Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Well, it's actually been a while since the last link dump, so here's a few interesting links:
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The House of the Devil
This month's selection for the Final Girl film club is Ti West's 80s throwback horror film, The House of the Devil.
When I was growing up, there was a local legend about a building known as Satan's House (also known as the Cult house, the Devil's house, and probably a dozen other variants). Located in Southeastern PA, not that far from Delaware, the house sits at the top of a hill, and the road that winds around the hill is probably the creepiest part of the whole experience. The windy road is narrow and lined with trees. This alone would not be cause for alarm, but it seems that all of the trees... instead of growing up towards the sky, they grow horizontally, pointing away from the road (as if trying to escape the unspeakable horror of Satan's house). This isn't the best picture of the road, but it gets the point across: Du Pont family and that various members of the family married their cousins in the house (so as to keep their money within the family), and then used the house to hide away the inbred children (or monsters or whatever).
The funny thing about this is that it's probably just a house, and the trees lining the road probably grow like that because of the way the sunlight hits the area, but the conspiracy theories of Satanism persist even to this day. This sort of irrational fear of Satanism was rampant during the 80s, and director Ti West has latched onto that idea and created a remarkably authentic 80s-style horror movie featuring shifty families, satanic rituals and a creepy house. The film even starts with a cheesy text opening informing the audience that in the 1980s, over 70% of Americans believed in abusive Satanic cults and that another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover-ups... Plus, it's based on a true story! Not sure if it actually is or if West is pulling a Fargo, but it doesn't really matter, does it?
The basic premise of the story is that a college student in need of some quick cash agrees to take a babysitting job at said creepy house. And that's pretty much it. However, writer/director West manages to wring a lot of tension out of this simple and seemingly overused premise.
I first saw this movie earlier this year, when I was still attempting to fill out my Top 10 of 2009. At the time, I was comparing it to another haunted house movie, Paranormal Activity. There are some superficial similarities here: both movies feature quasi-haunted houses, they both have something of a gimmick at their core (one a "found footage" film, the other imitating 80s conventions), and they're both pretty scary. However, 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 tense and release of Paranormal Activity, The House of the Devil opts to continually build tension while withholding release until the end. This is an interesting approach and the foreboding atmosphere of dread is hard to shake. Of course, from the title of the film alone, you know where it's heading, and aside from one moment early on in the film, it mostly proceeds along an expected path.
The other film this reminds me of is Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Both films are an ode to underappreciated grindhouse genre films, albeit films of a different era and genre. Tarantino is going for the great car films of 70s with a little horror mixed in for good measure. West is going for those 80s horror movies where irrational fear of satanism was rampant. I think both films are hugely successful at evoking the feeling of their respective genres, but I think the one major problem with this approach is that these new films suffer from the same major flaws as the films they're imitating. In particular, the pacing is very slow and the characters tend to act pretty stupidly... For film nerds like myself, this isn't really much of a drawback, but it does tend to limit the appeal to more mainstream audiences. It's strange though, because these flaws are so obviously and lovingly reproduced in exquisite detail and with a lot of artistry. Indeed, getting that cheap, grainy filmstock look probably cost way more than doing it "properly" would.
That being said, once things begin to happen, the pace picks up and it's very engrossing stuff. I'm still not sure if it would crack my top 10 of 2009, but I will say that I'll be very interested in what Ti West decides to do next (apparently another haunted house style story). As usual, more screenshots and comments in the extended entry...
Update 7.26.10: Stacie has just posted her review and links to all the other Film Club Coolies (y'all!). I'm also informed via cryptic second-hand email that Ti West has seen my review and that he said the creepy trees in the photo above are just 10 minutes away from where he grew up, which is pretty awesome. I suppose I should mention that the below screenshots do contain some Spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. The Signal. He doesn't have as much to do in this movie, but he's still great here (and responsible for one of the best moments in the film).
And that about wraps it up.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Inception's Sense of Wonder
One of the things that really differentiates science fiction from other genres is the emotional thrill derived from expanding your awareness of what's possible. This doesn't always constitute a complete understanding of the universe around you, just a dawning realization that there's more to the story than you've thought (sometimes this can take the form of contemplating the incomprehensible or even just realizing what you don't know). This feeling is referred to as a "Sense of Wonder" (often abbreviated as sensawunda) and while a large portion of science fiction literature manages to evoke such emotions, SF cinema rarely even approaches the same accomplishments. There are some exceptions, of course, but for the most part, SF movies settle for gigantic spaceships and thunderous explosions and whatnot.
The opening shots of the original Star Wars provides us with a typical cinematic example. The camera pans across a sea of stars. You see a spaceship move across the screen. This imparts a frame of reference for the universe of the movie. Then a much larger spaceship (indeed, it doesn't seem like it will end) move across the screen in pursuit of the original. The frame of reference established by the original spaceship is thus immediately revised in light of this new data. Part of this revision is, no doubt, the expectation that the Star Destroyer will probably be dwarfed by something else (and later in the film it is, by the Death Star). This short sequence actually encapsulates a ton of information: the rebels are small and poorly equipped, the empire is large and powerful. The way the ships are framed on screen also underlines the empire's power over the rebels. And so on.
The realization of the scale and size of the empire is a very small example of sensawunda. And most films don't even contain that much (indeed, the really mind expanding things about Star Wars aren't really SF so much as they are mystical, but that's probably another discussion). There are analogs to this concept in other genres, most notably the horror genre, but the emotions are distinct (the emotion evoked in horror as you realize the scope of the conflict is fear, tension or suspense, rather than the awe or wonder of SF).
Christopher Nolan's new film, Inception, is one of the few films in recent years to actually even attempt to impart a sensawunda, and for that alone, it should be applauded. The interesting thing about Inception is that it manages to impart that sensawunda feeling without relying too heavily on precise explanations of the technology involved. Indeed, I don't think the movie would fare too well if judged solely on the basis of realism.
However, despite this lack of precise technological detail, the film does manage to evoke the sensawunda feeling by devising a set of rules and limitations, then playing around within that box to consistently expand possibilities and sometimes even surprise the viewer. The key catalyst for sensawunda here is that all of the various twists and turns in the story are all internally consistent and logical extensions of what has already been established.
I don't want to go into too much detail right now simply because I don't want to spoil the movie, but things do get pretty complicated and Nolan does manage to ratchet up the stakes considerably more than I had initially expected. There are some concepts or details that I must admit that I'm not entirely clear on, but even in those situations I have a gut feeling that everything does fit.
The critical reception seems to be very positive, though there have been a few high profile dissenters, notably David Edelstein and Jim Emerson. Edelstein writes:
Inception is full of brontosaurean effects, like the city that folds over on top of itself, but the tone is so solemn I felt out of line even cracking a smile. It lacks the nimbleness of Spielberg’s Minority Report or the Jungian-carnival bravado of Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape or the eerily clean lines and stylized black-suited baddies of The Matrix—or, for that matter, the off-kilter intensity of Nolan’s own Insomnia. The attackers in Inception are anonymous, the tone flat and impersonal. Nolan is too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.(emphasis mine) I found that last line the most representative of complaints with the movie. Emerson's main complaint, that the dreams in the movie don't seem to be very dreamlike, is instructive, because from what appears on screen, Nolan is clearly not even attempting to make an "untethered dream movie". I think it's funny that Edelstein also throws out a number of other movies, none of which I like better than Inception. I do really enjoy Minority Report, but I don't think it captures that mind expanding sensawunda feeling anywhere near as well as Inception does. If you have a lot of problems with Inception, I really have a hard time believing that you'd think that Dreamscape was a better movie. There is some similarity in basic premise, but I think "Jungian-carnival bravado" is far too much praise for that film (which is an enjoyable enough movie, but also kinda silly and overblown in the way a lot of 80s movies were). The Matrix is the only film on the list that I think gives Inception a run for its money. Both films are derivative in the extreme, though I got a fresher feeling from Inception than The Matrix. On the other hand, The Matrix clearly outclasses Inception when it comes to action. In any case, I don't think any of those films should preclude anyone from seeing Inception.
Emerson also seems to hate Nolan's visual style, but to my mind, Nolan is much more distinctive as a writer than he is as a director. It's not the visual style of movies like Inception or Nolan's true masterpiece, Memento, that strikes audiences - it's the way Nolan plays with narrative and time that really differentiates him. This is more a function of the writing and editing than anything else, and even Edelstein admits that Nolan "thinks like a mechanical engineer" when it comes to his scripting (and this is a good thing). The editing in Inception is certainly worth praising here. Though perhaps not as extensive or bombastic as the eding in Memento, there's a real challenge here and editor Lee Smith deserves a lot of credit for whatever degree of suspense you feel as the film reaches its climax.
Nolan also seems to do a great job combining various genres and then putting a new twist on them. For instance, Inception contains elements of action films, heist and con movies, and of course, science fiction. Elements from each genre are mixed and matched in a way that hasn't really been done before (at least, not with respect to the layered "ticktock logistics" of the plot). This isn't a straightforward version of any of those genres, nor is it a simple combination.
The performances are all pretty good, though I think the real standout is Tom Hardy (of Bronson fame), who just devours the screen. Longtime Kaedrin friend Sovawanea pointed out one of the refreshing aspects of the film: "I found it rather refreshing that they didn't try to contrive a romance in the middle of the mission between Ellen Page and the rest of the guys." There's another element of the characters that I found really refreshing, but I don't want to say it because it might spoil the movie.
This has been a slow year for movies, but between Inception and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, things are at least looking up a bit, and both will most likely find their way onto my top 10 list at the end of the year.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
A Decade of Kaedrin Weblog
Believe it or not, it's been ten years since I started blogging here. Sure, I started the website even before then and the blog has changed a lot since those initial entries, but it's still an important milestone. Going back to read those first posts is a bit painful, what with the embarrassing attempts at humor and reliance on some of the lame weblog tropes of the day, but I'm ultimately pretty happy with my blog.
In the beginning, I had focused on smaller entries and reached a peak posting rate of just a little less than one a day. However, this was unsustainable, especially if I didn't just want to keep repeating stuff that other people were posting. From there, things floundered a bit for about a year or two until I set a weekly schedule for myself, committing to at least one entry a week (on Sunday). The thought was that having a regular posting interval would make it easier on readers, who would know when to expect new content. The schedule was later amended to include at least two entries a week, and I've kept to that schedule pretty well over the past several years.
I'd also like to think that the quality of my writing has improved, though I have to say that I feel like I've been a bit of a funk lately. I've been relying on formulaic and not terribly inspired posts like link dumps and doing less writing of consequence. More and more it seems like I don't really have a good idea what I'm going to write about when I sit down on Wednesday or Sunday, and all too often, I end up firing out an entry in about an hour or so (this post will probably fall into that category, though I knew I wanted to write it). These entries often come out better than I thought at the time, but they're still not my best work. I've been blogging long enough to recognize that this sort of thing happens from time to time though, and I often feel better after a few months, so I'm not looking to make any drastic changes. I considered taking some time off to see if my brain would recharge or reconfigure itself or something, but I think whatever success I've had with this blog has been due to my schedule. Plus, I do have some longer and more involved pieces in the works, so hopefully I'll be able to polish some of those off soon...
One of the interesting things about running a blog for so long is that I've developed some strange habits. For instance, I often find myself thinking about whether or not something I'm doing or watching or reading is blog-worthy. A lot of people blog because they have something to say or because it's timely and relevant, and I suppose I do that too, but I also blog to learn about things that interest me. Most current events don't really fall into that category until after the fact (if at all). But I am, of course, interested in lots of things and even writing a quick post on a complex subject can lead to deeper understanding. Writing a a longer form essay often takes me to all sorts of interesting places that I never even intended to visit when I started writing, and those end up being my favorite posts. Usually such posts burrow into my mind and grow follow-up posts (which is perhaps another thing that only a blogger could appreciate).
In the ten years I've been running the blog, I've never really had that large of an audience. I've had a small and loyal following, and for those readers I am very grateful, but this blog was never entirely about that. Of course, the blog is public, and so I do very much appreciate whatever limited attention I get, but it's always been more about what interests me at any given time, and often that doesn't lend itself to the sort of thing that make blogs popular (i.e. timely events and controversial stances in short, easy to read chunks, etc...). This isn't a complaint, as I don't think I'd enjoy having a tremendously popular blog; that entails all sorts of other frustrations that I'd rather not deal with.
In any case, since I've already done a detailed look at the history of the site, I figure there's not much to say at this point. I realized that I hadn't updated the Best Entries category in a few years, so I added a bunch of posts I thought worthy (if you have any favorites of your own, let me know) and hopefully I'll be writing many more posts that belong there in the future. Just for the heck of it, here are some of my favorite posts from the past year or so:
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
So Nick from CHUD recently revived the idea of a "Tasting Notes..." post that features a bunch of disconnected, scattershot notes on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. It sounds like fun, so here are a few tasting notes...
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Who Also Played With Fire)
Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist who wrote novels in his spare time. Shortly before his death in 2004, he began talks with a publisher, and his completed novels were published posthumously. These novels have met with tremendous success, selling more than 27 million copies in over 40 countries. In 2009, three Swedish films based on Larsson's novels were released in Scandinavia. Though American remakes are planned, the original Swedish films are all being released this year... The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released earlier this year and has just recently come out on DVD (it's also available on Netflix's Watch Instantly service). The Girl Who Played with Fire just came out in theaters this week, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is due to be released in October. Together, the three novels/films are known as the Millennium Trilogy, named after a fictional magazine in the stories. I saw the two currently available films this weekend and was quite impressed.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates to "Men who hate women", a much more accurate description of the themes of the story. The film opens with a disconnected set of sequences introducing the three main characters. This is probably something that works better in text than it does on screen, though the plot quickly connects the dots and it's not long before you know all the players and what's at stake.
Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) is a talented muck-raking journalist (writing for Millennium) who has just lost a libel case in which his sources were found to be fraudulent. He's sentenced to 3 months in jail, but he has 6 months to get his affairs in order. The elderly Henrik Vanger has been getting strange packages in the mail every year, and he believes they're related to a 40 year old missing person case (where his niece disappeared). Finally, there's Lisbeth Salander, an ex-con who works as a security researcher and who has just found out that her current parole officer has had a stroke. His replacement is a sadist pig who uses his position to coerce Lisbeth into providing sexual favors. Vagner hires Blomkvist as a freelance investigator, and Salander eventually joins him in his research.
The way these apparently disconnected threads are pulled together is well done and the film contains a perfect balance between plot and character. Most thrillers lean too far in one direction, but Larsson and those who have adapted his work do an exceptional job here. I suspect lesser writers, when confronted with an engaging character like Lisbeth Salander, would be tempted to make the entire film a character study about her. On the other hand, there's also the temptation to put all the emphasis on the mystery of the girl who disappeared 40 years ago. Again, this film strikes the balance well. We get some excellent character establishment when we find out how Lisbeth handles her new parole officer - a sequence that is not necessary for the thriller plot, but which establishes the character of Lisbeth Salander quite well (there's a thematic parallel between Lisbeth's situation and the mystery though).
Speaking of Lisbeth, her character is probably the most interesting thing about this movie. She's played with an icy intensity by Noomi Rapace in a performance that should probably be up for an Oscar (though I'm doubting it will be). There is something of a paucity of strong female characters in typical Hollywood cinema these days, so this sort of character is a welcome change of pace. Lisbeth is a tortured soul (let's just say that her parole officer wasn't the first man who hated women that she has run accross), but she's battled through it all, though she understandably has some issues with men. For instance, her relationship with the journalist Mikael Blomkvist is an intriguing one and it manages to walk a rather tricky line. Blomkvist is an old school investigator, while Lisbeth relies on modern technology to do her research. This sort of oil-and-water mixture often plays out through bickering clichés, but not in this film. Once the two characters meet, it doesn't take long for their seemingly disparate styles to merge into a comfortable balance. There is a chemistry between the two and while their relationship grows into the sexual realm, it never feels forced or cloying (another commendable avoidance of clichés).
Clocking in at about two and a half hours, the film covers enough ground and paces itself well enough that it doesn't really feel that long. Though we all know there are at least two sequels, the film ends with closure (as opposed to some sort of cliffhanger). In the end, we're left with an exceptional thriller that balances character development and plot in a well-paced fashion. This has been a disappointing year for movies, so to say this film stands out from the pack doesn't really speak to how good it really is. I can almost guarantee it will be at or near the top of my top 10 at the end of the year.
For a sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire is quite good, though I don't think it approaches the first. I think the biggest issue I had was that it fell into the trap mentioned earlier about focusing too much on Lisbeth. Many of the other characters from the first film make an appearance here, and a passable mystery is solved, though it appears that all of them are working from different angles. For instance, Lisbeth and Blomkvist rarely interact throughout the film, which mutes one of the more interesting facets of the original film. The film ultimately manages to pull it off, but again, it's perhaps not quite as expertly crafted as its predecessor. Part of the issue, perhaps, is that I have not yet seen the third installment. While the second film ends with a bit of closure, there are still some loose threads which are apparently tied up in the third film. James Berardinelli draws an interesting comparison:
In a strange way, the structure of The Millennium Trilogy reminds me of the first Star Wars trio. The first movie establishes the characters while providing a largely self-contained story with a few "hooks" that can be used to further the narrative in additional installments. The second and third movies are inextricably wedded and function best when seen as parts of a whole. Installment #2 is darker than its predecessor and ends in a cliffhanger. Admittedly, it might sound like a stretch to compare a Gen-X touchstone space opera to a Swedish mystery thriller series, but I'm referring only to the rhythms of the stories, not the content.Berardinelli also seems to be a little more forgiving of the lack of interaction in this second film and sees it as an equal to the first (if not better). Perhaps I'll feel that way after seeing the third film, but as of right now, I think the first is noticeably better than the second.
In any case, I'm very much looking forward to the forthcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Apparently Larsson was mostly done with a fourth novel and had outlines and story treatments for several others, so there may be even further installments (though with the untimely death of Larsson, one wonders whether proceeding further would be wise).
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Just some interesting stuff I've seen lately:
Sunday, July 04, 2010
Noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been writing a series of posts about incompetence for the NY Times. The most interesting parts feature an interview with David Dunning, a psychologist whose experiments have discovered what's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect: our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.
DAVID DUNNING: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.I found this interesting in light of my recent posting about universally self-affirming outlooks (i.e. seeing the world the way we want to see it). In any case, the interview continues:
ERROL MORRIS: Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?It may be smart and modest, but that sort of thing usually gets politicians in trouble. But most people aren't politicians, and so it's worth looking into this concept a little further. An interesting result of this effect is that a lot of the smartest, most intelligent people also tend to be somewhat modest (this isn't to say that they don't have an ego or that they can't act in arrogant ways, just that they tend to have a better idea about how much they don't know). Steve Schwartz has an essay called No One Knows What the F*** They’re Doing (or “The 3 Types of Knowledge”) that explores these ideas in some detail:
To really understand how it is that no one knows what they’re doing, we need to understand the three fundamental categories of information.Schwartz has a series of very helpful charts that illustrate this, but most people drastically overestimate the amount of knowledge in the "shit you know" category. In fact, that's the smallest category and it is dwarfed b the shit you know you don’t know category, which is, in itself, dwarfed by the shit you don’t know you don’t know. The result is that most people who receive a lot of praise or recognition are surprised and feel a bit like a fraud.
This is hardly a new concept, but it's always worth keeping in mind. When we learn something new, we've gained some knowledge. We've put some information into the "shit we know" category. But more importantly, we've probably also taken something out of the "shit we don't know that we don't know" category and put it into the "shit we know that we don't know" category. This is important because that unknown unknowns category is the most dangerous of the categories, not the least of which is that our ignorance prevents us from really exploring it. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. In the interview, Morris references a short film he did once:
ERROL MORRIS: And I have an interview with the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics organization, on the 6 o’clock news in Riverside, California. One of the executives of the company had frozen his mother’s head for future resuscitation. (It’s called a “neuro,” as opposed to a “full-body” freezing.) The prosecutor claimed that they may not have waited for her to die. In answer to a reporter’s question, the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation said, “You know, we’re not stupid . . . ” And then corrected himself almost immediately, “We’re not that stupid that we would do something like that.”One might be tempted to call this a cynical outlook, but what it basically amounts to is that there's always something new to learn. Indeed, the more we learn, the more there is to learn. Now, if only we could invent the technology like what's presented in Diaspora (from my previous post), so we can live long enough to really learn a lot about the universe around us...
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in July 2010.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
2008 Movie Awards
2009 Movie Awards
2010 Movie Awards
2011 Fantastic Fest
2011 Movie Awards
6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
Computers & Internet
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
Science & Technology
Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Movie of the Week
Copyright © 1999 - 2012 by Mark Ciocco.