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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The 2009 Holiday Movie Season
I've noticed lately that people are starting to put out best of the decade lists. Me, I have a hard enough time putting out a best of the year lists, and this year is no exception. It's been a decent year; better than last year, but then, that's not saying much. 2009 still suffered from the tail end of the writers' strike, though that should be out of our system by now. And now we're beginning to approach the time of year when Hollywood tones down the explosions and starts putting out their prestige fare in the hopes of garnering an Oscar (with at least one notable exception)... but I have to say, i was much more intrigued by the movies being dumped off in August than most of those being released in December. That being said, there are still a few movies I'm interested in seeing:
  • The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (November 20) - I'm a little disappointed that this isn't getting a wide release, as it's something that seems like a big barrel of weird fun. I mean, it stars an apparently unhinged Nicolas Cage and is directed by Werner Herzog. From what I've seen, I have this almost cognitive dissonance in my head that I can't quite reconcile, but that only really makes me want to see this more. I'm not sure if I'll be able to get to it, but it looks like fun.
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox (November 25) - So this came out last week and I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but it looks fantastic. I'm really intrigued to see Wes Anderson tackle something outside his usual "quirky" wheelhouse (which has been getting a bit stale of late). It's part of a larger trend this year of young, trendy directors taking on children's stories (the other notable example being Where the Wild Things Are), which I found rather interesting. It's also interesting in that this year really does have a lot of different animation styles going on. This movie's got a very old-school stop-motion style, but this year you've also got the more advanced stop-motion of Coraline, the computer generated art of Up and even more traditional hand animated fare like Disney's The Princess and the Frog and Miyazaki's Ponyo.
  • Up in the Air (December 4) - Jason Reitman's third film is garnering a lot of buzz these days. From what I've seen, I don't think it will overtake Thank You for Smoking as his best film, but I have hope. But then, from what I've heard, it's a bit of a downer. I'm hoping for some levity through funny cameos though...
  • The Lovely Bones (December 11) - Peter Jackson switches gears to a (relatively) low budget drama about the murder of a 14 year old? I'm there. I haven't read the book and only have a vague idea of what it's about, so I'm excited for this one.
  • Avatar (December 18) - I suppose this is the one exception to the traditional December fare, but despite my misgivings (this film is a charter member of the "Films I want to see even though I know they will suck" list (see the bottom of this post)), I am looking forward to the return of James Cameron. I have to admit that I'm not very impressed with what I've seen so far (the dialogue seems especially bad), but you never know and at the very least, it looks to have some breathtaking action sequences...
  • Other Stuff: The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio, Ninja Assassin, The Road, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Sherlock Holmes.
  • Stuff to Watch on DVD/BD: February 2 looks busy... I may have to delay my top 10 list until I see these two: Black Dynamite and The House of the Devil. I would also really like to see A Serious Man, but that's another film that only had a very limited release and I can't even find a date for the DVD/BD... I know nothing about Franklyn other than that it's apparently SF and already out on DVD, so it's in my queue. I missed Extract when it was in theaters, and it's coming on DVD in December. Perhaps less excited about 9, Pandorum, and Jennifer's Body, but they're also coming out soon...
And that about covers it. Will any of these make my top 10? There is certainly a chance, but I don't see more than 1 or 2 making it on the list (provided I manage to see all these, many of which I predict I won't be able to due to annoying limited releases and lengthy waits for DVD/BD).
Posted by Mark on November 29, 2009 at 07:42 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Link Dump - Video Edition
Just a few interesting links I've run across recently:
  • Seeing Science Through Fiction: A talk with Neal Stephenson, Lee Smolin and Jaron Lanier at the Quantum to Cosmos festival. They talk about lots of interesting stuff. Also of note is a panel discussion featuring the same folks and more, though that one isn't as interesting (and is preceded by some awful babbling). In other Stephenson news, he does have a book coming out... in 2011. It's supposed to be titled REAMDE, though no one seems to know what it will be about (there is speculation that it might have something to do with deliberately mispelling "readme", a commom filename).
  • The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc.: In this world of vampires and werewolves, you can never be too careful. This video is pretty awesome, and I'd wager that it's probably a lot better than New Moon! (via Hey! Look Behind You!)
  • The Legend of Neil: So this is pretty old, but I just found it. It's about Neil, who was playing Zelda and accidentally got transported into the game. Moral of the story, don't drink and play Zelda. It's pretty funny, with lots of in-jokes and dirty humor.
  • Johnnie Walker - The Man Who Walked Around The World: For a commercial, this is pretty amazingly well done. It helps that you have an actor like Robert Carlyle, but I wonder how many takes it took (or if there were any cheats)...
That's all for now... Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2009 at 09:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Odds & Ends
A few follow ups to recent posts (and, uh, not so recent posts) as well as some other buffoonery. Enjoy.
  • Infinite Summer has been suspended indefinitely. I only got about 400 pages into the book (and only wrote about the first hundred or so). It's hard to articulate why I never got into the book. It's extremely well written. Some of the subjects are interesting. It's not "hard" to read for me (at least, most of the time) in the way that, say, Gravity's Rainbow was... I just never found myself in the mood to pick up the book. And when I did, I almost immediately found my mind wandering. I wasn't bored, per say, but I found myself thinking about something else and having to refocus and reread the last paragraph. I guess I just don't like it. I have no idea what it's about... if I were having fun with it, that wouldn't be a problem, but I just couldn't connect. There are a ton of characters, but I never really understood or related with most of them. And the ones I did relate to or at least feel empathy for, well, they weren't around often. I don't particularly have any aversion to the amateur tennis world and indeed found that part of things mildly interesting. I really don't get the obsession with addiction and drugs though, and reading about that stuff is grating. There doesn't appear to be a plot. There are tons of things happening, I bet there is a sort of overarching story there, but ultimately, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to care about it when it resolves itself (or when it doesn't). The thought of reading 600 more pages to get there isn't really motivating me either. You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of a Saturday Night Live episode. Every chapter is like a different skit. Sometimes there are recurring characters (or you see the same actors in different circumstances), there's an occasional laugh here or there, but for the most part, each chapter is an independent thing. There are thematic similarities and even some direct connections, but there are times when you read a 10 page character study on someone, then don't see him again in the next 300 pages (or for all I know, the rest of the book). In the end, I'm giving up on it. This is not something I do often. I can count the number of books I've given up on with one hand. There is a chance, however remote, that I'll get back on the horse someday, but that probably won't be anytime soon.
  • I think perhaps I was a little too hard on Valkyria Chronicles last week. It's not that anything I said was inaccurate, it's just that the combat - the actual part of the game you play - is really a lot of fun. Of course, everything outside of the actual gameplay is still annoying, but perhaps not as much as I made it out to be. I have a feeling that the inability to save games in the middle of a battle will be frustrating, but I just played 5 battles and only had to replay one of them (and that was ok because I was having fun probing the defenses and doing silly things with my people). I really hadn't gotten that far into the game when I wrote the last post, so I feel a little bad that I was so hard on it. It's certainly not a perfect game (it feels a lot like a PS2 game, and suffers from some of the same things that it shouldn't have to now that we have better technology on consoles), but it can be a lot of fun. One of the things I complained about was having to choose my full squad towards the beginning of the game without knowing what I would need, etc... It turns out that you only take a few people into battle anyway, and also that you can modify your squad at any time (and you kinda have to, because some of your people have traits that are or are not suited to the terrain in various levels). Of course, that makes me wonder why I have to limit my team in the first place, but I did find myself getting attached to certain characters and now have go-to folks in my squad. It will be sad if one of them ever dies... Anyway, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed the game a lot more upon revisiting it and am looking forward to playing more. I think I just picked it up when I wasn't in the mood for this type of game...
  • Flickchart is an interesting website. The main concept here is that instead of putting together a list of your top movies directly, you indirectly compile the list by picking between a series of choices between 2 movies. So for example, they put The Terminator up against X-Men Origins: Wolverine and make you choose (guess which one I chose!) There are, of course, a lot of flaws with the concept. The list that's emerged for me is probably only 30-40% accurate... And the grand majority of choices result in the better movie holding steady in the rankings. What's more, sometimes inferior movies creep into the top 10 and it's hard to unseat them because they don't come up to be rated very often, and when they do, they're against drastically inferior movies. You can narrow the pool of movies to choose from though, which helps a bit. In any case, it's a lot of fun, and I started to notice patterns or at least, types of choices that continually present themselves:
    • The Obvious Choice - Where one movie I love is placed against a movie I hate. This is surprisingly often. For example, this just came up: The Fugitive versus Transformers. Duh.
    • The Who Cares Choice - Where two movies I could care less about are presented. I usually just hold my nose and choose randomly. A good example of this just came up for me: Magnolia versus The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both mediocre movies from great directors. I like both movies, but I'm not especially enthusiastic about either and they're a far cry from what their respective directors are capable of...
    • The Sophie's Choice - Where two movies I adore are placed against each other. I suck at picking favorites, so this usually tough.
    • The Fun Favorite versus Great Classic Choice - This one seems to happen quite often. A fun movie is ranked against a movie that is extremely well made and a classic, but also a bit of a downer. Which do you rate higher? What's the criteria here? I would usually prefer to watch the fun movie over the great movie... but does that make the great movie less great? For example, Aliens versus Citizen Kane. Kane is the more important movie and is probably a better made film in a number of ways. But I would rather watch Aliens for the 110th time than Citizen Kane for the 3rd or 4th. It doesn't help that the two movies could not be more different. That might be a different category (or perhaps a different name for this category).
    And so on. Right now, my favorite movie of all time is listed as The Terminator, followed by Casablanca. They're both a bit too high, but reasonably accurate. My number 3 movie is Predator, which I love, but which is also far too high on the list. Meanwhile, my true #1 film of all time, The Godfather, is languishing at #120 on the list. Someday, perhaps after rating a few million more times, the list will be more accurate. I do have to wonder how many ratings you'd have to give in this way in order to arrive at a reasonably accurate list.
  • I seem to be in something of a rut in terms of blog posting. This happens from time to time, but I do have some posts planned that will have a little more meat on them (and not consist of unordered lists of things, the way the grand majority of posts here have been lately). I don't know when they will happen though, as they require more time and effort than your average post (honestly, I don't know how some bloggers do it).
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2009 at 03:08 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Store You Made
I'm totally stealing an idea from Jason Kottke here (let's call it a meme!), but it's kinda neat:
Whenever I link to something at Amazon on kottke.org, there's an affiliate code associated with the link. When I log into my account, I can access a listing of what people bought1. The interesting bit is that everything someone buys after clicking through to Amazon counts and is listed, even items I didn't link to directly. These purchased-but-unlinked-to items form a sort of store created by kottke.org readers of their own accord.
I have about 1/1000000th the readership of Kottke, but I do have an Amazon affiliate account (it doesn't even come close to helping pay for the site, but it does feed my book/movie/music/video game addictions). Of course, I don't sell nearly as much stuff either, but here are a few things sold that haven't been directly linked: And that about covers the unexpected stuff. I do get lots of Asimov orders as well as Christmas movie orders, but those are popular sections of the site...
Posted by Mark on November 18, 2009 at 07:23 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

PS3 Game Corner
Just a few thoughts on games I've played recently:
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: In anticipation of the recently released sequel, I finally got around to checking out the original. It was one of the few notable PS3 exclusives a couple years ago and it is indeed one of the system's standout games (though the recent sequel is supposed to be even better). Overall, it's a great game, though there are some annoying bits here and there. Visually, it's quite impressive and ranks right up there with Assassin's Creed the prettiest games I've seen for the system yet. The gaming style is mostly as a third-person shooter, with some basic platforming and puzzle elements thrown in for good measure. I've heard a lot of complaints about the shooting aspects of the game, but I rather liked it. The cover system (similar to Gears of War's system) could get a bit cumbersome at times, but overall, I really enjoyed it. There isn't a huge variety in weaponry, but what's there seems to work well. I suppose the one thing that seems odd is that your primary enemy consists of endless throngs of pirates... you'd think that an organization consisting of several thousand pirates and the logistical ability to support them on remote islands would be more organized and effective (and perhaps not need to go on such risky treasure hunting trips), but I guess not. The platforming is well done, though there are lots of times when you think you should be able to climb up a wall or make your way through some rubble or something, only to find yourself jumping ineffectually. Still, 3D platforming can be very annoying, and it never reached those levels here (the focus of the game is not the platforming, but it works well). The puzzles are almost alarmingly simple, but they work well enough.

    The one blemish on the game is the dreaded "Quick Time Events". I never understood the near universal hostility towards QTEs because my experience of them (mostly in the God of War games) was always pretty good. Well, they're awful here. This is a very cinematic game, with frequent cut-scenes where you passively watch the story progress. The problem, about 3 times in the game, the cut-scene suddenly throws up a button that you have to press within about 1 second, or you die. Not once did I ever notice it in time, forcing me to replay the QTE section again, this time knowing that the QTE is coming. It would be one thing if every cut-scene featured something like this, but 95% of them don't. The reason QTE works in games like God of War is that you don't immediately die when you fail to press the appropriate buttons in the right sequence. In some cases, the QTEs aren't even necessary in GoW. But in Uncharted, they are absolutely pointless. Fortunately, that's the only real major problem on an otherwise very polished game (and it's actually a pretty small problem). The only other minor annoyance is that saving the game doesn't actually save all progress... it only saves you up to the beginning of your current checkpoint. For the most part, the checkpoints are well spaced, but there is the occasional annoying area that's difficult to defeat.

    In terms of a story, well, there is a coherent story here, which is more than you can say for most games. The plot is a little thin, but I can see why a movie adaptation is planned. Indeed, there are several sequences that actually built tension and made me surprisingly jumpy at times. The generator sequence towards the end of the game is pretty harrowing, for instance. It's a lot of fun and one of the better adventure games I've played recently, though I suppose it doesn't really add much in the way of new or innovative gameplay. Still, in videogameland, a game that is this well executed deserves some credit, and I'm really looking forward to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
  • NHL 10: I've never been a big fan of sports or sports games, but for some reason, I've always loved hockey video games. From Blades of Steel on, I've gotten a new game every few years, starting in 1995. During the 2004 to 2006 corridor, I played 3 different games. I played the hell out of NHL 2004 (which probably remains my favorite hockey game of all time), but lost the game when I moved to my current house. I then made the ill-advised move to ESPN NHL 2K5, which was something of a disaster (and it appears that 2K Games were still suffering from major issues at least 3 years later). So made the move back to EA's franchise with NHL 06, which was a massive improvement over the 2K game, but ultimately lacked the spark that really captured me in 2004's installment. So I took a few years off and finally decided to take a look at what the current generation was doing. NHL 09 was apparently one of the best sports games of last year, and NHL 10 was poised to be even better, so I decided to pick it up.

    I have to admit, it's not as good as NHL 2004 in many ways. It's a much deeper game, and it managed to add that depth without sacrificing too much in terms of usability, though there are some things that still baffle me. It seems that in 2009, they completely revamped the controller scheme, and after some initial discomfort as I learned the new scheme, I began to warm to the new system. It makes primary use of the two analog sticks, with much less focus on the buttons. I have to wonder how well someone new to the game would react. I had issues with it, I think, because I was unlearning 15 years of muscle memory. Someone completely new might think it was a little easier. Or not. Who knows? Once you get beyond the basic mechanics, I think it starts to falter a bit. I've always been a big fan of poke-checking, but this game also has this "stick lift" feature that I think might be overemphasized, especially when you get into online play with someone who is really good. It's amazingly frustrating to play against someone who is that good with the more subtle controls. In any case, the game is customizable, so if you're a die hard purist and want to play with NHL 94 controls, that option is available (the PS2 era control scheme is also available). For the most part, the actual gameplay here is probably better than NHL 2004. The game does feature a much deeper franchise mode (called "Be a GM" mode) that manages to be more usable than, say, NHL 2K5 (which also had a deep GM mode). Still, there are some weird usability niggles that confuse me. For instance, advancing to the next game seems oddly manual. You have to manually sim up to the next game. I believe previous games just had an option to "Play Next Game." Also, every time your minor league team has a game the same day you do, you have to tell the system that it's ok to sim the minor league game. This is extremely odd since you can't actually play the minor league games. And even if you could, who would want to do that? What's more, the dialog boxes for this are very poorly written. Anyway, aside from that, things seem to work reasonably well.

    There are a lot of other modes available as well. There's a "Be a Pro" mode where you insert yourself onto a team and try to turn yourself into a star player. I haven't played this mode yet, but I'm very interested in checking it out. There is a new way of doing shootouts and penalty shots that I actually find kinda disorienting (in fact, I'm pretty sure I've never scored a goal against the computer - though I have against a human player). They also made a new fighting system that's a first person view. I'm not sure I have the hang of it yet, but it works reasonably well. There is an online mode that I think I'll actually play a good amount of... which is rare for me. The only online game I've played much of in the past has been Resistance 2's online co-op, and I didn't even play that much. I haven't managed to get into a league yet, but the Online Versus play seems to work fine for now.

    Ultimately, I feel like the game is missing many of the little things that were just so right about NHL 2004. For instance, winning the Stanley Cup was much more memorable in NHL 2004. They played a song you rarely heard and did a really nice presentation of the trophy and recap of the season, featuring little recaps for each individual player. Most of that is gone in NHL 10. You here one of the standard songs they play all the time, the presentation is there, as is the final photo, but the rest is missing. Indeed, the soundtrack in general seems a little weak this year. There is supposedly a feature that lets you import songs from your own collection, which is something I should look into. I wonder how much the soundtrack really impacts a game like this? Also, is it just me, or is this year's play-by-play and commentary distinctly inferior to previous years? I understand that things will be repeated often, but it seems like much of what they're saying isn't really representative of what's happening in the game (ok, fine, I just don't like it when they say that I'm dumb for trying so many one-timers). Also, is it just me, or do the face/hair designs not seem to match the players as well as previous games? I find this rather surprising, considering the improved graphics capabilities. It's not that the designs look bad - the graphics are definitely better - but they don't look as much like the players. Strange.

    The one thing that this game does have that no previous game has had is PS3 trophies. I know they don't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I'll be damned if that feeling of earning a new trophy isn't awesome. When I think about it, that Pavlovian "ding" is a little disturbing, but I love it and it keeps me playing games after I normally would have given up on them. I certainly wouldn't have given up on NHL 10, but the trophies do get you to think about new and interesting ways to play the game. All in all, it's a worthy game, probably the best I've played since 2004. I wish there was a way to fix some of the things that annoyed me, but it's a solid game and I'm sure it will keep me busy for a long time.
  • Valkyria Chronicles: This is a game I was really looking forward to for a while there, but as soon as I got it and started playing, I almost immediately lost interest... and I'm not sure why. I think it may have been because I started playing as soon as I finished Fallout 3. Not that I disliked Fallout 3 (in fact, I kinda want to revisit it), but the fact that you had to play for like 2 hours at a time in order to accomplish anything was annoying. I ended up writing a lot more than I thought I would below, but you should probably just watch Yahtzee's review. He's a bit harsher on the game than I would be, but he also hits all the pain points of the game and he is quite right that stuff like no auto-save and the crazy menu system are very annoying. (Also worth watching - the Unskippable guys tearing a cut-scene to shreds)

    Valkyria Chronicles is a sorta mix between a RPG and a turn-based tactical shooter (it's, uh, kinda hard to explain). There are a few things that immediately turned me off about the game. First was the way the story was told. There's this book that is broken up into chapters, and you have to click through each one (not sure why it's set up this way - if there are 3 cut-scenes in a row and I have to watch all of them, why not just show me them all instead of taking me back out to the menu after each one). In a lot of cases, there aren't even animations on screen - you just see a lot of dialog boxes and hear people talking, etc... This is something I have associated with a lot of Wii games, but this exposition-heavy style seems like a more common Japanese thing. Whatever the case, that's annoying. The story itself is ok, I guess. I haven't gotten that far, but the none-too-subtle fantasy version of WWII seems reasonably well done. The story concerns an evil empire in the East attacking a group of allies in the west. You're characters are part of a Switzerland-like country caught in the middle of things. All well and good, I guess, though the main characters don't seem like your average soldier-types. There's a certain naivete that the characters seem to have that I can't quite reconcile with the war setting.

    Anyway, once you get into combat, things are interesting and actually quite fun... but you can't save your game in the middle of a fight, which I predict will be really annoying as time goes on. I haven't gotten far into the game though, so maybe that part is addressed with checkpoints or something. I actually just finished putting together my first squad, and I've only really taken them on a small recon mission, but even putting together my team was a kinda odd experience. I would have thought we'd start out small, then gradually add team members. Instead, they make you load out a full 21 person team all at once. The process was kinda strange. I haven't played enough of the game to know what kind of balance I need from the soldier classes, and I'm not sure I understand the various attributes that give bonuses or penalties (i.e. some soldiers are apparently better at urban warfare than others, or vice versa, you have to consider the relationships between soldiers and various chemistry things there, etc...) I suppose that's something I can tweak as I go, but still. Again, I'm not very far into the game, and it is fun, but there have been a few annoyances along the way.

    The cell-shading art style is gorgeous and the game is generally pretty nice to look at. As previously mentioned, some of the cut-scenes skimp on the animation, but otherwise it's pretty good. Apparently there is an Anime show that is loosely based on the game. Anyway, it's a game I certainly want to play more of before really passing judgment, but so far, I find myself agreeing with Yahtzee on this one. Also, this shouldn't matter, but I can't get my Pavlovian trophy fix with this game because it was made before trophies were required. Dammit.

    Update: It seems I was too hard on Valkyria Chronicles. I've been playing it this week and am having lots of fun. The combat is great fun. The complaints above are still valid, but the story is getting more interesting and the various chapters seem to be a good mixture of combat styles (i.e. a battle in a wide open area of desert requires you to use a lot of scouts and snipers, but not so much shocktroopers). Good stuff...
So in the near future I think I'll find myself playing a lot of NHL 10, giving Valkyria Chronicles another try, playing more NHL 10, checking out the God of War Collection (mostly for GoW2, which I haven't played much of, but it might be nice to see GoW1 in HD too), then maybe catching up with The Force Unleashed. Then I might actually get around to some of the recent releases like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin's Creed II.

I noticed the other day that I still haven't unpacked my Wii from when I brought it with me on vacation in August. And honestly, there's not much coming out for the Wii that really intrigues me either. I've never been a big Mario fan, so New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn't interest me that much, and definitely not Mario Galaxy 2 (I liked the first game a lot, but ultimately got tired of it). I'm a little interested in Wii Sports Resort, but the fact that I have to buy another damn peripheral for the system holds me back (even if it is only an extra $20). Similarly, I might check out Wii Fit Plus. I tend to only do real exercise during the summer months for some reason, so perhaps Wii Fit will help me keep a minimum level of exercise going through Winter. It also sounds like they've improved on the original quite a bit. I'm not expecting my ultimate in video game fitness (which would be a game that combines the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side effects of exercise), but it does look better than the original (and it seems to be marketed more as a replacement than a sequel). Other than that, the landscape on Wii looks pretty bleak for me. There's supposedly a new Zelda game in the works, which is definitely interesting... but then, I never really got into Twilight Princess. The upcoming Metroid sounds rather dull as well (or maybe I'm just soured on the series because of Metroid Prime 3) There are a few other games I still want to check out, but nothing really jumps out at me. I've been a much more avid gamer with the PS3 than the Wii, and quite frankly, I paid around the same for both consoles. Plus, I watch lots of movies with the PS3 (and the recently added Netflix support is an awesome addition, if a bit awkward to use).
Posted by Mark on November 15, 2009 at 06:50 PM .: link :.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Night of the Friday is List Day
So yeah, it's been over a year since the last List Day. I figure we're due.

Random Ten:
  • Mike Oldfield - "Tubular Bells Part Two"
  • Nine Inch Nails - "9 Ghost I"
  • Mew - "Why Are You Looking Grave?"
  • The Who - "Welcome"
  • Clint Mansell, Kronos Quartet - "Winter Overture"
  • Soundgarden - "The Day I Tried to Live"
  • Jimi Hendrix - "Stop"
  • Steroid Maximus - "'Pusher' Jones"
  • Fantômas - "Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion"
  • Dave / Del tha Funkee Homosapien / Handsome Boy Modeling School - "The Projects (Pjays)"
5 Interesting Documentaries Available on Netflix Instant Viewing
In honor of Netflix's newfound PS3 support, I've been watching a bunch of stuff this week, including these documentaries.
  • Overnight: Wow, Troy Duffy (of Boondock Saints fame) is a tremendous douchebag.
  • Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: A little too sympathetic to fugitive child rapist Polanski, but that's a tough line to walk and the movie does a reasonable job in spite of that. Apparently a sequel covering recent happenings is in the works.
  • Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film: It's a fun film for fans of the genre (I wrote about this before).
  • Revolution OS: Seems to be a reasonable overview of the rise of Free Software, Linux, and Open Source. Like most movies about technology, it's out of date, but still interesting.
  • Zombiemania: I don't even really like Zombie movies that much, but I love watching documentaries about movies, so this was fun.
5 Other Documentaries I Want to Watch That's all for now. I doubt this will be the regular feature it once was, but you never know...
Posted by Mark on November 13, 2009 at 12:03 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Upgrades and Problems
I'm in the process of updating the site's software for both Movable Type and the forum. This may cause issues in the near future. This process started last week, but the problem has expanded a bit, so I'm still working through a few things.

Unfortunately, this site seems to have become the target of some malicious hackers who are exploiting some sort of vulnerability to inject code into some index files. Near as I can tell, the blog is among the least affected sections of the site (perhaps because it is consistently refreshed (and thus overwritten)). At this point, I think I've done everything I can do. I've contacted my host as well, so hopefully they can help me diagnose the problem. Sorry for any inconvenience. Hopefully this will be resolved soon.

Update: Spoke with my host. They inspected my account and all appears to be well for now. The recommended using some different FTP and account settings, but otherwise I seem to have done all that I can at this point. Software updated, passwords changed, all known issues removed, etc... I'll just have to keep an extra close eye on the site for the time being.

Again Update: It appears that the upgrade to Movable Type broke the pagination at the bottom of the page. It wasn't working for a few days, but it appears to be fixed now.
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2009 at 08:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

6WH: Postscript
So I finished up my yearly horror movie marathon on Halloween last week, and it seems that while most bloggers didn't partake in an entire 6 weeks of horror movie watching, many did fire up their DVD players on Halloween weekend... their posts have been hitting all this week, including people who watched many of my favrorite series. Here's a few links:
  • Nightmare on Elm Street thoughts from Ben, who's watched the first several movies in the series. He seems to have cooled considerably on the original movie:
    Not really scary, anymore...a bunch of jump scares is all that's left. Although I can see how this movie could have been really scary when it first came out. I think Freddy may have been the first "Supernatural Monster Demon" slasher. The modern audience is so steeped in the tropes and concepts of slasher movies now that the concept isn't frightening anymore.
    It's an interesting point: Context matters. I have to wonder if audiences today would be as terrified of the movie as I was... I ended up writing rather lengthy comments in response (and, uh, just blabbing about the movie), which I will excerpt a bit here (I suppose it's kinda tacky to post a quote of my own comments, but whatever):
    I was terrified by the first NoES when I was a kid, and I think there is still some residual terror there for me. The thing that really scares me is the inescapable nature of the plot. How do you hide from something that gets you when you sleep? Also: Some of the best and most creative death scenes in all of slasherdom.

    One of my favorite things about the series is that it takes a common trope and crutch of the horror genre - the dream sequence - and really explores it in a unique and interesting way. Normally dream sequences are used (and overused) as a sorta false scare. In NoES series, they ARE the scare. Then there's the way that Craven plays around with the perceptions of waking life and dreaming, sometimes implying one when the other is what's really happening. It's a movie that invites more intellectual engagement than most slashers, which again separates it from the pack.

    The other notable component about Freddy is that he's got a personality. The other classic slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are almost robotic in nature. They are implacable and yet almost predictable. Freddy's personality certainly isn't pleasant. He's a vicious sadist with a wicked sense of humor, but that's something that is missing from the grand majority of slasher films (indeed, most slashers don't even talk, and even when they do, they don't say much).
    Ben also covers part 2 and part 3 in his post (including an interesting bit about dysfunctional families - I'm in Ben's boat when it comes to that discussion)... I had planned to cover more of the series in this year's 6WH series, but got stuck at part 3, as Netflix was stuck on "Very Long Wait" (and it appears to still be there). I've seen bits and pieces of most of the films, but I've only seen a few of them from beginning to end, and one that I really want to catch up with is New Nightmare. That movie is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, Wes Craven returns to the series he created and puts a new spin on things (and I like Craven's style). Second, it was apparently Craven's first attempt at a sorta post-ironic slasher... an approach he would score with in his later film, Scream. It should be interesting to see what the upcoming Elm Street remake brings to the table as well (at the very least, I bet we can expect a nice new edition of the original on Blu-Ray, right? That's one big benefit of the recent horror remake trend...)
  • Friday the 13th: What’s it all about, Jason?: Justin Zyduck watched a few Friday the 13th movies in preparation for Halloween, and he seems to have a very common reaction to the series (at least, among folks my age): "It’s my favorite horror series, and I’m not always sure why." Heh. Indeed, this sort of feeling seems to be common amongst all horror films, leading to similar statements about all sorts of other movies. I suspect it has something to do with the irrational nature of fear. Not that I'm immune or anything. For instance, I have often professed my inexplicable love of Phantasm and earlier this year, I revisited all the Friday the 13th movies even though I have no idea why I enjoy them so much. Anywho, Justin eventually settles on Jason as the reason he likes the series so much:
    He’s not a character, he’s a big scary guy who walks around killing whoever he comes upon. Jason is a gimmick - and I say that as someone who loves Jason. A good gimmick is still a gimmick, and Jason as a horror icon owes everything - everything - to being a fantastic visual; there’s no reason in the story or thematically why he should be wearing a hockey mask, but it works to create a haunting image.
    It's a good post. He also mentions His Name Was Jason, a fluffy little documentary covering the history of the franchise. It's a decent watch, but I found it lacking for some reason. I think it's missing some of the outside perspective of the films, instead focusing in on those who actually made the films. Maybe that's a bit harsh... I just wish Wes Craven and John Carpenter interviews were in every horror documentary.
  • On Army of Darkness: Kelson celebrated the holiday by watching the Evil Dead movies, and in a little bit of horror blasphemy, mentions that his favorite of the series is actually Army of Darkness. He also makes an excellent observation about the series:
    I also started thinking about what sets the Evil Dead trilogy apart from other 1980s horror series: instead of focusing on the villains, the later installments are all about the hero.

    Friday the 13th? All about Jason. Nightmare on Elm Street? Freddie Kruger. Hellraiser? Pinhead and the Cenobites.

    Evil Dead? Ash. Hail to the King.
    Brilliant. To me, the other interesting thing about this series has always been how it encapsulated the trajectory of the horror genre throughout the 80s and into the 90s. The Evil Dead was made in 1981 and was an excellent low-budget horror film. It wasn't perfect, but it was an earnest effort and it's primary purpose was to establish tension. Evil Dead II was made in 1987, and here you see pretty much the same story as part 1, but with more comedic overtones. There were still some scares, but you also saw elements of slapstick and other physical comedy. By 1992, the series had morphed into outright comedy. There were a few horror elements in Army of Darkness, but more than anything else, the purpose of that film was to make you laugh. Horror was not doing so well as a movie genre in the 90s, in large part because it had become laughable. No one was scared anymore. This also went for series like Nightmare on Elm Street, which stopped being scary somewhere around part 4 (though I'm not sure, as I haven't revisited yet:) Freddy's once creepy and sadistic villain became a caricature of himself, relying a little too much on one liners and silly jokes. I don't mean to imply that the Evil Dead movies caused this or that they're bad or anything, I just think they encapsulate the phenomenon rather well (and in just 3 movies made during the 10-11 year span).
  • Socialists and Zombies: Not sure if Fledge was watching zombie movies for Halloween, but he has some interesting musings about:
    ...an allegorical film where zombies attack a town in the usual fashion, and are killed off by shotguns by the usual rouugh types, but for some reason everyone in the film never uses the word “zombies”, instead they call them “socialists” - and instead of brains, the zombies go looking for wallets.
    It's perhaps a bit too blatant for my tastes, but then, that's part of the reason I don't care much for zombie movies. The socio-political statements are always too obvious. Of course, as with any metaphor, you can twist it to mean something else if you try hard enough. To me, zombies could almost always be read as representative of socialism. There is no private ownership in zombie society. They allocate resources (i.e. food) as they find it. You don’t see zombies hoarding resources, nor do you usually see zombies eating a body by themselves. The limiting factor seems to be how many zombies can physically surround the food. There is no greed, there is no hierarchy, there is no emotion, hell, there is no money in zombie society. There are no poor or rich - all are equal. Even in George Romero's original Dawn of the Dead, you could read the zombies that way. The film would still be a scathing indictment of consumer culture and capitalism, but those elements are captured very well by the humans in the film. In any case, I still don't care for zombies. They're just too easy to map fears onto.
Completely unrelated, but I got my PS3 Netflix disc on Friday. It's a bit of an awkward experience (you have to put a disc into the PS3 every time you want to watch) and it can be very sloooow... but in the end, I'm still excited. It's probably not as good as the XBox functionality, but it's a lot better than my experiments with PlayOn and other media streaming solutions. Again, it's slow, but the quality seems pretty good (and I haven't even watched one of the available HD movies) and the experience is fine for now. Also, I'm pretty sure the awkward experience is due to some sort of XBox exclusivity deal Netflix is trying to get around by using a disc. It's rumored that the functionality will be made available directly on the XMB next year (and that the whole disc thing will just go away). I'm also assuming some improvements in the application as time goes on. This seems to be the way Sony has been operating with PSN. It seems to be steadily improving as time goes on, and of course, it's free so I don't have to pay to use internet features on my PS3 (XBox users have to pay to use Netflix streaming). In any case, I'm just happy that I can watch my Netflix streaming stuff through my PS3. For those who are interested in what the experience is like, Joystiq has a hands-on video...
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Posted by Mark on November 08, 2009 at 08:07 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Link Dump!
Time is a little tight due to the Phillies making the World Series (Go Phils!), so here are a few links I found interesting recently:
  • The Fightin' Phils Polka (mp3): This is rather awesome. Let's go Phillies!
  • How habitable is the Earth?: Charlie Stross attempts to argue that a planet like the Earth would not be considered habitable from the perspective of prospective interstellar colonists. The point of the post is a good one (Earth would only be habitable to humans for a fraction of its existance), but the specifics of his thought experiment are rather dumb.
    I want you to imagine that, instead of being a perplexed mostly-hairless primate reading a blog, you're the guiding intelligence of an interstellar robot probe. You've been entrusted with the vital mission of determining whether a target planet is inhabitable by members of your creator species, who bear an eerie resemblance to H. Sapiens Sapiens. To gauge the suitability of the target world you've been given an incubator that can generate decorticated human clones — breathing meat-machines with nobody home up top. When you get to the destination you're going to transfer them to the surface and see how long they survive. If it can make it through 24 hours (or one diurnal period), congratulations! — you've found a potential colony world; one so hospitable that a naked and clueless human doesn't die on their first day out.
    His first strike against Earth is that 78% of the planet is covered in water, and that randomly dropping "meat-machines" on the planet will cause most of them to drown. Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks that's dumb? Prospective interstellar colonists would be looking for a planet that looks like the one they came from. Human beings have well established conditions for comfortable living, that's obviously what we'd look for. The planet we're on now seems to work reasonably well, so if we found a planet where a small percentage of the surface is really habitable, that's still pretty good. Also, he finishes off his post with a note that there's only a 1% chance that a prospective interstellar colonist would consider Earth a good planet. Well, isn't 1% ok? Sure, it's astronomically small... but we're talking about astronomy here! Ultimately, he's making a good point, but the rhetorical strategy here... I just didn't care for it...
  • Wallowing in Misery for Art’s Sake: A.O. Scott takes the New York Film Festival to task for its schedule, and in so doing, he coins a new term that I rather like:
    The cumulative picture of the human condition that has emerged since opening night is dominated by sadism, guilt, violence and despair, a panorama of pessimism notable for its exhausting rigor and relentless consistency. ...

    This year’s New York Film Festival can be understood as an unusually powerful and disciplined presentation of an aesthetic ideology we might call festivalism. There is some irony in the name, since a central tenet of festivalism is an abiding skepticism about the nature and value of fun. That’s not what movies are for!

    But the festivalist mentality does not simply rest on a taste for depicting or witnessing human misery — social, sexual, economic and psychic. Rather, the embrace of such harsh thematic content reflects a commitment to a dogma of artistic obduracy. T. S. Eliot said of modern poetry that “it must be difficult,” an imperative defiantly reflected in a program, harvested mostly from other festivals, that pushes the boundary between the challenging and the punitive.
    "Festivalism." I like that. Rather, I like the word. I don't really enjoy what it represents. The only thing it doesn't really capture is how "Independent" films also seem to traffic in the same sort of thing. I really miss the middle ground films that had mainstream appeal, but were independently produced by genuinely talented artists. We catch glimpses of this sort of thing from time to time (Paranormal Activity is a recent example), but they seem to be much less frequent.
  • A Conversation on Blogging Ethics and Online Film Journalism with C. Robert Cargill, Devin Faraci, and Peter Sciretta: Great audio conversation that was originally planned to be a 20 minute thing but which ballooned into a 2 hour epic. I think the one thing missing from the conversation is, well, not to belittle the industry, but there isn't really that much to report in the movie business. People read these sites more for commentary than just news. Finding out who is cast in the next Twilight picture might be news and it might bring in hits for your site, but ultimately, that's not a big story and it doesn't take as much effort to uncover than, say, an intrepid reporter who breaks a story on the Police pushing drugs at a local beach. That reporter has to go undercover, investigating the beach, taking trips to Utah to follow leads, impersonate doctors and maintenance workers, and so on, to get the story. I love Devin Faraci, and he does set visits and travels to film festivals and whatnot, but the types of stories he makes out of that sort of thing are entertaining more because of his perspective than the actual facts of what he reports. There's a big difference between that and the beach drug story... In any case, it's a fascinating discussion, and well worth a listen (they get into a lot more than I'm talking about here).
  • Video Games Video: Interesting little video covering, well, kinda sorta the early history of video games, with original animations and set to technoey music. A fun watch.
That's all for now. Go Phils!

Update: Well, shit.
Posted by Mark on November 04, 2009 at 05:51 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

18½ Philadelphia Film Festival Recap
On Saturday, October 17 I made the trek into the city to watch four films from the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival. Alas, that comprised the whole of my viewing experience for this festival, but it was a very good day. Here's a quick recap of three of the films:
  • Stingray Sam: This eclectic Musical/Comedy/Sci-Fi/Western film is quite a strange film. Constructed as a series of six ten minute shorts, each with their own opening and closing credits as well as faux sponsors, it's meant to resemble old low-budget SF serials. The story concerns Stingray Sam, a lounge singer on Mars, who teams up with his old cohort, The Quasar Kid, to rescue a kidnapped child. The little girl is being held captive by a spoiled man who is the offspring of two men (one of the highlights of the film is a musical interlude in which the genetic experiments that allowed this union are chronicled - the song consists mostly of the two parents' names and their offspring's name, which is a combination - for example, Fredrick and Edward produced Fredward! It's surprisingly long and hysterically funny with an almost Biblical feel...) The whole film is narrated by David Hyde Pierce, who does an excellent job selling the absurdities and eccentricities of the film's world. The highlights, for me, were the historical digressions and the visual collage work. The actual live action stuff was a bit lacking, though I like some of the stuff there too (I love the recurring handshake, which is this ridiculously long series of gestures that goes from funny, to annoying and back into funny). I usually hate musicals, but for the most part, this film worked well enough for me (I tend to like musicals better when there's a lot more going on besides the music). So this was one of the stranger films I've seen, but it's quite entertaining and well worth a watch. At least the first episode is available on the website too, so check it out... ***
  • Bronson: This movie tells the story of Michael Peterson, the U.K.'s most famous (and violent) prisoner. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison, he has now served 34 years, 30 of them in solitary confinement. There is only one interruption in his career as a prisoner, during which time he seeks to make a living by bare-fisted brawling - taking the name Charles Bronson as his "fighting name." But it doesn't take long for him to get back into prison. Once there, he engages in his favorite pastime - taking a hostage, stripping naked, greasing himself up, and then fighting the guards who come to rescue the hostage. Sometimes he doesn't even need a hostage. The film doesn't really offer much in the way of insight into Bronson, but then, I'm not sure there's anything to really know. Sometimes there's no explanation for someone's behavior. As near as I can tell, the most we get to know him is during one of his less violent periods, when he is allowed to pursue art. He seems to enjoy creating art quite a bit... until the warden indicates that art may lead to rehabilitation, at which point Bronson takes the art teacher hostage, strips naked, etc... It becomes somewhat clear that Bronson is an artist, and his preferred medium is violence. It's ultimately a bit pointless, but it's never boring and Bronson is played with volcanic rage by Tom Hardy. It's an impressive and forceful performance, and he pretty much carries the movie on his shoulders (hard to believe it's the same guy who played the villain in Star Trek: Nemisis). I've gone back and forth on this movie, because I don't generally like character studies, especially ones that don't offer much insight or purpose, but I can't help but respect what this movie has done. ***
  • Red Cliff: John Woo returns to his native China... and after an extended hiatus, he also returns to good filmmaking. In this movie, Woo has created a historical epic, retelling stories of the warring factions in China near the fall of the Han dynasty. Various warlords were vying for power during this period, but rather than attempting to capture the entire story, Woo focuses in on one of the popular milestones. Unsurprisingly, it's an episode that lends itself to all sorts of epic battle sequences and tactical maneuverings. The battles are pure spectacle, mixing well used CGI with old-school wire-work and kung fu. Some of the characters take on almost mythological personas during these sequences, and they are a joy to watch. However, even during the down times between battles, things are kept interesting by strategic and tactical machinations being played on both sides of the battle. There are several memorable sequences, including one of my favorites in which one side of the fight (the side we are rooting for) realizes that it is low on arrows and someone devises a way to replenish their supplies. It's a little long and sometimes the action approaches fantasy, which doesn't always mix that well with the more realistic historical treatment, but ultimately it works very well. Definitely Woo's best work in well over a decade and one of the better films of this year. This film should be getting a release in November, and if you like historical epics, this is the best one in a while. ***1/2
I also saw Rembrandt's J'accuse, but there's sufficient material there for a separate post. I posted a quick thought on Twitter immediately after seeing it, and after some time, I don't think my opinion has changed much. Still, there's a ton of interesting things about the film that I want to get into...

All in all, it was a very good day and a much better experience than the last few movies I'd seen at the Philly Film Fest... Not sure if that's because it was all in one day or if it was because the films were just better, but whatever the case, I had a lot of fun.

Update: I've written a rather long and involved post about the aforementioned Rembrandt's J'accuse...
Posted by Mark on November 01, 2009 at 12:53 PM .: link :.

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