it's very funny. My favorites include LotR ("Midget destroys stolen property.") and how every Neil Gaiman movie features pretty much the same plot summary. Actually, these remind me a lot of the classic Rinkworks Movie-A-Minute ultra-condensed movies.
  • Playing Columbine: Interview with Director Danny Ledonne: A followup for my review of Playing Columbine is this interview with the director who is also the one who created the game at the center of the film.
  • Video Game Documentaries: They Keep On Coming: Speaking of Playing Columbine, it seems that video game documentaries in general are becoming more and more common. This post at Spout features a bunch of upcoming documentaries, some of which sound very interesting...
  • The GAF Collection: The folks over at the NeoGAF video game forums have a photoshop thread where people post photoshopped game covers in the style of the Criterion Collection (perhaps continuing a trend from a few months ago). Some great stuff here, including several great covers for Shadow of the Colossus, Flower, and Metal Gear Solid, among many others.
  • DeepLeap: A mildly addictive single player word game (along the lines of a scrabble, but without a board). My high score is only in the 400 range or so, but it's a lot of fun...
  • Craig Needs a Friend: I'm not sure how to describe this one, but this Craig guy is hilarious, as is his mode of communication.
  • Quadruple Saturn Moon Transit: 4 moons caught crossing the face of Saturn in one photo. Amazing stuff.
  • Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable: Clay Shirky's musings on the current state of the newspaper business. I can't think of the last time I actually read a newspaper. I remember at one point last year, someone bussed some inner city high-schoolers into my neighborhood and guilted us all into buying a subscription to the Philly Inquirer (apparently, the Inquirer would help pay college tuition for the high schoolers based on how many subscriptions they sold or something). However, I generally found myself grabbing the paper right from my doorstep and placing it in the recycle bin on my way out (i.e. most of the time, it didn't even make it into my house).
That's all for now. Coming up on Kaedrin, it seems I haven't gotten over the whole Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, so expect to see some more slashers and SWH style posts in the near future (not six weeks worth, but just a few to tide you over for the next half year or so).
Posted by Mark on April 19, 2009 at 06:38 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Here Comes The Cavalry
MGK wants to know:
What’s the best “rescue” moment in an action movie? The moment when the hero is absolutely fucked, completely about to get killed/ass-kicked/etc. by the villains in violent manner, and then suddenly his friend/ally shows up, fighting ensues, and the hero is (for the moment) saved?
Yeah, I know, that was a little over two weeks ago, but for us here at Kaedrin (and by "us", I mean "me"), this is about as good as it gets. Now MGK's answer is from The Crow, and that's certainly a good pick. It fits his definition well, it's a decent movie, but it's also not an obvious choice. Some of his commenters do a good job pointing out some of the more obvious examples, like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King, Jurassic Park, and a television example of Battlestar Galactica, among a lot of other choices. However, the first one the came to mind for me was not suggested by anyone. And when I looked around a bit and found the inevitable TV Tropes entry, I didn't even find it there.

So my pick is from The Hunt for Red October. Spoilers to follow!

At the end of the movie there's a standoff between three submarines - the Red October (a Soviet sub featuring a nearly silent propulsion system and a Captain who wants to defect), the USS Dallas (a US sub featuring a crazy CIA agent and the world's greatest Sonar man), and the Konovalov (another Soviet sub that has been ordered to sink the Red October). In the film, the Red October makes contact with the Dallas, and they're attempting to proceed with the defection when the Konovalov shows up and attempts to literally torpedo the effort.

Due to some fancy maneuvering, the Red October is able to avoid the first torpedo by exploiting the torpedo's safety features. Recognizing this, the captain of the Konovalov removes the safety features from the next torpedo and fires. The Red October is too big and too slow to evade the torpedo! Whatever shall they do? USS Dallas to the rescue! The Dallas passes between the Red October and the torpedo (causing one American officer to memorably exclaim, "Way to go Dallas!"). Sensing a new target, the torpedo acquires the Dallas, which continues its turn, changing the course of the torpedo. The Dallas releases some counter-measures which momentarily blind the torpedo and immediately surfaces, causing the torpedo to search for a new target. Because of the Dallas' fancy maneuvering, the closest target ends up being the Konovalov. Recognizing the situation, a Soviet officer scolds the Konovalov's captain, "You arrogant ass. You've killed us!"

It's a fantastic sequence, for several reasons:
  • It had already been established that the Dallas couldn't fire on the Konovalov without authorization (and they didn't have it - after all, the Soviets didn't fire on the Americans). So when they figure out a way to save the Red October anyway, it's a genuine surprise.
  • This is made all the more impressive when considering that the Dallas' captain is aboard the Red October (i.e. it was the second officer who came up with the plan).
  • Furthermore, the destruction of the Konovalov plays right into the cover story needed to complete the defection. Only the Red October's officers wanted to defect. They had to figure out a way to get their crew off the ship (they came up with a fake nuclear accident to accomplish that) AND they needed to convince the crew that the US wouldn't steal the Red October (before the crew leaves, the captain informs them that he's going to scuttle the ship). The Konovalov shows up after the crew has left the Red October, so they don't know what's happened. All they know is that they saw a US ship surface, immediately follwed by an underwater explosion (which is more dramatic and convincing than a scuttling). I guess you could call this sequence of events contrived, but I thought it fit together really well - much better than most thrillers.
Damn, that was a long winded explanation. Just watch the movie. The way the Dallas saves the Red October is a great Cavalry moment. I'm sure there are lots of others I'm leaving out. Knowing some of my readers, I'm sure there are at least a few Anime examples (Vandread comes to mind, though I don't remember enough specifics to say for sure).

Update: Heh, I forgot that Beverly Crusher is Jack Ryan's wife, even though she's only in the movie for about 1 minute.

Another Update: It seems that for all my bloviating about the plot, I had neglected a few of the specifics of that final battle... but the general concept was still correct. Incidentally, what the heck happened to John McTiernan? In a period of 3 years or so, he made 3 great action/adventure movies: Predator, Die Hard and the aforementioned The Hunt for Red October. Then about 5-10 mostly bad movies and silence since 2003 (though IMDB reports a few movies currently in production).
Posted by Mark on April 15, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trigun Ends
So I finally finished Trigun this week. Ultimately, I wasn't very impressed with the series and I would probably rank it near the bottom of what I've seen. Most of my initial thoughts of the series still hold, with some minor shifts in focus.
  • Vash continued to be a likeable character - a Columbo-esque bumbling gunman - though towards the end of the series he takes on a more whiney emo style. I found this somewhat annoying, especially since the series kept covering the same thematic ground (there is one particularly tragic moment in the 24th episode where this could be appropriate, but even then, they overdo it).

    Vash the Stampede

  • The tone of the series continued to vary wildly from a silly, practically slapstick comedy to a stoic and deadly serious drama to madcap action sequences. For the first 15 or so episodes, the emphasis was pretty firmly in the slapstick realm, while things got progressively more serious and darker as the series ended. As you might expect, the exaggerated and stylized expressions continued to appear, though their frequency decreased as the series progressed (i.e. as the series got darker). The series also strays a bit from its steampunk Western roots and incorporates more and more science fiction into the mix. However, I found much of the SF presented to be just as problematic as the steampunk elements in that I found myself getting caught up in the minute details and missing the forest for the trees.
  • The series definitely contains too much filler, and could easily have been fit into 13 episodes. Indeed, the person I had identified as the primary villain in the previous entry isn't actually the primary villain. You don't find out who that is until the 16th episode in the series. Minor spoilers, the main villain is Vash's brother. It turns out that Vash and his brother Knives are not human, though it's not clear what they are or where they came from. They seem to me to be genetically altered humans or something, and the flashbacks make it clear that they are superior to humanity in several ways. Vash seems to take this to heart and loves humanity (as he is taught by his primary caretaker, Rem), while Knives seeks to destroy the inferior race... though I'm a little unclear on why he wants to do this. Such villainy is difficult to understand, and the series never quite establishes the real motives behind Knives' compulsions.
  • There are a couple of flashback episodes, but the series still generally conformed to 1 or 2 episode arcs with a video game style boss-battle at the end of each arc.
  • The animation remained poor, with continued overuse of the single cell panning technique described in my first post.
The series does go for a couple of plot twists, but I found myself somewhat unmoved at most of them. This is probably because the series never really drew me in and thus I never really made a great connection to some of the characters. For instance, there is an unexpected death somewhere in the last few episodes. The death itself didn't really bother me, but I was somewhat moved by Milly's grief (surprisingly, Milly seems to have more of an arc in the series than Meryl, who doesn't get much in the way of closure).

The ending makes a certain thematic sense, but I found the execution be somewhat dull and anticlimactic. It was pretty obvious what was going to happen - it's not like the theme hadn't already been established over and over again throughout the series. I suppose there is an element of ambiguity in the ending, but I have to say that I'm not particularly interested in exploring various interpretations.

So this is the first series I've watched and pretty thoroughly disliked. It had its moments, and for a good portion of the series, it was watcheable, but something didn't really jive with me. In the comments to my last post, I said:
I have a hard time articulating what it is that I don't like about this series. Everything I come up with seems like a nitpick or a rationalization. Nitpicking is almost always symptomatic of a deeper distaste for something, I just haven't really figured out what that is. It might be the tonal schizophrenia, but then, I don't mind huge shifts in tone in other things. Indeed, watching a movie like From Dusk Till Dawn, the best thing about it is the tonal shift (IMHBCO). Perhaps I can like FDTD because it's only one big shift, and the two tones are similar in structure, if not in content. Maybe it's the combination of things. Tonal schitzophrenia, steampunk, wacky animation, and a story with too much filler. None of these things inherently bothers me by itself, but combine them and I'm not doing so well.
I've got no new insights as to why the series didn't click, it just didn't. In any case, I've got several other series in the queue. I think Noir or Samurai 7 (I'm leaning towards this because it's on Blu-Ray, and is thus only 3 discs) will be next.

As usual, more screenshots and comments (and perhaps some major spoilers as well) after the jump...

The SEEDS Fleet

The sixth disc started with an episode that had this image of a fleet of starships. I momentarily thought that I screwed up my Netflix queue, putting Banner of the Stars II ahead of Trigun, but it turns out that this image begins a lengthy flashback that describes Vash's past and how the planet was colonized. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't watching Banner II, which just goes to show that I didn't like Trigun much.

Vash and a fallen ship

I just really like this visual, though it's indicative of what I don't like about the series' overuse of panning on still shots.

Regular Knives

Maniacal Knives

On the other hand, this series of two shots shows how effectively human emotion is communicated through a couple of simple (ok, exaggerated) changes to facial expressions. Still, the continual use of cheap animation techniques was somewhat grating to me.

Legato vs Vash
Legato vs Vash

I loved this shot of Legato's final showdown with Vash. Major spoilers! In the showdown, Legato's real purpose is not to physically defeat Vash. Rather, Legato seeks to force Vash to break one of his own rules. Vash has sworn to never take a life, so Legato set up this situation in which the only way for Vash to survive would be to shoot Legato. The reason the shot is brilliant is that Legato is higher in the frame, towering over Vash. This position is usually a sign of strength, and thematically, Legato does indeed have the upper hand in this situation, despite the fact that he is unarmed and Vash is pointing a gun at his head. I found this bit of visual dissonance rather clever, but unfortunately, the next couple of shots ruin it by having Vash stand up and showing Vash from a low "camera" angle (which visually ephasises Vash's power, despite the fact that Vash is actually succumbing to weakness).

Knives vs Vash
Knives vs Vash

Unfortunately, Vash's showdown with Knives is not as visually interesting and is indeed anticlimatic. The battle takes maybe 5-10 minutes of screen time, but I was distinctly reminded of the pointless fight sequences in the Matrix sequels.

Wolfwood and his big gun
Wolfwood's Big Gun

At some point during the last 10 episodes, you see the full power of the cross that Wolfwood carries around. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure they only animated this one pose of Wolfwood holding his weapon, and then changed the backgrounds on at least 2 or three separate episodes.

Big Smile!
Big Smile!

Though it is curtailed in the last 10 episodes, the absurdly stylized art is still present.


And I shall leave you with one more pic of Meryl, because, well, because I want to. It's a good pic, right?

That does it for Trigun. Again, not positive what Anime I'll be watching next, but it'll probably be Noir or Samurai 7.
Posted by Mark on April 12, 2009 at 05:57 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

5 More Books I Want to Read
A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of 5 books I want to read (along with some other stuff I want to consume). In looking at my shelf, I noticed that there were 5 additional unread books that I want to read, so here goes:
  • The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke: I've read a good portion of Clarke's later work, and have been reading some of his earlier stuff (for instance, I read Childhood's End somewhat recently). I've heard this is one of his better books and thus it's on the list.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: I've some mixed feelings about Miéville, but the fact that his work is described as "weird fiction" in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft and M. R. James makes me much more interested. This book appears to be one of his first, and the first in a recurring setting. So a mixture of horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction sounds rather fun to me.
  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis: I've read several short stories by Willis that I've enjoyed, and this particular book actually won both the Hugo and Nebula awards - something of a rarity.
  • The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin: At the recommendation of my friend Sovawanea, I recently read The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoyed it (I'll cover that in another post here someday), so I figured more Le Guin was in order. Sov also recommended this book and it also gets generally good reviews, so it's in the queue.
  • The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick: Amazingly enough, I've not read any Dick. From what I've heard, he's probably not my style, but I figure I should still check out at least some of his work.
That's all for now. Maybe I should go and read one of these things...
Posted by Mark on April 08, 2009 at 08:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival: Playing Columbine
A few years ago, student filmmaker Danny Ledonne discovered a computer program called RPG Maker (which provides an easy way to create a video game without having to learn programming) and decided to make a game that would explore issues important to him. As a high school student in Colorado at the time of the Columbine shooting, he found that event to be particularly important in his life. He recognized himself in the shooters and wanted to make a game that explored that concept as well as the idea that video games were themselves responsible for the tragedy. So he made a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where you play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and act out the massacre, following events on the day of the shootings and continuing after their suicide into hell (where they fight creatures from the video game Doom).

In 2005 he (anonymously) made the game available for free on the internet. He didn't do much in the way of promotion for the game, but it almost immediately started garnering attention due to its controversial subject matter. Many people condemned the game and its creator, but it eventually started to pick up some supporters who mounted a defense. As a way of explaining his actions, Ledonne made a documentary called Playing Columbine in 2007 that covers why and how he created the game, and then springboards to broader discussions on the role of serious video games and art in our society.The film has been making its way through the festival circuit since then, including a the showing I saw yesterday at the PFF.

While I wouldn't say that Ledonne is anywhere close to Errol Morris territory, I do think he has crafted an effective exploration of an intensely personal subject. Without knowing much about the game or the movie going in, I suspected that there might be something of a conflict of interests for Ledonne. Was this going to just be an exercise in self-serving defensiveness and bias, or would it be a legitimate exploration of video games, art, and culture? I'm happy to say that Ledonne has succeeded in making a movie that is more than just a defense of his simple game.

Of course, the film starts by detailing the controversy surrounding the game and the response to the game. However, the movie wisely strays from the game at almost every opportunity in order to explore broader and more interesting concepts such as the demonization of video games in the media, the value of video games as an artistic medium, censorship, responsibility and the nature of violence and school violence. There is a somewhat cyclical structure to the film, as each segment uses the Super Columbine Massacre RPG! game as a springboard to discuss different ideas and controversies surrounding video games in general. For instance, one segment covers an incident where the game was pulled from the Slamdance Film Festival's Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition by festival director Peter Baxter. As a result, half of the other game developers withdrew their games from consideration and USC pulled its sponsorship of the competition. The details of this particular story are interesting by themselves, but the movie uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss broader ideas of censorship and art.

The film is comprised primarily of talking head interviews intersperced with video game and movie clips, but Ledonne has done a great job assembling an appropriate and noteworthy cast of game developers, university professors, media experts, school shooting survivors and even game critics. Some notable names include Ian Bogost (video game professor and designer), Hal Halpin (founder of video game trade organization), Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (designers of Kaedrin favorite, Flower), Jack Thompson (attorney and anti-video game activist), and Andrew Lanza (NY State Senator and video game critic). There are lots of other worthy contributers as well, and they mostly have interesting and thought provoking things to say. By necessity, Ledonne himself also appears throughout the film (for example, there are excerpts of interviews and lectures he has done), but you see him as one of many video game designers and experts throughout the film, not as the director (unlike, say, Bowling for Columbine).

The movie obviously has its own bias, and the amount of time given to critics is dwarved by proponents, but the film does a good overall job of letting you know that fact. Perhaps it's just my current obsession with video games and art, but I did thoroughly enjoy this film. Unfortunately, I it may be difficult to actually see the film, as there doesn't appear to be any DVD release scheduled and I suspect there are a lot of clearance issues that would need to be worked out. Still, if you get a chance to watch it, I would recommend it. Even if you're not interested in a Columbine game, the movie goes much deeper, exploring interesting and broader topics like censorship and violence in the media. Speaking of which, I'm reminded of this exchange from the Acts of Gord:
"We would like a quote for the front page of the newspaper talking about videogame violence, and it's possible impact on society."

"Video games don't make people more violent, and I'll kill anyone who disagrees."

<dramatic pause>

"I don't think we can print that."
Heh. I'm still not sure I'll ever play the game, but that isn't because I think there's something wrong about its very existance or anything. Anyway, because of the game, we get a good, thought-provoking movie, which is good enough for me. ***
Posted by Mark on April 05, 2009 at 02:48 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival: Recap (part 1)
As I've mentioned earlier, this year's festival isn't quite as exciting to me as it has been in previous years, but so far I've had pretty good luck. Here are some quick thoughts on a trio of pretty good movies.
  • Landscape No. 2: This Slovenian thriller follows a young burgler who accidentally steals a document revealing post-WWII atrocities while on a job. When his partner is found dead, he realizes that an assassin is targeting everyone who has been exposed to the documents. This is pretty standard thriller material and it suffers from a severe lack of empathy for most of the characters, most notably the main character. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but let's just say that he gets what he deserves in the end. Along the way, he inflicts a lot of collateral damage on those around him though, and some of it is painful to watch. There is one scene in particular that is utterly brutal in its intensity and violence (it is made even more brutal by the circumstances of the victim). It's well made enough and it has some interesting moments, I suppose, but I just didn't like spending time with any of these characters. **
  • 4BIA: A Thai horror anthology featuring 4 stories and an awful title (it's supposed to be a play on "phobia"). Don't let the title get you down though, as this is a fantastic little film. Like most horror anthology films, some of the segments work better than the others and the worst I can say about this film is that it ends on one of the weaker stories. Still, each story is involving and each makes it's own distinct impact. The first segment features a girl stuck in her apartment with a broken leg. She begins texting with a strange man... but the texts soon shift from cute to bizarre and ultimately to creepy. It's a deliberately paced opening, but I have to admit that this segment features a superbly executed "boo" moment that actually caused me to shout in the theater (not something I normally do). The second segment plays like a minature Final Destination movie, with a group of teenage bullies cursed by black magic. This segment is much more stylized than the others, using quick cuts and shaky handheld camera movements. The kills are inventive and surprising and the ending is suitably eerie. The third segment takes a more comedic approach, following 4 teenage friends on a camping and rafting trip. Movie references galore in this segment, which is often played for laughs but which also retains a certain creepy quality. As you might expect, this referential segment is almost by definition derivative of other movies, but it knows what it's doing and it plays with it. It might be the best segment overall. The final segment follows a stewardess on a pair of unusual flights. There's an element of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" going on here, though it also strays into the realm of the supernatural as well. Not my favorite segment, but still better than a lot of horror out there. Overall, the film features a great balance of stories and works really well. I doubt any other film will be able to unseat it as my favorite of the festival. ***1/2
  • I Sell the Dead: Before facing the guillotine, a grave robber recounts his exploits to a priest. Due to the ridiculous nature of the Schuylkill Expressway, I was about 15 minutes late to this show, but I saw most of the film and indeed enjoyed it. When I started watching the film, it was conventional enough. Two grave robbers, played by Dominic Monaghan (of Lost and LotR fame) and Larry Fessenden, were basically tasked with providing a steady stream of fresh dead bodies to a local "doctor" (played by Kaedrin favorite Angus Scrimm). For a time, all was well. Then they began to find that not all bodies in graves are completely dead. Hilarity ensues. The film strays into farce territory as it moves on, but that's not a bad thing in this case, and it works well enough. Monaghan and Fessenden play off each other well and you can kinda tell they had a good time making this movie. It's not a great film, but there's a lot to like here and there are some rather interesting stylistic touches to the film. I enjoyed the ending a lot as well. **1/2
So far, so good. Alas, not many more films on my schedule, and I may be skipping one of them due to Villanova's unexpected tourny run (I loath the sport of basketball, but I do make an exception for 'Nova).
Posted by Mark on April 01, 2009 at 08:13 PM .: link :.

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