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The Murnau Stare

One of the films I forgot to include in my Greatest Movies I’ve Never Seen list was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It’s a 1927 silent film and it features a number of iconic shots – most notably a scene where a woman and man pass through a bustling street (see this clip, about 3:36 in). One of the things I always find interesting about the silent film era is how much of modern cinema is represented, even back then. While technology and budgets have certainly improved, much of the visual language of cinema was coined during the silent era. In particular, Sunrise has a number of impressive tracking shots and the composite special effects are much more effective than expected.

The shot that struck me the most, though, was this one:

Sunrise stare

In the film, a city girl vacations in the country and tempts a farm man into an affair. She suggests he drown his wife so that he could be free to run away to the city. It’s a rather simple premise, but the man is conflicted, and when he takes his wife out for a boat ride, he stops and favors her with the above stare. Does it look familiar?

Maybe it’s just me, but it bears a striking resemblance to what’s called the Kubrick Stare. Head tilted downward, eyes tilted upward. It was a favorite shot of Kubrick, and he often employed it in his movies, perhaps most famously in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange:

A Clockwork Orange stare

A Clockwork Orange

It turns out that the phrase “Kubrick Stare” was coined by cinematographer Doug Milsome, a frequent collaborator with Kubrick. It seems that Kubrick liked to use the look himself when he was feeling angry or mischievous, and it’s rumored that his stare was more intense than anything in his films. This shot from a Playboy interview in 1969 captures it reasonably well:

A Clockwork Orange stare

Stanley Kubrick

Again, Kubrick is famous for using this shot, and you can see it in most of his films, often multiple times (see the extended entry for more shots from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) and being a big Kubrick fan, I was kinda surprised to see it, full formed, in Sunrise.

Of course, neither Murnau or Kubrick have trademarked that stare. In fact, it’s a rather common human expression (indeed, my nieces frequently make that face whenever their crazy uncle Marky does something silly). Filmmakers of the stature of Kubrick or Murnau just managed to capture well enough that it stands out. Kubrick’s consistent use of that image made it iconic enough that he sorta made it his own. Now, whenever someone uses a shot like that, it’s considered an homage to Kubrick… but watching Sunrise is interesting in that light (seeing as though that film was made a solid 30 years before Kubrick even started making movies). More screenshots below the fold…

Remix Culture and Soviet Montage Theory

A video mashup of The Beastie Boys’ popular and amusing Sabotage video with scenes from Battlestar Galactica has been making the rounds recently. It’s well done, but a little on the disposable side of remix culture. The video lead Sunny Bunch to question “remix culture”:

It’s quite good. But, ultimately, what’s the point?

Leaving aside the questions of copyright and the rest: Seriously…what’s the point? Does this add anything to the culture? I won’t dispute that there’s some technical prowess in creating this mashup. But so what? What does it add to our understanding of the world, or our grasp of the problems that surround us? Anything? Nothing? Is it just “there” for us to have a chuckle with and move on? Is this the future of our entertainment?

These are good questions, and I’m not surprised that the BSG Sabotage video prompted them. The implication of Sonny’s post is that he thinks it is an unoriginal waste of talent (he may be playing a bit of devil’s advocate here, but I’m willing to play along because these are interesting questions and because it will give me a chance to pedantically lecture about film history later in this post!) In the comments, Julian Sanchez makes a good point (based on a video he produced earlier that was referenced by someone else in the comment thread), which will be something I’ll expand on later in this post:

First, the argument I’m making in that video is precisely that exclusive focus on the originality of the contribution misses the value in the activity itself. The vast majority of individual and collective cultural creation practiced by ordinary people is minimally “original” and unlikely to yield any final product of wide appeal or enduring value. I’m thinking of, e.g., people singing karaoke, playing in a garage band, drawing, building models, making silly YouTube videos, improvising freestyle poetry, whatever. What I’m positing is that there’s an intrinsic value to having a culture where people don’t simply get together to consume professionally produced songs and movies, but also routinely participate in cultural creation. And the value of that kind of cultural practice doesn’t depend on the stuff they create being particularly awe-inspiring.

To which Sonny responds:

I’m actually entirely with you on the skill that it takes to produce a video like the Brooklyn hipsters did — I have no talent for lighting, camera movements, etc. I know how hard it is to edit together something like that, let alone shoot it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. That’s one of the reasons I find the final product so depressing, however: An impressive amount of skill and talent has gone into creating something that is not just unoriginal but, in a way, anti-original. These are people who are so devoid of originality that they define themselves not only by copying a video that they’ve seen before but by copying the very personalities of characters that they’ve seen before.

Another good point, but I think Sonny is missing something here. The talents of the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn hipsters are certainly admirable, but while we can speculate, we don’t necessarily know their motivations. About 10 years ago, a friend and amateur filmmaker showed me a video one of his friends had produced. It took scenes from Star Wars and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and recut them so it looked like the Millennium Falcon was fighting the Enterprise. It would show Han Solo shooting, then cut to the Enterprise being hit. Shatner would exclaim “Fire!” and then it would cut to a blast hitting the Millennium Falcon. And so on. Another video from the same guy took the musical number George Lucas had added to Return of the Jedi in the Special Edition, laid Wu-Tang Clan in as the soundtrack, then re-edited the video elements so everything matched up.

These videos sound fun, but not particularly original or even special in this day and age. However, these videos were made ten to fifteen years ago. I was watching them on a VHS(!) and the person making the edits was using analog techniques and equipment. It turns out that these videos were how he honed his craft before he officially got a job as an editor in Hollywood. I’m sure there were tons of other videos, probably much less impressive, that he had created before the ones I’m referencing. Now, I’m not saying that the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn Hipsters are angling for professional filmmaking jobs, but it’s quite possible that they are at least exploring their own possibilities. I would also bet that these people have been making videos like this (though probably much less sophisticated) since they were kids. The only big difference now is that technology has enabled them to make a slicker experience and, more importantly, to distribute it widely.

It’s also worth noting that this sort of thing is not without historical precedent. Indeed, the history of editing and montage is filled with this sort of thing. In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of famous experiments that helped express the role of editing in films. In these experiments, he would show a man with an expressionless face, then cut to various other shots. In one example, he showed the expressionless face, then cut to a bowl of soup. When prompted, audiences would claim that they found that the man was hungry. Kuleshov then took the exact same footage of the expressionless face and cut to a pretty girl. This time, audiences reported that the man was in love. Another experiment alternated between the expressionless face and a coffin, a juxtaposition that lead audiences to believe that the man was stricken with grief. This phenomenon has become known as the Kuleshov Effect.

For the current discussion, one notable aspect of these experiments is that Kuleshov was working entirely from pre-existing material. And this sort of thing was not uncommon, either. At the time, there was a shortage of raw film stock in Russia. Filmmakers had to make due with what they had, and often spent their time re-cutting existing material, which lead to what’s now called Soviet Montage Theory. When D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which used advanced editing techniques (it featured a series of cross cut narratives which eventually converged in the last reel), opened in Russia in 1919, it quickly became very popular. The Russian film community saw this as a validation and popularization of their theories and also as an opportunity. Russian critics and filmmakers were impressed by the film’s technical qualities, but dismissed the story as “bourgeois”, claiming that it failed to resolve issues of class conflict, and so on. So, not having much raw film stock of their own, they took to playing with Griffith’s film, re-editing certain sections of the film to make it more “agitational” and revolutionary.

The extent to which this happened is a bit unclear, and certainly public exhibitions were not as dramatically altered as I’m making it out to be. However, there are Soviet versions of the movie that contained small edits and a newly filmed prologue. This was done to “sharpen the class conflict” and “anti-exploitation” aspects of the film, while still attempting to respect the author’s original intentions. This was part of a larger trend of adding Soviet propaganda to pre-existing works of art, and given the ideals of socialism, it makes sense. (The preceeding is a simplification of history, of course… see this chapter from Inside the Film Factory for a more detailed discussion of Intolerance and it’s impact on Russian cinema.) In the Russian film world, things really began to take off with Sergei Eisenstein and films like Battleship Potemkin. Watch that film today, and you’ll be struck by how modern-feeling the editing is, especially during the infamous Odessa Steps sequence (which you’ll also recognize if you’ve ever seen Brian De Palma’s “homage” in The Untouchables).

Now, I’m not really suggesting that the woman who produced BSG Sabotage is going to be the next Eisenstein, merely that the act of cutting together pre-existing footage is not necessarily a sad waste of talent. I’ve drastically simplified the history of Soviet Montage Theory above, but there are parallels between Soviet filmmakers then and YouTube videomakers today. Due to limited resources and knowledge, they began experimenting with pre-existing footage. They learned from the experience and went on to grander modifications of larger works of art (Griffith’s Intolerance). This eventually culminated in original works of art, like those produced by Eisenstein.

Now, YouTube videomakers haven’t quite made that expressive leap yet, but it’s only been a few years. It’s going to take time, and obviously editing and montage are already well established features of film, so innovation won’t necessarily come from that direction. But that doesn’t mean that nothing of value can emerge from this sort of thing, nor does messing around with videos on YouTube limit these young artists to film. While Roger Ebert’s valid criticisms are vaid, more and more, I’m seeing interactivity as the unexplored territory of art. Video games like Heavy Rain are an interesting experience and hint at something along these lines, but they are still severely limited in many ways (in other words, Ebert is probably right when it comes to that game). It will take a lot of experimentation to get to a point where maybe Ebert would be wrong (if it’s even possible at all). Learning about the visual medium of film by editing together videos of pre-existing material would be an essential step in the process. Improving the technology with which to do so is also an important step. And so on.

To return back to the BSG Sabotage video for a moment, I think that it’s worth noting the origins of that video. The video is clearly having fun by juxtaposing different genres and mediums (it is by no means the best or even a great example of this sort of thing, but it’s still there. For a better example of something built entirely from pre-existing works, see Shining.). Battlestar Galactica was a popular science fiction series, beloved by many, and this video comments on the series slightly by setting the whole thing to an unconventional music choice (though given the recent Star Trek reboot’s use of the same song, I have to wonder what the deal is with SF and Sabotage). Ironically, even the “original” Beastie Boys video was nothing more than a pastiche of 70s cop television shows. While I’m no expert, the music on Ill Communication, in general, has a very 70s feel to it. I suppose you could say that association only exists because of the Sabotage video itself, but even other songs on that album have that feel – for one example, take Sabrosa. Indeed, the Beastie Boys are themselves known for this sort of appropriation of pre-existing work. Their album Paul’s Boutique infamously contains literally hundreds of samples and remixes of popular music. I’m not sure how they got away with some of that stuff, but I suppose this happened before getting sued for sampling was common. Nowadays, in order to get away with something like Paul’s Boutique, you’ll need to have deep pockets, which sorta defeats the purpose of using a sample in the first place. After all, samples are used in the absence of resources, not just because of a lack of originality (though I guess that’s part of it). In 2004 Nate Harrison put together this exceptional video explaining how a 6 second drum beat (known as the Amen Break) exploded into its own sub-culture:

There is certainly some repetition here, and maybe some lack of originality, but I don’t find this sort of thing “sad”. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of hip hop music, but I can’t deny the impact it’s had on our culture and all of our music. As I write this post, I’m listening to Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album:

It uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from The Beatles’ LP The Beatles (more commonly known as The White Album). The Grey Album gained notoriety due to the response by EMI in attempting to halt its distribution.

I’m not familiar with Jay-Z’s album and I’m probably less familiar with The White Album than I should be, but I have to admit that this combination and the artistry with which the two seemingly incompatible works are combined into one cohesive whole is impressive. Despite the lack of an official release (that would have made Danger Mouse money), The Grey Album made many best of the year (and best of the decade) lists. I see some parallels between the 1980s and 1990s use of samples, remixes, and mashups, and what was happening in Russian film in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a pattern worth noticing here: New technology enables artists to play with existing art, then apply their learnings to something more original later. Again, I don’t think that the BSG Sabotage video is particularly groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean that the entire remix culture is worthless. I’m willing to bet that remix culture will eventually contribute towards something much more original than BSG Sabotage

Incidentally, the director of the original Beastie Boys Sabotage video? Spike Jonze, who would go on to direct movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Where the Wild Things Are. I think we’ll see some parallels between the oft-maligned music video directors, who started to emerge in the film world in the 1990s, and YouTube videomakers. At some point in the near future, we’re going to see film directors coming from the world of short-form internet videos. Will this be a good thing? I’m sure there are lots of people who hate the music video aesthetic in film, but it’s hard to really be that upset that people like David Fincher and Spike Jonze are making movies these days. I doubt YouTubers will have a more popular style, and I don’t think they’ll be dominant or anything, but I think they will arrive. Or maybe YouTube videomakers will branch out into some other medium or create something entirely new (as I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of room for innovation in the interactive realm). In all honesty, I don’t really know where remix culture is going, but maybe that’s why I like it. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads.

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…

Visual Literacy and Rembrandt’s J’accuse

Perhaps the most fascinating film I saw at the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival was Rembrandt’s J’accuse. It’s a documentary where British director Peter Greenaway deconstructs Rembrandt’s most famous painting: Night Watch. It’s arguably the 4th most celebrated painting in art history (preceded only by the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…) and Greenaway believes it’s also an accusation of murder. The movie plays like a forensic detective story as Greenaway analyzes the painting from top to bottom. It’s an interesting topic for a documentary, though I think the film ultimately falters a bit in it’s investigation (either that, or Greenaway is trying to do something completely different).

(Note, you can click on the images below for a higher resolution image.)

Night Watch

Night Watch

Greenaway began his career as a painter and he contends that most people are visually illiterate, which is an interesting point. We really do live in a text-based culture. Our education system encourages textual learning over visuals, from the alphabet to vocabulary and reading skills. The proportion of time spent “reading paintings as they do text” is minute (if it happens at all). As such, our ability to analyze visual art forms like paintings is ill-informed and impoverished. Greenaway even takes the opportunity to rag on the state of modern cinema (which is a whole other discussion, as sometimes even bad movies are visually well constructed, but I digress). In any case, I do think Greenaway has a point here. Our culture is awash in visual information – television, movies, photography, etc… – and yet, we spend very little time questioning the veracity of what we’re shown. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, which is really just a way of saying that pictures can easily convey massive amounts of information. Pictures are inherently trustworthy and persuasive, but this can, in itself, cause issues. Malcolm Gladwell examined this in his essay, The Picture Problem:

You can build a high-tech camera, capable of taking pictures in the middle of the night, in other words, but the system works only if the camera is pointed in the right place, and even then the pictures are not self-explanatory. They need to be interpreted, and the human task of interpretation is often a bigger obstacle than the technical task of picture-taking. … pictures promise to clarify but often confuse. … Is it possible that we place too much faith in pictures?

Gladwell is, of course, casting suspicion on images, but he’s actually making many of the same points as Greenaway. What Gladwell is really saying is that human beings are visually illiterate. As Greenaway notes towards the beginning of the film, is what we see really what we see? Or do we only see what we want to see? Both Gladwell and Greenaway seem to agree that interpretation is key (though Gladwell might be a bit more pessimistic about the feasibility of doing so). Though this concept is not explicitly referenced later in the film, I do believe it is essential to understanding the film.

One of the first clues that Greenaway examines is the public nature of Rembrandt’s painting. For the most part, public museums didn’t start appearing until the mid 19th century. The Night Watch, by contrast, was on public display from day one (1642). In a time where paintings were private luxuries, usually viewed only by the rich and those who commissioned the paintings, the Night Watch was viewed by all. In a lot of ways, the painting is unusual and prompts questions, most of which don’t seem to have any sort of satisfactory answers. This leads to all sorts of speculation and theories about the motives behind the painting and what it really depicts. One way to look at it is to view it as an accusation. An indictment of conspiracy. Greenaway starts with this idea and proceeds to examine 34 interconnected mysteries about the painting. The mysteries all server to illuminate one thing: The content of the painting. What is it about? Who are the players? What is the accusation?

I will not go through all 34 mysteries, but as an example, the first mystery is about the Dutch Militia. At the time of the painting, there was a century-long Dutch tradition of the group military portrait. The Dutch had been involved in a long, drawn-out guerrilla war with the Spanish. Local militias were formed all throughout the country to protect their towns from their enemies. These local companies were comprised of regular citizens and volunteers, many of them important local figures, and they liked to have themselves painted, usually in uniform and in a powerful light to inspire solidarity and confidence. As the war wound down, these militias became less about the military and more about politics and power. It was a prestigious thing to be in a militia and they became more of a gentleman’s club than a military organization. In the Night Watch, Rembrandt chose to break many of the traditions associated with the common Dutch military portrait. Many of the future mysteries examine these differences in great detail.

After seeing the movie I was struck by numerous things. First, for a filmmaker ostensibly crusading against visual illiteracy, I find it strange that Greenaway has chosen to present his argument as a gigantic wall of text. He narrates the entire film. Occasionally, he’ll cut to a “reenactment”, which are scenes from his previous film, a fictional retelling of Rembrandt’s painting, but even those are comprised primarily of characters spouting dialogue (these scenes rarely provide insight, though it’s nice to break up the narration with something a little more theatrical).

Indeed, the grand majority of the mysteries are concerned with context (i.e. the cultural and historical traditions, the timing of the painting, who commissioned the painting, etc…). There is a concept from communication theory called exformation that I think is relevant here.

Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating. In using words, sounds and gestures the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied. This shared context is called exformation.

Wikipedia also has an excellent anecdotal example of the concept in action:

In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Miserables, 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.

Similarly, when Rembrandt painted the Night Watch and it was put on display, most of the viewers knew the subjects in the painting and the circumstances in which it was painted. As modern viewers, we do not have any of that shared knowledge. In order to understand the visual of The Night Watch, one must first understand the context of the painting, something that is primarily established through text. For example, one of the mysteries of the painting has to do with the lighting. Rembrandt was one of the pioneers of artificial lighting in paintings, and this was the result of improvements to technology of the day. There were apparently big improvements in the use of candles and mirrors, and so Rembrandt enjoyed playing with lighting, making the painting seem almost theatrical. As modern viewers, this sort of playful use of lighting isn’t special – it’s something we’ve seen a million times before and in a million other contexts. In Rembrandt’s time, it was different. It called attention to itself and caused much speculation. Modern audiences thus need to be informed of this, and again, Greenaway accomplishes this mostly through the use of text.

To be sure, there are some interesting visualization techniques that Greenaway employs when talking about specific aspects of the painting. For example, when discussing the aforementioned use of lighting, Greenaway does his own manipulation, exagerating the lighting in the painting to underline his point:

Lighting Effects

Unfortunately, these are not used as often as I would have hoped, nor are they always necessary or enlightening, and indeed there are numerous distractions throughout. For instance, the frame is often comprised of several overlapping and moving boxes. Sometimes this is used well, but it often feels visually overwhelming. Indeed, sometimes the audio is sometimes also overwhelming – with Greenaway’s narration being overlaid on top of music and sometimes even a woman’s voice which is saying the names of famous people who have seen Night Watch (the inclusion of which has always confused me). I’m sure it’s challenging to make a movie about a painting without just putting up a static shot of the painting (and that’s certainly not desirable), but does the screen need to be so busy? The visual components of the film seem to take a back seat to the textual elements… Interestingly, this is a film that seems to work a lot better on the small screen, as it’s not nearly as overwhelming on the small screen as it was in the theater.

Visually Overwhelming

Visually Overwhelming

Furthermore, the text presented to us is so dense that it can be hard to follow at times. This at least partially due to the massive amount of exformation, unfamiliar European names, different cultural traditions, etc… There are 34 people depicted in the painting (plus a dog!), and it can be tough to keep track of who is who. I suppose I should not be surprised that someone obsessed with visual literacy is not a master writer, but perhaps there is something else going on here…

Next, I was struck by the inclusion of Greenaway’s face, which is often positioned in a box right in the center of the frame. Why do that? Why is he calling so much attention to himself? My first inclination is that it’s a breathtakingly arrogant strategy. Also, the sound of his voice (sometimes overly deliberate pronunciation mixed with stereotypical European accent) lends the impression of arrogance and pretentiousness. I think that may still be part of it, but again, there is more going on here.

Look at Me!

Look at me!

There are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (also known as Expositional Mode). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you’re expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns’ infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category. The disembodied nature of a voice-over lends an air of authority and even omniscience to a film’s subject matter (this type of voice-over is often referred to as “Voice of God” narration). As such, these films are open to abuse through manipulative rhetoric and social propaganda.

By contrast, Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker’s presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.

An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris’ brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the “truth” around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing – deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the “truth” he is presenting.

Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity.

Greenaway could easily have employed a direct address narration with this film, but he does not. Instead, he conspicuously inserts himself right into the middle of the frame. Indeed, later in the film, Greenaway appears dressed in a ridiculous getup more suited to appear within the painting than in the movie. It’s almost like he’s daring us to question this visual choice. Why?

Perhaps because of the third thing that struck me – Greenaway is the only narrator in the film. Most documentaries feature many talking heads, experts and historians, and even some contrary opinions, among other expositional techniques. This film does not. Why? Could it be that Greenaway’s story is complete bullshit? After all, his story is delivered in textual form. With his visuals, Greenaway is emphasizing his own subjectivity. A cursory glance around the internet (hardly a comprehensive search, but still) reveals that Greenaway appears to be the only one who subscribes to this theory of murder and accusation.

So I’m left with something of a dilemma. This movie is an impressive bit of speculation and interpretation, but I have no idea if it’s true or not. The visual elements of the film seem to emphasize that it is an emphatically subjective interpretation of the painting, but that this sort of speculation on the visual composition is still important, and that we should do more of this sort of thing (something I would agree with).

Or maybe I’m reading way too much into the movie and he employs so much text simply because he thinks we’re visually illiterate morons. At this point, I really don’t know how to rate this film. I’m having a lot of trouble gauging how much I enjoyed this film. Upon first viewing it, in the theater, I have to say that I didn’t like it very much. And yet, it still fascinated me, to the point where I started writing this post and rewatching the film to make sure my interpretation fit. Indeed, as previously mentioned, I found it much more watchable on the small screen. If this post at all interests you, I suggest checking it out. It’s actually available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature (and thus can be viewed through a computer, a PS3 or XBox or any number of other Netflix streaming ready boxes).

More screenshots and comments in the extended entry…

Update: More on Visual Literacy (in response to comments in this post)

Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 – Universal Horror

It’s that time of year again. Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and it provides a convenient excuse to explore one of my favorite genres of film (as I have done for the past couple of years). In preparation for this year’s six week celebration of Halloween, I pretty quickly drew up a list that could easily take me through ten weeks… I doubt I’ll get through them all, but I’m going to have fun trying. Highlights include this week’s look at classic Universal Horror films, a sampling of the later Monster revival with Hammer Horror, perhaps some Vincent Price, and of course, some slashers and miscellaneous horrors to round out the pack (including the much anticipated Trick ‘r Treat, amongst others). If you can’t get enough Halloween madness here, be sure to visit Kernunrex, who’s been doing this whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing a lot longer than I have… (Someday I’ll redesign Kaedrin so as to allow for an easy switch to Halloween colors like he does… that day is probably not coming anytime soon, but still.)

Its the nicest weather Earth has ever had!

Its the nicest weather Earth has ever had!*

As previously mentioned, this year’s marathon kicks off with a look at Universal Studios’ classic monster films. I’ve seen two of the following films before, but not since I was very young, so I figured it would be worth revisiting (as a result, I now want to revisit the original novels upon which the following films were based, which if my current queue is any indication, means I’ll get to them sometime in the 2020s). Here goes:

  • Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Robot Chicken)
  • Frankenhooker (trailer)
  • Frankenstein (1910 – Full Movie)
  • Frankenstein (1931): My memories of Frankenstein were fond but not overly enthusiastic. I remember these films being hokey and over-the-top, and to be sure, there are elements of that here, but it is much more effective than I remember it being. Adapted from Mary Shelly’s classic novel of the same name, the film is dramatically different from both the novel and the many stage variations of the preceding century. Despite the changes, the movie retains the feel and thematic resonance of the novel. This cautionary tale of technology gone awry is something that strikes a chord throughout most of history, perhaps even more now than when it was written. It certainly helps that James Whale was behind the camera and Boris Karloff was in front of it, and the movie has aged quite well (it is perhaps the best of today’s choices). ****

    Karloffs Frankenstein Monster

    Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster

  • Young Frankenstein (trailer)
  • Frankenstein for President
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (trailer)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I may have seen bits and pieces of this film before, but never the whole thing. This direct sequel to the 1931 film features mostly the same cast and crew, and as such, the technical aspects of the film are superb. Indeed, they may even surpass the original. Karloff is given more to do in this film, and while he was wonderfully expressive in the first film, he goes above and beyond in this film, infusing the Monster with emotion and even evoking sympathy. Director James Whale had also honed his skills in the intervening years and the Bride’s creation scene is particularly well done, especially when it comes to the editing. This film’s special effects also stand out, as when Dr. Pretorius displays his miniature experiments for Dr. Frankenstein (the scene holds up remarkably well, which is more than I can say for a lot of special effects from the era… (or even modern effects, for that matter)). Another standout scene is when the Monster encounters an elderly blind man, who teaches the Monster about bread, wine, and rudimentary English. He also introduces the Monster to the concept of friendship, which drives the rest of the story. I must admit that the story does get to be a bit more silly in this installment, but it still works very well. Thematically, the film expands upon the original, and adds some new twists of its own. The ending is actually quite moving, as the Monster realizes what he is and where he belongs. Many consider this sequel to be superior to the first film, and in many ways, it is. However, it is sillier and more over-the-top than the previous film. It is still a wonderful film in its own right, and something I’m glad I caught up with. ****

    Dr. Pretorius

    Dr. Pretorius

  • Vampire 7:00-8:00AM, Vampire 1:00-2:00PM, and Vampire 8:00-9:00PM (Robot Chicken)
  • Bart Simpson’s Dracula (The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV)
  • Vampire Chase (Robot Chicken)
  • Dracula (1931): I was curious to revisit this film in light of the current pop-culture craze for vampires we’re experiencing right now. There are many who believe that vampires have been watered down these days:

    Once upon a time, vampires were monsters. Creatures of the night. Beasts who crawled from their coffins at night; consorted with spiders, bats, and rats; ravaged women and tore out the throats of men. They were demonic; spawns of Satan. The best known image of the vampire is that of Bela Lugosi, whose intonation of the line: “I never drink… wine” has become the standard.

    And indeed, many recent vampire stories take a less monsterous approach, favoring instead a more emotional and empathetic creature (though I must admit that I don’t mind that approach either, just that it has become the pervasive approach). So in revisiting this classic film, it was refreshing to see Dracula portrayed as something unnatural and evil. Director Tod Browning is at his creepy best when framing Lugosi’s Dracula onscreen. Lugosi’s menacing glare is undeniably effective and his Dracula is indeed a creature to fear. Alas, the mechanics of the plot (and, uh, the special effects) leaves something to be desired. This is a little disappointing, though still quite entertaining and better than much of today’s vampire stories (I’m looking at you, Twilight!). Someday, perhaps, I’ll check out the Spanish language version of this film, which was apparently shot at the same time and using the same sets. Some believe it to be superior to the English language version… ***

    Lugosis Dracula

    Lugosi’s Dracula

One of the surprising things about all three of the above movies is that they are all between 70-75 minutes in length, significantly shorter than even the shortest movies in theaters today. It’s worth noting that many of the above films are also restored from cut versions. In particular, the scenes missing from the original Frankenstein are quite important (the missing scenes were restored in 1986 and most DVDs of the film have them), particularly the scene when the Monster plays with the little girl. It’s actually quite a disturbing scene, but Karloff was always able to walk that line between evil and misunderstood, creating a monster that was scary and sympathetic at the same time.

It’s also interesting to note that the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most frequently utilized fictional characters in the history of film. Dracula has 200+ appearances, while Frankenstein has only had a mere 80+ roles. And I think both will continue to rack up the appearances. Interestingly, I think there are several more recent horror icons that could give the classics a run for their money… Jason Vorhees, Mike Myers, and Freddy Kreuger have established themselves pretty firmly in modern film culture, but I’m not sure they will ever be as prolific as the old Universal classic monsters. Why? Devin Faraci has speculated on this:

There is one major obstacle that’s stopping Freddy and Jason and Mike Myers and Leatherface from really getting to that position of being among the truly eternal monsters of filmland: copyright. While the versions of the Universal Monsters we love are copyrighted in terms of their appearance (although a zillion manufacturers of Halloween ephemera have skirted the edges of that legality), the characters themselves are in the public domain. This is what has allowed them to become such prominent forces in film, keeping them going in permutation after permutation. If Universal outright owned the characters then Hammer, for instance, would never have been able to reinvent them in the 50s and 60s (my colleague Ryan Rotten very astutely notes that what Platinum Dunes is doing with the characters of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, and what Rob Zombie is doing with Michael Myers, is very similar to what Hammer did with the Universal Monsters, recasting them and re-presenting them for a new generation with new tastes). In fact, the copyright on the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon may be one of the things keeping him from really ascending and going places as a character. Being tightly controlled by Universal keeps him from escaping into the pop culture world at large.

Perhaps audiences will still be squirming in their seats in fear of Jason, Mike, and Freddy a century from now, but maybe not. One thing is for sure though: Audiences will still be entertained by updates on Frankenstein and Dracula…

* With apologies to the MST3K Movie for that joke, though it works even better on the newer variations on the logo…

Noir Ends

In my first post on Noir, I kinda made light of the body count that our two heroes were racking up as well as the fact that French society never seemed to notice when a few dozen nameless hitmen are discovered in a park or abandoned building somewhere. I was making a joke of it, but it always sorta bothered me. There are a few hundred people who die during the course of this series. While they’re all portrayed as mostly nameless, faceless victims, I couldn’t help but wonder what the consequences of their deaths were. Were they married? Did they have kids? Friends? And so on. Warning: The rest of the post contains major spoilers!

One of the things I wondered about was how well Mireille and Kirika were able to deal with the amount of death and destruction they were doling out. For the most part, they seem to deal with it remarkably well. Kirika seems to be more affected by it than Mireille. As the series goes on, she seems less and less enthused with what she’s capable of doing…. but there’s something off about her reaction that took me a while to place. I finally realized what it was – it reminded me of Crime and Punishment (I suppose I should note spoilers for that novel as well), in particular, this paragraph (page 623 in my edition) where Raskolnikov laments his punishment:

… even if fate had sent him no more than remorse – burning remorse that destroyed the heart, driving away sleep, the kind of remorse to escape those fearsome torments the mind clutches at the noose and the well, oh, how glad he would have been! Torment and tears – after all, that is life, too. But he felt no remorse for his crime.

In essense, Raskolnikov felt no guilt or remorse for his crime, but that lack of feeling, that lack of guilt was just as horrible as he could have imagined. That’s very much how I thought Kirika felt during the second half of the series. In his take on the series, Steven Den Beste does an excellent job describing the duality of Kirika:

Kirika had two parts inside. One part was a killing machine. It was created by Altena through training and indoctrination, and once it seemed ready, Kirika’s memory was wiped and she was placed in Japan, so that she could begin to face the Trials which were required of all candidates for Noir to prove their fitness. Events after that point were not planned, because they depended on what Kirika herself did, and how she reacted to the process. Hints were left which might lead Kirika to Mireille, but if they had not, she would have faced her trials alone.

The other side of Kirika was a lonely girl, who wanted nothing more than a normal life, a name, a home, and someone to love and be loved by. The series shows us those two sides of Kirika, gradually building them up to tangible presences, and in episode #25 Kirika is forced to choose one over the other.

The killing machine part of Kirika’s personality was capable of evil, without remorse or guilt, but the human side of her personality recognized how horrible that was and the series is essentially about Kirika’s internal struggle. Mireille seemed to be much more neutral. The other piece of the puzzle is Chloe, who seems to take a perverse pleasure in what she is capable of, and as the series progresses, she becomes more and more creepy.

Kirika and Chloe

Kirika and Chloe

Ultimately, when Kirika is forced to choose between Mireille and Chloe, she chooses Mireille (who I guess is supposed to represent the human side of Kirika’s personality). As Steven notes, the series does not end there and neither does Kirika’s internal struggle. She is still capable of horrible evil and is not sure she could live with herself. Altena still attempts to appeal to killing machine portion of Kirika’s personality, but she ultimately fails, and Mireille succeeds in saving Kirika. At the very end, it’s clear that Kirika and Mireille will continue on together and that they love each other (like sisters). I am once again reminded of Dostoyevsky (page 630 in my edition – replace the male pronouns with female pronouns and this could easily apply to Kirika):

… at this point a new story begins, the story of a man’s gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from eone world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative – our present narrative is, however, at an end.

There’s a lot more to the ending of the series that I’m skipping over, but Steven’s post covers that in plenty of detail and I don’t see a need to repeat all that… It’s not a perfect series, but the ending did make it worthwhile for me. I wouldn’t say that I was as taken with it as Steven or Alex, but neither was I as disappointed with it as Ben. I thought the series was a bit too long (a little too much filler, perhaps) and unevenly paced, but the ending made up for any issues I may have had with the series.

As usual, more screenshots and commentary in the extended entry…

Interrupts and Context Switching

To drastically simplify how computers work, you could say that computers do nothing more that shuffle bits (i.e. 1s and 0s) around. All computer data is based on these binary digits, which are represented in computers as voltages (5 V for a 1 and 0 V for a 0), and these voltages are physically manipulated through transistors, circuits, etc… When you get into the guts of a computer and start looking at how they work, it seems amazing how many operations it takes to do something simple, like addition or multiplication. Of course, computers have gotten a lot smaller and thus a lot faster, to the point where they can perform millions of these operations per second, so it still feels fast. The processor is performing these operations in a serial fashion – basically a single-file line of operations.

This single-file line could be quite inefficent and there are times when you want a computer to be processing many different things at once, rather than one thing at a time. For example, most computers rely on peripherals for input, but those peripherals are often much slower than the processor itself. For instance, when a program needs some data, it may have to read that data from the hard drive first. This may only take a few milliseconds, but the CPU would be idle during that time – quite inefficient. To improve efficiency, computers use multitasking. A CPU can still only be running one process at a time, but multitasking gets around that by scheduling which tasks will be running at any given time. The act of switching from one task to another is called Context Switching. Ironically, the act of context switching adds a fair amount of overhead to the computing process. To ensure that the original running program does not lose all its progress, the computer must first save the current state of the CPU in memory before switching to the new program. Later, when switching back to the original, the computer must load the state of the CPU from memory. Fortunately, this overhead is often offset by the efficiency gained with frequent context switches.

If you can do context switches frequently enough, the computer appears to be doing many things at once (even though the CPU is only processing a single task at any given time). Signaling the CPU to do a context switch is often accomplished with the use of a command called an Interrupt. For the most part, the computers we’re all using are Interrupt driven, meaning that running processes are often interrupted by higher-priority requests, forcing context switches.

This might sound tedious to us, but computers are excellent at this sort of processing. They will do millions of operations per second, and generally have no problem switching from one program to the other and back again. The way software is written can be an issue, but the core functions of the computer described above happen in a very reliable way. Of course, there are physical limits to what can be done with serial computing – we can’t change the speed of light or the size of atoms or a number of other physical constraints, and so performance cannot continue to improve indefinitely. The big challenge for computers in the near future will be to figure out how to use parallel computing as well as we now use serial computing. Hence all the talk about Multi-core processing (most commonly used with 2 or 4 cores).

Parallel computing can do many things which are far beyond our current technological capabilities. For a perfect example of this, look no further than the human brain. The neurons in our brain are incredibly slow when compared to computer processor speeds, yet we can rapidly do things which are far beyond the abilities of the biggest and most complex computers in existance. The reason for that is that there are truly massive numbers of neurons in our brain, and they’re all operating in parallel. Furthermore, their configuration appears to be in flux, frequently changing and adapting to various stimuli. This part is key, as it’s not so much the number of neurons we have as how they’re organized that matters. In mammals, brain size roughly correlates with the size of the body. Big animals generally have larger brains than small animals, but that doesn’t mean they’re proportionally more intelligent. An elephant’s brain is much larger than a human’s brain, but they’re obviously much less intelligent than humans.

Of course, we know very little about the details of how our brains work (and I’m not an expert), but it seems clear that brain size or neuron count are not as important as how neurons are organized and crosslinked. The human brain has a huge number of neurons (somewhere on the order of one hundred billion), and each individual neuron is connected to several thousand other neurons (leading to a total number of connections in the hundreds of trillions). Technically, neurons are “digital” in that if you were to take a snapshot of the brain at a given instant, each neuron would be either “on” or “off” (i.e. a 1 or a 0). However, neurons don’t work like digital electronics. When a neuron fires, it doesn’t just turn on, it pulses. What’s more, each neuron is accepting input from and providing output to thousands of other neurons. Each connection has a different priority or weight, so that some connections are more powerful or influential than others. Again, these connections and their relative influence tends to be in flux, constantly changing to meet new needs.

This turns out to be a good thing in that it gives us the capability to be creative and solve problems, to be unpredictable – things humans cherish and that computers can’t really do on their own.

However, this all comes with its own set of tradeoffs. With respect to this post, the most relevant of which is that humans aren’t particularly good at doing context switches. Our brains are actually great at processing a lot of information in parallel. Much of it is subconscious – heart pumping, breathing, processing sensory input, etc… Those are also things that we never really cease doing (while we’re alive, at least), so those resources are pretty much always in use. But because of the way our neurons are interconnected, sometimes those resources trigger other processing. For instance, if you see something familiar, that sensory input might trigger memories of childhood (or whatever).

In a computer, everything is happening in serial and thus it is easy to predict how various inputs will impact the system. What’s more, when a computer stores its CPU’s current state in memory, that state can be restored later with perfect accuracy. Because of the interconnected and parallel nature of the brain, doing this sort of context switching is much more difficult. Again, we know very little about how the humain brain really works, but it seems clear that there is short-term and long-term memory, and that the process of transferring data from short-term memory to long-term memory is lossy. A big part of what the brain does seems to be filtering data, determining what is important and what is not. For instance, studies have shown that people who do well on memory tests don’t necessarily have a more effective memory system, they’re just better at ignoring unimportant things. In any case, human memory is infamously unreliable, so doing a context switch introduces a lot of thrash in what you were originally doing because you will have to do a lot of duplicate work to get yourself back to your original state (something a computer has a much easier time doing). When you’re working on something specific, you’re dedicating a significant portion of your conscious brainpower towards that task. In otherwords, you’re probably engaging millions if not billions of neurons in the task. When you consider that each of these is interconnected and working in parallel, you start to get an idea of how complex it would be to reconfigure the whole thing for a new task. In a computer, you need to ensure the current state of a single CPU is saved. Your brain, on the other hand, has a much tougher job, and its memory isn’t quite as reliable as a computer’s memory. I like to refer to this as metal inertia. This sort of issue manifests itself in many different ways.

One thing I’ve found is that it can be very difficult to get started on a project, but once I get going, it becomes much easier to remain focused and get a lot accomplished. But getting started can be a problem for me, and finding a few uninterrupted hours to delve into something can be difficult as well. One of my favorite essays on the subject was written by Joel Spolsky – its called Fire and Motion. A quick excerpt:

Many of my days go like this: (1) get into work (2) check email, read the web, etc. (3) decide that I might as well have lunch before getting to work (4) get back from lunch (5) check email, read the web, etc. (6) finally decide that I’ve got to get started (7) check email, read the web, etc. (8) decide again that I really have to get started (9) launch the damn editor and (10) write code nonstop until I don’t realize that it’s already 7:30 pm.

Somewhere between step 8 and step 9 there seems to be a bug, because I can’t always make it across that chasm. For me, just getting started is the only hard thing. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. There’s something incredible heavy in my brain that is extremely hard to get up to speed, but once it’s rolling at full speed, it takes no effort to keep it going.

I’ve found this sort of mental inertia to be quite common, and it turns out that there are several areas of study based around this concept. The state of thought where your brain is up to speed and humming along is often referred to as “flow” or being “in the zone.” This is particularly important for working on things that require a lot of concentration and attention, such as computer programming or complex writing.

From my own personal experience a couple of years ago during a particularly demanding project, I found that my most productive hours were actually after 6 pm. Why? Because there were no interruptions or distractions, and a two hour chunk of uninterrupted time allowed me to get a lot of work done. Anecdotal evidence suggests that others have had similar experiences. Many people come into work very early in the hopes that they will be able to get more done because no one else is here (and complain when people are here that early). Indeed, a lot of productivity suggestions basically amount to carving out a large chunk of time and finding a quiet place to do your work.

A key component of flow is finding a large, uninterrupted chunk of time in which to work. It’s also something that can be difficult to do here at a lot of workplaces. Mine is a 24/7 company, and the nature of our business requires frequent interruptions and thus many of us are in a near constant state of context switching. Between phone calls, emails, and instant messaging, we’re sure to be interrupted many times an hour if we’re constantly keeping up with them. What’s more, some of those interruptions will be high priority and require immediate attention. Plus, many of us have large amounts of meetings on our calendars which only makes it more difficult to concentrate on something important.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You wake up early and during your morning routine, you plan out what you need to get done at work today. Let’s say you figure you can get 4 tasks done during the day. Then you arrive at work to find 3 voice messages and around a hundred emails and by the end of the day, you’ve accomplished about 15 tasks, none of which are the 4 you had originally planned to do. I think this happens more often than we care to admit.

Another example, if it’s 2:40 pm and I know I have a meeting at 3 pm – should I start working on a task I know will take me 3 solid hours or so to complete? Probably not. I might be able to get started and make some progress, but as soon my brain starts firing on all cylinders, I’ll have to stop working and head to the meeting. Even if I did get something accomplished during those 20 minutes, chances are when I get back to my desk to get started again, I’m going to have to refamiliarize myself with the project and what I had already done before proceeding.

Of course, none of what I’m saying here is especially new, but in today’s world it can be useful to remind ourselves that we don’t need to always be connected or constantly monitoring emails, RSS, facebook, twitter, etc… Those things are excellent ways to keep in touch with friends or stay on top of a given topic, but they tend to split attention in many different directions. It’s funny, when you look at a lot of attempts to increase productivity, efforts tend to focus on managing time. While important, we might also want to spend some time figuring out how we manage our attention (and the things that interrupt it).

(Note: As long and ponderous as this post is, it’s actually part of a larger series of posts I have planned. Some parts of the series will not be posted here, as they will be tailored towards the specifics of my workplace, but in the interest of arranging my interests in parallel (and because I don’t have that much time at work dedicated to blogging on our intranet), I’ve decided to publish what I can here. Also, given the nature of this post, it makes sense to pursue interests in my personal life that could be repurposed in my professional life (and vice/versa).)

The Motion Control Sip Test

A few weeks ago, Microsoft and Sony unveiled rival motion control systems, presumably in response to Nintendo’s dominant market position. The Wii has sold much better than both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (to the point where sales of Xbox and PS3 combined are around the same as the Wii), so I suppose it’s only natural for the competition to adapt. To be honest, I’m not sure how wise that would be… or rather, I’m not sure Sony and Microsoft are imitating the right things. Microsoft’s Project Natal seems quite ambitious in that it relies completely on gestures and voice (no controllers!). The Sony motion control system, which relies on a camera and two handheld wands, seems somewhat similar to the Wii in that there are still controllers and buttons. Incidentally, the Wii actually released Wii Motion Plus, an improvement to their already dominant system.

My first thought at a way to compete with the Wii would have been along similar lines, but not for the reasons I suspect Microsoft and Sony released their solutions. The problem for MS & Sony is that the Wii is the unquestionable winner of this generation of gaming consoles, and everyone knows that. A third party video game developer can create a game for a console with an install base of 20 million (the PS3), 30 million (Xbox) or 50 million (Wii). Since the PS3 and Xbox have similar controllers, 3rd parties can often release games on both consoles, though there is overhead in porting your code to both systems. This gives a rough parity between those two systems and the Wii… until you realize that developing games for the Xbox/PS3 means HD and that means those games will be much more costly (in both time and money) to develop. On the other hand, you could reach the same size audience by developing a game for the Wii, using standard definition (which is much easier to develop for) and not having to worry about compatibility issues between two consoles.

The problem with Natal and Sony’s Wands is that they basically represent brand new consoles. This totally negates the third party advantage of releasing a game on both platforms. Now a third party developer who wants to create a motion control game is forced to choose between two underperforming platforms and one undisputed leader in the field. How do you think that’s going to go?

Microsoft’s system seems to be the most interesting in that they’re trying something much different than Nintendo or Sony. But “interesting” doesn’t necessarily translate into successful, and from what I’ve read, Natal is a long ways away from production quality. Yeah, the marketing video they created is pretty neat, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t quite work that well yet. Even MS execs are saying that what’s in the video is “conceptual” and what they “hope” to have at launch. If they launch it at all. I’d be surprised if what we’re seeing is ever truly launched. Yeah, the Minority Report interface (which is basically what Natal is) really looks cool, but I have my doubts about how easy it will be to actually use. Won’t your arms get tired? Why use motion gestures for something that is so much easier and more precise with a mouse?

Sony’s system seems to be less ambitious, but also too different from Nintendo’s Wiimote. If I were at Sony, I would have tried to duplicate the Wiimote almost exactly. Why? Because then you give 3rd party developers the option of developing for Wii then porting to PS3, thus enlarging the pie from 50 million to 70 million with minimal effort. Sure the graphics wouldn’t be as impressive as other PS3 efforts, but as the Wii has amply demonstrated, you don’t need unbelievable graphics to be successful. The PS3 would probably need a way to upscale the SD graphics to ensure they don’t look horrible, but that should be easy enough. I’m sure there would be some sort of legal issue with that idea, but I’m also sure Sony could weasel their way out of any such troubles. To be clear, this strategy wouldn’t have a chance at cutting into Wii sales – it’s more of a holding pattern, a way to stop the bleeding (it might help them compete with MS though). Theoretically, Sony’s system isn’t done yet either and could be made into something that could get Wii ports, but somehow I’m doubting that will actually be in the works.

The big problem with both Sony and Microsoft’s answer to the Wiimote is that they’ve completely misjudged what made the Wii successful. It’s not the Wiimote and motion controls, though that’s part of it. It’s that Nintendo courted everyone, not just video gamers. They courted grandmas and kids and “hardcore” gamers and “casual” gamers and everyone inbetween. They changed video games from solitary entertainment to something that is played in living rooms with families and friends. They moved into the Blue Ocean and disrupted the gaming industry. The unique control system was important, but I think that’s because the control system was a signfier that the Wii was for everyone. The fact that it was simple and intuitive was more important than motion controls. The most important part of the process wasn’t motion controls, but rather Wii Sports. Yes, Wii Sports uses motion controls, and it uses them exceptionally well. It’s also extremely simple and easy to use and it was targeted towards everyone. It was a lot of fun to pop in Wii Sports and play some short games with your friends or family (or coworkers or enemies or strangers off the street or whoever).

The big problem for me is that even Nintendo hasn’t improved on motion controls much since then. It’s been 3 years since Wii Sports, and yet it’s still probably the best example of motion controls in action. I have not played any Wii Motion Plus games yet, so for me, the jury is still out on that one. However, I’m not that interested in playing the games I’m seeing for Motion Plus, let alone the prospect of paying for yet another peripheral for my Wii (though it does seem to be cheap). The other successful games for the Wii weren’t so much successful for their motion controls so much as other, intangible factors. Mario Kart is successful… because it’s always successful (incidentally, while I still enjoy playing with friends every now and again, the motion controls have nothing to do with that – it’s more just the nostagia I have for the original Mario Kart). Wii Fit has been an amazing success story for Nintendo, but it introduced a completely new peripheral and its success is probably more due to the fact that Nintendo was targeting more than just the core gamer audience with software that broadened what was possible on a video game console. Again, Nintendo’s success is due to their strategy of creating new customers and their marketing campaigns that follow the same strategy. Wii has a lot of games that have less than imaginitive motion controls – games which simply replace random button mashing with random stick waggling. But where they’re most successful seems to be where they target a broader audience. They also seem to be quite adept at playing on people’s nostalgia, hence I find myself playing new Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, even when I don’t like some of them (I’m looking at you, Metroid Prime 3!)

Motion controls play a part in this, but they’re the least important part. Why? Because the same complaints I have for Natal and the Minority Report interface apply to the Wii (or the new PS3 system, for that matter). For example, take Metroid Prime 3. A FPS for the Wii! Watch how motion controls will revolutionize FPS! Well, not so much. There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the game, but one of the reasons was that you constantly had to have your Wiimote pointed up. If your hand strayed or you wanted to rest your wrists for a moment, your POV also strays. There are probably some other ways to do FPS on the Wii, but I’m not especially convinced (The Conduit looks promising, I guess) that a true FPS game will work that well on a Wii (heck, it doesn’t work that well on a PS3 or Xbox when compared to the PC). That’s probably why Rail Shooters have been much more successful on the Wii.

Part of the issue I have is that motion controls are great for short periods of time, but even when you’re playing a great motion control game like Wii Sports, playing for long periods of time has adverse affects (Wii elbow anyone?). Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe gamers shouldn’t spend so much time playing video games… but personally, I enjoy a nice marathon session every now and again.

You know what this reminds me of? New Coke. Seriously. Why did Coca-Cola change their time-honored and fabled secred formula? Because of the Pepsi Challenge. In the early 1980s, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. Coke had long been the most popular soft drink, so they were quite concerned about their diminishing lead. Pepsi was growing closer to parity every day, and that’s when they started running these commercials pitting Coke vs. Pepsi. The Pepsi Challenge took dedicated Coke drinkers and asked them to take a sip from two different glasses, one labeled Q and one labeled M. Invariably, people chose the M glass, which was revealed to contain Pepsi. Coke initially disputed the results… until they started private running sip tests of their own. It turns out that people really did prefer Pepsi (hard as that may be for those of us who love Coke!). So Coke started tinkering with their secret formula, attempting to make it lighter and sweeter (i.e. more like Pepsi). Eventually, they got to a point where their new formulation consistently outperformed Pepsi in sip tests, and thus New Coke was born. Of course, we all know what happened. New Coke was a disaster. Coke drinkers were outraged, the company’s sales plunged, and Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as “Classic Coke” just a few months later (at which point New Coke practically disappeared). What’s more, Pepsi’s seemingly unstoppable ascendance never materialized. For the past 20-30 years, Coke has beaten Pepsi despite sip tests which say that it should be the other way around. What was going on here? Malcolm Gladwell explains this incident and the aftermath in his book Blink:

The difficulty with interpreting the Pepsi Challenge findings begins with the fact that they were based on what the industry calls a sip test or a CLT (central location test). Tasters don’t drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would. Carol Dollard, who worked for Pepsi for many years in new-product development, says, “I’ve seen many times when the CLT will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite. For example, in a CLT, consumers might taste three or four different products in a row, taking a sip or a couple sips of each. A sip is very different from sitting and drinking a whole beverage on your own. Sometimes a sip tastes good and a whole bottle doesn’t. That’s why home-use tests give you the best information. The user isn’t in an artificial setting. They are at home, sitting in front of the TV, and the way they feel in that situation is the most reflective of how they will behave when the product hits the market.”

Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can.

To me, motion controls seem like a video game sip test. The analogy isn’t perfect, because I think that motion controls are here to stay, but I think the idea is relevant. Coke is like Sony – they look at a successful competitor and completely misjudge what made them successful. Yes, motion controls are a part of the Wii’s success, but their true success lies elsewhere. In small doses and optimized for certain games (like bowling or tennis), nothing can beat motion controls. In larger doses with other types of games, motion controls have a long ways to go (and they make my arm sore). Microsoft and Sony certainly don’t seem to be abandoning their standard controllers, and even the Wii has a “Classic Controller”, and I think that’s about right. Motion controls have secured a place in gaming going forward, but I don’t see it completely displacing good old-fashioned button mashing either.

Update: Incidentally, I forgot to mention the best motion control game I’ve played since Wii Sports has been… Flower, for the PS3. Flower is also probably a good example of a game that makes excellent use of motion controls, but hasn’t achieved anywhere near the success of Nintendo’s games. It’s not because it isn’t a good game (it is most definitely an excellent game, and the motion controls are great), it’s because it doesn’t expand the audience the way Nintendo does. If Natal and Sony’s new system do make it to market, and if they do manage to release good games (and those are two big “ifs”), I suspect it won’t matter much…

A Decade of Kaedrin

It’s hard to believe, but it has been ten years since I started this website. The exact date is a bit hard to pinpoint, as the site was launched on my student account at Villanova, which existed and was accessible on the web as far back as 1997. However, as near as I can tell, the site now known as Kaedrin began in earnest on May 31, 1999 at approximately 8 pm. That’s when I wrote and published the first entry in The Rebel Fire Alarms, an interactive story written in tandem with my regular visitors. I called these efforts Tandem Stories, and it was my primary reason for creating the website. Other content was being published as well – mostly book, movie, and music reviews – but the primary focus was the tandem stories, because I wanted to do something different on an internet that was filled with boring, uninspired, static content homepages that were almost never updated. At the time, the only form of interaction you were likely to see on a given website was a forum of some kind, so I thought the tandem stories were something of a differentiator for my site, and it was, though I never really knew how many different people visited the site. As time went on, interactivity on the web, even of the interactive story variety, became more common, so that feature became less and less unique…

I did, however, have a regular core of visitors, most of whom knew me from the now defunct 4degreez message boards (which has since morphed into 4th Kingdom, which is still a vibrant community site). To my everlasting surprise and gratitude, several of these folks are still regular visitors and while most of what I do here is for my own benefit, I have to admit that I never would have gotten this far without them. So a big thank you to those who are still with me!

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Below is a rough timeline of my website, starting with my irrelevant student account homepage (which was basically a default page with some personal details filled in), moving on to the first incarnation of Kaedrin, and progressing through several redesigns and technologies until you got the site you’re looking at now (be forewarned, this gets to be pretty long, though it’s worth noting that the site looked pretty much like it does today way back in 2001, so the bulk of redesigning happened in the 1999-2001 timeframe)…

  • 1997-1999: As I started to take computer programming courses in college, I gained access to a student account on the university website. By default, all student accounts came with a bare-bones homepage which we were encouraged to personalize. I never really did much with it, though I thought it was funny to see some of the courses I was taking back in the day: MAT 1050 – Who cares about math, and HIS 3140 – The History of the spork. Also of note, the fact that we referred to it as “electronic mail address” and that google was not on my radar yet… Sometime during this timeframe I started considering a more comprehensive “homepage” and made a few stabs that never really got beyond the photoshop stage (thankfully for you!). Among these ill-fated designes included the uber-nerdy logic gate design shown below (click for larger, more complete version):

    Old, bad, nerdy design

    I’m not really embarrassed so much at the logic gate aspect of the design (which I thought was mildly clever at the time) as the font choice. Gah. Anyway, it was during this timeframe that the first designs for a site called Kaedrin started. The first drafts of the now iconic (well, to me) Kaedrin logo were created during this timeframe. They were not used, but every logo since then has used the same Viner Hand ITC font, though these days the logo isn’t quite as prominent as it once was (as you’ll see below).

  • May 1999 – Kaedrin v1.0: Again, I’ve had difficulty pinpointing the exact date when I launched Kaedrin in earnest, but judging from the timestamp of the first entry in The Rebel Fire Alarms, I gather that the site had been fully launched in May of 1999 (just as I was finishing up the semester and had some free time on my hands). Thanks to my participation on (which may have been known as the T.A.S. Boards at the time, I don’t remember exactly), I immediately had a built-in audience of like 5 people, which was pretty cool at the time. That summer was filled with updates and content (this was before blogs, so updates came in the form of reviews for books, movies, and music amongst other stuff that was popular on the web at the time, like sound clips and funny pictures, etc…). The layout initially featured mostly red text on a black background, but I found that to be a bit hard on the eyes, so in August I tried to soften the colors a bit (though even the new color scheme was pretty tough on the eyes). I can’t seem to find an example of the full red on black, but here’s the tweaked version (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 1.0

    For the full effect, you have to click through to the HTML page and mouse over the left-navigation. Back in the day, CSS support was minimal, so to do those rollovers I had to write a custom javascript. I don’t think any of the links off the page will work, but it’s worth viewing just for the fun of it. Also worth noting: the copyright logo animated gif thingy and the fact that I had a guestbook (which was all the rage back in the day). Finally, if you have a high resolution monitor today, it’s difficult to notice, but at 800×600 the Kaedrin logo is enormous!

  • May 2000 – Kaedrin v2.0: After graduating college and initiating a job search, I decided that the old homepage design wasn’t very professional looking. During the course of my Senior year, I had spent time learning and thinking about usability and accessibility, and my site at the time was not especially great in those respects (i.e. I figured out for certain that dark red and blue text on a black background was a bad thing). Also, being stuck with a modum connection (after the school’s snappy T3 lines) made me more acutely aware of page loading speeds (and the old page was rather image heavy). So I came up with a much cleaner and simpler design (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 2.0

    This was certainly an improvement and when I eventually did find a job, my boss mentioned that she liked my site, so mission accomplished, I guess. Unfortunately, a “much cleaner and simpler design” also meant a more boring design, so it wasn’t long before I started fiddling around with the layout again. This was a little vexing because I was maintaining all of the pages on the site by hand, and converting to the new layout was a monumental pain in the ass. As such, many of the design tweaks made during this (rather short) era were inconsistent throughout the site.

  • July 2000 – Kaedrin Weblog launched: The summer of 2000 is also when I discovered weblogs (the yellow-heavy designs of dack and kottke were my first exposure to the world of weblogs) and the relatively new Blogger. I remember being amazed at the fully featured blogging software that these crazy Pyra people were giving away for free! It’s easy enough to pinpoint my first blog entry, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what the design of the blog was like. It was probably something along the lines of the v2 design, but I’m also virtually positive that the v3.0 design was pioneered on the blog, due to the fact that Blogger was something of a light CMS in that I could tweak the design for all blog pages rather easily. I do vaguely remember having a lot of issues with my free web-hosing company (at the time, I believe it was someone called “redrival”), and in particular their ftp sucked. I think there was a time when I would write an entry on Blogger, publish it to one free host, then transfer the code over to the new host. This is perhaps part of why the initial months of the blog were somewhat sparse in terms of entries, but things got going pretty well in September 2000 and I posted a record-high 29 posts in December 2000.
  • November 2000 – Kaedrin v3.0: Due to the blandness of the the v2.0 site and the fact that Blogger provided easily updatable templates, I came up with a different design. It was still clean and simple and ultimately it didn’t last too long because it was still pretty boring. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never got around to updating the entire site. Just the homepage and the blog got this new design. (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 3.0

    Ultimately not that much different than v2.0 (I suppose you could consider it more of a v2.5 than a new version, but then it’s probably different enough). It’s still got the big honkin Kaedrin logo, but for some reason I liked this better.. and there’s also the first appearance of the “You are here” bar at the top of the page. While I liked this design better than v2.0, I wasn’t very happy with it and almost immediately started working on something new. I was also getting pretty well fed up with hand coding all these pages for what amounted to minor layout tweaks. One thing that helped in that respect was Blogger, which worked like a CMS-lite, allowing quick and easy layout changes with the click of a mouse. Here is the first design for the blog that I could find. (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin Weblog

    Interestingly, it seems that I decided to forgo the Kaedrin logo in favor of a little HTM text thingy. Also, I had completely forgotten about the blog’s original subtitle, which could use some explaining. Back in the 1990s it was popular to use “handles” instead of your real name. When I first started posting to message boards and the like, I absent-mindedly chose the moniker “tallman” because I was a big fan of a certain cheesy 1970s horror movie that featured a character who went by that name. Since a lot of popular blogs at the time had playful titles like Boing Boing and the like, I went with “The Royal Kingdom of Tallmania”. I have no idea what possessed me to do that, and it wasn’t long before the subtitle was dropped in favor of just “Kaedrin Weblog”.

  • January 2001 – and v4.0: After dealing with the hassle of free hosting companies, I finally realized that I had a steady income and could probably afford a professional hosting service and a real domain, so I bought and started work on a new design. Fed up with manually coding redesigns, I devised a kludgey XSLT solution that allowed me to completely separate content from design. So I put all my content into XML files and coded the new design into some XSL stylesheets. This design may look somewhat familiar (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Version 4.0

    Being obsessed with download speeds and page rendering, I devised an interesting layout for the blog. Instead of using the typical single-table design, I put the blog navigation at the top (instead of to the left or right) and I put each entry in it’s own table. The idea was that browsers render content as it’s downloaded, and if you have a large table with a lot of content, it could take a while to load. So having a series of smaller tables on the page, while increasing the size, also make the page seem to load quicker. All in all, I rather liked the look of this layout, though I don’t think it’s something I’ll be returning to at any point (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Weblog

    While I like what I was able to do with that navigation at the top, I think there were ultimately more things that needed to go into the navigation and that space just couldn’t fit it. I broke down and put it all in a big table in later designs (see below).

  • July 2002 – Movable Type: After a couple of years, I had finally gotten fed up with Blogger’s centralized system. Blogger was growing faster than they could keep up with, and so the service was experiencing frequent downtime and even when you could access it, it was often mind-numbingly slow. Around this time, a few other solutions were becoming available, one of which was Movable Type (I started with version 2.x – also, it’s worth mentioning that WordPress was not available yet). This solution increased functionality (most notably bringing comments into the fold) and provided a much stabler system for blogging. The design changed to take advantage of some of this stuff and to make my blog more consistent with certain blogging standards. This one should look really familiar (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Weblog - Powered by Movable Type

    That’s basically the same design as today, except for the date and some of the junk in the right navigation.

  • And from there it was a series of tiny, incremental improvements, upgrades, and design tweaks. It’s funny, I didn’t realize until now just how little the site has changed since 2002. Also funny: the fact that I had finally devised a way to make redesigns a lot easier (i.e. my xslt solution) and basically stopped redesigning. Then again, it came in really handy when I wanted to do some little things. For instance, the original v4.0 design didn’t have the same borders around the main content area that I use today (it did have a small border at the top of the area, but it was barely noticeable and it was coded using spacers – yuck). I suppose the grand majority of the work that I’ve done has been behind the scenes: upgrading software, switching databases, fighting spam, and did I mention upgrades? In 2004, the main homepage was updated to account for the fact that the grand majority of the updates on the site were coming from the blog, and the design has remained largely unchanged since then. Around the same time, I tried to make sure the blog and homepage were valid HTML 4.01 (this is perhaps not the case for every page on the blog, as I’m sure I missed an & somehwere and of course, embedding video never validates, but otherwise, it should be pretty good).
  • Of course, the big visible thing that I was doing all throughout was blogging. When I started out, technology made it somewhat difficult to update the blog. Eventually I got Blogger working with my host at the time and enjoyed 3 months or so of somewhat prolific blogging. Of course, at the time, I was posting mostly just links and minor commentary, and this eventually trailed off because others were much better at that than I was. December 2000 is still my most prolific month when it comes to the number of posts (29 posts that month), but again, those were mostly just links and assorted short comments. From there, things trailed off for a couple of years until May 2003, when I established my weekly posting schedule. This made the blog a bit more consistent, and gradually, I started to find more and more visitors. Not a lot, mind you. Even today, it’s doubtful that I have more than a few dozen semi-regular visitors (if that many). Actually, if you’re reading this, you probably know most of the recent history of the blog, which basically amounts to at least 2 posts a week.

Whew, I didn’t realize that trip down memory lane would take quite so long, but it was interesting to revisit just how tumultuous the design was in the early years and how it has calmed down considerably since then… Hopefully things will continue to improve around here though, so what kinds of things can you expect in the near future? I have a few ideas:

  • CSS Layout: The site currently uses a table based layout, primarily because it was designed and coded in 2001 and browser support of CSS was pretty bad back then, so CSS layouts weren’t really an option. In 2007 (has it really been that long), I put together a mockup of the site using CSS layout, but never got around to actually implementing it. There were a few things about the layout that were bugging me and I never found the time to fix them. Someday, I’ll dust off my mockups, finalize them, and launch them to the world. Having a CSS layout would also allow me to optimize for other media like cell phone browsers, print (my goal is to make it easier to read Kaedrin on the can), the Wii browser, etc… None of those things is a particularly burning need, which is probably why I’ve put this off so long…
  • Weblog Post Designs: I’ve never really been too happy with the way each post is laid out. For one thing, I feel like I’ve always given too much prominence to the date – which is something I could probably just remove. Also, the post title should perhaps be a bit larger (and be linked to the permalink).
  • Homepage: The homepage has largely become irrelevant and should probably just redirect to the weblog, as that’s where 99% of the content is these days. Again, this doesn’t seem to be a burning need, so I haven’t spent much time looking into that, but it would be pretty easy to accomplish.
  • Comments: The comments functionality is a bit of a mess and could use some work.
  • Post Content: I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately, mostly relying on various crutches like movie reviews, etc… and not writing as much about things that really interest me. Not that movies or video games don’t interest me, but I used to write more posts about technology and culture, which is something I’d like to get back into. The issue is that those posts are a lot harder to write, which I think is part of why I’ve been avoiding them…

So there you have it. Ten years of Kaedrin. Hopefully, it will last another ten years, though perhaps it will be in a completely different format by then… If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment…

Best Films of 2008

I saw somewhere on the order of 70 movies that were released in 2008. Most critics see more than that, but your average moviegoer probably sees far less than that. I have to say, I’ve been really disappointed with 2008. It’s been a rough year for movies and I had a really hard time cobbling together a top 10 (Hence the extreme lateness of this post). The 6-10 of my list is somewhat weak and probably wouldn’t have made the list in either 2006 or 2007. On the other hand, the films near the top of the list are great, and would compete with the films of the last two years.

Of course, making a top 10 list is an inherently subjective exercise. I’ve noted before that these lists tend to tell you more about those who are compiling the list rather than the movies on the list. The hosts of the Filmcouch podcast were recently talking about how these sorts of lists are an autobiographical exercise and invited listeners to send in their top 5 lists, at which point they would psychoanalyze the list and try to come up with a picture of who the list’s owner was. I submitted my list, and they tried to figure me out by the movies I listed. Before I go through their results, I should probably let you see my full list, so here goes:

Top 10 Movies of 2008

* In roughly reverse order

  • Man on Wire: This documentary follows French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s amazing high-wire stunt performed between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. This act was, of course, illegal, and indeed, the film carries with it many of the conventions and tropes of the heist movie… except that Petit wasn’t stealing anything, he was just obsessed with tightrope walking (and had been performing various other similar stunts around the world, such as his walk across the towers of Notre Dame). The story is amazing and Petit is bewildering. I’m particularly thankful that director James Marsh decided to completely ignore the 9/11 angle, as such sermonizing would be unnecessary and distracting.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle’s Dickensian romp across India is getting a lot of attention these days and is seemingly a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. There seems to be something of a backlash as well, which I feel is somewhat undeserved. I certainly don’t think it’s the best film of the year, but it features an interesting mix of dark and edgy material with a more optimistic undertone. There are moments of extreme violence and tragedy, but the movie is ultimately an uplifting experience. Of the Oscar nominees, it’s my favorite.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Teeth: Adventurous filmmaking at its best, this movie is about a teenage girl who has teeth… down there. This is most unfortunate for all the males in the movie, especially the ones who attempt to take advantage of our heroine (which is to say, most of them). As a male, it was sometimes hard for me to watch (let’s just say the film gets graphic), but in the end, I had a lot of fun with the movie. Despite it’s B movie/horror roots, the film delves deeper than you might expect, exploring the nature of sexual power and male/female interactions. If you think you can handle the gore, it’s a good film.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Bank Job: Based on the true story of the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery, this movie follows a band of amateur thieves as they plan and execute their heist, which is aimed at the safe deposit boxes rather than the standard cash. What they don’t plan on is that the safe deposit boxes also contain loads of dirty secrets, and there are people who don’t want those secrets to come out. Nefarious acts ensue. I have to say that I was really taken with this movie. It seems like a by-the-numbers heist movie, but I’d say it’s the best heist movie made in the last several years (and I like me some heist movies).

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Mad Detective: Directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai have crafted an exceptional police procedural and infused it with a giddy wackiness in the form of their main character, Bun, who can see the inner personalities of people. Bun’s talents are explained in a stunning visual manner and the film’s climax is a cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately, this film is hard to find and it took me a while to get to it, but it was well worth the wait (it actually displaced the original number 10 movie on this list and may deserve to be even higher on the list than I placed it).

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]

  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall: A movie that almost perfectly walks the fine line between romantic comedy and raunchy comedy, never straying to far from either. I’d say this is a tough trick to pull off, but this sort of mix seems to be producer Judd Apatow’s specialty. Still, I think even among those films, this one is a winner. The film feels fresh and all of the characters in the movie are surprisingly well developed. The film is written by and stars Jason Segal, who goes all out in his performance. Mila Kunis is wonderful, as are the other supporting characters played by Kristin Bell, Russell Brand, Bill Hader and Jonah Hill. Excellent stuff.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards]

  • Let the Right One In: This Swedish horror film follows a lonely 12 year old boy, bullied by schoolmates, who falls in love with his neighbor. She happens to be a vampire. Set against a stark and beautiful snowy backdrop (excellent cinematography here), this film is not your typical vampire movie. It’s more contemplative and subtle. There are moments of violence and gore, but they highlight the sadness of a vampire stuck in the body of a 12 year old girl. It’s clear that vampires are a bad thing, an evil thing, but they’re also sad creatures (and not in the whiney romantic, woe-is-me Interview with the Vampire way), which kinda endears you to them. It’s also surprisingly tender, as you see the relationship between the young boy and vampire blossom. There is a Hollywood remake coming, but from what I’ve heard so far, you’d do far better to watch the original.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Timecrimes: An intricate Spanish time-travel thriller, and my favorite film of the 2008 Philly film festival. It has a light and humorous feel to it, but it’s got a dark edge and it doesn’t shy away from consequences. It’s intelligent and rewards thought, but it’s not difficult to follow or understand (which can be a problem with some time travel movies). Perhaps it’s just my affinity for time travel stories, but I loved this movie.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

  • The Counterfeiters: This movie actually won the 2007 Oscar for best foreign-language film last year, so perhaps a bit of a cheat, but it did not get a theatrical release until this year. And it’s a fantastic film. It follows the story of Jewish artists and counterfeiters forced to produce fake foreign currency, destined for use by the Nazis to destabilize the economies of the UK and US. The film contains a series of fascinating moral dilemmas. Do you refuse to help the enemy and endanger your lives and the lives of those around you? Or do you protect them while aiding your enemy? There are no easy answers here, and there are two main characters who both espouse differing answers. Neither and both are proven right, if that makes any sense. Not an easy movie, but extremely compelling and highly recommended.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Dark Knight: It’s an obvious choice for me, and while I can perhaps see some flaws in the film, I can’t deny that it was the most enjoyable, entertaining and thought provoking (not an easy mixture) moviegoing experience of the year. One of my criteria for compiling a list like this is rewatch value, and when you consider that I’ve already seen this movie 5 times (while I have not seen any of the others on this list more than 2 times), it has to be at the top of my list. It’s like a crime story that happens to feature a man dressed as a bat fighting a man dressed as a clown. This is another movie that features intricate plotting and a focus on consequences. There are no easy answers here either. Heath Ledger’s inspired turn as the Joker is destined to become a classic, and the character is the perfect foil for Batman. The worst thing I can say about the movie is that the sequel has nowhere to go and will certainly pale in comparison.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards] [Blog Post]

So how did the Filmcouch hosts do in psychoanalyzing me? For the record, the top 5 I sent them was a little different – I had The Bank Job where Forgetting Sarah Marshall is in the above list. Anyway, their first observation was that I was a relatively young male, which is certainly true. The next thing they noticed was that all of these movies are about people who are operating under the radar (i.e. counterfeiters, bank robbers, vigilantes, vampires, etc…), so they think I’m drawn to people who operate outside the system (or smarter than the system). This may be partially true (see next paragraph for more). They also noticed that most of the movies touch on the idea that sometimes you have to do a bad thing to make things right (i.e. two wrongs make a right), and in some cases, sympathy for people doing bad things (but a recognition that such sympathy is strange). Because of that, they see me as someone who likes shades of gray. Again, this is probably partially true (more below).

I found their comments interesting, and it did make me wonder about why I really did choose the movies that I did. I think there is some truth in what they say, but I wouldn’t say that I am the person they describe. There are some things that I’m fascinated by that aren’t things I’d actually do. For instance, I’ve written before about vigilantes, and despite what the hosts of Filmcouch may think, I’m not a vigilante, and don’t really have a desire to do so. What fascinates me about vigilante stories, though, is consequences. This is something that The Dark Knight did in spades, and it also features prominently in a lot of the other movies on the list. I wouldn’t say that I particularly like the idea of “two wrongs make a right” but I am fascinated by situations in which the only possible alternatives are wrong. What do you do when no available option is right? How do you counter someone like the Joker? What are the consequences of time travel? What happens if you become a vampire when you’re 12 years old? Do you help the Nazis destabilize the Allied economy, or do you protect your fellow concentration camp prisoners? I’m also the type of person who thinks the devil is in the details, and so I like movies that show that sort of thing. Again, Batman is a good example of this sort of thing. Everyone agrees that fighting crime is an honorable thing, but when you get down to the details of such an endeavor, things become a lot more complicated. Sure, Batman could spend all his time taking down the criminals on the streets – but then he’s not getting at the root of the problem. But taking on the root of the problem has consequences. And so on. So I supposed their “shades of gray” thing might be somewhat accurate as well. But the point remains, while I may be fascinated by vigilantes in film, that doesn’t mean that I want to be a vigilante, nor does it mean that I would tolerate a vigilante in my community. Something similar could be probably be said for other people prominently featured in my list (i.e. vampires, bank robbers, etc…) I’m fascinated by them, but it’s not like I want to be them. Perhaps there’s a cathartic value in these movies as well. They mentioned that I might be someone who likes to operate outside the system, but in fact, I do no such thing in my life. I’m pretty firmly ensconced within the system. But I suspect that makes people who operate outside the system fascinating… So anyway, that’s what Filmcouch thinks. Not a bad job, but perhaps you can’t truly read someone’s soul through a list of 5 movies:p

Honorable Mention

* In alphabetical order

  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Brutal drama about a woman who helps her friend get an illegal abortion. The film takes place in Romania towards the end of the Soviet era, and it’s not a very pleasant film, though it is very well made. Strange as it may seem for a movie about abortion, it doesn’t take a side in the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and is more effective because of that.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Baghead: This ultra-low-budget (reputedly around $1000) horror film has its share of flaws, but it’s also quite an entertaining flick. Aside from it’s low-budget nature, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’ve always maintained that there is something to be said for a well-executed genre film, and this movie does its job well enough.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Body of Lies: This underrated (and, uh, poorly titled) spy movie was actually reasonably smart and entertaining. It has a distinct political viewpoint on the war on terror, but it doesn’t overplay its hand and keeps the lecturing to a minimum. The movie focuses more on the plotting of the story than the politics, and I think it works reasonably well.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Burn After Reading: The Coen brothers perplexing follow up to the critically lauded No Country for Old Men is about as different from that film as possible. I’m very much reminded of their follow up to Fargo, which was The Big Lebowski. I didn’t care much for Lebowski the first time I saw it, but as time went on, I came around. I have a similar feeling about this movie, though I still don’t think it’s near the top of the Coen brothers films. My biggest issue with the movie is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. On the other hand, several are pretty funny, Brad Pitt’s performance is hilarious, and the scenes at the CIA offices with J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are priceless.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I actually enjoyed this more than I expected. I’m always game for a David Fincher film, but the previews for this looked awful. So I came away from the film with a pretty good feeling, but that said, there were a bunch of things I didn’t particularly care for. Many have mentioned this film’s similarities to Forrest Gump, a movie I loath, so it’s interesting that I don’t mind this movie and even enjoyed it. Not Fincher’s best work, but an interesting diversion.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • The Fall: A gorgeous feast for the eyes. The story follows a man in a hospital who tells a story to a little girl in order to coax her into getting him some morphine. Most of the film takes place in the imaginary world the man creates, which is visually impressive, but the story he tells is somewhat lacking. Of course, that’s kinda the point, because the man is kinda making things up as he goes along, but that doesn’t make it much better. Ultimately, there are parallels between the real world and the imaginary one, and in the end, I did enjoy the film.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • In Bruges: I really liked this movie right up until the end, which I felt was rather stupid and glib in attempting to tie everything together. There are some stereotypical characters here: the two hitmen who are opposites of each other – one a philosophical type, the other more hedonistic. Fortunately, the writers do a really good job with those characters, and Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell give excellent performances too. If it weren’t for the ending, this film would probably be in the top 10.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Iron Man: One of the more enjoyable and fun experiences of the year, and one of the better superhero movies, I nevertheless felt this film was somewhat overrated. It’s a good, solid film. Robert Downey Jr. gives an excellent performance. The explosions and action were cool. But ultimately, I don’t think this film carries the weight of a movie like The Dark Knight, and there are certain aspects which are lacking in this film. For instance, I thought the film lacked a credible villain. I suppose the reveal of the true villain was supposed to be something of a surprise, but it was blatantly obvious from the start who the bad guy was going to be, and the climatic battle was a bit too silly for me. With a box of scraps!

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Kung Fu Panda: Is there a more common trope than anthropomorphized animals in American animated movies? Despite the cliche, this film was a lot of fun.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón: It’s like a latino Ocean’s Eleven! It even has a latino George Clooney lookalike (but he’s the villain in this film). Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good as Ocean’s Eleven, but it is still a rather entertaining heist film. It doesn’t quite hit all the appropriate notes and the various twists aren’t quite twisty enough, but it gets the job done and is definitely worth a watch.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Promotion: This odd and underseen comedy stars Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly as assistant managers at a supermarket who are vying for the same promotion. It’s offbeat and quirky and fun, but with a darker edge (which I’m assuming is why it didn’t get much of a release). That said, it’s got an interesting sort of understated humor that works well. I enjoyed this a lot and think it could be interchangeable with my number 10…

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Role Models: This is probably the funniest movie of the year, and if not for the more cliched story, it might have been in the top 10. Still, it was much better than some of the other high-profile comedies this year, and all of the comedic performances were well done and funny.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Spiral: [Note: This was originally my #10 film, but was unseated once I saw Mad Detective. I’ve preserved my original thoughts here, with some additional notes.] Unquestionably the weakest movie on this list and I have to say that it just barely squeaks onto the list [Again, it has since been knocked off the list]. It’s not a great movie, and in objective terms, several of the honorable mentions probably deserves to be here ahead of Spiral. But for some reason, this movie got under my skin and stuck with me, so here it is. It’s a slow burning thriller that I’m betting most people haven’t even heard of (another reason to give it some love, I guess), but I did enjoy it quite a bit.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Wall-E: The first half of this film was spectacular and ambitious filmmaking, but as soon as the humans showed up, things started to get less interesting. It’s still a wonderful film, and I have to give credit to a movie that spends the first 45 minutes or so with almost no dialogue… and yet manages to be compelling and interesting. Visually impressive, funny, and touching.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky’s character portrait of a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler is very well made, but ultimately a little too cliched for my tastes. It’s an excellent movie, but it’s not really my type of movie. However, Mickey Rourke’s performance is amazing and the final shot in the movie is exceptional.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Full Review]

  • Zack & Miri Make a Porno: I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Smith’s brand of raunchy humor, and this film is no exception. Perhaps not the funniest movie of the year, I still laughed a lot and as usual, Smith grounds the film with heart you don’t often find in raunchy comedies. I don’t think it’s his best work, but I do think it was criminally underseen.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Bottom 5 Movies of the Year

Perhaps as evidence of how bad a year this is, I am listing out my 5 least favorite movies. Typically, I’d have a tough time with this list, because I generally try to avoid bad movies and am usually somewhat successful in that. This year, I was not.

  • The Happening: The worst dialogue delivered in the worst possible way make this film laughable. The story is rather pointless as well. I’ve been something of a Shyamalan apologist in the past, as I liked The Village and even Lady in the Water, but this movie is just indefensible.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Speed Racer: Matty Robinson (of Filmspotting fame) described the movie thusly: “It’s like a skittles induced stroke.” Of course, he was being favorable to the movie, which is something I’m not inclined to do. It is visually ok, but everything else was pretty awful (except for Christina Ricci, who was unfortunately given nothing to do).

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Storm: My least favorite movie of the 2008 Philly film festival. It has a lot of interesting ideas, none of which are followed through in any detail, instead devolving into an incomprehensible stew of cliches and unlikeable characters.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Capsule Review]

  • Sukiyaki Western Django: I have to give Takashi Miike credit for trying something new and different, but ultimately the film didn’t work for me at all. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood or something, but I just couldn’t get into this movie.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • The X Files: I Want to Believe: This could have made an excellent creature of the week type episode of the original series, but instead the movie attempts to tie in way too much of the series’ baggage, thus creating a mess of a storyline. I really liked the show a lot, but found this movie terrible.

    More Info: [IMDB]

Should Have Seen

There are a couple of these that might even have potential for unseating my number 10 movie, but I couldn’t get to them for whatever reason (usually that it wasn’t playing near me or otherwise available). For instance, I ordered Mad Detective (co-directed by Kaedrin favorite Johnny To) on blu-ray on January 21, but according to Amazon, the delivery estimate is sometime in early March!?

Well, that just about covers it for 2008. The only thing that remains is the annual liveblogging of the Oscars (which are next Sunday? Yikes, time flies!) Anyway, here’s to hoping that 2009 is a better year!

Update 2.21.09: Well that didn’t take long. I saw Mad Detective last night and decided that it needed to be on the top 10. This knocks Spiral off the list and into the Honorable Mentions. Also worth noting are the comments to this post where I have an interesting discussion Adam from Filmcouch. And finally, the Filmcouch podcast mentioned my comments on this week’s podcast as well. Thanks guys!