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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Animovies
A couple quick reviews of Anime movies...
  • Ponyo - The first new Hayao Miyazaki film since 2004, this one is probably an improvement over Howl's Moving Castle (which had a great first half, but fell apart in the final act), but it does not approach the top of his oeuvre (which consists of classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro). Fortunately, this still makes for a pretty darn good film and something that tops most animated releases this year (though Up certainly stands on its own). The film has a great opening sequence, free from dialogue but expressive and visually striking. The story concerns a fish creature who escapes from her father, the lord of the sea. Young Sosuke, who lives in a house on a cliff by the sea, discovers the sea creature trapped in a bottle. He frees the creature and names it Ponyo. Thus starts their relationship, and when Ponyo's father eventually catches up to her and brings her back home, she spouts legs and arms, essentually turning human (an ability she gained from her contact with Sosuke). Her second escape causes some commotion in the underwater world, eventually flooding Sosuke's town, prompting Sosuke and Ponyo to take a magical voyage accross the flooded town to find Sosuke's mother. This ending portion reminded me a lot of My Neighbor Totoro, which is a shame, because that is clearly the superior film. The ending was somewhat anti-climactic to me, and anyone prone to thinking through the consequences of certain choices might be a bit befuddled. Still, the film is well made, visually interesting and certainly worth a watch. The one caveat to the current theater experience is that they are showing the dubbed version of the film, featuring the likes of Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson. They do a fine job, to be sure, but I would be interested in hearing the original version as well... Anyway, good stuff, though not Miyazaki's best. *** (3 out of 4 stars)
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society - It appears I've finally reached the end of Ghost in the Shell, a set of movies and series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. This is a feature film that follows the two Stand Alone Complex tv series, and as such, it hits on similar themes. In this instance, much more so than the 2nd Gig series, the focus is on how an individual can make a difference in the world. At the start of the film, it appears that the Major has left Section 9 to pursue her own goals. Interestingly, Togusa ends up taking over as the head of Section 9, and Batou, perhaps missing his friend, seems kinda forlorn. It doesn't take too long for the Major to reappear, however, and things get going from there in typical GitS fashion. I don't really have a ton to say about it at this point - if you've gotten this far in the series, you'll probably like this movie. The animation style and art is a little better than the two series, but not as good as either film. The story is byzantine as expected, though perhaps not so much as the series. Like with the GitS: Innocence movie, I missed the Major, though at least she does show up for a good portion of the film this time. Again, if you're a fan of the series, you'll like this. *** (3 out of 4 stars)
Incidentally, when the hell are they going to release the original Ghost in the Shell (and the 2.0 remake for that matter) on Blu-Ray? Why did they release the sequel first (which admittedly looks gorgeous on BD)? In general, Anime seems to be pretty weakly represented in BD. Where's my Cowboy Bebop? Or any Miyazaki films? Gah.
Posted by Mark on August 30, 2009 at 08:03 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Link Dump
Just a few links I've found interesting recently:
  • Quentin Tarantino's Top 20 Movies Since 1992: In preparation for Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino helped program a week of movies on Europe's Sky Channel. He hosted the series and talked about movies, including a list of his 20 favorite movies released since he started directing:

    Battle Royale (incidentally, I would never have pronounced Fukasaku properly)
    Anything Else (really?)
    Audition
    Blade (note: no, it's not that Blade, this one.)
    Boogie Nights
    Dazed & Confused
    Dogville
    Fight Club
    Fridays
    The Host
    The Insider
    Joint Security Area
    Lost In Translation
    The Matrix
    Memories of Murder
    Police Story 3
    Shaun of the Dead
    Speed
    Team America
    Unbreakable

    It's an... interesting... list. Some no brainers in there, and some really odd choices too. But odd choices are what makes a list like this interesting and worth compiling in the first place, right? I'm positive most of these movies wouldn't show up on a list that I compiled, but then again, I'm not an amazing filmmaker. On the other hand, when considering how many movies Tarantino no doubt watches, I find it hard to believe that this list would not change drastically from day to day. Heh.
  • Fast Food Mafia: A group of sketches that imagines fast food mascots as if they were notorious crime bosses. Ron "The Don" McDonald looks like an alternate design for the Joker.
  • Don't Press the Red Button: Pretty much speaks for itself.
  • The Wrath of the Killdozer: This guy must have been a big fan of Theodore Sturgeon (incidentally, Sturgeon's book? It's about exactly what you think it's about.)
  • Great Moments in Physics: Even though I know most examples of this type of story are probably false, I love reading about them...
Posted by Mark on August 26, 2009 at 07:45 PM .: link :.



Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds
Since 1994's Pulp Fiction, whenever a new Tarantino film is announced, I read about it and find myself thinking about how stupid the film sounds. Usually watching the first trailers does little to assuage that feeling. But every time (every time) I actually see the movie, I end up loving it. Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is no exception to this rule. It sounds lame: "... a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as 'The Basterds' are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis." But it is a truly exceptional film, Tarantino's best since Pulp Fiction and the best film of the year so far.

In truth, the short description above is only a small portion of the movie, and it's the one that we've all seen in the trailers for the film. It concerns Lt. Aldo Raine (played with campy glee by Brad Pitt) and his small group of Basterds who hunt down and brutally murder Nazis. The other main plot thread deals with a young Jewish refugee named Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) who narrowly escapes from the famed "Jew Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an award-winning performance). The rest of her family is not so lucky. She now runs a movie theater in Paris, and the premiere of a German propaganda film at her theater has attracted the entire German military leadership, up to and including Hitler. As you might imagine, this premiere interests both the Basterds and Shosanna for obvious reasons...

This is a thouroughly Tarantino film. If you like his style, you will love this film. It features many of his common tropes, including massive chunks of dialogue, the use of violence as a comedic element, and some interesting, offbeat casting. He also fits in his usual foot fetish, as a plot element no less. There is some winking at the audience, especially when it comes to the various asides (narrated by Sam Jackson), and Tarantino's camera moves fluidly and frames the action well. As with all of Tarantino's films, this one is a referential dream. The film is played as an homage to Spaghetti Westerns, 40s Noir and of course the WWII drama/action film, with tons of other filmic references thrown in for good measure (including the Tarantino staples of B-Movie, Grindhouse, and Exploitation). In particular, films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Cinema Paradiso are all practically direct references. All of Tarantino's films have this obsession with movies, but in this case, the obsession becomes a literal plot element. The climax of the film takes place in a movie theater. A British soldier is chosen for his assignment because he was a movie critic as a civilian. And so on. It doesn't take a genius to see the developing theme here.

Like James Berardinelli, I was also reminded of two somewhat recent WWII films: Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, two films which explore similar themes ideas but which pale in comparison to Basterds. Black Book will retain a good reputation and it's heroine shares a certain kinship with the heroine of Basterds. Valkyrie will not fare so well, perhaps playing Fail-Safe to the Basterds' Dr. Strangelove (i.e. a straight movie completely outclassed and overshadowed by a comedic take on the same material)...

I already mentioned the dialogue, but it is worth further examination. There is a lot of dialogue in the movie and those who do not like Tarantino's tendency to rely on such speachifying will probably not like this movie. That said, this is his best work since Pulp Fiction, and it is not nearly as indulgent as his script for Death Proof (which grated on a lot of people, even though I think that was the intended effect). This isn't just Tarantino wanking with words, he uses them to wratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels before releasing it all with fast, brutal action. There are several notable sequences, but the opening scene and a later scene in a bar stand out. I'm sure Tarantino will get dinged for making such a violent movie, but when you look at it closely, there really isn't that much actual violence. To be sure, what is there is quite graphic and disturbing, but the dialogue-driven buildup to these events seems to increase the suggestive and sometimes even humorous nature of the violence. It reminded me a bit of how I felt watching Kill Bill:
Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin's head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it's still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don't really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It's like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.
Basterds isn't quite as heavy on the black comedic violence as Kill Bill, but Tarantino definitely employs that same style for the violence here. Of course, there's plenty of other humor in evidence here as well, to the point where it's tempting to call this movie an action/comedy. The setting of the film doesn't exactly lend itself to humor, but Tarantino does a deft job making the proceedings fun.

The violence and dialogue are not simply an ends unto themselves, they actually serve the story. And it is quite an audactious story at that. It is so unabashedly American (and at times, British) that I have to wonder how it will play in the rest of the world... Indeed, it's not surprising that the film did not screen well at Cannes (I'm interested to see what Alex thinks of it, considering we are honor bound to compare notes - his initial reaction seems positive). In any case, the film's plot and especially its ending are bold and adventurous (I don't want to ruin anything, so I'll leave it at that), and all the characters you meet along the way are fun and well drawn. Brad Pitt is clearly enjoying himself while hamming it up (which is appropriate) as Lt. Aldo Raine. It's easy to forget how good he can be in movies like this, and this is his best role in years. He gets a good portion of the funny lines and stories from the set about Pitt walking around in character indicate that Pitt really liked playing this character. Christoph Waltz's turn as Colonel Hans Landa is brilliant and twisted. The character plays out like a Jew hunting, Nazi version of Columbo. Charismatic and disarming, he draws you in and makes you comfortable before pulling the rug out from beneath you. He plays the character with a slightly effeminate panache and you grow to hate him pretty quickly. Surely one of the best villains of the year. Melanie Laurent has what is probably the lead role in the film, though, and her performance as the strong-willed Shosanna Dreyfus is quite good, though not as showy as Waltz or Pitt. The smaller, supporting roles in the film are equally well casted and performed. I was a bit worried about the casting of Eli Roth as one of the Basterds (he's not known for his acting abilities - Roth is most famous for being the director of the Hostel films), but he turned out fine and the Basterds wind up taking a backseat to the rest of the film, so his presence is somewhat limited. Martin Wuttke plays Hitler as a caricature, an interesting take that will no doubt be the basis for a second wave of Hitler Gets Banned style parodies. I didn't recognize Mike Myers at first, but his 5 minute appearance as a British General is quite funny, and it's a nice bit of quasi-referential casting there (i.e. hearing Mike Myers do a British accent, you can't help but think of Austin Powers, even though the scene he appears in is played straight). Michael Fassbender has a nice supporting role as well, and I could probably keep going on and on about the casting and performances in this movie.

I always hate it when reviewers say this sort of thing, but I honestly didn't realize that the film clocked in at a rather long 153 minutes. It feels exactly as long as it needed to be and it's paced very well. In the end, Tarantino has crafted a great film, the best I've seen in a long time and the first one I'm giving 4 stars to since The Dark Knight (and one of only 3 in the past few years). If you really hate Tarantino, you probably won't like it. If you don't mind some of his typical eccentricities (i.e. dialogue, violence, uh, feet? etc...), you're in for a treat. I'm amazed that after all these years, Tarantino is still able to surprise and thrill me. **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Posted by Mark on August 23, 2009 at 12:24 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Playstation News
Some big news from Sony this week. Yesterday, they announced a big price cut for the PS3 as well as a new, slimmed down model. The new slim model does not have much in the way of new features, and the only thing it's losing are some aesthetic stuff (i.e. matte black plastic finish instead of the reflective plastic on older models, actual buttons in place of the pressure sensitive things the older models use, etc...) and the ability to install other OSes (i.e. no more installing linux on your PS3). The one big miss is that Sony still has not reinstated backwards compatibility with the PS2, and in an interview with Sony's head of hardware, John Koller, things don't look promising on that front:
Do we need to stop yapping about backwards compatibility?

"It's not coming back, so let me put that on the table," Koller says with an air of finality. But it's all people ever talk about!

"It's not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing," he claimed. "We've got such a substantial lineup of titles on the PS3; most people are buying the PS3 for PS3 games. They've buying it for PS3 games and Blu-ray movies."

"That won't be returning," he repeats.
Darn. He may be correct that people don't intend to purchase the PS3 for its ability to play PS2 games, but it certainly doesn't hurt and it would seemingly increase goodwill. Ok, fine, I just want to be able to play PS2 games from my PS3. Is that so wrong? From what I've seen, a previous model PS3 had simple software emulation for PS2 games, which seems very reasonable (one of the older models actually included PS2 hardware in the PS3 to achieve backwards compatibility, something that was wisely dropped to help lower the amazingly high price of the PS3), even if it didn't work for all games. If nothing else, being able to offer some PS2 classics for download on PSN would be pretty cool. Alas, it's apparently not to be.

Still, $299 is a pretty good deal, especially if you can swing the same Playstation Credit Card rebate that I did (right now it's only a $100 credit, but it is periodically raised to $150 for limited times). In essense, you could buy a PS3 for less than a Wii.

A while ago, I complained about the distinctly boring gamercard that PSN made available. All it basically had was your PSN online ID name... something that could just as easily be typed out (i.e. mine is "mciocco"). Well, sometime in the past week, they upgraded the PSN portable ID to include some more info, so here's mine:


Get your Portable ID!

Much better! It would still be nice to have more info on the thing (i.e. show what games I'm playing, what trophies I won recently, etc...), but at least it lets me brag a bit about how much of a trophy whore I am (update: I think it will show you a lot more information if you click through the gamertag above)...

Anyway, it seems that the PS3 firmware is also due to be upgraded, but there doesn't seem to be much of interest in the update (i.e. no PS2 backwards compatibility). All in all, it seems like it will be a good few months for Sony. I'm betting that Microsoft will respond, but Sony has a pretty interesting lineup of exclusives coming in the next half year or so (including a genuine system-seller in God of War III) and their general library is just as good as MS. Nintendo will, of course, obliterate Sony and MS, because that is just their way. Nintendo isn't playing the same game. Three years after launch, Sony's system costs half of what it once did and Nintendo's costs... the same. And Nintendo was making a profit on the hardware on day 1, while Sony has lost massive amounts of money (the PS3 slim seems to be profitable for them though). I suppose time will tell, but Sony is finally priced competitively with Microsoft, so that part should be interesting. Here's to hoping that it's a rousing success, leading to more and more great games being released for the system (at the very least, we can hope that Bobby Kotick will shut the hell up).
Posted by Mark on August 19, 2009 at 11:25 AM .: link :.



Sunday, August 16, 2009

Noir Ends
In my first post on Noir, I kinda made light of the body count that our two heroes were racking up as well as the fact that French society never seemed to notice when a few dozen nameless hitmen are discovered in a park or abandoned building somewhere. I was making a joke of it, but it always sorta bothered me. There are a few hundred people who die during the course of this series. While they're all portrayed as mostly nameless, faceless victims, I couldn't help but wonder what the consequences of their deaths were. Were they married? Did they have kids? Friends? And so on. Warning: The rest of the post contains major spoilers!

One of the things I wondered about was how well Mireille and Kirika were able to deal with the amount of death and destruction they were doling out. For the most part, they seem to deal with it remarkably well. Kirika seems to be more affected by it than Mireille. As the series goes on, she seems less and less enthused with what she's capable of doing.... but there's something off about her reaction that took me a while to place. I finally realized what it was - it reminded me of Crime and Punishment (I suppose I should note spoilers for that novel as well), in particular, this paragraph (page 623 in my edition) where Raskolnikov laments his punishment:
... even if fate had sent him no more than remorse - burning remorse that destroyed the heart, driving away sleep, the kind of remorse to escape those fearsome torments the mind clutches at the noose and the well, oh, how glad he would have been! Torment and tears - after all, that is life, too. But he felt no remorse for his crime.
In essense, Raskolnikov felt no guilt or remorse for his crime, but that lack of feeling, that lack of guilt was just as horrible as he could have imagined. That's very much how I thought Kirika felt during the second half of the series. In his take on the series, Steven Den Beste does an excellent job describing the duality of Kirika:
Kirika had two parts inside. One part was a killing machine. It was created by Altena through training and indoctrination, and once it seemed ready, Kirika's memory was wiped and she was placed in Japan, so that she could begin to face the Trials which were required of all candidates for Noir to prove their fitness. Events after that point were not planned, because they depended on what Kirika herself did, and how she reacted to the process. Hints were left which might lead Kirika to Mireille, but if they had not, she would have faced her trials alone.

The other side of Kirika was a lonely girl, who wanted nothing more than a normal life, a name, a home, and someone to love and be loved by. The series shows us those two sides of Kirika, gradually building them up to tangible presences, and in episode #25 Kirika is forced to choose one over the other.
The killing machine part of Kirika's personality was capable of evil, without remorse or guilt, but the human side of her personality recognized how horrible that was and the series is essentially about Kirika's internal struggle. Mireille seemed to be much more neutral. The other piece of the puzzle is Chloe, who seems to take a perverse pleasure in what she is capable of, and as the series progresses, she becomes more and more creepy.

Kirika and Chloe
Kirika and Chloe

Ultimately, when Kirika is forced to choose between Mireille and Chloe, she chooses Mireille (who I guess is supposed to represent the human side of Kirika's personality). As Steven notes, the series does not end there and neither does Kirika's internal struggle. She is still capable of horrible evil and is not sure she could live with herself. Altena still attempts to appeal to killing machine portion of Kirika's personality, but she ultimately fails, and Mireille succeeds in saving Kirika. At the very end, it's clear that Kirika and Mireille will continue on together and that they love each other (like sisters). I am once again reminded of Dostoyevsky (page 630 in my edition - replace the male pronouns with female pronouns and this could easily apply to Kirika):
... at this point a new story begins, the story of a man's gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from eone world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative - our present narrative is, however, at an end.
There's a lot more to the ending of the series that I'm skipping over, but Steven's post covers that in plenty of detail and I don't see a need to repeat all that... It's not a perfect series, but the ending did make it worthwhile for me. I wouldn't say that I was as taken with it as Steven or Alex, but neither was I as disappointed with it as Ben. I thought the series was a bit too long (a little too much filler, perhaps) and unevenly paced, but the ending made up for any issues I may have had with the series.

As usual, more screenshots and commentary in the extended entry...

Kirika and Mireille and a pool table

I didn't notice this at first, but the table that Mireille uses to do her work is a pool table. Not sure what the significance of that is, but I guess you could make something symbolic out of it, like that Mireille and Kirika are stuck playing the Soldats' game or something.

Cargo

Cargo containers in the least organized port in the world. Seriously, look at those things.

Kirika double-fisting pistols

As mentioned above, Kirika, seen here double-fisting some pistols,John Woo style, is the main character of the series. This is interesting because at first glance, the series seems to be primarily about Mireille. As the series progresses, Mireille takes a back seat to Kirika and Chloe, then comes to the foreground at the end.

The Soldats

The Soldats in their stereotypical lair, sitting next to a fireplace and sipping port. We find out more about the Soldats later in the series, but their ultimate plan and Altena's plan for Noir all ends up taking a backseat to Kirika's internal struggle, which is the true conflict of the series. That's a good thing too, as giant conspiracies tend to bore me...

Faceless Henchman #346

As the series progresses, Kirika, Mireille and Chloe encounter more and more hired killers, and in this case, the killers are literally faceless. Not a single one seems to be able to hold a candle to any of the Noirs though, which makes me wonder how challenging these "trials" are supposed to be for Noir.

Chloe and Kirika

This scene really bothered me. Not so much when it happened as in the next episode when we find out... that it doesn't really mean anything. It serves a purpose - Mireille begins to realize just how much she cares for Kirika, etc... but it's a kinda cheapshot. Also, I'm not really sure what happened. Did Chloe actually shoot Kirika? Why is Kirika fine afterwords? I didn't get it.

Chloe

Towards the end of the series, we learn that Kirika killed Mireille's parents (apparently when Kirika was extremely young). Chloe was also there, and the screenshot above is her after she sees Kirika kill. Kinda creepy.

Kirika, with sword

Chloe, with sword

Towards the end of the series, Kirika and Chloe are reuinited at Altena's home and have an awesome swordfight (as a training exercise).
Chloe, with sword

Kirika wins the training session, and in the screenshot above you see something that is a recurring image. Often, when Kirika's killing machine personality is in control, her hair covers her eyes, making her faceless and symbolizing emotionlessness. I didn't really notice this until later in the series, so I'm not sure it applies to the whole series, but I did see it multiple times.

Mireille and Kirika

Mireille and Kirika have a faceoff towards the end, and they are legitimately trying to kill one another, but in the end, neither can pull the trigger.

Mireille and Kirika

This is the last shot in the series. The saturated, washed out brightness of this type of shot usually symbolizes transcendence or resolution, and that certainly fits with the ending of the series.

Well, that about covers it. Next up in the Anime queue is Miyazaki's Ponyo, which I should be seeing sometime this week. It's actually getting a pretty wide release - it's even playing at the local multiplex...
Posted by Mark on August 16, 2009 at 02:08 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The August Movie Season?
August is typically the dumping ground for movies that the studios know can't compete with the blockbuster fare of early summer. There's usually a movie or two that manage to pick up some good numbers (think The Sixth Sense or Superbad), but movie fare in August is usually pretty thin. So looking ahead at the next few weeks, I'm surprised to see so many movies that I actually want to see, ranging from typical Hollywood fare to obscure foreign films. Here's what I'm looking forward to:
  • G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (released 8/7): Well, I've already established this movie as a charter member of the Upcoming Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck list, but I still want to see it. I mean, is it possible that it would be worse than Transformers 2? All I'm hoping for are some nice explosions and maybe some rememberances of the epic toy battles of my youth.
  • District 9 (releases 8/14): A SF action film with an interesting premise and reasonable talent, I'm not really sure what to make of this, though early reviews are surprisingly good. So I guess I have middling expectations for this one, but at least it seems interesting.
  • Ponyo (releases 8/14): The first new Miyazaki since 2004's diappointing Howl's Moving Castle (which had a great first half, but fell apart in the final act) is still a must see for anyone interested in Anime and Miyazaki is certainly capable of greatness. I have to admit that the trailer doesn't do much for me, but I still want to see this, just on principle.
  • The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (releases 8/14): Yeah, it looks like a trashy comedy with no heart, but what can I say, I'm a sucker for dumb comedies, especially ones that take place in a Used Cars lot.
  • Inglourious Basterds (releases 8/21): I've been skeptical of, oh, every Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction, and they always end up looking dumb but being awesome. No matter what you think of the guy, you have to admit that he always tries interesting stuff.
  • Halloween II (releases 8/28): The sequel to Rob Zombie's rather lame remake of John Carpenter's classic original (which earned the infamous rating of "Fuck You out of 10" back in the day). Personally, I thought the film was a perfectly serviceable slasher film marred by the insistance that it was in some way related to Halloween (i.e. remove the iconic music and change some names and you've got a fine movie). However, the initial stuff I've seen looks so batty that the sequel might actually work. It'll either be a train wreck or... I can't think of a way to finish that sentence. Sorry. I still want to see it though.
  • Thirst (releases 8/28): Korean director Park Chan Wook's vengeance trillogy is brilliant stuff, so I'm quite interested to see his take on vampires. The film isn't getting much of a release here in the states, but it is apparently being released in Philadelphia on August 28 (it's already been released in a couple of other markets).
  • Mystery Team (releases 8/28): Another dumb, raunchy comedy, sure, but it at least looks like and original dumn comedy. What happens when Encyclopedia Brown-style child-detectives grow up? They don't seem quite as effective as they once were. This trailer is hysterically funny. Not sure if it will be playing in Philly when it first comes out, but I'm looking forward to this one.
Not sure how well these movies will do at the box office, but I'm actually pretty excited to see all of them, which is a little odd because August is normally pretty vapid...

Update: Apparently Mystery Team isn't opening wide until October...
Posted by Mark on August 12, 2009 at 09:45 PM .: link :.



Sunday, August 09, 2009

Burnout Paradise Thoughts
Since finishing Fallout 3 a while back, I have played several games on my PS3. The most enjoyable, so far, has been Burnout Paradise. For a budget title that came out a long time ago, it really surprised me. If you are even remotely interested in driving games, this is a game you should play (I have no idea how it compares to other Burnout titles though, as this is my first). Anyway here are some thoughts on the game:
  • It's a "sandbox" style game, meaning that there aren't really "levels" or linear progressions. You're simply dropped into a city and you drive around looking for various events. There isn't really a story of any kind... indeed, there don't appear to be any humans in the game (i.e. no pedestrians, no one appears in other cars' seats, etc...) From this, I gather that the game takes place in a futuristic world where humans have become extinct and cars have become sentient, roaming our abandoned cities, doing jumps and smashing into one another. When I first heard about the open sandbox style of the game, I was a little unsure about it, but it turns out to be a fantastic framing device for the gameplay, ensuring continuity between events and allowing you to pursue more open-ended pursuits (like smashing through billboard signs or finding the big jumps). One neat thing about the open world is that the entire thing is available right from the start - you don't have to unlock anything (though you do need to discover various landmarks like gas stations and junkyards, etc... but discovery is as simple as driving past the landmark). Every traffic light in the game represents some sort of event, and you can trigger any event at any time. As you progress throughout the game, more cars become available and you gradually get better and better "licenses." There are probably a couple hundred things to do in the game, so there's generally something fun to do at any given time.
  • While it's an open world game, there are several events that you can participate in. A big part of the reason I like this game so much is that the events aren't all simple racing events (which I find kinda tedious and which can get on my nerves after a while). Sure, there's a few racing style events (where you race other folks or the clock), but there are a bunch of other events that liven things up. There are Marked Man events, where you have to make it to a specific point on the map while other cars try to make you crash all along the way. Then there's the Road Rage events, where you have to "takedown" as many other cars as you can. Finally, there's the Stunt Runs, where you attempt to chain together various jumps, spins and smashes to reach a certain number of points. All of the events are pretty well balanced and fun, and again, I really appreciated that there was more to do here than just racing against other cars.
  • Speaking of cars, there are a ton of cars available in the game. None are real-life cars, but they can still be a lot of fun. There are three basic classes of cars, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are speed cars, which are all about fast accelleration and high top speeds, but which usually suffer from a weak chassis and often have handling issues (usually pretty good during races). Aggression style cars can take a lot of damage, but usually aren't very fast and handle like a tank (perfect for Marked Man and Road Rage events, though). Stunt cars can take a fair amount of damage and also have some pep too them. These are probably the most well rounded cars of the bunch, though once you get later in the game, the only thing you can really use them for is, well, stunt runs. Each car has a "boost" that is recharged by doing things the car specializes in (i.e. do a jump or a spin, and you'll racharge some boost in your stunt car, etc...) The only real complaint I have with the cars are with the speed cars. They often look the coolest, but can be really difficult to drive. Since they seem to be made of tinfoil, i also found myself totalling the car often. Considering that you can get up to really high speeds in these cars and that many of them have super-sensitive contorls that make handling somewhat difficult, it can be quite easy to total your car with even the slightest ding. And every time you smash the car, you have to sit through this animation of your car crashing in slow-motion. The first couple of times you see this, it's pretty cool. After a thousand times, it gets kinda old. So the speed cars could use a little tweaking, but otherwise, the cars are a blast.
  • There are a couple of other things you can do. For instance, there are a number of high jumps and billboards throughout the city. There's also something called Showtime, which is basically a "crash mode" style minigame where you crash your car and try to inflict the most damage possible on other cars and street property. If you get on a crowded road, you can keep this going for an amazingly long time, and I have to admit that crashing into a ton of stuff and demolishing whole city blocks worth of cars is pretty damn fun. Less exciting are setting time records on various roads. There's also an apparently deep online mode that I never played (maybe I'll check it out at some point though).
  • All in all, the game is great fun. During my Fallout 3 review, I mentioned that I had to dedicate 2 hours of time per gaming session if I wanted to get anything done, and that was indeed something that annoyed me about that game. However, I found myself playing Burnout much longer than that during most sessions and yet, I was having a blast. I think a big part of it was that Burnout's events are all short and sweet, so it feels like I'm making a lot of progress every time I play. There were times when I popped it in and just played for like 20 minutes or so, and even then, I managed to do an event or two and maybe find a billboard and smash it. Just knowing that's an option makes the game more fun to play (whereas, I wouldn't even bother with a game like Fallout, because I know I wouldn't get anything done). Burnout also seems to have a massive amount of available PS3 Trophies. While I know they don't especially mean anything, they do provide tangible milestones and can be fun to collect. Burnout Paradise sucks you in by appealing to the rewards circuitry in your brain, bigtime. This is something most video games do, but this game does it especially well.
  • In terms of usability, the core concept of finding and starting events is good. The only thing the game does poorly at is how you restart an event. Apparently, there was no way to do this when the game was first released, which meant you had to drive back to the starting point, which could be quite far away. However, Burnout has had quite a few patches and free updates, and they "fixed" the restart issue at some point (before I bought the game). The only problem is that the way you restart your last event is really awkward and involves using the d-pad options menu (as opposed to most every other option in the game, which you can do on the fly). There's no way I would have figured that out without looking it up... but at least it's there. Otherwise, the game does a pretty good job. The only other complaint I have is the latency when choosing cars in the junkyard. I have no idea why it takes so long for the car/info to appear, but it could get annoying. These are all nitpicks though, and the game does a damn good job keeping you in the game.The game's controls are reasonably easy to pick up and don't get too complicated either, which is a plus. I shouldn't have to talk about this, but this game does a fantastic job auto-saving everything to the point where I almost forgot to mention it (which is how saving games should be these days!)
  • In terms of difficulty, I thought the game presented a pretty good balance (keeping in mind that I'm a cheater - not that I cheated during this game, as it wasn't necessary). At the start of the game, it's pretty easy and I think I won most of my events on the first license. As the game progresses, each event style gets harder or at least, the requirements get higher. Towards the end of the game, it gets a bit prohibitive, especially on the stunt runs and the races or burning routes. This might be another minor usability niggle - the city is huge, and once you get to a certain point in the game, the only way to win an event is to memorize, well, pretty much the whole city, including shortcuts and where every jump is located, etc... Again, the city is huge and it can be quite difficult to, for example, chain together the required amount of jumps, spins, and smashes to complete a high difficulty stunt run (though I will admit to a certain rush when I do manage to land an epic stunt run). I'm sure plenty of folks will dissect the hell out of the city and figure out all the fastest routes, etc.. but while I had figured out a few tricks and had certain parts of the city memorized, I never really got there. The game does try to get around this during events that have a finishing point by providing a nice mini-map (which works reasonably well) and a sorta blinking roadsign notification of when you should make a turn, but those indications can be a bit difficult to catch (especially when you're moving really fast). Some people have mentioned that they would pause the game frequently to look at the larger map, but this isn't something I felt I needed to do very often. Also, the various shortcuts sometimes make it hard to find the quickest route on a map. Again, these are relatively minor complaints - the game did an excellent job drawing me in and keeping me interested.
  • The game features an apparently robust online component, though I've never used it (perhaps I'll try it out someday). There is also apparently quite a bit of downloadable add-on content as well, including whole new parts of the city and lots of cars. Some of these add-ons are free and will be downloaded when you first play the game (the amount of updates for the game when you fist play can be a bit daunting at first though - it took quite a while to get the game running that first time because there were so many patches and add-ons being installed.) For instance, there was a free add-on that gives you a few motorcycles and additional events, though that mode isn't very deep (and it kills me that you can't do the hand-breaking on bikes, which I know is a ridiculous thing to ask for, but still). At some point, I may check out some of the DLC for the game, but I haven't as of yet...
All in all, I played this game a little less than Fallout 3, but I had a much better time with this, which is somewhat surprising because I'm not a big fan of racing games (but then, as I hope I've established above, this isn't strictly a racing game). It's a very cheap game, so if you have any inclination towards car games, give this one a try .
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2009 at 06:22 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The 2009 Hugos
A few weeks ago, SF author Adam Roberts stirred up quite a storm by suggesting that the nominees for the 2009 Hugo award for best SF/F novel were somewhat lackluster:
Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I'm not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They're not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.
It is an interesting post, and of course his remarks have engendered all sorts of responses and discussion about the nature of the awards themselves and which books on this year's shortlist deserved or didn't deserve to be there. SF Signal took the opportunity to ask a panel of writers several questions, and since I've been reading a lot of SF lately, I thought it might be fun to answer them myself.

How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?

A quick glance at the history of the Hugo Award for Best Novel shows a pretty good list of winners. A lot of my favorite SF novels are winners of the Hugo, and several others were at least nominated. Now, I'm far from an authoritative expert on SF novels and I have not read the grand majority of nominated books, but still, the list seems pretty well balanced. It's worth noting that of the past 15 or 20 SF novels I've read, a little more than half have been hugo winners (or nominees), and a hefty portion of my book queue is also represented by Hugo books.

As an award, the Hugo is interesting because it's a popular vote of Worldcon members. You have to pay to be a member, so that weeds out most casual voters, and it's interesting that a lot of Worldcon members are themselves SF authors or otherwise involved in the SF or publishing business world. This seems to present a good mix. Not as insular as something like, say, the Oscars, but not completely populist either. And I think that shows with a lot of the Hugo winners and nominees. Of course, the entire premise of this question relies on a completely subjective evaluation, so all of this should be taken with a grain of salt.

As for this year's slate, well, I've only read 2 of the 5 nominees. Zoe's Tale is an entertaining read and a good book, but I'm surprised it made the shortlist. I certainly don't think it's an embarrassment or anything, and it's a fine book, but the other book on the shortlist that I've read was Anathem, which I loved and which even curmudgeons like Roberts admit probably deserves to be on the list (if not win). With all due respect to John Scalzi, Anathem far outclasses Zoe's Tale. The other nominees include Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children, which I haven't read but given my experience with Stross, I'd wager I wouldn't like. I've never much cared for anything of his that I've read, so when he gets nominated (and he does, just about every year), it seems kinda boring. For all I know, Saturn's Children is the greatest book evar, but I'm doubting it. I admit that I'm intrigued by the premise of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and as a YA novel, I bet it works pretty well (at the same time, it's not exactly groundbreaking stuff... then again, what is?) Finally, there's Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which I don't know much about except that it's a children's book. All in all, not a bad field at all. Not having read a lot of other novels from this year, I can't say if they're truly the best, but there doesn't seem to be any stinkers in the list. It does seem to have a pretty good variety - you've got a children's book (Graveyard Book), a young-adult novel (Little Brother), a book that might as well be young-adult and that features a teenage girl protagonist (Zoe's Tale), a rather standard SF book (Saturn's Children) and an ambitious, epic novel that features numerous philosophical digressions as well as an entire glossary of made-up words and references (Anathem). I suppose that the under-represented group would be authors that focus a lot on style and literary flourish, but that doesn't bother me (though it does seem to bother Roberts).

How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?

Since I think the winners, overall, seem to comprise a pretty good list of novels, I think the Hugos do a pretty good job of representing what SF has to offer. Several Hugo winners would make a good first SF novel for a more traditional reader, and there are plenty of other winners that have enough heft to attract more discriminating readers. The one thing that might be a bit strange to outsiders is that SF is more concerned with ideas than stylistic flourishes (something that Roberts seems to lament), but honestly, the focus on ideas is what makes us all love SF in the first place. If you're not into that, your interest in SF will probably be limited to certain authors.

Which of this year's finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

The two frontrunners seem to be Graveyard Book and Anathem. Both Neil and Neal are popular with the SF crowd (both have already won an award), and these two books seem to be quite popular. I'll say that Graveyard Book will win, because I'm assuming it has a broader appeal.

Which of this year's finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?

If you read this blog, I'm sure you already know that I think that Anathem should win. Even though I haven't read 3 of the other nominees, I'm pretty confident that Anathem would be my favorite. What can I say, I'm a Stephenson junkie.

Which books do you think were missing from this year's list of Best Novel finalists?

And not having ready any other 2009 SF books, I have nothing to contribute here. So there.

Well, there you have it. I'd be interested to see how some others more knowledgeable of the genre would respond to this though. Maybe next year, I'll make sure I read all of the nominees. That way, I could better comment on something like this... Of course, that assumes I ever finish Infinite Jest (which, incidentally, is a SF novel, something I didn't know when I set out to read it). I'm a few hundred pages behind at this point and not sure if I'll be able to make the deadline. But I digress. The Hugos, like any other list of bests, can sometimes leave something to be desired, but that's half the fun of awards and top 10s and the like. Even lists that are generated by hundreds of votes (as opposed to a list collected by an individual) have their interesting bits, and I think the Hugos do a decent job of that.
Posted by Mark on August 05, 2009 at 07:29 PM .: link :.



Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Upgrades
Thanks to a timely observation by Steven, I found out that this site has been hacked. It appears to be spammers who have exploited a vulnerability in my forum software to inject HTML onto various pages. I have since upgraded my forum software with the necessary patches and while I'm at it, I figure I might as well upgrade Movable Type as well (the new release actually has at least one new feature I want to take advantage of).

All of which is to say that the blog might be acting a little funny tonight, so if you have some trouble commenting or the page looks all banged up, it's probably because I'm working on it. See you on the other side.

Update: Upgrade is complete. No problems encountered. Yet. I'm going to fiddle around with pagination and maybe some comment system stuff if I have time. Also, I removed Steven's comment and my response from the previous entry, since they didn't really fit with the whole slasher movie topic of the post. Thanks again to Steven for finding the issue and taking the time to alert me.

Again Update: So you know how at the bottom of the page, I have a link to read "Older Posts" which will take you to the next 8 posts after the ones on the homepage? Up until now, I had to use multiple index templates with hard-coded navigation between the index templates. This sorta approximated the functionality that's common on, er, most other blogs at this point (I could have converted to dynamic publishing, but not without massively changing the linking structure of the site). This is dreadfully inefficient and it doesn't scale very well - it only went for two extra pages. Anyway, MT 4.3 has support for pagination via built-in search functionality, so now you can just keep reading (apparently, there are a few hundred pages to read through). The resulting pages could use some work, but it's probably fine for now.
Posted by Mark on August 04, 2009 at 08:49 PM .: link :.



Sunday, August 02, 2009

Friday the 13th Marathon Awards
I've been somewhat disorganized during this marathon and I realized that I never really finished off with awards the way I have for some previous marathons. The Filmspotting guys like to give their awards fancy names (i.e. for the SF marathon, they called the awards the "damn dirty apes"), so I guess the Golden Machetes would fit for this, right? Anyway, since this marathon technically started a couple of years ago, I figure a quick recap is in order: With that out of the way, let's get to the awards:
  • Best Final Girl: It's funny, but when I thought about it, my choice is the final girl from one of my least favorite installments - Ginny Field (played by Amy Steel) from Part II. While the film is a bit on the incomprehensible side, Amy Steel's Ginny is definitely the standout character and I think the best final girl in the series. She takes initiative and goes on the offensive more than any other woman in the series (save perhaps the final girl from Part VII, who had a neat gimmick that for the most part didn't pay off that much), even going so far as to put on Jason's mother's sweater at one point, just to mess with Jason's head. Perhaps part of this was that this was Jason's first real movie, and he had not yet even donned his legendary hockey mask let alone demonstrated ridiculous supernatural powers that make it hard to put up a great fight (again, Tina from Part VII did pretty good in the later films...)
  • Best Douchebag: The series is filled with douchebags that you end up rooting against, but my choice here actually comes from the recent remake: Travis Van Winkle really reaches new depths of Douchebaggery in his performance as Trent. He's the source of one of the best moments in an otherwise middle of the road film - the only thing that was lacking was a truly unique and gory kill (something the film lacks in general). Honorable mentions to the douchebag from Part IV (don't remember his name and IMDB doesn't have pictures) and Doctor Douchebag from Part VII.
  • Best Appearance By Legitmate Actors: Given the tremendous amount of no-name actors to appear in these films, I'm surprised at the amount of possible answers here. The most obvious choice would be Kevin Bacon from the original. Another popular choice has to be Crispin Glover's appearance in Part IV. Part IX actually has the most starpower though: Steven Culp, Steven Williams, and Erin Gray all put in appearances in that film. To me, it really comes down to Crispin Glover (especially when you consider that insanely funny dance he does) and Steven Williams's hilarious performance in part IX.
  • Best Jason: A popular choice for this would have to be Kane Hodder, the only one to play Jason in multiple films, but while I think he did a fine job, he's also only in the worst films in the series (parts VII-X). For me, I'd go with C.J. Graham, who played Jason in Part VI. He strikes quite a few memorable poses in the film, and manages to do some rather expressive stuff, which can be difficult considering the mask.
  • Top 5 Kills: There are a lot to choose from here, but here are a few of the standouts for me...
    • Kevin Bacon in the Original - Laying in the bottom bunk, Bacon feels some blood dripping from the top bunk. Then a hand suddenly reaches up and grabs his head while an arrow is pushed up from under the bed, through his neck. Best kill of the first movie.
    • Sleeping Bag Kill From Part VII and X - In Part VII, Jason happens upon a couple of campers and naturally decides to kill them. He takes care of the guy first, then grabs the girl, who is still in her sleeping bag, and slams her against the tree. Classic kill in an otherwise lackluster installment of the series. There's a great reprise of this kill in Jason X though, when Jason wanders into some Holodeck simulation thingy and our heroes have programmed a nice Crystal Lake simulation. The whole sequence pretty much perfects what happened in part VII and adds a new twist.
    • Face Smash from Part X - One of the more original kills. Jason wakes up after a few hundred years and finds a cute girl doing his autopsy. He grabs her head, dunks it in a vat of liquid nitrogen (freezing her head) and then smashes it into a thousand pieces. Brilliant.
    • Boxing in Part VIII - One of the few bearable moments of this film features one of our heroes boxing Jason on a rooftop. Jason toys with him a bit, lets a few punches land, then throws one punch that knocks the kid's head right off. The head goes bouncing off the roof, down the fire escape and into an open dumpster (which then slams shut).
    • Back Breaker in Part VI and Freddy Vs Jason - In Part VI, the Sheriff attempts to protect his daughter by attacking Jason. He puts up a reasonable fight too... until Jason grabs him and folds him in half (ouch). There's a minor reprise of this in Freddy Vs. Jason when Jason stabs a kid on a bed with his machete like 10 times, then folds the bed up achieving the same back breaking results.
    Some honorable mentions include the wheel chair death from Part II, punching through the heart in part VI, axe to the crotch of a douchebag who is walking on his hands in part III, spear gun to the crotch in part IV, spear gun to the eye in part III, and the eye popping kill in part III (I'm sure these last two are even better in 3D, but I've never seen that version). And there's probably like 5 others that are worth mentioning.
  • Best Jason Resurrection: There are two necessary components to a slasher sequel (besides the standard gore and T&A, etc...). First is how the slasher is resurrected. For me, the best resurrection has to be Part VI, where his dead body gets struck by lightning. It's very evocative of a Frankenstein creation scene, and it's pretty funny too.
  • Best Jason Death: The other necessary component of a slasher sequel is how the slasher is "killed". For this one, it doesn't get much better than Jason's death at the end of Part IV, thanks especially to Tom Savini's brilliant makeup and gory special effects. I'd give an honorable mention to the opening sequence to Part IX, which is one of the better openings and quite unexpected.
  • Best Picture: Well, it's really a toss up. If I have to choose, it would probably be Part VI with Part IV coming in a close second. I know some people don't like Part VI's self-aware and referential nature combined with a more humorous take on the series, but it still works quite well for me! There are not many movie series that make it to six films, but of those that do, there are few that could claim the sixth film to be the best in the series... Part VI must have been difficult to follow up as well, because from there, the series began a long and deadly spiral downwards...
And that just about wraps up the marathon. Why I still enjoy these silly, cheesy movies is still a mystery to me (also a mystery: why I was ever scared of them), but enjoy them I do.
Posted by Mark on August 02, 2009 at 05:33 PM .: link :.



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