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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Heavy Rain: Initial Thoughts
One of the games I've been looking forward to for a while now has been Heavy Rain. I just got the game recently and have only played through a few hours, but I fount it interesting enough that I wanted to share a few thoughts about it (which is more than I can say for most games). For those who've not heard of the game, it's probably best described as an interactive movie. In terms of subject matter, well, I haven't progressed very far, but some interesting stuff is happening.

You play a few different characters throughout the game. There a troubled father, a private detective, an FBI agent, and a journalist. They're all part of a noir-like serial-killer mystery. Things have not progressed very far for my story yet, but one of the big draws of this game is that supposedly the storyline changes depending on the choices you make.

Father of the Year

Indeed, there are times when it feels like I'm playing a choose your own adventure style story, albeit one with more interaction than you typically get with those books. This is an interesting dynamic, and one that I'm a little suspicious of. There are certainly times when I feel like I'm on rails and I question whether or not my actions will really matter within the game. However, this is based mostly on previous experience with such "branching" games that give you lots of choices that all lead to the same place (or, sometimes, two places). From what I've heard, choices do matter in this game, and I've decided that for my first playthrough, I'm just going to stick with whatever decisions I've made (so I can't really act on my suspicions by replaying a level... yet).

As far as I can tell, I've made several mistakes. As of yet, I have no idea how those mistakes will impact the outcome of the game (or if they will at all), but I will have some incentive to replay the game after I'm done. In any case, one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place. In 99% of video games, making a mistake means you die and have to restart the level or something. In Heavy Rain, you (presumably) have to live with your choices. Again, I'm a bit suspicious of this. There are times when I can definitely detect the presence of rails. I don't want to ruin the opening of the game, but is it possible to avoid the event in question? At a later point in the game, I missed a key quick time event... and yet, I survived. I found that suspicious. Supposedly, if you make enough mistakes, you can cause your characters to die (and yet the game will go on)... but how many mistakes? And how often can you die? Clearly not every dangerous situation can lead to death?

Speaking of quick time events, this game is heavily reliant on them. However, unlike, say, Uncharted, this game actually makes good use of them. As previously mentioned, you're allowed to fail. At some point, I presume failure means death, but not in the dumb way that some games do it. Apparently, in this game, death means your character is not coming back. In any case, the QTEs are well done and surprisingly varied here. There have only been a few times that I've gotten tripped up with my controller (one interesting tidbit - the game's difficulty meter is based entirely on how well you know the PS controller). It makes use of most of the buttons, but in a realistic sorta way. There might be some Do it Again, Stupid elements in the game, but they're not as frustrating or widespread as they are in a lot of other games.

The control scheme is a bit weird though. It's a mostly third-person game, but instead of the dual-analog controls most games use, this game uses the R2 button to move forward and the left analog stick to choose direction. The right analog stick is mostly used for interacting with the environment (whereas most games use the right analog to allow you to move the camera around). They do provide some limited camera control in the form of pressing L1, which will change to an alternate view, but this still ends up being somewhat awkward, and I still find myself often trying to use the right analog stick to move the camera. These sorts of issues are not entirely uncommon in third person games, but the R2/Left Analog system does take some getting used to and is definitely the most awkward thing about the game.

On the other hand, the interaction scheme isn't really all that complicated. Some of the interactions can be a bit confusing at first, but for the most part, you just hit the buttons or move the sticks in the way they appear onscreen. It's pretty easy to pick up and go. There are a lot of games where you have to memorize the gameplay mechanics and mentally map the mechanic to the buttons. In some games, this can get quite complicated and not playing the game for a while can really confuse you when you pick it up again. Aside from getting used to the way you walk around, I imagine Heavy Rain will not suffer from this at all.

One other element about the game that I find a bit odd is the Thought mechanic. Most of the time, you can press L2 and see a list of things your character is thinking about. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure how much value this adds to the game. However, it also appears to be completely optional, and I think it could perhaps provide some hints to players who aren't sure what to do (I've used it, but more in a probing What does this do? sorta way...)

Visually, the game is quite impressive, though I do think that in the wake of Avatar, video games have their work cut out for them. The camera is very cinematic, even during non-cut-scenes (and besides which, this game sorta blurs the line between cut-scene and gameplay), but the characters aren't always perfectly realized. There are times when Heavy Rain shines in this respect, but it doesn't quite make it all the way across the uncanny valley on a consistent basis (the way that Avatar did). Some characters are better than others and the between-chapter closeups (see image above) of characters faces, for instance, are nearly perfect. The in-gameplay visuals aren't always quite as successful, but are still impressive by general video game standards (see image below). For all intents and purposes, though, the game looks great (and besides, even though both stories are somewhat derivative, Heavy Rain has a better plot than Avatar so far). The voice acting is actually pretty good, despite the fact that most of the actors have a bit of a French accent. I mean, most voice acting in video games is pretty bad, so it's hard to fault Heavy Rain on this, except that Heavy Rain does rely on voice acting more than most games. The music is well crafted, low-key and atmospheric, which is perfect for the game.

Couch potatoes

One other interesting meta-note is that 99% of the trophies for this game are "hidden" (at least, in the game itself - when you view trophies, all you see is a long list of ??? trophies). This probably makes sense when you think about it, as some of the trophies might give away plot elements. It also probably ruins the immersion the game is going for to list out the trophies and have people looking to earn them instead of playing and enjoying the game for what it is... Still, I found this interesting.

This clearly isn't a game for everyone, but it appears to be right up my alley. I love open-ended video games, and if this one delivers on its promise, I think I'll be very happy with this game. The first hour or so is a bit slow, but things seem to be moving along at a better clip now, and while the story hasn't developed much yet and the controls might be a bit weird at times, I find myself fully engaged with the game. Unlike most games, I'm actually a bit intrigued with the storyline and there have even been a few emotional moments within the game that were reasonably effective. I can't imagine that this will sell well, and I'm positive many people will be frustrated or bored by the opening sequence of the game (the first thing you have to do is brush your teeth and take a shower - hardly exciting stuff) and turn it off in disgust. This isn't an arcade game. It's more like an updated, easier to use text-based adventure game. The extensive cut-scenes, controls and QTEs will probably get on people's nerves as well. But I find myself drawn to this game more than most, and I have a feeling that I'm going to want to replay it several times.

Update: Well, up until now the game has been fine, but it appears that the reports of bugginess are somewhat accurate. Just had my first freeze. Tried to exit out and reload, and now it froze during the loading screen.

Also of note, the FBI agent's voice acting is so bad it's kinda funny. I'm not exactly sure what they're going for, but it sounds like a Frenchman attempting to imitate either a Boston or New York accent. The output is a bizarre mixture of all three accents. Heh.
Posted by Mark on February 28, 2010 at 11:20 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Link Dump
Entertaining material from the web, or lazy blogging? You decide! That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on February 24, 2010 at 08:59 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction?
John Scalzi recently tackled the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic Inglourious Basterds qualifies for science fiction. Unfortunately, I should mention at this point that the rest of this post contains mild spoilers about the movie. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it (also, it was my favorite movie of 2009).

In any case, the entire argument hinges around the SF sub-genre of alternate history. In such stories, authors will change some aspect of history in order to explore some sort of narrative idea. This type of story takes all sorts of forms, such as Phillp K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, where Dick speculates about what would have happened if the Axis powers won WWII. There are tons of other examples. I've never read one of his books, but I know Harry Turtledove has made something of a career out of similar alternate history stories. Often, the alternate history comes about due to some form of time travel (such as The End of Eternity) or speculation about the many worlds theory of parallel universes (such as Anathem).

A more recent example of the genre is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Set in the present day, that book's alternate timeline starts that during WW II, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska. Chabon uses the premise to explore Jewish social and cultural issues, but never really uses "science" to explain his settings (i.e. there's no time travel or mention of parallel universes, etc...) This is a particularly relevant example because it really does skirt the boundaries of several genres (the book reads more like a noir detective story than a SF tale), yet it's generally considered part of the SF canon. We'll revisit this book later in this post.

Without getting into too much detail, let's just say that at a certain point in the movie, Tarantino diverges significantly from history. As Scalzi points out, the movie is still very much a WWII movie, but by the end, it's just not quite the same WWII as what's in the history books.

In his post, Scalzi outlines 4 arguments against the interpretation that Basterds is SF. However, I don't find them entirely convincing:
1. It wasn't marketed as science fiction
From a practical point of view, neither writer-director Quentin Tarantino nor The Weinstein Company made any attempt to play up its speculative elements, and indeed probably hoped to keep them under wraps until the last possible moment.
While true from a factual standpoint, I don't find this argument at all convincing. It wasn't marketed as SF because the SF elements were meant to be a surprise. Marketing it as an alternate history would be akin to marketing The Sixth Sense as a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a ghost. It's also worth noting that the marketing for a movie isn't always entirely accurate. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre pieces like Basterds. By necessity, marketing simplifies a given movie to it's basest, most salable features. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Basterds focused almost entirely on Brad Pitt's motley crew of Nazi-hunters and their action packed exploits, yet those characters are not really the focus of the film and indeed, several of the main characters are barely mentioned. So no, it's not surprising that the marketing didn't focus on the SF aspects of the story. That doesn't necessarily make it less of a SF story.
2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to it
To be sure, without the alternate history aspect it becomes a somewhat different movie in the end. But the fact is that the majority of the movie's themes, characters and narrative are developed without engaging in or resorting to the alternate historical aspects ...
On this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. Scalzi does admit that changing the SF aspects would make it a different movie, but what he doesn't note is that the movie would be drastically inferior in that case. Without the ending (which is where the SF elements really kick in), the movie might still work, but it wouldn't work nearly as well as it did. That ending is necessary to the success of the movie. It's also worth noting that the movie does start with some premises that could be considered SF. For instance, take the trailer for the movie in which Brad Pitt gives a speech to his men on their upcoming mission. This scene ostensibly takes place before the D-Day invasion of Germany and it assumes a lot of things. For instance, it's revealed that all the members of the squad are Jewish. As present day audiences, we know what this means (and Tarantino is certainly counting on that), but in reality, while the Allies knew of Nazi antisemitism in a general sense, the specifics of the Holocaust were not known until after the invasion when various concentration camps and mass graves were discovered. Now, I'm not going to call this science fiction, but it's clear that Tarantino is counting on audience knowledge of the Holocaust during this scene, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. This is something that will come up again later in this post.
3. It's kinda more like fantasy than scifi anyway
This is certainly a fair point, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider SF could also be termed "Fantasy". You could probably make a compelling argument that Star Wars is more fantasy than SF. Perhaps this is why SF and fantasy seem to get lumped together in bookstores and whatnot. There is certainly a fantasy element to Basterds though, but I'm just not sure if it outweighs the SF elements.
4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical movies
Most historical epics are about as alternate in their history as Inglourious Basterds is. For example, take Gladiator -- the most recent historical epic to win the Best Picture Oscar
Another fair point and probably the most compelling among Scalzi's arguments, though I think some important distinctions need to be made here. Movies like Gladiator and Braveheart just contain bad history. For the most part, the people who made those movies were altering history to make for more entertaining narratives, and they knew they could get away with it because 99.9% of the audience doesn't know or care about the real history involved (and in all fairness, such tactics work - both are very good movies).

With Inglourious Basterds, something different is happening. Scalzi even mentiones that "Tarantino's messing with history we actually still remember." And that's important because Tarantino is attempting something subversive. Unlike Gladiator and Braveheart, Basterds actually relies on the audience's knowledge of history. This is a movie that wouldn't work nearly as well if you didn't know anything about WWII. In terms of information theory, Tarantino is making masterful use of exformation whereas movies like Gladiator change history with the confidence that the audience won't notice or care. In short, changing history is the whole point of Basterds, whereas it's just used to spice up the narrative in Gladiator and Braveheart.

In a very real sense, the primary theme of Basterds is the transformative power of cinema. To achieve this goal, Tarantino employs several techniques. One is the direct role of cinema in the plot. A British film critic and a German actress team up with the Basterds to accomplish a specific goal. At several points, discussions of classic German cinema become integral to the plot. Old nitrate filmstock becomes a key plot element. The final showdown occurs in a movie theater that's run by our heroine. And so on. There's obvious symbolism at work there. But let's return to the idea of exformation, as it's an interesting topic (and one I've mentioned before). In short, exformation refers to communication that is dependent on a shared body of knowledge between the parties involved. Wikipedia has a great anecdotal example:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.
In the case of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses exformation masterfully. He knows what the audience knows about WWII and he plays on that. At first, he does so with small things, like the all-Jewish Basterds team (which, at first glance, plays like a Braveheart-style historical inaccuracy, but upon further reflection once the film is over, you can see that Tarnatino is really foreshadowing his subversion of history). A movie like Braveheart diminishes in value when you learn more about the true historical basis for the story. I'm sure there are plenty of historians who get incredibly frustrated when watching a movie like that. But Inglourious Basterds only grows stronger, even as you learn more about the historical basis for that film. For instance, the film does not require you to know all about prewar German cinema, but it certainly could be enhanced by such knowledge.

Take the aforementioned symbolic components, add in Tarantino's use of exformation to manipulate audiences, and then look at how the ending cements the whole film (this is another strike against Scalzi's second point). It's not just that Tarantino doesn't follow history in his movie, it's that he explodes history. He's making an audacious and subversive statement about the power of cinema, and he knows he can go over the top with it because we already know about WWII (not because he thinks he can get away with a few historical inaccuracies).

However, it is interesting to note how history often plays a role in science fiction literature. Indeed, for a while, it seemed like a lot of science fiction authors were leaving behind their SF roots in favor of historical fiction. For example, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, both known for their dystopic cyberpunk work, went out on a limb and published The Difference Engine. Similarly, Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson went from his popular futuristic stories in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the semi-historical WWII/present day thriller Cryptonomicon. He then dove even further into the past with the massive Baroque Cycle, a series of books that took place in late 17th, early 18th centuries. It did concern itself with the emergence of modern science and featured notable scientists and organizations like the Royal Society. In an interview with Salon, Stephenson speculated about whether or not the Baroque Cycle was SF:
I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the "Baroque Cycle" fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.

And what's that?

Fiction that's not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that's set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn't find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, "That's interesting. I never thought of that before." If it's got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That's really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it's become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.
And he also mentions SF's relationship with history:
There was a review of "Cryptonomicon" with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, "This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into." I'm turning into one.
Of course, he does note that this fits under a "broader vision" of science fiction, but at the same time, there's more to it than just the subject matter and ideas. Science fiction authors approach the world in a certain way, and that sort of thing tends to come through in their writing, even if what they're writing is not science fiction in the strictest sense. So while The Baroque Cycle is primarily a historical series, it's got some science in it and it reads enough like science fiction that SF fans can appreciate it without any issue.

But the difference between Tarantino and Stephenson is that Stephenson fully acknowledges his SF roots, while Tarantino has not. This is why I previously brought up Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Like Tarantino, Chabon is not known primarily for science fiction work. Yet he produced this exceptional alternate history novel that ended up winning the Hugo award for best novel. There are a lot of other similarities between Chabon's book and Tarantino's movie. Both are set in an alternate universe, but neither really explores the speculative aspects of their situations. Chabon's novel probably comes closer to doing so and does not rely on the alternate history as a surprise or shock in the way that Basterds does. Both the novel and the movie are cross-genre stories (the novel using elements of noir and the detective story; the movie using war movie tropes). I don't remember any marketing around The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I remember being surprised that it won the best novel Hugo (this was before I had read the book and known about its alternate history premise), so I'm guessing that neither movie really calls itself SF.

Then again, the Hugo website does note:
Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror?
While the World Science Fiction Society sponsors the Hugos, they are not limited to sf. Works of fantasy or horror are eligible if the members of the Worldcon think they are eligible.
And so we finally arrive at the classic classification problem. What is science fiction anyway? It turns out that according to the Hugos, it's whatever they say is SF. Going by Stephenson's broader definition, it makes sense that a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union could win a Hugo, as it certainly contains its fair share of interesting ideas. Similarly, I think that Inglourious Basterds could easily be considered SF. It contains interesting ideas and is reliant on relatively sophisticated information theory concepts like exformation.

Observant readers may notice that the Kaedrin Movie Awards contains a category for best SF or Horror film, and that Inglourious Basterds was absent from the nominations in that category. So it seemed that back then, I didn't consider it SF enough to nominate. And now? I think it certainly could (and it would have won). But I think what it really comes down to is the Hugo test: Do most people consider it SF? And that's where I think my argument that it is SF falters. I think most people do not think of it as a SF movie. This may stem from the nature of the plot, which makes it hard to market the movie as SF (and to Scalzi's point there, blatant categorizations like SF exist for marketing purposes in the first place). Tarantino isn't generally associated with the SF world and isn't calling the movie SF either, which also tends to diminish my argument. But after thinking about it, I still like to think of it as SF. It may not be like any other alternate history story, but just because it's wholly unique in that respect doesn't make it less of a SF movie.
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2010 at 07:00 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I want a good DVD/BD version!
I was looking at my DVD and Blu Ray collection the other day and began to ponder a few things. First, there are some DVDs in my collection that I like a lot, but which I'm not sure I really needed to own. For example, I own The Way of the Gun on DVD. It's a good movie, and I really like it a lot, but do I really need to own it? Probably not, but I distinctly remember buying it for less than $10 and the disc features a great commentary track (Christopher McQuarrie is a genuinely interesting and engaging guy - if you're interested, check out the Q&A from Creative Screenwriting Magazine for a taste).

On the other hand, I also realized that I don't own a single Coen brothers movie. Considering that I love the grand majority of their movies (if I were to put together a top 100 of all time list right now, there would be at least 2 of their movies if not more), I wondered why this was so. Well, it turns out that their movies have generally bad DVD releases. Most don't have much in the way of special features, and only a couple have commentary tracks. Furthermore, now that I have a Blu Ray player, it would be nice to upgrade to a BD. Perhaps I'm blowing things a bit out of proportion. The Fargo BD seems to have more special features than I remembered, so maybe it's time to pony up, but still.

I find this happening with a few movies. I'm sure everyone could come up with a big list of movies they'd love to see a good release for, but here are some of the movies or directors I'd like to see better releases of:
  • Grindhouse: This one kinda infuriates me. The theatrical cut was around 3 hours long total, and it consisted of a double feature of films, with some fake trailers thrown in between the two movies. But the movie sorta bombed, so when it came time to release on DVD, each movie got their own extended cut and DVD. Basically, the original experience isn't available on DVD or BD (in America, at least), and I'm not going to buy it until it is (even though I truly love the movie).
  • Ghost in the Shell: This sort of thing happens a lot with foreign releases, but I always have trouble figuring out which version to get, and there always seems to be some bizarre flaw in all the various releases. Most recently, there was a sorta remake of the movie, called Ghost in the Shell 2.0, where they've redone a lot of the animation and audio. This is all well and good, but the BD that was released seems to be a mess. According to various accounts, the packaging talks about a bunch of special features that aren't actually on the disc. Then there's also the news that the disc includes the original version of the movie, but from everything I've seen, the original version of the movie is also poor quality and features the updated audio. This is kinda frustrating because apparently a really nice special edition set was planned, but I guess it got canceled or something. Anime on BD in general seems to also be a sore spot, but I'll leave it at that.
  • Raise the Red Lantern: I love this movie, but it has a really terrible DVD release (and no BD release). The movie appears to be gorgeously photographed, so I'd really like to see an HD version...
  • Zack and Miri Make a Porno: I like the movie, but what really bums me out about the DVD/BD is that it doesn't include a commentary. I know a lot of people don't like or care about commentaries, but Kevin Smith commentaries are among the best I've ever heard, so it's really disappointing that there wasn't one for this movie. Heck, I'll even listen to Kevin Smith commentaries on movies that aren't his (he has a great commentary with Richard Kelly on the Donnie Darko Director's Cut DVD and he even did a pretty funny one for Road House(!)) I know Kevin Smith has talked a bit about how disappointed and depressed he was that the movie didn't do better, but that's exactly the kind of movie that's ideal for a commentary track. Perhaps Smith doesn't want to burn any bridges in Hollywood or something, but I'm sure at some point he'll be able to site down with a couple friends and record a great commentary.
  • Watchmen: There are so many damn versions of this movie that I'm a little baffled. There's the theatrical cut, the directors cut, and the ultimate cut. Each of with had a separate DVD/BD release, and despite branching technology being available, none of the DVD/BD releases used that.
  • Miyazaki on Blu Ray - It would be really nice if this would happen someday. The DVD releases are pretty good though, so there's not a ton to complain about, but still. I want Spirited Away on BD!
Well, I could probably go on and on here, but I feel like I'm getting to whiny, so I'll leave it at that.
Posted by Mark on February 17, 2010 at 08:43 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Best Films of 2009
As of right now, I've seen 78 movies that were released in 2009. This is probably less than a lot of critics, but more than most folks. Overall, I had a much better feeling about this year than I had in the past couple years. I had a really difficult time with my 2008 list (which I'm actually pretty happy with now, after a year of reflection), but here in 2009, things came together pretty easily. I had 9 movies right away and the 10th movie came when I finally caught up to a movie I knew I would like.

As always, lists like this are inherently subjective and I know that gets on some people's nerves. Both from a you're stupid because you don't like the same movies I do perspective as well as the lists are inherently evil argument. Indeed, due to this year also marking the end of the decade, the multitude of best of the decade lists has also prompted an increase in the typical backlash of anti-list sentiment. This post covers the usual complaints about lists: they're lazy criticism and basically represent filthy linkbait whoring. There's obviously more to it than that (read the full post). He makes some good points and there are certainly a lot of crappy lists out there (hey, here's one!), but on the other hand, who the hell cares what he thinks? I like lists. Apparently Americans Love Lists (and you know who doesn't like lists? Joseph Stalin!) So without further ado:

Top 10 Movies of 2009
* In roughly reverse order
  • (500) Days of Summer: This has emerged as something of a polarizing movie for some reason, but count me among the film's admirers. Great performances, genuine emotion, a playful, non-linear narrative structure and a wonderful ending all helped elevate this movie above the usual romantic comedy cliches.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [My Cryptic Twitter Review]
  • The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson's sophomore effort is perhaps not as tight as Brick, but it's still a blast. It hits all the con movie tropes while still managing to carve out an identity of its own, and while the ending isn't quite perfect, it's still better than I was expecting. All of the performances are good, but Rachel Weisz was a revelation and Rinko Kikuchi steals every scene she's in... Overall, it's a big barrel of fun and well worth watching (and judging from the box office results, you haven't seen it).
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Paranormal Activity: This low-budget found-footage horror flick isn't especially innovative and it's not as artistically accomplished as most films on this list, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the creepiest movie of the year. I still get chills thinking about this movie, and I'm very rarely scared by horror movies. The movie employs an effective scheme of tension and release and, thankfully, it also features a tripod (which mitigates many of the issues associated with found-footage movies). It was perhaps hyped too much upon initial release, but I saw it in ideal conditions, which may have something to do with how much I enjoyed it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil: This documentary follows the trials and tribulations of a once-influential heavy metal rock band that failed to ever find a real audience. It's a tale of perseverance and hope in the face of adversity, and even though their music isn't especially great (at least, not today - apparently their early stuff heavily influenced bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax), you can't help but root for these guys.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD]
  • A Serious Man: Yet another Coen brothers curveball, I found myself surprisingly riveted to the screen on this one. It has a big smattering of the Coens' trademark humor and at least one exceptionally well executed set piece (not exactly the right term, but I'm trying not to give anything away here). An excellent performance by Michael Stuhlbarg and the usual stable of great side performances (including the scene-stealing Fred Melamed, playing the smarmy Sy Ableman) anchor this film. The ending is abrupt and will undoubtedly infuriate some people, but I found it surprisingly fitting. But then, I'm apparently a sucker for the Coen Brothers.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Star Trek: The most fun I've had in a movie theater all year. J.J. Abrams took an old, crusty franchise and made it fresh and interesting again. I wish there was a little more science in the fiction, but in the end, it's a highly enjoyable, action packed, crowd-pleasing popcorn film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review]
  • Up: The first 20 minutes of this movie are the most devastating of any movie this year (in a good way). Luckily, the rest of the movie reels it back in, leaving you feeling pretty good by the end (which is no small feat considering the intensity of the prologue). Oh, and did I mention that this is an animated kids movie? Pixar continues it's amazing streak of great films.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Red Cliff: John Woo's triumphant return to Hong Kong is a wonderful movie and his best since he left. Whether armies are being strategically maneuvered or a woman is pouring tea, Woo manages an elegance that has eluded most of his filmography. He's always choreographed excellent, almost balletic, action sequences, but everything in this film is pulled off with the same precision. So you get wonderful epic battle sequences (a first for Woo, I think) and also some more personal touches. I saw the theatrical cut, but there is apparently a two-part, 5 hour version that I am now quite interested in seeing.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox: A near perfect melding of Wes Anderson's quirky aesthetic with a classic children's story. The stop motion animation looks great and Anderson's visual style complements Roald Dahl's story quite well. Great voice performances from George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman (ok and Bill Murray and hell, everyone else too) and overall just a wonderfully fun experience. I'm suddenly interested in Wes Anderson again, as I think he'd fallen into a bit of a rut before this film, which shows that he's capable of growing as a filmmaker.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Inglourious Basterds: The single most audacious movie of the year (if not the decade). Anchored by Quentin Tarantino's best writing since Pulp Fiction and a manic villainous performance from Christoph Waltz, playing Colonel Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa like a Nazi version of Columbo, this movie pulls no punches and never falters. Mildly controversial when it came out, I think such criticism ignores Tarnatino's expert use of exformation, while at the same time exploding any preconceived notions of his WWII epic. Truly an astounding movie and without a doubt my favorite of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Full Review] [Winner of 3 Kaedrin Movie Awards]
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • 4bia: This Thai horror anthology, the awful title of which is supposed to be a play on the word "phobia," has a lot going for it. As you might expect from the fact that it's an anthology, there's not a lot holding it together and some of the segments are better than the others. It was an early year favorite of mine, but eventually it yielded to other films. Also, as time went on, it began to feel more derivative than I had originally thought (a few of the segments feel exactly like other movies... interestingly, I think my favorite segment was also the least scary and most referential). Still, there's something to be said for a well executed genre pic, and this one fits that bill well. Definitely worth a watch for horror fans.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [Capsule Review]
  • Bronson: The semi-true story of Michael Peterson (aka Charles Bronson), the UK's most infamous prisoner. Ultimately not a lot of insight into Bronson, but the film is stylish and features one of the most spectacular performances of the year from Tom Hardy. As Bronson, Hardy is a font of volcanic rage and so, despite there not being much here, the film is never boring. I don't normally like this kind of movie, but I couldn't help but respect what this movie has done.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Crank: High Voltage: I can't believe how much I enjoyed this movie. Indeed, I seriously considered it for a top 10 position, but it ultimately got pushed off the list by the Coen Brothers. This is a movie that just seems like it would be terrible, but again, I found myself very enthusiastically embracing the movie for what it is. It's just a huge amount of fun, playful and energetic filmmaking at its best. Probably not for everyone, but I had a lot of fun with it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimi's return to his horror roots didn't blow me away the way it did with some other folks, but I did have a lot of fun with it. Really, it was the little things that I enjoyed the most. The handkerchief as villain motif, the anvil in the shed, and so on. It doesn't really approach Raimi's earlier low budget films, but it's still quite entertaining and well worth a watch for fans of the genre.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Duplicity: Another strong contender for the top 10, I think this is a criminally underrated movie. I think perhaps this tale of corporate espionage and one-upmanship suffered from being released during a global economic depression. Still, it's well written and entertaining. The only bad thing to say about it is that the chemistry between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts wasn't exactly lighting the screen on fire. That's a small complaint though, and this movie would make a great rental. Check it out.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • The Hangover: I think this might have been the most I laughed in a theater this year. Sure it's completely random and overly raunchy, but I do like that sort of thing from time to time, and this movie is a fine example of the genre. In any other year, it might also have the best cameo, but as we'll see below, there's some stiff competition this year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • The House of the Devil: I finally caught up with this brooding horror film last night, and I have to admit that it gave me pause about including Paranormal Activity in my top 10. Both movies are quasi-haunted house movies, but similarities wind up being mostly superficial. The House of the Devil is made with more artistry and in a more unconventional manner. It's a masterpiece of misdirection and tension building. Unlike the repeated tension and release of Paranormal Activity, The House of the Devil opts to continually build tension while withholding release. This is an interesting approach and the foreboding atmosphere of dread is hard to shake. I wish I was able to catch this a few months ago, as I'd like to see how well it ages. Highly recommended for fans of slow burning horror films.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • The Hurt Locker: Director Kathryn Bigelow's tense tale of a bomb defusing squad in Iraq is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and Bigelow is certainly deserving of the best director title. Unfortunately, I'm not a huge fan of the movie as a whole. The action scenes are exceptionally well done, but some of the other sequences are a bit lackluster and the film ends without much of a real resolution. It's the best Iraq war movie made yet, but then again, that's not saying much.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Moon: This little science fiction film features a great double performance by Sam Rockwell and a reasonably good SF story too. Unfortunately, I found myself nitpicking a lot of the plot points, especially towards the end, which makes for a less satisfactory experience. I think a lot of SF fans are so starved for good, hard SF movies (as opposed to huge budget special effects extravaganzas like Avatar or most super hero movies) that they're willing to overlook some of the less rational plot points. So I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I'm infuriated by the plot.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Playing Columbine: What can I say, I'm a sucker for video game documentaries. The film is directed by Danny Ledonne, the creator of a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where you actually play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and act out the massacre. Unsurprisingly, the game was very controversial and this movie delves into that a bit, but Ledonne wisely uses his game as a mere jumping-off point, preferring instead to explore broader and more interesting concepts such as the demonization of video games in the media, the value of video games as an artistic medium, censorship, responsibility and the nature of violence and school violence. If you like video games, it's well worth a watch, though I guess it's not available on DVD yet.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Full Review]
  • Surveillance: Jennifer Lynch (yes, daughter of David) directed this rather twisted tale. The film begins with a modern, dark Rashomon type feel, but it eventually eschews that style for something else. It's perhaps a little too reliant on the big twist, but I thought it was rather well done. It's also worth noting for some unconventional casting choices and surprisingly good performances. I'm apparently somewhat alone in even liking the movie at all, but I thought it was pretty good.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD]
  • Trick 'r Treat: This long-awaited horror anthology was worth the wait, but I think perhaps my expectations had become too inflated. Still, it's a worthy movie and one that I think will take its rightful place among Halloween themed movies, if only because of the way it incorporates all sorts of Halloween lore and rituals as plot elements (in a way that no other movie has). Unlike the aforementioned 4bia, the various segments here are all interconnected, and the movie benefits from that structure. Well worth a Halloween night watch next year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
  • Watchmen: This movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel Watchmen was a long time coming. It's certainly not perfect, but I think it's about as good as an adaptation could ever be. It's a little uneven, but it absolutely nails some areas of the story. Given that the comic book was created specifically to show off the comic book medium, I'm still surprised that the movie turned out as well as it did. Again, not perfect, but well worth it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Zombieland: I'm not a big fan of zombie stories and I'm also not a big fan of Woody Harrelson, yet I really had a lot of fun with this movie. Sharply written, well acted and it also features the best cameo of the year. Just a big ball of fun, it hits all the right notes. What more can you ask for?
    More Info: [IMDB] [DVD] [BD] [Capsule Review]
Just Missed the Cut...
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen
Despite the fact that I've seen 78 movies this year (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away... mostly due to limited releases, though a few of the flicks listed below didn't interest me as much when they were released as they did when I heard more about them. Unlike last year, I'm not really expecting any of these to break into the top 10, though I guess there's always a chance. Anyway, in no particular order: Well, that wraps up 2009... actually a pretty solid year for movies from my perspective. Not the best ever or anything, but probably better than the past couple years. Hey, perhaps I should put together a best of the decade list? Eh, that would be reallly difficult (not to mention reallly late), but perhaps I'll give it a shot at some point. Indeed, at some point, I want to post a top 100 of all time... but that's even harder! Someday...
Posted by Mark on February 14, 2010 at 06:26 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Revisiting God of War
One of my favorite games for the PS2 was God of War. I certainly had a few issues with it, but overall it was a great game and far beyond its hack-n-slash adventure game competition. Indeed, it's become my gold standard for these type of games, and most games I've played since don't even come close. Sony recently re-released the first two God of War games (with updated graphics) for the PS3. Since I'd never played the sequel, and since the God of War: Collection was reasonably priced, I figured it was worth a shot (and would help prepare for the upcoming and long awaited God of War III). Some thoughts on the games:
  • The games look great. They've been upgraded to HD, though you can kinda tell that it's a previous generation game that's been upgraded. So while it's not a showoff game, it's a significant improvement over the PS2 version of the game. Of course, the character and level design were great to start with, and so this treatment only makes things better. As near as I can tell, everything else is pretty much the same as the PS2 version.
  • Unfortunately, there are some things that worked in the PS2 version, but which annoy me now. Most notably, the save points. Now, don't get me wrong, the save points are reasonably well spaced and there are even checkpoints between savepoints that make things less frustrating. However, I've noticed lately that I've become spoiled by current generation console games and computer games that have automatic save systems and checkpoints. I have to give the GoW Collection a pass on this because it is based on a last generation game, but if GoW III has the same save system, I'm going to be royally pissed. David Wong perfectly encapsulates why this type of thing sucks:
    This is a throwback to the arcade/NES days when physical limitations in the system wouldn't allow you to save your progress just anywhere. There is no reason for this now. None. We're busy. We've got work, appointments, phone calls. We shouldn't tolerate an inability to save our progress in any piece of software.

    Half Life 2 did this perfectly--it auto-saved every few minutes, behind the scenes. You didn't have to worry about it and you didn't have to re-fight enemies you had already defeated.

    There are people who say that preventing saves adds to the "tension" of the game. Sure, in the sense that the fact that your 360 could catch on fire at any moment also adds to the tension. Face it, if the only way you can think of to add suspense to your game is to disable a feature of the hardware, then you suck at making games.
    Now, again, God of War isn't that bad when it comes to save points. It's a lot better than even some current gen games (I'm looking at you Metroid!), but it grates on me. Again, I really hope God of War III will feature a more seamless checkpoint system.
  • Ares was much more difficult this time around! I must have inadvertently switched to easy mode or something when I played the game last because Ares kicked my arse this time around. Of course, I eventually beat him and won the game, so there's that. Interestingly, the battle with Zeus in GoW II was a lot easier, if a little tedious (more on this in a moment)...
  • Conversely, the Hades level didn't give me nearly as many problems this time around. The last time I played, this was a major complaint, and I nearly quit the game because I hated this level so much. I wasn't especially looking forward to it and it's still not fun, but I got through it amazingly quick this time. The platforming in the game is still the worst part (especially given the way the camera moves at times), and I was happy that GoW II mostly did away with the platforming, or took an approach more appropriate for a 3D game (there's a lot more climbing)
  • One of the things that God of War does well is quick time events. QTEs are somewhat of a bane in other games, but God of War always got it right. For the uninitiated, QTEs are basically a series of buttons you need to press during a cut-scene or cinematic. So you're fighting a Minotaur and a little circle appears above the Minotaur's head. Press the circle button and you see Kratos leap up and do some crazy maneuver to kill the Minotaur. There are often multiple steps to the process, in effect creating a mini-game. God of War was always pretty good about this. For the most part, if you failed to press the buttons fast enough, you would be given another chance to do so. In some cases, you don't need to use them at all. Some bosses do require you to complete the sequence though. But again, if you fail the sequence, you can just try again (you might lose some health in the process). A lot of other games are not as forgiving. In many cases, failing to execute the QTE will result in instant death. In such cases, QTEs cease being a fun mini-game and become an exercise in "Press this button to not die." which is kinda silly. And quite frustrating. One game I've played recently that did this poorly was the first Uncharted. That game was terrible at hinting that a QTE was even coming, and when they did happen, they were almost always of the instant-death variety. One of the things I loved about God of War was that they handled QTEs well... right up until the end of GoW II. For some weird reason, the final stage of the Zeus battle is an instant-death QTE. It only took me a couple of times to get it right, but it was annoying, even moreso because the series had always gotten QTEs right.
  • God of War II is still a pretty solid game. There are a bunch of new weapons and mechanics at work, but the game never gets too unwieldy and the primary gameplay is the same familiar hack-n-slash adventure stuff. The new weapons are fine, but the Blades of Chaos are still probably your best bet (also, I miss the Blade of Arcturus from the first game, but even that wasn't that well handled). This time around, there seem to be more in the way of environmental puzzles, all of which are pretty great (and none of which seemed to trip me up as much as a couple of puzzles in the first game). There are also a lot of mini-bosses. Some of these are great fun. Others are a bit lacking, but still pretty good. Ultimately, I don't think the game flows as well as the original, but that's kinda expected in a sequel. I'm already familiar with the things that make the game work, so there is less that feels new about the game. With the exception of a couple small control scheme changes, you could play the second game without knowing that it's even really a sequel (i.e. it seems like a single game... albeit one where you lose all your powers halfway through)... Apparently the series was planned as a trilogy (aren't they always), and so the middle installment ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (hehe, pun intended). Storywise, things are fine this time around. Kratos is less likeable this time around, and his end goal is a bit odd (destroy Zeus?), but by the end, it begins to make more sense. I'm looking forward to the conclusion in the third game...
  • This is completely irrelevant, but both games have PS3 trophies, and a lot of them are rather easy to get. I played through the first game and got 77% of the trophies without even really trying. I only got 60% in the second game (perhaps because I hadn't already played that one before). Still, if you're looking to build up your trophies (even though, uh, there's not actually a reason to do so), these games are probably a good candidate (if I played through again, I bet I could even get the Platinum trophy relatively easily).
Well, that wraps up God of War for now. More to come when part III comes out next month.
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2010 at 06:26 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Link Dump
I'm wiped out from playing football in 2 feet of snow this morning (going to be sore all week), eating all day, and gambling on trivial things during the Superbowl (I correctly chose the under in the "mentions Hurricane Katrina" but that got offset by taking the over on "number of times Archie Manning appears onscreen" and I ended up losing by 1 point in the overall contest). So here are a few things I've seen recently. Enjoy.
  • How To Report The News: Newswipe's absolutely brilliant takedown of the conventions of the television news story. It's only got 1 million views! But it fits with some of the other links in this post, so there.
  • This is the title of a typical incendiary blog post: Not quite as spot-on as the previous link and it's about blogging so the audience is more limited, but it's still pretty clever.
  • The One and Only Right Review: Shawn Elliott's sarcastic video game review is pretty funny. On a slightly related topic, I've recently discovered the GFW video game podcast archive, which is something of a treasure trove. In it's heyday, it was an amazingly fun podcast. In fact, it probably deserves it's own bullet point:
  • GFW Radio Compilation: This is a pretty good place to start, and it's 4 hours of good stuff. Going through the archives at 1up is a bit difficult (note that most of the best talent had left by the end, so the ones that show up when you subscribe in itunes or the like are mostly not the best episodes), but once you get back to 2007 and early 2008, it's pretty great (not that I've listened to all of those, but still). While ostensibly a video game podcast (for PC gaming, no less), that only really represents a fraction of some episodes. They joke around about tons of topics and other geeky culture. It's very great stuff. Geekbox is ok but not quite as great as GFW, and Out of the Game is also pretty good, but they don't seem to post those very often (last episode was in early December).
Well, that's all for now. Top 10 movies of 2009 will probably be posted next week, if I can manage it...
Posted by Mark on February 07, 2010 at 11:22 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Red Letter Media Review of Avatar
Remember that insanely detailed and hysterically funny review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace I posted a while back? It's quite brilliant, and apparently a review of Attack of the Clones is in the works, but in the mean time, a new review of Avatar has been posted. It's a lot shorter than his Star Wars or Star Trek reviews and it's probably not his best work, but it's well worth a watch. As usual, it's very funny, but the details betray a genuine love of movies.

Good stuff.
Posted by Mark on February 03, 2010 at 08:43 PM .: link :.

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