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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Link Dump
I had a busy weekend, so here are some interesting links I've run across recently:
  • Awesomest Action Movie Ever: I see short clips of amazingly weird movies like this all the time, but they never actually tell you what the movie is. Granted, it's probably not going to be available in the US or Netflix, but still, it would be nice to know.
  • The Thomas Beale Cipher: Gorgeous animated short about a guy who is on a treasure hunt (I think). It's based on a real story, a set of three ciphertexts created by the titular Thomas Beale. The ciphers still haven't been solved, nearly a hundred years later. Some believe that the story is a hundred year old hoax, others contend that there is about $65 million in buried gold treasure out there somewhere. The filmmaker seems to have also embedded 16 hidden messages in the film, though I haven't really looked to hard for any of them (I did a cursory search to see if anyone else had found them, but came up short).
  • Excitebike Shop: It used to be that you'd only see videos like this for the classics like Super Mario Brothers or Zelda, but lately, I've been seeing a lot of Excitebike parodies. Weird.
  • Snowy Trench Run: Another amazing video that would have gone unseen without the internet.
  • Weightless Cats - I can has gravity?: Where would the internet be without cats?
That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2011 at 08:10 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Over the past year or so, I've been making my way through seasons 2-6 of Lost. I watched the first season on DVD shortly after it came out, and after following along with the broadcast for a couple weeks of season 2, I resolved to stop watching until I had some indication that the show would actually end (i.e. I was worried the writers would continually make stuff up and withhold any answers indefinitely). I dutifully avoided most contact with the series until early last year. By that time, the writers had declared a definite ending point and from observations of friends' responses to new episodes, I gathered that the show was picking up steam, rather than bogging down.

As you might imagine, given the fact that I pretty much ignored the series for a few years there, I'm not a huge fan of the series. I didn't actively dislike it either, I was just never hooked or convinced that it was going anywhere interesting. But then there were some things I was able to glean about what was happening and then Netflix made all of the seasons available on their Watch Instantly service, at which point, I had no real excuse to keep avoiding it. I burned through season 2 pretty quickly, though again, I was pretty unimpressed. Season 3 was even more of a slog, though I had been warned that this was the case. Apparently during the course of Season 3, the writers/producers agreed on an ending (or at least, how many more seasons/episodes remained). There was an almost immediate improvement in the quality of the episodes, but again, I was not terribly impressed.

Don't get me wrong, I was enjoying myself. I had no issues burning through a bunch of episodes all at once, and having the entire series at my fingertips made that prospect all too easy. Nevertheless, I never really had a problem taking a break either. Last year, I gave up Television for Lent. Despite just having started season 3, I had no problem staying away for 40 days. Later in the year, when I had finished season 5, but season 6 wasn't available on DVD/Netflix yet, I wasn't all that broken up about it. If this was a show that I loved, such delays would have been quite frustrating. As it was, I'm lucky I even remembered to check for season 6.

Ultimately, I'm glad that I did. I still have a lot of issues with the series as a whole, and even the last season itself, but in the end, I found it to be a worthwhile venture. I've tried to avoid Spoilers for most of this post, but there are some things you may not want to know and there are definitely spoilers towards the end of the post. To summarize my thoughts, I found the ending of the series to be emotionally satisfying, but not intellectually satisfying.

This is actually an interesting reaction for me, because I usually respond in the opposite way. For example, a few years ago, I saw the movie Capote and thought it was fantastic. The writing, the acting, the direction, cinematography, just about everything about the film was extremely well done. On an intellectual level, I found it amazing. On an emotional level, I didn't connect with it nearly as well. I have no idea why. There were a couple of scenes towards the end of the film where I kept thinking to myself This is devastating! and yet, I never actually felt devastated myself. I only really recognized the devastation on an intellectual level. There are lots of other movies I feel similarly about, and it's a real shame, because that feeling (or lack of feeling, as it were) leaves those films feeling a bit hollow in my mind.

Lost (at least, the final season) ended up being the opposite, especially when it came to the "Flash-Sideways" sequences. Nothing seemed to make much sense intellectually, but it was emotionally satisfying nonetheless. I'm sure there are tons of people who hate those sequences. They're full of sticky-sweet sentimentality and schmaltz. I'm a guy who doesn't mind a happy ending, but lots of people seem to hate them. You often see these people excoriating Hollywood cinema for this sort of thing, and to be honest, they're not entirely wrong. But sometimes they are, and for me, Lost worked. At least, in that specific respect, it worked.

I think my problems with the series have primarily to do with a few early choices that the writers seemed to get away from in later seasons. First, the series initially seemed like a science fiction story. It is not. It is a fantasy. But the writers attempted to use tropes from SF to spice up their story (in particular, the Dharma Initiative and time travel subplots), and that does represent a bit of a problem because the explanation for a lot of the mysterious happenings on the island basically amount to something like "A wizard did it!" or "It was magic!" Even when it comes to the time travel stuff, there isn't really any science in that fiction - it's all fantasy. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that sort of thing, but leveraging SF tropes implies a certain plausibility that Lost could never really deliver. Once I realized this, I became a little more accepting of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series, most of which can be summed up as: The island is a weird place and Jacob has weird powers. However, I think there were a number of times when the series established some convention or set of rules, then went ahead and broke them for no other reason than that it would, like, totally make for a sweet cliffhanger. I think this is, in large part, why the series is not intellectually satisfying for me.

This sort of inconsistency was especially frustrating from a characterization standpoint. Jack and Kate love each other, but then Kate loves Sawyer, but Sawyer's evil, no wait he's just a con-man with a heart of gold, but then he does something evil again, but he's really a good guy, but no, he's only out for himself, but then he gets married and settles down and now he wants to kill Jack, but Jack loves Juliet, but Juliet is married to Sawyer even though she really loves Jack, but they're divorced and did I mention that Sawyer is selfish and only looking out for himself but that he's in love with Kate, no, wait, I meant Juliet and then Ben loves Juliet but she doesn't really care, but Jack and Juliet are divorced and Kate and Jack are together but then they're separated and Jack wants to leave the island, but only until he wants to return to the island because it's his destiny, but no, really it's Hugo's destiny, but Jack still has some sort of destiny on the island and isn't meth awesome!?

Now, here's the thing: most of that is actually fine. I don't have a problem with a character who changes their mind or goes through something traumatic and is changed in the process. The issue is that many of these changes happen only because the plot requires them to, not because of a natural outgrowth or reaction of the character. Even worse, the plot often doesn't require such twists - they're only included to make for a snappy cut to commercial or cliffhanger ending. So you get these weird character reversals where Kate wants to leave the island, but she doesn't want to leave, but she does, but she doesn't. All within the course of, like, 15 minutes. I don't know, maybe I'm exaggerating. I didn't make a note every time I thought to myself: Wait, what? Why would this character do that? Oh dammit, end of episode, fuck! But I know I had such thoughts often. (If I ever rewatch the series, I will try to document these occurrences).

Perhaps towards the end of the fifth season and leading into the sixth, this issues seemed to straighten out a bit. I didn't have nearly as many problems during the sixth season. Maybe that's because my brain was so addled by the previous seasons that I knew what to expect, but still, things seemed more consistent. Of course, this only leads to my next question, which is: What the hell were the first 5 seasons for again?

I mean, there's a very basic conflict at the heart of the Lost universe. Jacob vs. Smoke Monster. Protect the magic golden light. That's really it. The rest of the series is basically just some messed up people trying to work through some personal issues. Some of them think the island can help, most don't, but in the end, the island brought them together and ultimately brought out the best in them (well, in a bunch of them). That's all background though, and the aforementioned central conflict? It isn't even revealed in the series until, like, late in the fifth season. We don't even hear Jacob's name until the third season, and even when we think we've seen him, we haven't.

I can accept the fact that it takes a good amount of time to establish characters and their backgrounds and the series is fantastically complex when it comes to that web of character interactions, on and off the island, in the future and in the past. But did we really need 4-5 seasons of that before we got on with the actual story?

Well, this post is turning into a bit of rant about the things I didn't like about the series, and that's not what I initially set out to do. None of the above is to say that the series isn't worthwhile. Indeed, much of it could be construed as nitpicks. I don't think it's possible to have a show air for 6 seasons and not have such nitpicks. Shit happens. A cast member want to quit, so you need to write a quick exit (bye bye, Mr Eko!). Other cast members demand way too much money and a couple others get a DUI so they all need to be written off. These things happen.

And even then, the writers managed to build a story with, like, a hundred main characters. That sounds like hyperbole, and I suppose it is, but it's not that far off. What's more, most of those characters are interacting, before, during, and after their stay on the island. The non-linear exploration of such connections is actually pretty impressive in its own way. If you're a science fiction type, you certainly won't be impressed because there's no real explanation beyond "Magic" or "Destiny" or "Fate" or something, but there is something admirable about the number of characters and the extent to which their stories were woven together. The "Flashback" conceit was something I was quite dubious about at the beginning of the series, but the writers managed at least one shocking twist in that respect. The "Flash-forward" was a brilliant idea, and it was quite well executed. The "Flash-sideways" of the last season was a little baffling, but quite resonant from an emotional perspective.

So we come back to my basic feeling about the series: satisfying on an emotional level, but not on an intellectual level. I have my issues with the series, but it's still a well produced, well written series that can get addictive at times (of course, I was able to stop when i wanted as well, but there were a lot of Dammit! Ok, one more episode! moments as the writers laid one of their cliffhangers on me - even some of the lame ones that break character are still compelling in some way).
Posted by Mark on January 26, 2011 at 08:36 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we're watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I'm Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix's strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don't seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they're portrayed.

It is in this frame of mind that I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. It was immediately obvious that I was in for something that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. As Summerscale herself acknowledges in the introduction (page XIII):
This book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery, the form that the Road Hill case inspired, and uses some of the devices of detective fiction. The content, though, aims to be factual. The main sources are the government and police files on the murder, which are held in the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, and the books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper pieces published about the case in the 1860s, which can be found in the British Library. Other sources include maps, railway timetables, medical textbooks, social histories and police memoirs. Some descriptions of buildings and landscapes are from personal observation. Accounts of the weather conditions are from press reports, and the dialogue is from testimony given in court.
Even with the acknowledgement, the book is an odd amalgam of embellished factual accounts of a horrific murder, straightforward biographical information of the titular Johnathan Whicher and the family Kent, and a survey of mid-nineteenth century detective fiction. There are times when Summerscale follows one of these three tangential threads too far, but for the most part, she manages to weave them together in a deft and engaging fashion.

The mystery at the center of the book concerns a gruesome murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860. Local police bumbled through the investigation, eventually leading the government to dispatch Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jack Whicher to the small town to investigate. Whicher sized up the situation and quickly came to the shocking conclusion that the murderer must have been a member of the Kent household. Everyone from Saville's father to his nursemaids came under suspicion, though Whicher favored Saville's half-sister, Constance Kent. However, Whicher had been brought into the case nearly a week after the murder. The evidence was mostly circumstantial and most leads had gone cold before he even started the case.

And it was a very odd case. It's easy to see why fiction authors appropriated so much from the story in later novels. Every clue, every piece of new information, every close examination of the evidence at hand seemed to make the case less clear. Summerscale writes (page 75):
The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville's death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.
Summerscale delves into the tricks of Whicher's trade from time to time, and it does make for fascinating reading. I love to read about the devils in the details on which something like this murder mystery hinges. For instance, one of the mini-mysteries the case presents us with is a missing nightdress. This sounds like a minor detail, but Whicher immediately seizes upon the missing clothing as a precious clue. Summerscale takes the opportunity to describe the origins of the word "clue" and why Whicher was so keen on solving the mini-mystery of the missing nightdress (from page 68):
The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew,’ meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The wirters of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word… a plot was a knot, and a story ended in a 'denouement', an unknotting.

Then, as now, many clues were literally made of cloth - Criminals could be identified by pieces of fabric.
Summerscale then proceeds to detail several cases where Whicher himself managed to solve a crime due to the fortuitous discovery of unique or identifiable clothing, eventually concluding (from page 70):
The thread that led Theseus out of the maze was true to another principle of Whicher’s investigation: the progress of a detective was backwards. To find his way out of danger and confusion, Theseus had to retrace his steps, return to the origin. The solution to a crime was the beginning as well as the end of a story.
I have a fascination with such details, so of course I wouldn't have minded if Summerscale indulged in more of such analysis, but it's clear that she was trying to walk a tight line. I would be easy to stray too far from her focus on the mystery and the man sent to investigate, and she manages to walk that line well enough.

Whicher is an interesting man in himself. Most of what we know about him is in his police reports and correspondence. I would have loved to read more about the man, but from what I can tell, Summerscale has unearthed every conceivable piece of knowledge about the man, and still came up a bit short. As a plain-clothes detective, he obviously avoided attention as much as possible, which probably explains some of the missing information - for instance, there doesn't appear to be any pictures or paintings of the main available. That being said, he's certainly a worthy subject for study. He seems to possess keen observational skills as well as a knack for finding holes in a story and clues. He appears quite confident in his perceptions, though as the subhead of the book notes, he is somewhat shaken by the mystery at Road Hill House. His initial investigation yielded no convictions and he returned to London a different man, though I think calling this his "Undoing" is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, after Summerscale establishes the central mystery, I feared that the subhead implied that no solution would really be found.

Fortunately, there is a closure of sorts, though I will not spoil the book by delving too deeply into that here. Suffice to say that by the end of the book, we are a bit closer to what actually happened, though the inherent difficulty of rebuilding a picture of the past is one of the themes of the book. In today's day and age, with TV shows like CSI showing what you can do with forensics in explicit detail, it's easy to forget how difficult it would be to figure out what happened in the past (and to be honest, even given the advanced forensic technology available, shows like CSI still gloss over the difficulties of a murder investigation). Mr. Whicher had no such forensic luxuries in his day and had to rely on his cunning and intuition, perhaps moreso than would be comfortable with modern populations. Indeed, one of the undercurrents of the book is how England was reacting to the notion of a "detective" - a concept that was somewhat new to the world. Many felt that detectives were too intrusive and seedy, in it only for the money or glory. Whicher does not seem like that type though. He's reserved and curious, confident in his prowess, but honorable in his manner.

Of course, I'm basing my opinion of the man on what could be argued is a partially-fictional representation of the man and his actions. This question of what is real and what is fiction is something that kept coming to mind while reading this book. Part of that might be the year in film, as previously mentioned, but I think other readers would find such questions arising when reading the book as well. Of the three main components of the story I mentioned earlier (murder mystery, biography, and survey of detective fiction), it is the latter that calls reality into question the most. There seems to be a general idea that quoting fiction in a formal argument is bad form, and as such I can see some people being taken aback by Summerscale's book. While impeccably researched and sourced, she does give the book a flare you don't normally see in non-fiction. As she mentions in her introduction, she uses many devices of detective fiction in her writing. She directly references detective fiction of the day, as well as authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Wilkie Collins (Arthur Conan Doyle is not really referenced until later in the book, as Doyle did not start writing his Sherlock Holmes books until well after Whicher's heyday). Some of these references are to non-fiction - Dickens interviewed Whicher, for instance, and Summerscale includes many of Dickens' insights into Whicher and the case at Road Hill House - but some references are directly from detective fiction. Again, some might find that inappropriate, but I'm sympathetic to such techniques, and I think Summerscale does an exceptional job mixing fact and fiction, to the point where I don't think the book would be as informative or interesting if it didn't mix those seemingly incompatible components. Ultimately, I think this combination yields some insights that a traditional scholarly effort might have missed, and I quite enjoyed the book for the way it treated both real and fictional detectives (page 304):
Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional - to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. 'The detective story," observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, 'is a tragedy with a happy ending.' A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.
It was a good read, and I would recommend it to any one interested in mysteries or the era. Special thanks to longtime Kaedrin reader and friend, Spencer, for giving me this book.
Posted by Mark on January 23, 2011 at 03:48 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Arbitrary Awards
So we're finished with the formal awards, but there are always some other awards that don't really require a lot of nominees... 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: Skyline. Not even that talented thespian Eric Balfour could make this crap sound good. "It's not exactly like we have a lot more bedsheets!"
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Piranha 3D. Of course, the gargantuan amounts of stupid present in this film actually constitute its charm.
  • The "I Can't Believe They Went There" Award for Dumbest Plot Twist: Shutter Island. Scorsese is brilliant as always, but even he can't undo the damage done by one of the dumbest plot twists ever. I also The Book of Eli, but then, there's not quite the disparity between talent and dumb twist there. In other words, the dumbness seems appropriate for that movie.
  • Best Unexpected Gratuitous Nudity: Love and Other Drugs. I like Anne Hathaway. (I assume female audiences enjoy Jake Gyllenhaal as well).
  • Best Documentary About Wine: Blood Into Wine. In a move resembling Homer Simpson's decision to attend Clown College, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan bought and runs a winery in Arizona. This slickly produced documentary is an interesting look at the situation and well worth a watch.
  • Most Menacing Florist of the Year: Pete Postlethwaite's character in The Town. Sadly, Postlethwaite recently passed away. He will be missed, as he always classed a movie up with his presence.
  • Most Surprisingly Mediocre Movie of the Year: Unstoppable. This movie about a runaway train* looked like it would be one of the worst of the year. Instead we got a competent and surprisingly fun thriller.
  • Best Underwater Ballet Sequence: Piranha 3D. This isn't just the best underwater ballet sequence with naked women set to classical music of the year, it's quite possible the best underwater ballet sequence with naked women set to classical music of all time. I suppose an alternate title for this award could be "Best Expected Gratuitous Nudity", a companion to an earlier arbitrary award.
And that just about wraps up the awards for the year. Look for a top 10 list in a few weeks...

* Sorry, I forgot. It's not a train, it's a missile the size of the Chrystler building! Please accept my humble apologies.
Posted by Mark on January 19, 2011 at 08:10 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2010 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners!
The nominations for the 2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. Today, I'll be announcing the winners of those formal awards. Later in the week, I'll cover less traditional categories in what we like to call the Arbitrary Awards, and at some point in the near future, I'll post my top 10 of 2010 (this will most likely happen in early to mid-February). So let's get this party started:
  • Best Villain/Badass: Dr. Heiter, played by Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede. I know, this category is lame. What a bad year for villainy. I seriously considered nominating "speech impediments" (from The King's Speech), that's how bad this year was for villains. I suppose I could add CLU from TRON: Legacy now that I've seen that, but even he is a bit of a lame villain. Ivan Vanko would have been a great candidate if the movie he was in didn't suck so bad. The other nominees were fine, I guess, but in the end, I had to go with everyone's favorite mad scientist, Dr. Heiter, played with a manic and malevolent swagger by (best actor name ever?) Dieter Laser, in one of the more aggressively disgusting horror movies of the year.
  • Best Hero/Badass: Mindy Macready / Hit-Girl, played by Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass. Now this was a much more difficult category to pick a winner in, as there have been lots of great heroic badasses this year. There are a couple that definitely weren't in the running (notably Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie, though I enjoy both of their characters and their movies), but the rest were pretty much on a level playing field, though how could Hit-Girl not come out on top. I suppose there's something of a controversy around such a young actress portraying such a foul-mouthed and violent character, but I'll be damned if she wasn't hysterically funny and totally badass at the same time. If the movie makes my top 10, it will most likely be because of this character and Moretz's performance. At the time I wasn't sure if such an aggressively juvenile film or the novelty of seeing an 11 year old girl swear like a sailor whilst eviscerating her enemies would stand the test of time. So far, at least, it has. I mean, how can this award not go to the character that responds to the seemingly reasonable inquiry of how to contact her in case of an emergency with this: "You just contact the mayor's office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky; it's in the shape of a giant cock." Brilliant.
  • Best Comedic Performance: Kieran Culkin in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I'm as surprised as you are about this one, but he was damn funny in one of the few movies I found really funny this year. I did seriously consider Chloe Moretz for this one, but then, she's only in her movie for a short period of time overall, and a lot of that is really just action. This is really a category where none of the nominees really jumped out at me, so I really just gave it to the movie I thought best deserved to get a comedic award, at which point, Scott Pilgrim actually does stand out. Thats a lame way to pick a winner, I guess, but I really didn't have any other good ideas.
  • Breakthrough Performance: Armie Hammer in The Social Network. Another difficult choice, though this time because there were too many good choices. The shortlist included Noomi Rapace and Jennifer Lawrence (and, ok, Emma Stone), but I ended up going with Hammer because I have to admit, I thought he was awesome in the movie AND that I didn't even realize he was playing two parts (he plays both Winklevoss twins, a testament to his acting ability and the special effects used to pull off those scenes). In the past, this award has traditionally gone to someone I knew, but never expected much out of... Previous winners include Rosario Dawson, Mila Kunis, Josh Brolin and Tom Hardy, all people who I knew and underestimated. This years nominees were mostly young folks who don't have much to their credit, which is very different than years past. Strange, but Hammer was really fantastic in his roles, and I look forward to seeing more of him...

    Armie Hammer in The Social Network
  • Most Visually Stunning: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There seem to be two different types of visually stunning movie nominated every year - gorgeously photographed movies (for this year, think True Grit, Valhalla Rising, Winters Bone and Shutter Island) and movies that have lots of pretty special effects or animation (like Inception or the Secret of Kells), and I seem to generally favor the special effects for some reason. I'm not really sure why, perhaps because the films I choose tend to be more fast paced and have lots of visual pyrotechnics and creativity, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. All of this year's nominees are pretty great from a visual perspective though.
  • Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Inception. Not sure how much actual science is there, but Inception certainly has the look and feel of great science fiction and it evokes that great sensawunda feeling that makes SF so entertaining. It sets up a complicated set of rules and then subverts them, but it does so in an internally consistent way, which is what makes this movie so great. None of the other nominees really came close (i.e. this is the first easy category this year!), though I will note that I got a very similar vibe from the little-seen Triangle (even if that one's even less of SF and more horror/fantasy).
  • Best Sequel: Toy Story 3. This is usually a very difficult category to populate, but this year there were several worthy nominees, though I have to admit that I let a few crappy ones in, notably Piranha 3D, which I allowed based solely on the power of one scene (which will come up when we get to the arbitrary awards next week). I also wanted to note that I was really surprised at how well Paranormal Activity 2 fit into the first movie. There's some clear retconning going on there, but it fits surprisingly well. But in the end, how could I not give this to Toy Story 3? A fantastic movie, sequel or not, and it will most likely be finding its way onto my top 10.
  • Biggest Disappointment: Cop Out. I don't know why I had such high expectations for this one, but I apparently did, and boy did it let me down. With the exception of Sean William Scott's performance, the film is pretty bad. From the cheesy Fletch-wannabe music score to the crappy writing to the boring performances (Bruce Willis mostly just sleeping his way through the movie, while Tracy Morgan was entirely too unrestrained), there's not much to recommend about this movie. I really like Kevin Smith's movies, but I have to admit that I'm confused by this direction - if anything, he should be writing scripts for other directors, not the other way around. As for the other nominees, I didn't really love Iron Man as much as everyone else, so the complete failure of the sequel wasn't really a surprise to me. Splice would be most accurately described as an "interesting failure", which isn't that bad in my book. Mother was actually a pretty good movie, but it's gotten so much play from almost every critic out there that I went into it with expectations that were way too high. And I wasn't expecting that much out of Doghouse in the first place. So yeah, Cop Out was the natural choice for me.
  • Best Action Sequences: Kick-Ass. Another difficult category, and I'm a little surprised that I ended up with Kick-Ass, but it does, well, Kick-Ass. Part of it might just be the novelty of the young heroine (see Best Hero/Badass award above), but another part of it is that there simply wasn't a ton of competition this year. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Inception were on the shortlist for this one, but I felt like Inception was driven more by its ideas than its action, while the action sequences in Scot Pilgrim seemed to get a bit repetitive and desensitizing by the end of the film. Kick-Ass was also sorta making fun of itself as well, which helps.
  • Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Triangle. Always a difficult category to talk about, as I don't want to give anything away, but I found Triangle pretty consistently surprising. Once I got about 30 minutes in, some stuff happened, and I really had no idea where the rest of the movie would go, and that happens a couple times as the movie goes on. Like Inception, it's got a lot of moving parts that all seem to fit together in the end, but which you don't really see coming until they're there. Of course, it's important to go into the movie knowing as little as possible about it, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem for this underseen movie. Inception was a runner up, as was Exit Through the Gift Shop, neither of which really employ conventional plot twists, to be sure (heck one of them is a documentary!), but both of which took me somewhere interesting that I wasn't expecting. Catfish was kinda predictable and as critic Michael Phillips notes in the latest Filmspotting, The Secret in Their Eyes is like a really great two-episode Law & Order: Buenos Aires (if such a thing existed).
  • Best High Concept Film: Exit Through the Gift Shop. Always a difficult category to populate and pick a winner for because the concept is a bit nebulous to start with, but when I thought about this award and Exit Through the Gift Shop, it just made more and more sense. Here's a movie ostensibly about street art, but which ends up examining the person who shot most of the footage in detail, then mercilessly critiquing the art world and hype and ultimately, even itself. The movie is critically examining the very idea of high concept art, so how could it not win? The runner up would have to be The Human Centipede, which is entirely reliant on the disgusting high-concept premise at its core (almost to its detriment).

    Exit Through The Gift Shop
  • 2010's 2009 Movie of the Year: (tie) Black Dynamite and Mystery Team. There are no clear standouts here, and the two I ended up with are both flawed, but only in ways that I find kinda endearing. For instance, the faux-blaxploitation of Black Dynamite begins to wear thin towards the end, though there are several brilliant sequences in the film (such as the montage in the park where he's kinda playing with his girlfriend). Mystery Team is a little too silly for its own good, but I actually really enjoyed that part of the film. Interestingly, almost all of the nominees here are pretty much comedies. Some have other elements as well, but they're mostly comedies, which is strange.
Well there you have it. Stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards on Wednesday and, eventually, the top 10 of 2010.
Posted by Mark on January 16, 2011 at 06:45 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Link Dump
Just some links for your enjoyment...
  • Make it Stop: Dreamcatcher - Devin Faraci's epic takedown of a bad Stephen King adaptation.
    It’s like this series of non-sequiters; the opening of Dreamcatcher is almost avant garde in how weird and unsettling it is. The movie opens by daring you to keep watching - “We’re starting with this nonsense, imagine where we’re going to end up!” And where you end up is a movie about shit weasels and Morgan Freeman’s baffling eyebrows.
    I've seen the movie. It was a while ago, and yeah, it's pretty bad, but in a so-bad-it's-good kinda way. Faraci addresses that sort of thing in his review, but I still think it takes talent to make something this bad. I don't mean to say that they did it intentionally, but you have to have a certain level of ambition to make something this bad.
  • My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead - Chuck Klosterman's musings on why Zombies are so popular these days.
    You can’t add much depth to a creature who can’t talk, doesn’t think and whose only motive is the consumption of flesh. You can’t humanize a zombie, unless you make it less zombie-esque. There are slow zombies, and there are fast zombies— that’s pretty much the spectrum of zombie diversity. It’s not that zombies are changing to fit the world’s condition; it’s that the condition of the world seems more like a zombie offensive. Something about zombies is becoming more intriguing to us. And I think I know what that something is.

    Zombies are just so easy to kill.
    He's got some interesting ideas, but on the other hand, this highlights one of the big problems with zombies. They're so easy to attach meaning to that they quickly become meaningless.
  • The Rose in Winter - I suppose this is kinda like that Infinite Summer thing (that, uh, I never finished), but for Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose (a book I do want to read at some point, not that I don't already have lots of reading to do)
  • The Physiology of Foie: Why Foie Gras is Not Unethical - I've never actually had Foie Gras. It's one of those weird things I only ever saw on Iron Chef (the proper Japanese version of the show, that is). As such, I never knew there was any sort of controversy around it, but this article is a pretty interesting look at where Foie comes from...
  • The Comics Curmudgeon - You wouldn't think that some guy who analyzes the Sunday funnies would be compelling, but yep, it is.
Posted by Mark on January 12, 2011 at 08:10 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards
It's finally time for the 5th Annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! As of today, I've seen 69 movies that would be considered 2010 releases. This is on par with the past few years [Previous Installments here: 2006 2007 2008 2009], but a little less than last year. Regardless, this post marks the beginning of my end of the year recap (only a little more than a week late!) The categories are the same as last year, but will proceed a bit differently. I'll post all the nominations today, but I don't think I'll be announcing one or two winners a day (as I've done the past few years), instead opting to announce them all at once next Sunday.

2010 has been an unusual year for movies. In particular, the first half of the year was pretty disheartening. It wasn't until about mid-summer that things started turning around, and as I've been playing catchup for the past couple of months, I've been finding some diamonds in the rough from the first half. In the end, while I don't think it's been a particularly good year for movies, I think that abysmal first half has ruined the year's reputation. That or the endless parade of mediocrity that seems to be this year's theme. 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 2010 (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? So here are the nominees for this year's awards:

Best Villain/Badass
It's been a bad year for villainy... I was able to fill the category, but only by putting some real stretches on the list. 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
Heroes, on the other hand, are having a much more badass year. There were so many choices, I had to actually cut a few people off the list and I still ended up with a very large list... Again limited to individuals and not groups. Best Comedic Performance
Another lackluster year for comedy. I ended up pulling a few unconventional choices into the list... Breakthrough Performance
Interestingly, this is a pretty decent year for young actresses, as the grand majority of nominees are female. 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, but not so much this year... 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. This is a category normally dominated by Horror, but there's at least one solid SF nominee (and another two that are sorta mixtures). The list is still weighted more towards Horror, but a respectable showing for both genres: Best Sequel
A surprisingly long list of options this year (in each of the 4 years I've been doing this, there's only been 3 options). Now, at least one of these is a pretty bad movie, but I included it anyway. 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 good movie can win the award because of high expectations. 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... 2010's 2009 Movie of the Year
A 2009 movie I didn't get to see until 2010... 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. A few good ones this year (er last year, no this year): Anyone have any suggestions (for either category or nominations)? Comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome, as always.

It looks like there isn't a clear leader in nominations, but there are 4 films coming in at 4 nominations each: Inception, Kick-Ass, Machete, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Nipping at their heels is a whopping 5 films with 3 nominations each, including: True Grit, Winter's Bone, Triangle, The Millenium Trilogy Movies (perhaps an unfair advantage there), and, surprisingly, Paranormal Activity 2. Even more films have 2 nominations each, and more than that with just 1. Overall, 34 movies were nominated (not including the 2009 movies or the "disappointment" award), which is still a pretty good showing, I think. So I'm going to give it a week and then hopefully announce all the winners next Sunday, followed by some Arbitrary awards and (eventually) a top 10.
Posted by Mark on January 09, 2011 at 10:42 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Book Queue (Updated)
According to my records, I read 21 books last year. This is not a large number by any means, but it was an improvement over recent years. Earlier in the year, I posted my book queue, featuring 10 books that I had sitting on my shelves (an unprecedented number of unread books for me, as I usually don't work that far ahead of myself) and of course, I've only read 7 of those. So three of the below are repeats, and in looking at some other previous lists, there's a couple other repeat books as well. Then there are several new additions, meaning that somehow that unprecedented list of 10 unread books has actually grown despite my reading 21 books last year. Score. Anyway, for the record, these are the books:
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: This one is next up in the queue. Not sure why I got this one in the first place, nor why it's taken me so long to pick it up, but there you have it. It seems relatively short, so hopefully I'll knock this one off quickly.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: I've some mixed feelings about Miéville, but the fact that his work is described as "weird fiction" in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft and M. R. James has always interested me and since he's one of the more prolific and popular genre authors these days, I figured I should give him a shot. But then, while my friend Sovawanea enjoyed the book, she also mentioned that it was a bit of a slog at the beginning, and looking at the 600+ page book with small type, well, I don't want to get bogged down to start the year, so it probably will be a while before I pick this up. That being said, I do want to get through it, if only because it's been on my shelf for 2 years!
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: I think I've read the first chapter of this book about 3 times. And I really like it! But this is another of those do I really have time to read a dense, 900+ page book with tiny type books. That being said, it's a classic geek text, and something I really do want to finish off this year (assuming I can get through some other stuff first).
  • Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram: Another one that's been sitting on my shelf for years. Boyd is apparently quite influential in military circles and his theories are apparently quite important in current conflicts around the world (in particular, he's frequently referenced by John Robb in Brave New War, a book I read from the last book queue post). I'm not usually a big biography fan, but it's something I should try out.
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale: A gift from longtime Kaedrin friend and reader Spencer, I will most definitely be reading this early in the year (probably before most of the above). I don't know that much about it, but then, the subtitle pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: Another gift from Spencer, and another one that I'll most likely be tackling early in the year.
  • Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky: I picked this up on a whim whilst at the bookstore a few months ago. Shirky is always entertaining and fun to read, though sometimes I feel like his ideas are too high level. He's a good writer, but perhaps too clever for his own good. Or maybe not - I guess we'll find out.
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon: I get the impression that Pynchon is slumming it in a genre story (hard boiled detective fiction) with this book, so I'm actually quite looking forward to this, as Pynchon is a brilliant prose stylist and yet this novel seems more accessible than his other, more literary works. Also, I want to read this before Paul Thomas Anderson finishes his movie adaptation (which I will also look forward to!)
  • The Cobra Trilogy by Timothy Zahn: And of course I return to one of my favorite trashy science fiction workhorses. This is apparently one of his older books, but I'm still looking forward to it. Of course, this is also an omnibus collection of three books, so it's a monster (around 950 pages).
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold: The first in an apparently longstanding science fiction series, including several Hugo Award winners. I'm looking forward to this, but I can easily see myself getting sucked into the series (and thus delaying some of the other books in this list).
  • The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist by Fred Brooks: I'm a big fan of Brooks's The Mythical Man Month, and this book about design from a computer science perspective should be interesting.
  • Time's Eye (A Time Odyssey) by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter: A Christmas gift from my brother and yet another first book in a series (!), I will try getting to this, but I have a feeling that it will be pushed back by some of the above...
A lot of these books are longer than the ones I read last year. In my zeal to cut down the book queue, I seem to have gravitated towards shorter books, leaving only longer (and in a lot of cases, denser) books. As such, I think I'll be lucky to hit 20 books again this year... but that shouldn't really matter.
Posted by Mark on January 05, 2011 at 09:35 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

2010 Catchup Progress, Part 2
The year has ended, but the 2010 Catchup continues. Last time around, I had only seen about 5 of the movies on my original list, but I've been some pretty good progress since then, knocking about 10 more movies off the list (plus 2 additional films that weren't even on the list):
  • The Art of the Steal: Not a heist flick, but rather a documentary about the Barnes art collection, and how various political powers maneuvered to relocate the art from its longtime home in Lower Merion to downtown Philadelphia (despite the clear wishes laid out in Barnes' will). Unapologetically one-sided, but still a fascinating and thought provoking documentary. I'm not entirely sure I buy completely into the filmmakers' side of things - one could certainly mount a pretty good devil's advocate case against them - but on the other hand, the way the powers-that-be went about moving the collection is pretty dirty. ***
  • The Fighter: Add one part Raging Bull, two parts Rocky, and Christian Bale into a pot. Bring to a boil and stir vigorously. Profit. In all seriousness, it's a lot better than I was expecting, but it's also a little on the disjointed side. For instance, it seemed like Melissa Leo and Christian Bale were almost in a different movie. Great performances, but they're a lot more over the top than anyone else in the film. Mark Wahlberg is passable, which is about as good as I could have hoped in a movie where he has to share the screen with great actors. **1/2
  • The Kids Are All Right: Well done family drama hits all the appropriate notes, but I fount it lacking in some ways. Great performances all around and a good central story, but some of the side-plots are given short shrift. I can see why some people love this film, but it didn't do a whole lot for me. **1/2
  • Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: Already wrote a full review of this one, and the Samichlaus beer I had after... ***
  • Easy A: Breezy, clever, and fun, it was much better than I expected. Great central performance by Emma Stone and a solid supporting cast anchor the film on top of a clever script. It's not Oscar-bait or anything, but I was really surprised by how much I found myself enjoying this... ***
  • Exit Through the Gift Shop: Intriguing documentary ostensibly about street art and one of it's most mysterious figures, Banksy. Instead, Banksy turns the tables and highlights the guy behind the camera, who turns out to be quite the lunatic. I'm not sure I totally buy Banksy's conceit here, but while I suppose that questions of the film's authenticity are valid, it ultimately doesn't matter much. I really enjoyed the film for what it was, and could even delve a bit deeper than expected to gain some insight into the art world in general. It doesn't go where you'd expect, but I really enjoyed the trip it took me on. I didn't watch them together, but this would probably make a nice double feature with The Art of the Steal (both are available on Netflix watch instantly). ***1/2
  • True Grit: The Coen Brothers's take on the classical Western, I found it very refreshing to just watch a solid Western without having to bother with all the revisionist traditions that most Westerns these days seem to embrace. When I saw the preview for this, i was a little worried about Jeff Bridges voice - something sounded so off, so manufactured about it. But in the context of the film, it was fine, and complemented a good performance. Newcoming Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic and manages to hold her own whenever she's onscreen. For some reason, Matt Damon hasn't been getting a lot of buzz for his work in the film, but I think I might like his performance the best out of all of them. Will probably have a place on my top 10 of the year list, whenever I manage to get to that... ***1/2
    Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon in True Grit
  • Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Believe it or not, Joan Rivers plays a small role in my professional life, which only made this documentary more interesting because I really didn't know or remember where she came from or all the other stuff that she does. Despite her constant self-deprecating comments (which got on my nerves by the end of the film), she seems to do a tremendous amount of work. The most interesting thing I saw, though, were some clips from her standup routine, which is quite dirty and very funny. Ultimately, there wasn't a ton to this movie, but it was a solid study of an interesting person. **1/2
  • The King's Speech: This movie seemed like such obvious Oscar-bait that I didn't originally plan to see it, but after hearing a few reviews and seeing that it managed to get wide distribution, I gave it a shot and was very glad that I did so. Fantastic central performances by Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush, and a witty script elevates this film beyond typical indie Oscar bait (though there is maybe one or two groaners in that respect, it was much less than I was expecting). One thing I loved about the film was that it didn't feel the need to completely "cure" the King's stuttering problem (and indeed, the King's response to Logue's jesting comment that he "stammered on the W" is the perfect illustration of why that was a good thing). ***
  • The Secret in Their Eyes: Technically a 2009 release, it won the Oscar for best foreign film... but wasn't released in the US until 2010, so I'm including it on my list. Indeed, for the past few years, the best foreign film Oscar-winner has appeared on my top 10 list, so my expectations were high for this one. Unfortunately, it didn't entirely live up to my expectations, but it's still quite a good film. I just found some aspects of the film a bit sloppy, and didn't connect with some of the subplots. Still well worth a watch. ***
  • Mother: There's something about the way Bong Joon-ho makes movies that just doesn't connect with me. I was not at all impressed with his previous effort, the overpraised The Host, and while Mother manages to be a much better film, it's still not something I totally connected with. The great lead performance by Kim Hye-ja wasn't really enough to save the film for me, though the plot is much tighter and less tonally inconsistent than Joon-ho's previous film. I'm glad I saw it and I can see why it's garnered the praise it has, but it wasn't one of my favorites. **1/2
  • Vengeance: Director Johnny To has been a long time Kaedrin favorite, but despite this film being one of my most anticipated of the year, I have to admit that it was extremely disappointing. There's a nugget of a good movie here, but it's drowned out by some really clunky dialogue (perhaps the partial English language nature of the film had something to do with that) and some baffling plot choices. Even the action sequences, which To normally excels at even in bad movies, came off as a bit trite and uninspired. Again, the overall story has its merits, but I found the execution lacking. It kept my interest, but it's not especially recommended. **
  • The Secret of Kells: It looks like this is another 2010 on a technicality movie, but this animated film is well worth checking out, if only for the visually dynamic style that permeates the screen. Occasionally, I think the film delves a bit too deeply into the stylish visuals and the overall story is a bit on the weaker side, but it's still a compelling and stunning film. **1/2
    The Secret of Kells
This brings the total tally of 2010 films I've seen to 65, which is pretty good, especially when considering that at the beginning of November I was only at around 30 films... And there's still quite a few I have to check out. Keep an eye out next weekend for the Fifth Annual Kaedrin Movie Award Nominations! [Previous Installments here: 2006 2007 2008 2009] If you have any suggestions for either new categories or nominees for existing categories, by all means, leave a comment or send me an email (or however you want to get in touch with me)...
Posted by Mark on January 02, 2011 at 08:37 PM .: link :.

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