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Sunday, January 31, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Arbitrary Awards
So we're finished with the formal awards, but there are always some other awards that I don't really bother to come up with other nominees for... and there are some movies that have something so uncommon that it's worth bringing up. Interestingly, some of these awards have actually become a yearly thing, despite never really being conceived as such. In any case, here they are:
  • The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: Avatar. This is quite an accomplishment, though Cameron is certainly no Shyamalan (last year's "winner" of this award). I wish I had a copy of the shooting script so that I could pick out the exact lines, but a big part of bad dialogue is also bad delivery, which isn't especially in short supply here either.
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Friday the 13th. This seems like a no brainer, but this probably could have been a real category if I really wanted to do that. But in the end, it's hard not to give the award its own namesake, right?
  • The Divorced Man's Fantasy Award: Taken. There has to be thousands of divorced guys who list this as their favorite movie, right?
  • The Blatant Disregard to History Award: Inglourious Basterds. But in a good way (which is actually a pretty impressive feat all by itself)!
  • The Blatant Disregard to Physics Award: Star Trek. Red matter? Really? It's not so much that this was the worst movie in this category as that I'm most disappointed by Trek (a movie I still love and which will make my top 10).
  • Best Incongruous Action Sequence: The sniper battle in The Hurt Locker. This is the best sequence in the movie, which is weird because it's ostensibly a movie about a bomb disposal squad (those sequences are good too, but they're not as good as this one).
  • The "I Can't Believe They Went There" Award for Dumbest Plot Twist: Knowing. This is one of those movies where you guess the ending long before hand but dismiss it because it's so stupid, only to find that it actually was the ending. Touché.
  • The Rod Serling Memorial Award: The Box. The movie plays like a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone. It attempts to explain too much towards the end, but is otherwise a lot better than the abysmal reviews its garnered...
  • Best Return To Their Roots: Sam Raimi and Drag Me to Hell. I'm not as in love with this movie as a lot of old-time Raimi fans, but it is very nice to see him back in the genre (and he did produce one of the best horror movies of the year).
As with last year, no real runaway movies taking a lot of awards. Indeed, Inglourious Basterds is the only movie to get more than 1 award (Avatar got 3, but two of those were negative awards... similarly, Star Trek got 1 positive and 1 negative)... guess what's going to be near the top of the top 10? Speaking of which, it might be a couple weeks before that list gets posted. Still want to check out a couple of movies before nailing it down.
Posted by Mark on January 31, 2010 at 06:43 PM .: link :.

Friday, January 29, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best High Concept Film and 2009's 2008 Movie of the Year
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best High Concept Film: Stingray Sam

An obscure pick, to be sure, but I had a lot of fun with this eclectic Musical/Comedy/Sci-Fi/Western film. In an homage to old SF serials, the movie is actually constructed as a series of six ten minute shorts, each with their own opening and closing credits as well as faux sponsors. The storylines are beyond absurd, and the music is actually pretty entertaining (this from a guy who doesn't normally like musicals). The official website actually has the first 20 minutes or so available to watch online (the second episode has the most awesome song in the whole movie too). It's a pretty weird movie, but I had fun with it. Other nominees were pretty good as well, but nothing approached the sheer strangeness of this movie.

2009's 2008 Movie of the Year: Tell No One

There are always movies that I wanted to see but which I couldn't see until later in the year, so this category is for a discovery made the year after a film was released. Tell No One is a French thriller, and it's actually quite good. It most certainly would have made my top 10 of last year, and if I wasn't lazy, I probably would have updated the top 10. But now it's here, along with several other quality nominees. Still, this was an excellent film.

And that about wraps up the formal categories. Stay tuned for more Arbitrary Awards on Sunday. I'm not sure when I'll actually get to the top 10, but it should be within a week or two...
Posted by Mark on January 29, 2010 at 12:18 AM .: link :.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Action Sequences and Best Plot Twist/Surprise
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best Action Sequences: Chocolate

In terms of traditional action set-pieces, the Thai martial arts film Chocolate takes the cake. The film is certainly not perfect, but you can't fault the action sequences, which are well choreographed and a whole lot of fun. Some of the action recalls early Jackie Chan prop-driven stuff, though it doesn't really approach that level either. None of which is to detract from the other nominees. Red Cliff certainly had some excellent action, though it's more of an epic battle variety and the real strength of the film are the strategic/tactical planning, rather than the individual fights. Avatar certainly puts quick-cutting morons like Michael Bay in their place, and while I have my problems with the movie, the action sequences are superbly executed (if only I cared about the outcome). The Hurt Locker had some of the most suspenseful sequences of the year (especially the sniper sequence - ironic considering the bomb defusing focus of the film), but they're more harrowing than exciting. Watchmen had it's moments, as did Taken. Crank: High Voltage is so crazy insane that its action is more for comedic effect, but still worthwhile. In the end, I guess I was just in the mood for some martial arts rather than big explosions this year.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Inglourious Basterds

Naturally, any discussion of this would ruin the whole point. I will say that Inglourious Basterds doesn't feature a traditional twist a la Shyamalan. It's more that the film is just so shockingly audacious in what it's doing. The other nominees had solid twists, but I have to admit that some of them were easy to see coming, and in at least one case, predicting the twist ahead of time nearly sinks the movie. Still, they're all solid films... but I just can't get over Inglourious Basterds.

And coming down the homestretch, tomorrow we've got the final categories: Best High Concept Film and 2009's 2008 Movie of the Year
Posted by Mark on January 28, 2010 at 12:33 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Sequel & Biggest Disappointment
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best Sequel: Star Trek. Or maybe Crank: High Voltage!

Dammit. For a category with only 3 nominees, this is hard. Star Trek is definitely the better of the two. It took an old, crusty franchise and made it fresh and interesting again. This isn't a small feat, especially when considering that I never really cared much for the original series/crew. In fact, the only real series I got into was The Next Generation, so the prospect of a prequel wasn't all that exciting to me. But JJ Abrams seems to be building his movie directing career on resurrecting franchises (like he did with Mission Impossible). Anyway, I've already reviewed Star Trek, so I'd like to talk for a minute about Crank: High Voltage, which is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. When I first saw the previews my reaction was something like: That movie looks soooo bad... I can't wait to see it! As it turns out, my enthusiasm wasn't entirely misplaced. This really is a giant ball of outlandish fun. Sure, it makes no sense, but I'll be damned if it isn't playful and energetic filmmaking at its best. Of course, it wasn't much of a hit with critics... or audiences, for that matter, but I really enjoyed it. Sue me.

Biggest Disappointment: Avatar

Earlier this year, I posted a list of 5 Upcoming Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck (at the bottom of that post). At the bottom of the list was Avatar, with the note that "I'm pretty sure this movie won't suck." My expectations were drastically lowered by the previews for the movie, and even then, the film was disappointing. True, the first time I saw it, I was a bit taken by it. Indeed, I've already established that Avatar is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie to look at, but for me, the story is the most important part of a movie. Now, Avatar doesn't necessarily have a bad story, after all, it's the same story we've all seen a thousand times. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that, and I think there's something to be said for a really well executed cliched film. Unfortunately, aside from special effects, Avatar was terribly executed. The dialog is among the worst of the year (I think we'll talk more about this when we get to the arbitrary awards). The character development is nonexistent (I've read a lot of reviews that claim otherwise, but after seeing the movie twice, I think what's happening is that people have seen the same story so many times that they can just fill in the blanks with character development from other, better, movies). The Na'vi, while animated through technological brilliance, aren't a particularly interesting race. As portrayed in the movie, they're homogeneous and bland. Their monolithic nature could perhaps be explained away by the genuinely interesting idea that Pandora is basically a giant, living computer or distributed brain... but the entirety of that concept lives in a throwaway line in the middle of the movie. Sigourney says it, then the Burke character ignores it and that’s pretty much that. Incidentally, Sigourney argued that whole thing wrong. She should have said something like “This entire planet is a gigantic biological computer. That’s got to be worth billions to the biological weapons division!” There’s a lot to explore in that concept, but it was mostly wasted in favor of stupid mechas with proportionally sized Bowie knives (seriously? I mean...really?) Speaking of the mechas, I have to wonder how differently that last battle would have played out if the humans were using real tanks (or other mechanized armor).

I don't think I'll ever get around to a full review of Avatar, but while I'm ranting, I might as well bring up a few other things. A lot of critics seem to dismiss the bad story stuff by saying something like "yes, it’s James Cameron. You’re not there for stellar dialogue, intricate storytelling, or nuance. And you’re not going to get it." As MGK notes:
But this is exactly why Avatar disappoints so on this score: because James Cameron movies traditionally have all of those things.
The really depressing thing about Avatar is that it fails so spectacularly at things that Cameron has always been great at. Remember in Aliens, after the Colonial Marines get their ass whooped by the aliens and everyone's arguing about what to do? Ripley immediately cuts through the crap and says "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." This makes so much sense! It's so rare that a character in a movie says something that rational that it's become a modern geek aphorism. Again, Cameron used to be great at this sort of thing. But in Avatar, there are a million questionable plot points. Why use mechas when tanks will do just fine? Why not use jet fighters to deliver the bomb to the tree of souls (No! No! We have to use slow moving helicopters so that the Na'vi will have a chance to fight back!)? Hell, as a race, the humans have mastered interplanetary travel. You mean to tell me the can't figure out orbital bombardment (even just kinetic weapons would do the trick)? And why wouldn't the humans just come back in a few years and obliterate the planet? The list goes on and on and on and on.

This award has traditionally been difficult because I have to account for expectations. Often a disappointing film is not truly bad... it just doesn't meet lofty expectations. This was the case with most of the other nominees (except for Terminator: Salvation, which I knew would be bad). But Avatar still wins. There's a lot of potential there, most of which is wasted.

On deck: Best Action Sequences and Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Posted by Mark on January 27, 2010 at 07:43 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Most Visually Stunning & Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Most Visually Stunning: Avatar

For all its faults, you have to admit that Avatar is a gorgeous movie to look at. Amazingly, the Na'vi seem real. James Cameron has somehow vaulted across the uncanny valley and emerged unscathed on the other side. While I don't know that his use of 3D is really all that revolutionary, I appreciate the fact that Cameron doesn't take the opportunity to poke me with stuff (like every other 3D movie). Pandora (though a ham-fisted name for a planet) is a fully realized planet. Well, actually it's not, but visually, it is. The rest of the nominees are pretty good, but none can really match the spectacle of Avatar.

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Paranormal Activity

This is always a difficult category, probably because I mix two of my favorite genres. Usually there's not enough SF to warrant a full category, but this year there were 3 pretty solid SF films. Of course, only Moon even comes close to a true hard SF story, with the other two (Star Trek and District 9) lacking a little science in their fiction, but even Moon had me nitpicking over plot details. It's definitely worth watching, if only for Sam Rockwell's performance(s), but it didn't quite hit me the way horror films did this year. I had a blast with Drag Me to Hell and 4bia (a lame play on the word phobia) was an early favorite, but no horror film stuck with me the way Paranormal Activity did. It got a bit too hyped, which is never good for scary movies, but it still worked well for me. While the "found footage" premise is hardly unique, they did provide one major innovation for the sub-genre: the tripod. There's still some shaky camera footage, but for the most part, it's sitting on a tripod, and it's more effective because of that. Anyway, my favorite horror movie of the year and it will probably find a spot on my top 10.

Coming tomorrow: Best Sequel and Biggest Disappointment
Posted by Mark on January 26, 2010 at 08:27 PM .: link :.

Monday, January 25, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Comedic Performance & Breakthrough Performance
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best Comedic Performance: Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover

Truth be told, I'm cheating with this one because the award isn't so much because Galifianakis was the funniest part of the movie, just that the movie was probably the funniest of the year. For some reason, there weren't any really standout comedic performances this year. Sacha Baron Cohen was certainly an option, but after Borat, his shock value seems to have waned for me. Bruno was all about shock value, and once you got accustomed to it, it fell a little flat. I also seriously considered giving this to Michael Peña, but I think his role ended up being a little too small, and while he was fantastic, the movie wasn't really that funny (but it was still a solid movie, just not in a straightforward comedic way). In any case, this was a difficult award and I'm not entirely happy picking a winner... I guess being nominated will have to be award enough...

Breakthrough Performance: Tom Hardy in Bronson

Another impossible category, except this time there were too many standouts. I would be happy giving the award to any of the nominees, but in looking at the criteria I had laid out for this award, I had to go with Hardy because I had seen him before and totally dismissed him as an actor. Yes, he played the villain from the absolutely terrible Star Trek: Nemisis, and despite looking almost the same, he's a completely different actor in this movie. He's a total force of nature and his performance is really what holds an otherwise uneven movie together. The real competition for the award comes from Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, who I've already established as being fantastic (having won the Best Villain award). I also totally fell in love with Rinko Kikuchi in The Brothers Bloom. I was surprised to learn that her previous high-profile role was a rather serious one in Babel... yet her comedic timing in the underrated Bloom was spot-on. In the end, it comes back to the forceful performance of Tom Hardy.

Next up: Most Visually Stunning and Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
Posted by Mark on January 25, 2010 at 08:03 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Villain/Hero/Badass
The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best Villain/Badass: Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

In a year of lackluster villainy, Christoph Waltz's scenery chewing performance as Colonel Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa was without a doubt the best selection here. The other nominees don't even come close. As I've commented before, Waltz plays Landa as 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. Best villain of the year.

Best Hero/Badass: Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen

This category was a little more difficult as there were lots of good heroic performances this year, but none quite so effective as Jackie Earle Haley's turn as as a morally uncompromising sociopath/superhero. He's the most memorable character in both the comic and the film, and despite his ruthless tactics, you find yourself rooting for the guy. Honorable mention goes to Liam Neeson for his surprisingly badass performance in Taken and also Yanin Vismitananda for her spectacular martial arts skills in Chocolate. Tom Hardy's titular performance in Bronson is also worth a note, but that will come up later in the week. In the end, this is all about Rorschach. I've had him penciled in to this award since March, and no one managed to knock him off...

Up next: Best Comedic Performance and Breakthrough Performance. Check back Monday for the winners.
Posted by Mark on January 24, 2010 at 03:34 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Yet Another Link Dump
Interesting stuff seen on the web recently:
  • My Neighbor Robocop - For fans of Robocop and Anime.
  • Good Copy Bad Copy - Interesting documentary available for free online. It's about copyright and remixing and mashups and whatnot. It's got some interesting info in it, but it kinda trails off into different areas as it proceeds... but those areas are interesting too. The Brazilian mashup scene seems to be quite interesting in its own right, but that's probably a different documentary than what this one is trying to focus on...
  • Death Metal Rooster - Not much to say here, it's a Death Metal Rooster. Behold its glory.
  • Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal - A few years ago, I posted about this story of the guy who figured out that the seemingly random blinking lights on the Press Your Luck gameshow were actually not so random. He ended up winning over $110,000. This 11 part documentary goes into detail on exactly how he did it, and is a fascinating watch.
  • I don't know how to describe this without giving the joke away, but I want to go on a mission to institute something like this in my work cafeteria.
  • In Defense of the Fistfight - "It was Jerry's bad luck that I had resolved to start punching people again."
  • Disney's James Cameron's Pocahontas Avatar - I've seen Avatar twice. The first time, in a regular 3D theater, I found myself enjoying it despite a lackluster story. The second time, in IMAX 3D, I found myself much less willing to forgive the story. I don't want to make this post a review of Avatar, but I think this is a movie that will depreciate over time, especially once we get used to the effects. A lot of critics will be eating crow over this, I think. Interestingly, critics who waited a while before posting their thoughts on the film seem to have a more considered reaction to the film. Dennis Cozzalio's review is one of the best I've seen, and he addresses this subject in his post too. To me, it's not that the film is derivative (so was The Matrix, and I loved that) and it's not that I don't necessarily agree with all the politics. It's just that it's all executed so poorly. Gah. I should write a proper review at some point, but I fear I won't get around to it.
  • Is it ethical to eat plants? - Whenever I talk to someone about vegetarianism, I would always make a half-hearted joke about how plants are alive too and that the only real difference is that they're rooted in place and unable to even attempt escape. Well, it turns out that there is a rather nuanced argument to be made that if you don't eat meat on ethical grounds, you also need to account for the ethics of eating plants. Plants act in a surprising way to external threats, often engaging in activities you would normally only ascribe to more intelligent animals:
    Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.

    ... Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.
    It's an interesting article. (via Schneier and Collision Detection too)
That's all for now. Stay tuned for the start of Kaedrin Movie Awards season...
Posted by Mark on January 20, 2010 at 07:09 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards
As of today, I've seen 74 movies that would be considered 2009 releases. This is on par with the past few years, if not a little bit more than usual. Believe it or not, this is probably a lot less than your typical movie critic, but it's also a whole lot more than your average moviegoer. In any case, this post constitutes the kickoff of my year end movie recap (only a few weeks late!) The categories for this years movie awards are mostly the same as last year (with one notable addition), and will proceed in a similar manner. Nominations will be announced today, and starting next week, I'll announce the winners (new winners announced every day). After that, there might be some miscellaneous awards, followed by a top 10 list.

2009 seems to have been a decent year for movies... better than 2008 and possibly 2007 too. Perhaps we've finally emerged from the black whole of bad writing caused by the writers strike, though I think we're still seeing some of the effects. In any case, the top 10 has come together relatively quickly, though the last couple of spots are still a bit of a challenge to fill. There are a couple of movies I'm still hoping to catch up with before I release my top 10, but there's no reason to delay the awards for that. Besides, one of the points of these awards is that they allow me to give some love to films that I like, but which aren't necessarily great or are otherwise flawed (as such, the categories may seem a bit eclectic). Some of these movies will end up on my top 10, but the grand majority of them will not.

The rules for this are the same as last year: Nominated movies must have been released in 2009 (in the US) and I have to have seen the movie (and while I have seen a lot of movies, I don't pretend to have seen a comprehensive selection - don't let that stop you from suggesting something though). Also, I suppose I should mention the requisite disclaimer that these sorts of lists are inherently subjective and personal. But that's all part of the fun, right?

Best Villain/Badass
It's been a pretty lackluster year for villainy... Some easy choices, but this was a hard category to populate this year. As with previous years, my picks in this category are for individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a group). Best Hero/Badass
It's been a pretty damn good year for heroic badassery. Again limited to individuals and not groups. Best Comedic Performance
Not a particularly strong year when it comes to comedy, but there still seem to be plenty of good performances, even in films I wasn't particularly fond of... Breakthrough Performance
Not a particularly huge year for breakthrough performances either, but definitely several interesting choices. As with previous years, my main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). This sometimes happens for even well established actors/actresses, and this year was no exception. Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
I'm a total genre hound, despite genres generally receiving very little attention from critics. Interestingly, SF makes a pretty good showing this year, even though I wish there was a little more science in the fiction for most of the nominees. As usual, some solid horror films round out the list well enough... Best Sequel
Honestly, I only saw a few sequels this year, so this was a difficult category to populate (as it is every year). Still, there were a few decent options (even if I cheated a little with one of them, which is more prequel/reboot than sequel)... Biggest Disappointment
Always a difficult award to figure out, as there are different ways in which a movie can disappoint. Usually, expectations play just as big a part of this as the actual quality of the film, and it's possible that a decent movie can win the award because of astronomical expectations. This year had several obvious choices though. Best Action Sequences
This was a decent year for action, though not especially a standout year. This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film. Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Not a particularly strong year for the plot twist either, though there are a few standouts. Best High Concept Film
This is always a strange category to populate because the concept is a bit nebulous, but nevertheless, there are a few interesting choices... 2009's 2008 Movie of the Year
A 2008 movie I didn't get to see until 2009... This is always a problem for the amateur movie lover. Towards the end of the year, 500 movies come out, but they only play in New York or LA for a grand total of like 3 hours (enough for 2 showings at each theater!) Plus, there's always a movie I dismissed and neglected to see which I end up seeing a year later and loving. Last year, I was having so much trouble putting together a top 10 that I even revised the list to include Mad Detective. But there were a couple other interesting 2008 movies that I didn't catch up with until later... Anyone have any suggestions (for either category or nominations)? Comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome, as always.

It looks like Ingourious Basterds is leading the way with 5 solid nominations. Following that with a solid 4 nominations is Star Trek. Surprisingly, Avatar was also nominated for 4 awards, but one of those is "Biggest Disappointment" which I think puts it behind Trek. At 3 nominations, we've got Watchmen and Crank: High Voltage, while a whole slew of other films garnered 2 noms, and an even larger amount earned a single nomination. As I mentioned earlier, I'm going to give myself a week to think about each of these. I might end up adding to the nominations if I end up seeing something new. Winners will be announced starting next Sunday or Monday. As with the last few years, there will be a small set of Arbitrary Awards after the standard awards are given out, followed by the top 10.
Posted by Mark on January 17, 2010 at 08:59 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Noughtie Preconceptions
So the other day I was perusing other answers to Dennis' quiz (my answers here), and came across Veronique's blog, where she has an interesting list of Least Favorite Preconceptions of the Decade. It's probably not a comprehensive list or anything, and I have to admit that I haven't been as immersed in the decade-end naughtie lists as some other folks, but I did have some thoughts...
1.) There Will Be Blood = greatest movie of the decade and Daniel Day-Lewis = greatest performer. Do you ever feel like you just saw a completely move than everyone else?
Yes, yes I have, and in fact, I've had the same thought with respect to There Will Be Blood. When exiting the theater after watching the movie, I distinctly remember hearing a guy remark to his lady friend that the movie "was like a 2 hour handjob without the happy ending." Well that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? It's a sumptuously photographed movie and Daniel Day Lewis is a force of nature in that movie, but other than that, there's no real reason to put this movie in the top 10 of the decade. This is perhaps not surprising coming from a guy who didn't even put it in his top 10 of 2007. At the time, I remember liking it a lot, but I simply can't get over the fact that for a movie that is ostensibly a character study, it provides no actual insight into the character, leaving you with a feeling of "Why?" when you get to the end.
2. Kate Winslet can do no wrong. Count me one of Winslet's few detractors -- possibly her only one. Choosing highbrow, award-bait material does not a great actress make.
I don't really have much to say regarding this one, but I will offer up a half-hearted response that good roles for female actresses these days are somewhat few and far between, so I think it's worth cutting some slack. That said, I can assure you that Kate Winslet is capable of doing wrong...
3. The American public doesn't go to see Iraq /Afghanistan war movies because they are overwhelmed with war coverage already/don't care about politics/just want to see context-free car explosions. I've read many an article with some version of this thesis, and I don't buy it. While it is true that movies like Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave, and In the Valley of Elah haven't been hits, I would point to the films' quality to explain why they bombed.
On this one, I think I'm going to have to disagree with Veronique. The reasons why the American public doesn't go see Iraq/Afghanistan war movies are probably more varied than the examples given, but I still don't think that people will go to see one of these movies until there's something genuinely compelling to say about the wars in question, and I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon (not the least of which because we're still mired in the war, and that it's an unusual war in a lot of ways). I agree that the quality of the films released is probably part of the issue, but on the other hand, quality doesn't always translate to poor box office performance (see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). I think another part of the puzzle is that most movies with a really strong political viewpoint in general aren't very good and almost can't be very good. When an artist takes a really strong political position, they almost always lose the ability to see the world through the eyes of everyone, including people who have varying degrees of beliefs on different issues. I suppose the exception to this sort of thing is when such positions are forwarded through metaphor and symbolism. For instance, you could consider The Dark Knight (one of the most successful movies of the past two years) an Iraq war movie that comments on various current events. Perhaps it's something about removing the story from it's immediate context that allows viewers to better internalize the message better (or not, if they're not inclined to do so). It's also easier to insert your own political viewpoint on something that is mediated by metaphor and symbolism than it is for something baldly presented as true (which most Iraq war movies are).
The Hurt Locker* is a new and recent exception: a critically-acclaimed Iraq movie actually set in Iraq. And it's been a hit commercially.
While The Hurt Locker was a low budget film (supposedly around $11 million) and ultimately eeked out a profit, I don't think this qualifies as a commercial "hit." It made about $12.5 million domestic (a total of $16 million worldwide), but that's not exactly lighting the box office on fire. What's more, its widest release was in 535 theaters - again, hardly a big number. For reference, the aforementioned Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (one of the worst movies of the year) made about $400 million domestic (a total of around $800 million worldwide) and was released in 4,293 theaters. Now, The Hurt Locker is a fine film (and it probably is the best Iraq war movie), but I also don't think it's a very commercially viable film either. It has some great action/suspense sequences, but there's little in the way of a story, and not a whole lot of insight into the whole adrenaline junkie aspect of the story. Add in the fact that we're in the midst of a global economic depression, and movies like this which don't even pretend to offer any sort of escapism aren't going to do so well.
4. Judd Apatow and his merry band of hilarious slacker-imps are the future of Hollywood and romantic comedies made for women are a bunch of treacle and/or slush. I actually think the former opinion has been trumpeted less obnoxiously of late. That's probably due to the fact that Funny People didn't do terribly well at the box office. ... offshoots like I Love You, Man and Role Models, these movies get praised to the high heavens at the same time the reviewer admits they're kind of trashy. However, trashy woman-oriented romantic comedies get the short end of the stick. Yes, some of them are unbearable and sure, the formula could use some loosening up. However, there were plenty of '00s romantic comedies that were both smart and fun to watch
I think the Apatow thing is definitely winding down, but it will still limp on for the next few years until something new comes along. I think part of the reason these movies were so well received was that they really were something new and interesting. The genre of Romantic Comedies was once synonymous with chick-flick, but now it's not. Ultimately, this is a good thing, and I'm betting this sort of male-oriented romantic comedy will continue to do well. You can see something similar happening with animation, and in particular Pixar. Traditional Disney fare was always a sorta female dominated affair. Lots of princesses and love stories and yada, yada, yada. There were the occasional male-dominated stories, of course, but overall, animation was female dominated. One of the big things Pixar did to establish itself as something new and different was to focus on boys (which is why people complaining about Pixar's gender problem are kinda missing the point). Back to romantic comedies, I think the reason woman-oriented movies are getting the short end of the stick is that they've been dominant for the past 20-30 years. The formula is stale and you end up seeing a lot of bizarre gimmicks. None of which is to say that there can't be a well executed woman-oriented romantic comedy anymore, and Veronique points to a few good examples. Indeed, one thing I'd like to see more of is a female equivalent of the so called "bromance" movies. There are tons of stories of male bonding and friendships (heck, even the recent Sherlock Holmes movie is mostly notable due to the bromance between Holmes and Watson), but relatively few about female bonding and friendship. Hey, maybe someday we can reach a sort of Hegelian synthesis and produce some romantic comedies that are equally appealing to both sexes.
5. The House Bunnyis a nuanced comedy about gender relations. Well, I do think Anna Faris is funny and comedically gifted. However, out of all the movies from this decade to pick as a great feminist oeuvre, why not Mean Girls?
Mental note: see both these movies.

Well that about wraps this post up for now. In typical Kaedrin fashion, the 2009 movie recap festivities will begin this weekend (yes, a few weeks after the year ended) with the announcement of the nominees for the 4th annual Kaedrin Movie Awards (previous installments: 2006, 2007, and 2008). The top 10 of 2009 will probably come sometime in February, once I've had the chance to see a few films that have eluded me (notably A Serious Man, Black Dynamite, and The House of the Devil), mostly because of small releases (this is frustrating for me almost every year, and I live in a relatively movie-friendly city). I haven't even really considered best of the decade stuff, but perhaps someday...
Posted by Mark on January 13, 2010 at 06:48 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Computer Desks
I have recently come into possession of a second LCD monitor, and hooked it up to do some dual monitor awesomeness (amazingly enough, I didn't even need to upgrade my graphics card to do so). The problem is that my current desk is one of those crappy turn-of-the-century numbers that assumes you only have one monitor and thus doesn't have space for the second. I managed to work around this... by ripping off the hutch portion of the desk, but I could still use a new desk, as this one really has seen better days.

So I started thinking about what I need my desk to do, and have quickly descended into Paradox of Choice hell. At a minimum, a new desk would need to be able to handle:
  • Two Monitors
  • Keyboard and Mouse (Preferably in a pullout thingy)
  • Cable Modem and Router
  • Tower Computer (needs good ventilation, especially considering that there are a couple fans mounted on the side of my computer)
  • Two speakers
  • External Hard Drive
  • Associated Cables/Wires
It's also worth noting that I often have my TV on in the background. It's currently positioned to my left, so I can just glance over and see what's going on. My current desk has a couple of drawers and before I got rid of the hutch, it had other storage space. This allowed me to keep some books, CDs/DVDs, etc... in a handy position. However, it'd probably be just as easy to find some other piece of furniture to handle those (but it would be nice to have a small filing cabinet thing as part of the desk).

In terms of taste, I tend to be a minimalist. I don't need lots of flying doodads or space-age design. Just something simple that covers the above. In looking around, this seems to be a rarity. As per usual when it comes to this sort of thing, Jeff Atwood has already posted about this, and the comment thread there is quite interesting (and still being updated, years later).

The best desk I've found so far seems to be the D2 Pocket Desk. Of course the big problem with that one is that it's obscenely expensive (even on sale, it's wayyyy to expensive). But it's perfect for me. It's notable almost as much for what you don't see as what you do see - apparently there's a big compartment in the back that's big enough to stuff all the cables, wires, routers, etc... that I need (and you can see the two little holes meant to corral the wires into that area). It being as expensive as it is, it's not something I'm seriously considering, but I'm trying to find a cheaper, but similarly designed option (perhaps something that doesn't use cherry wood, which is apparently quite expensive). I'm kinda surprised at how few computer desks even attempt to account for cable management. Anyway, here's a quick picture:

D2 Pocket Desk Picture

The other notable option I found at Jeff's site was from a company called Anthro. Not the model he mentions, which is a monstrosity. However, Anthro features lots of models and everything is customizable in the extreme. While they seem like good quality desks, they're also much more reasonably priced. Unfortunately, their configuration tool does little to help you visualize what I'll end up with. Still, the 48" AnthroCart seems like it would fit my needs and given the modular nature of the desk, I can always add on to it later. If you look at the 3rd picture on that page, it's kinda what I'm looking for (but without the bottom shelf and maybe a filing cabinet attachment)

The big questions I have about the AnthroCart are how well their keyboard/mouse solutions work (all of the varieties have seem to be quite small - and my current option is actually kinda large, which I really like for some reason...) There's also the question of how well those extra shelfs on the top and bottom work. And color. Yeah, so this one is definitely in Paradox of Choice territory. However, they're apparently pretty agreeable and will help guide you in choosing the various accessories, etc... So maybe I'll start up a chat with a rep when I get a chance...

Some other stuff I've been looking at:
  • Liso Computer Desk with Keyboard (from Target)
  • Onyx Matrix Computer Desk (from Office Depot)
  • Drake Desk (from Crate & Barrel - would be good if it weren't for the glass top)
  • Ikea has some interesting stuff, but most of it is too small. On the other hand, for my bedroom, I did buy one of those generic Ikea tables and made it work as a desk. But it's also kinda tucked into the corner of my room - the new desk needs to be in the middle of my living room, so it needs to look somewhat more presentable...
Any other ideas? As of right now, I'm thinking a simple AnthroCart setup would be best, but I'm still trying to find an imitation D2 Pocket Desk, which I still think would be ideal...

Update: Desk 51 from BlueDot (via) is pretty interesting. I'm wondering how sturdy it is.

Again Update: This Landon Desk from Crate and Barrel has grown on me a bit, especially after seeing a similar desk on Flickr. The good thing about C&B is that there is a store near me, so I can at least check it out in person...

Another Update: Well, that's an idea... which I suppose also brings up the "Build your own" option, which could be a rewarding experience.

Yet Another Update: For reference, here's a pic of my desk as currently configured, and here's the surprisingly sturdy keyboard tray.
Posted by Mark on January 10, 2010 at 07:00 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Stephenson For Beginners
Long time Kaedrin compatriot Sovawanea has recently started a blog chronicling her quest to read 96 books in 2010. One of her sub-quests is to read all of Neal Stephenson's novels (truly a woman after my heart). Knowing my love of all things Stephenson, she asked me for some advice: "Any suggestions on which order I should tackle Stephenson in? Baroque Cycle first?" To which I replied "Noooo!"

I like the Baroque Cycle as much as anyone and it is true that it's a standalone story. However, unless you're a die-hard scholar of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century European history, I think you'd be much better off reading Cryptonomicon first, then easing into the Baroque Cycle later. There are many advantages to this approach. First off, Cryptonomicon is about 1800 pages shorter than the 2700 page Baroque Cycle. Second, Cryptonomicon's settings (WWII and present day) are more accessible. Third, the entire series focuses on characters from around 2 major families, with several other side character families, and I think the introduction to these families is better made in Cryptonomicon. This provides you with a sorta shorthand when encountering characters in the Baroque Cycle, allowing you to focus on all the other stuff Stephenson is throwing at you without being totally overwhelmed. Finally, I think Cryptonomicon is just plain better than the Baroque Cycle, though I really enjoyed both. But this also begs another question - is Cryptonomicon the best place to start? If not, what is?

It's a truly tough question. I think Shamus really nailed Cryptonomicon and Stephenson in general with this statement:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.
When I read Anathem, I got a similar feeling, but with different subjects. And when I think about the rest of his work, I find myself struggling to find an ideal starting place for Stephenson. I've come up with some ideas below, but I'd certainly be interested in any of my 5 readers' (at least a couple of whom have read some Stephenson) thoughts on the subject as well. In any case, I think the best place to start (perhaps not coincidentally) is the same place I started: Snow Crash. It's more accessible than most of Stephenson's later novels, and it's not nearly as long either. It's also a lot of fun.

Now, there are some things about Snow Crash that might be off-putting to new readers. For instance, it belongs to a specific sub-genre of science fiction called Cyberpunk. To be honest, I'm not especially in love with that sub-genre. William Gibson popularized the concept with his novel Neuromancer, which was kinda like futuristic Raymond Chandler, and that's widely considered to be the best cyberpunk novel. Snow Crash is almost (but not quite) a parody of cyberpunk tropes, while still being an excellent example of the sub-genre. One of the things I don't like about Cyberpunk is that it's infused with a sorta earnest nihilism or cynicism. Stephenson doesn't take it as seriously and has a lot of fun with the typical tropes of the sub-genre, which makes some of the more ridiculous stuff go down easier. There's a satirical element to the book that I don't get from a lot of other cyberpunk, and that makes the proceedings more interesting to me. Once you get past the initial culture shock at the beginning of Snow Crash, things rocket along pretty quickly. There's plenty of action and even the occasional info-dump doesn't slow things down too much. The characters are fun and the ideas are interesting. What's more, I know lots of people who have read and enjoyed this book, which seems to indicate that it's perhaps not as narrowly focused as something like Cryptonomicon. It's also widely considered to be one of his best novels and also one of the best SF novels of all time. For all these reasons, I think this is probably the best place to start. After that, you could go any number of directions.

I suppose one purist way to look at it would be to read his books in the order they were written. The big issue there is that you start with The Big U, which I did have some fun with, but which is really only for Stephenson junkies who have read everything else.

However, you could make a compelling case for starting with Zodiac, which I think is one of Stephenson's more underrated or at least, forgotten books (perhaps because it was written before Snow Crash). It's also probably his most accessible book, and it's subject matter is surprisingly relevant even today (it's about a group of environmentalists). If the concepts behind Snow Crash turn you off, you might still enjoy Zodiac a lot. It's a present day story, and not nearly as stylistic as Snow Crash. It also might be his shortest book.

The Diamond Age is a good book for those who loved Snow Crash and it makes for an interesting bridge between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon (not surprising, as it's the book that was written between those other two). It has a similar Cyberpunky setting, though you are also starting to see a real historical influence, as Stephenson establishes a Victorian undertone layered on top of a more typical SF setting (with nanotech and immersive interactive books, etc...). The one bit of warning about Diamond Age though: I'm convinced that Stephenson's undeserved reputation for bad endings is due to this book (which has a deservedly bad, or at least strangely abrupt ending). It's something I want to revisit at some point to see if the ending makes more sense upon rereading, but still.

Cryptonomicon is great, but as previously mentioned, it's relatively long and it seems to rub some people the wrong way. Still, I consider it to be Stephenson's best novel and it's actually my favorite novel of all time. Following that with the Baroque Cycle makes sense, as they're both part of the same series.

Anathem is his most recent novel, and it is very good. Perhaps not as good as Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash, but excellent in its own right. The only real caveat with this one is that Stephenson kinda invents a new vocabulary in the story, and it takes a little while to get used to the style. That said, it's not a gimmick and there actually ends up being a pretty good reason for it. It's up there towards the top of my rankings, but I also don't think it's an especially good one to start with.

One other interesting idea for a place to start with Stephenson would be the novels he wrote under a pseudonym (Stephen Bury) with his uncle, J. Frederick George - The Cobweb and Interface. They're both written in a more prosaic style and read more like a techno-thriller than Stephenson's other novels. They start with absurd premises (the blurbs about their plots make the books sound awful), but the authors make them seem realistic and populate the world with good characters, then have a less realistic ending. I actually really enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would, and you can clearly see Stephenson's influence, but they're not as deep as the rest of his stuff. I'd recommend holding off on these until later, but they're definitely worth reading if you're a fan (and maybe even if you're not).

I think that covers all his fiction novels. In terms of Non-Fiction, he actually has a few great books (or, er, reallly long essays). In the Beginning Was the Command Line is horribly out-dated (it's about operating systems, but it was written 10 years ago - before OSX, Win XP, Ubuntu, etc...), but still an entertaining read. Despite being out-dated, it's still relevant because he spends a lot of time talking about cultures and history of the computer and operating systems, etc.. It's also available for free online. In the Kingdom of Mao Bell and Mother Earth Mother Board are two absurdly long articles that Stephenson wrote for Wired in the 90s. The most interesting thing about them is that you can really see how his experiences writing those articles influenced his later novels.

So in terms of a recommended order to tackle his books in, my thoughts seem to point to something like this: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem, Zodiac, Interface, The Cobweb, and finishing off with The Big U. It's a little top-heavy in that his best works are at the front of the list, but I think that's generally how people approach authors anyway.

That list is, of course, purely subjective. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter...
Posted by Mark on January 06, 2010 at 06:27 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Link Dump
Just a few interesting links I've run across recently:
  • This review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace has been making the rounds everywhere, but it really is brilliant stuff. Clocking in at around 70 minutes, the review goes into every detail, meticulously and hilariously tearing apart the story. I wasn't sure what to make of the funny voice and the dead wife references, but by the time I finished the review and went back and watched his reviews of the next generation Star Trek movies (which are uniformly bad (update: the movies are bad, not the reviews)), I think I kinda like it. In any case, this guy has clearly done a lot of work on these reviews. The amount of archival footage he pulls makes me wonder just how much time he's spent watching the extras on various DVDs. In a lot of ways, the Star Trek reviews are even more impressive in that respect, as he pulls from the entire run of the TNG series, in addition to the movies. Anyway, the other notable thing about these videos is that I now crave pizza rolls, for the first time ever.
  • A couple of other funny reviews of bad Christmas movies: Santa With Muscles (which has to go on my Holiday Horror list next year) and Santa's Slay (which I actually enjoyed... clearly moreso than the reviewer, though I wouldn't call it great or anything).
  • 5 Star Wars Status Updates: I kinda wished Porkins would show up at some point, but whattaya gonna do? Still, pretty funny.
  • Let me tell you about Demon's Souls: Funny review of the apparently difficult game:
    I’ll tell you what happens in Demon’s Souls when you die. You come back as a ghost with your health capped at half. And when you keep on dying, the alignment of the world turns black and the enemies get harder. That’s right, when you fail in this game, it gets harder. Why? Because fuck you is why.
    I go back and forth on whether or not I want to play this game. Reviews like this (and there are a lot of them) make me think I'll immediately hate the game. Other times, like during the recent Brainy Gamer podcast, it feels like I'd love the game. Perhaps I'll just wait for the price to come down or rent it or something.
That's all for now. Happy New Year!

Update: It appears I forgot to actually include the link to the Demons Soul's review. It's there now. Also, added a quick clarification about the Star Trek reviews...
Posted by Mark on January 03, 2010 at 08:32 PM .: link :.

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