I remain indifferent to the boogie

Another SFist post is up today, about the robotics convention I went to last weekend. I have to say it was kind of a disappointment (the convention, and the column), probably because I’ve been jaded by all the money that gets poured into E3 shows. I’d expected to see more ASIMO and AIBO and less Lego Mindstorms and circuit boards.

In other news, the Wallace and Gromit movie is just awesome, probably my favorite movie of the year. I was thinking there’d be no way they could keep up the level of the shorts in a feature film, but they did. I also saw Serenity a second time, and it was still good, but I don’t have much desire to see it again. Now the wait’s on until DOOM.

And apart from that excitement, I’ve been playing a lot of DOOM 3 (because I’d been feeling guilty I hadn’t given it enough chance, when it turns out I had), waiting to get into a Battleground in World of Warcraft (I’m not yet convinced they actually exist), and playing the Sims 2 expansion pack, “Nightlife.”

They did a good job with it; in fact, I think that this is the expansion pack they should’ve released first. I still believe that the “University” expansion is too separate from the main game; when most of us were still just looking for more content for the main game. One of the things that always impressed me about the Sims franchise and kept me from getting totally burned out on it was that they were really committed to making the expansion packs have real content instead of just being shovelware. But with “University,” they went too far in that direction; just an updated “Livin’ Large” pack would’ve been welcomed.

“Nightlife” is the right balance — it’s the same theme as the old “Hot Date” pack but adds a lot more, and it’s all well-integrated into the main game. All the new interactions and locations are welcome, and there’s just a lot more to do. I’m one of the sad little people who plays it like a soap opera, setting up families to watch them intermingle and fall in and out of love and make each other’s lives miserable, so I appreciate all the new features making it easier to get your computer people to get other computer people into bed with them. It’s still frustrating in places, and the pack introduces a whole bunch of new bugs, but on the whole it’s engaging. Probably not enough to draw in somebody who’s not already interested in the Sims, but good for those of us who are.

Currently I’ve got the Gordon family moved in with the Wayne and Prince families; I’m hoping that Bruce Wayne will make the moves on Diana Prince and kick his current wife Selina out to the curb. I think the only thing geekier than having comic book families in the Sims would be Lord of the Rings families, but I never claimed to be highbrow. As an example: because the Sims 2 doesn’t have a “young ward” option, I had to make Dick Grayson Bruce Wayne’s son. None of the game’s built-in aspirations are really suited to the Batman, so I just figured he was obsessed with family and should have the family aspiration. So now all his wants are “Tickle Dick” and “Play with Dick.” Which is high comedy.

Can you smell what The Rock is cutting up with a chainsaw?

What was almost as good as Serenity was seeing the trailer for the new DOOM movie which is going to be out at the end of the month. Hot damn, I can’t wait.

As much as I love the Resident Evil movies (no, really), they still cling to this idea that they’re somehow real movies. They think that deep down, they’re still horror movies using a videogame franchise as the basis for their stories. This is a mistake. And if the trailer is any indication, the braintrust behind DOOM has escaped that trap and made the first true videogame movie that is going to kick so much ass. They’ve got The Rock, who’s awesome; they’ve got the chainsaw, which is awesome; and they sure as hell better have the first-person sequences in the movie, and not make that just a gimmick for the trailer. Because that’s what’ll make this not just another cheesy sci-fi action flick, but a truly transcendently cheesy sci-fi videogame movie.

I didn’t even like Doom 3 that much and lost interest after about a half hour. Looking back on it, they had the reverse problem — it’s a mindless videogame that thought that deep down, it was a sci-fi horror movie. Some games — Half-Life 2 for one — can pull that off, but the Doom guys couldn’t. So the whole thing came across as bland and uninspired. And really, really dark.

In other Martian news, The Pixies Sell Out is coming out on DVD tomorrow. It’s a DVD of last year’s tour with, I’m assuming and hoping, brief interviews and such. There’s a clip from the DVD on ifilm.com which rates a big “meh.” But it was still a good show.

My Entertainment Dollar

At the beginning of the show, Doughty promised we’d all get big value from our entertainment dollar, and I got that this weekend.

First was Serenity on Friday night at the Northgate. It was awesome. Sure, I’d been looking forward to it, but once I actually got there, I was going into it as critical as I get. I wanted to find stuff to complain about, if only to talk about on the internets. And I had nothing to criticize.

The closest I can get to a criticism of the movie is that it’s pretty much all science fiction — the western element of the setting gets a little bit of attention at the beginning, but is quickly lost in everything but the clothes. When you lose the “Western in Space” angle, the characters lose a little bit of their depth, because you can’t see that they’re all twists on archetypes — the embittered war vet who becomes an outlaw, the hooker with the heart of gold, the preacher, the citified doctor, the optimistic prairie girl, the untrustworthy hired gun (Jayne is supposed to be “the Bad,” I think), and the genius psychic girl with superhuman fighting abilities. (All right, that’s not Western, but it’s still a Joss Whedon production.) And the Reavers, who are central to the plot of the movie, stop being “The Injuns.”

All the characters still work, and I think they work well — except for Wash and Inara, who are left a little underdeveloped — but they’re just not as strong as they were in the series. Which is perfectly understandable, because there’s stuff you can do in even 15 hours of a prematurely cancelled TV series that you just can’t do in a 2-hour movie.

And the movie is just great. Not only did it stand up as a movie, but it tied up elements of the series. And the most impressive part about that is that it ties them up without feeling either too pat, too forced, or too final, and it leaves plenty of room to grow. I read a review that said that it felt like an expanded episode of a TV show, which is just bullshit — not only does the movie have a complete arc, but really big, significant stuff happens in it. Not significant in the sense of a series, like the “Star Trek” movies, where they blow up the ship or kill off a character just because they can’t do that on the show but can in a big-budget movie. Significant in the sense of the overall story. I loved that. We got answers to some major elements of the series, but not everything was answered, and there’s no sense of its being over. Just this part of the story is over.

Also, I never would’ve expected a large-scale space battle, and it delivers on that. Until now, the most impressive space battle I’d ever seen in a movie was in Return of the Jedi, and the one in Serenity tops that, not only in the scale and quality of the effects, but in that you actually give a damn what’s going on. It fits in with the plot and it doesn’t feel like a big battle for its own sake because they’ve finally got the budget for it. And it doesn’t suffer from car chase syndrome — usually, when a movie has an action sequence like a car chase, the story just pauses for a while to let you watch a bunch of crashes or explosions or stunts, then picks up again when they’re done.

Now I just have to figure out when to see it again. And maybe a third time.

Saturday was the aforementioned Mike Doughty concert at the Independent in San Francisco. Great show, in particular the stuff he did from Skittish and Rockity Roll was better than on the albums. He did my two favorite songs from Haughty Melodic (“Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells,” in case anyone’s curious), plus his cover of “The Gambler.” Other covers were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and a little bit of “It’s Raining Men” (dude knows how to play a San Francisco crowd, I guess). The only Soul Coughing song he did was “St. Louise is Listening,” which I like better than the original but is still one of my least favorite Soul Coughing songs.

We were noticing that the whole crowd was made up of the people who are usually standing at the back of other concerts. “Lots of people dancing with their hands in their pockets,” said Mac, “and the reflection off all the horn-rimmed glasses must’ve been blinding.”

Meet Jack Torrance

I first heard about it from Rain’s blog, but some people on the Straight Dope did some digging to find out more about it. Apparently it’s been going around the internets and has made an impression.

What it is is a new trailer for The Shining, using clips from the movie (except for one cheat piece of dialog). And it’s genius, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the internet. Bonus points for including the kiss and the choice of music. I can’t stop watching it.

The New York Times did an article about it with more info and an interview with the guy who made it.

On the same site, there’s a trailer for West Side Story as a horror film, but it’s not as good.

Field Trip

Konnichi-wa!Because, apparently, I’m a moron, I decided to start watching Battle Royale at around 1 AM tonight. So tonight I can’t blame the insomnia on anybody else. Baka!

I’d been hearing about this movie for years, and I was actually afraid to watch it. The premise — Lord of the Flies meets “Survivor,” where a class of junior high kids are sent to a deserted island to participate in a government-mandated “game” where they all kill each other — could either be brutal satire or an exploitative hyper-violent action thriller. Either way, it was likely to be gruesome. And everyone who mentioned the movie prefaced it by going on about how violent it is.
Continue reading “Field Trip”

After Life

Pete's DragonA couple weeks ago I was threatened by my friend Matt to reconsider my opinion of the videogame Resident Evil 4, or I couldn’t be friends anymore. Well, I re-tried the game and I still don’t like it. I don’t like shooting games without a mouse, anyway, so I was already annoyed. And when the villagers pushed a boulder on top of me, and the only way I could escape was by furiously pushing the A button like a monkey, I completely lost interest.

So in a desperate attempt to save our crumbling friendship, I rented the movie After Life from Netflix, and finally watched it last night to take a break from putting off the work I wasn’t doing. A few years ago, Matt had recommended the movie to me, but I could never find it.

It’s a neat movie. The premise is that after you die, you choose one memory from your life to take with you for eternity. It’s filmed like an indie movie, but doesn’t fall into all the pretentious traps that indie movies usually wallow in. It’s not overly obscure in order to hide the fact that it’s not really saying anything, and it also doesn’t have a single message you’re supposed to take away from the movie once you get past all the symbolism. Instead, it does what an “art film” is theoretically supposed to do: present an idea and let you make your own conclusions about it.

There’s enough of a plot — concerning the counselors who help the recently deceased choose their memory and then recreate it — to show different takes on the central question and to raise more questions about what exactly it is we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. But they’re presented as different ways people would answer those questions for themselves, not as an attempt to give The One True Answer. It avoids getting over-sentimental or relying on effects or gimmicks, presenting everything as completetly straightforward; it could be mistaken for a documentary, if filmmakers had unrestricted access to the afterlife clearing house. And as a result, the images are even more powerful — instead of relying on special effects, the movie depends on your own memories and how you form them and see them in your own mind.

But of course, you’re left asking yourself the same question: what memory would you choose, if you chose one at all?

My first thought was that it would be the first time I saw the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disney World with my family. I have such a strong memory of that, of being safe, protected, amazed by the spectacle of it, and being overwhelmingly happy. And of course, not long after I thought that, the movie showed one of the recently deceased choosing a memory of Disneyland, and the counselor telling her that all the teenage girls do that (ouch!) and helping her pick a better memory.

And after that, well, I’m stumped. I don’t have a single memory that incorporates all my friends and family, and they’re too important not to take with me. I need to either have all my friends together to do something ridiculously fun, or else get used to the idea of being a counselor.

Flickr and Raccoon Dogs

Now there’s the title for a 70’s action movie if I ever heard one.

I got my copy of Pom Poko yesterday and watched it on the commute back to San Francisco. I’m impressed; Disney released it unedited. And with a pretty tasteful translation — they always refer to them as “raccoons” and never describe them as different animals, which is kind of a shame but perfectly understandable; and they describe at the beginning that the males can inflate and transform their “raccoon pouch” and leave it at that. There’s no cautionary or explanatory material anywhere else on the DVD, and it’s really not needed. (There are also no bonus features other than the original trailers, and a second disc containing the entire movie in storyboard format, but that’s no big surprise as this was never a huge blockbuster release even in Japan).

And I ususally hate English dubs of Japanese movies, but they did a pretty good job with this one. Some relatively big names for voice actors, including John DiMaggio (Bender from “Futurama” and Doctor Drakken from “Kim Possible”), Brian Posehn (again), and J.K. Simmons (from “Oz,” Spider-man, and the yellow M&M). I guess Disney can afford to hire anyone they want. I’m thinking it’s pretty damn cool that the movie was released in the US at all, and the fact that it’s a well-done release is just an added bonus. I’m also very happy I don’t work for Disney’s complaint department.

I’ve also been looking more at Flickr.com and am starting to catch on more to the appeal of it. I’m always late to the party with these internet phenomena, but it’s still worth pointing out. What’s neatest to me is the support for public forums and groups, and the ways that people are using them. Those networking sites like Friendster and Orkut are neat for the first couple of days, but after you settle all your “hey, that friend knows that friend! Small world!” incidents, it’s pretty useless. They try to create “communities,” but it just ends up being “so you like ‘Mr. Show’ too? Cool.” followed by awkward silence. And silences between internet geeks are the most awkward silences of them all.

The flickr people have realized that you can’t just facilitate people’s getting together, you’ve got to give them something to do. And, what’s most surprising to me, people have actually picked it up and run with it. What with this being the internets, there are of course the predictable “look at me naked” and “hey u live in sf too thats cool!!!1!” groups, but most of the ones I’ve found have been surprisingly clever and creative. Usually when you give a ton of people on the internets the chance to be creative, they don’t do much other than reaffirm the idea that 99% of everything is crap. But at least on the groups I’ve seen, people stay on topic or with the theme — “Tiki culture,” “Route 66,” “Most photographed landmarks,” “What your world looks like at 5:00” — and it ends up being pretty cool.

I’m actually encouraged to take pictures again. And just for their own sake, not to be “artistic” or as part of some larger project or some special event, but just because it’s pretty fun. An internet creativity experiment that actually encourages people to be creative; I never would’ve thought it possible.

I realize that I could use my RAZR to post on Flickr, but at that point I’d be turning into one of those guys who always talks about moblogging and geocaching and uses the term “blogosphere” non-ironically and refers to himself by his online handle. And SolGrundy don’t play that, yo.

Disney shows some balls

I just read that Disney is actually releasing Pom Poko on DVD in the US next week! This is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and in fact one of my favorite movies, but I assumed that since Disney owned the US rights, we’d never, ever, not in a million years, no way no how, ever see a US release.

One of the reasons I like the movie so much is that it was my first exposure to an entire section of Japanese folklore. Before seeing Pom Poko, I’d never heard of tanuki. (Actually, it turns out I had, but I’d never made the connection.) But the “problem,” as far as Disney’s concerned, is that tanuki are always depicted as having huge testicles, and in the folklore it’s the source of their power. It’s non-sexual, or at least more a symbol of fertility than sexuality, but to Americans (myself included), the first reaction is always, “Whoa, check out the ball sack on that raccoon!”

Which is why I thought that once Disney bought the US release rights to all Studio Ghibli movies, we’d never see an American release of Pom Poko. It’s not just a case of how the characters are drawn, either; it’s actually the source of a couple of major plot points — one group of tanuki attack a police group using their scrotums, and another wise old tanuki turns his into a giant sailing ship. So Disney was left with the option of either going in and heavily editing the movie, or not releasing it at all. Since it’s a relatively obscure movie even among anime fans, I can’t imagine the money they’d make from the release would warrant the time and effort it’d take to edit it so heavily.

I haven’t seen it yet, obviously, so they could’ve turned the movie into a eunuch. But I’m encouraged by this interview with the translators, which suggests that they got around the concerns simply by translating “scrotum” as “pouch.” We’ll see.

And although I realize I’ve spent the entire post so far talking about testicles, the point is that it would be a shame to see it edited because it’s relevant to the folklore but such an inconsequential aspect of the movie overall. The real reason I love the movie so much is because it gets its message across so perfectly. It’s mostly an environmental message, like many Studio Ghibli movies, but it’s not reduced to platitudes or schmaltzy symbolism. It has talking animals throughout, but like Watership Down, they stay true to their nature. They’re not just furry stand-ins for humans, they’re really animals.

Or at least, they’re really animals as the traditional folklore portrays them. Tanuki are fun-loving tricksters, and they have difficulty fighting against the humans destroying their mountain specifically because it’s not in their nature to take anything too seriously. When they try to fight back on the humans’ terms, they fail. When they’re in hiding and the humans try to call them out by singing the traditional children’s song, the tanuki can’t help but sing back. And more importantly, when they try to deny their true nature and blend in with the humans, they lose the essence of themselves. I’m sure that it has something to do with the fact I was working for EA the first time I saw it, but the ending never fails to make me start tearing up, every time I see it.

Beats All You Ever Saw

So as I mentioned, I saw The Dukes of Hazzard movie, and it was dumb enough to warrant its own post. Seriously, this is an aggressively stupid movie. Pretty harmless overall, but damn is it stupid. But then, that makes it a near perfect movie version of “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show. It’s less like the show and more like a cross betwen Super Troopers, “Jack-ass,” and NASCAR.

You’ve got to give some credit to the movie for making the characters real rednecks, not the pasteurized family-friendly pretty boys of the TV show (and for that matter, the Smokey and the Bandit/CB Radio crap that the TV show was trying to capitalize). The guys in this movie are way under-educated, they don’t shave, they say “sumbitch” and “shit” and “yeehaw” a lot, and they like drivin’ fast and blowin’ shit up just for the hell of it. And credit the movie for taking people that would be pretty gross and scary if you ever met them in real life and making them seem pretty harmless.

I read an interview with jessica Simpson where she was concerned about her performance and worried if she could pull it off; I don’t know where the hell that came from. She’s awful in it as an actress, but she’s not really there for her acting. And so that works — she’s astoundingly hot. Impossibly so — she crosses that line of “so hot she doesn’t seem real,” like Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then comes back around to just being hot again.

As for the guys, Stiffler as Bo is pretty much redneck Stiffler with a chia beard and his weird Neanderthal grin the whole time. Johnny Knoxville I hate to say anything about, because it’d just be saying the same thing as all those reviews and interviews that always get written about him. He’s just got charisma, there’s no other way to put it. You may not want to like him, but you do. He doesn’t hog the camera and grab for attention, he doesn’t play it too earnest or too goofy, he never seems like he’s outside the movie making fun of it — no matter what happens, he’s right in the thick of it, and he makes it seem tolerable. Whether it’s blowing stuff up with flaming arrows, being dragged around the back of a truck, making fun of blacks and Japanese people and gay guys, or listening to Willie Nelson tell stupid jokes.

Nobody else really works so well. Because of the director whose name I can’t spell and it’s not worth looking up, you get lots of Broken Lizard alumni, and a fair amount of pot-smoking. Willie Nelson had some influence on that too, I’m sure. They did stunt casting for a lot of the parts, but the biggest side parts like Roscoe and the creepy guy “Sheev” were given to Broken Lizard guys, who just aren’t memorable. And the director also drives home that this is supposed to be a movie by guys for guys — they’re going for the Spike TV audience big time.

Other things you’ve got to give it credit for: actually setting it in Georgia, acknowledging that Atlanta and rural GA might as well be two separate countries (although I don’t know why they went all the way to Atlanta for a university when they could’ve just driven to Athens), acknowledging that the Confederate flag on the top of the General Lee can be offensive to both blacks and whites without making too big a show of it, good use of narration (although of course without Waylon Jennings, sadly), and casting Joe Don Baker. Other stuff that doesn’t work: Lynda Carter, Willie Nelson, Burt Reynolds who just comes off as creepy and slimy but not in the endearing way you’re supposed to feel about Boss Hogg, and casting Joe Don Baker.

And it just occurred to me that I put more effort into writing about this movie than they probably spent writing the movie itself. It’s not even as if I’ve got much nostalgia for GA or the Dukes of Hazzard anymore.

Joims!

I’d planned on skipping War of the Worlds until it came out on DVD, or at least until I was watching it with someone else. But I was in Japan Town for dinner, one thing led to another, and I caught the late show.

I think Mr. Spielberg has been reading my blog, and I’m sorry I was so hard on the guy. The movie is relatively schmaltz-free, the music is understated, the reaction shots appropriate, and the cast can actually act. Dakota Fanning is just scary good; child stars are not supposed to be able to act that well. (Go Conyers!) And there are even scenes with Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in them, together, and you don’t want to claw out your eyes or run screaming from the theater. That’s saying quite a bit. It’s pretty much exactly what I asked for — the tense and memorable action scenes that Spielberg is really good at, without the schmaltz and the neat & tidy message.

But man, is the result bleak. I mean, sure, the source material is pretty bleak, and when you do it as realistically as you can manage instead of having a layer of 50’s sci-fi irony on top of it, this is what you get. The reviews I’ve seen all keep saying “intense” and “relentless,” and that’s accurate. This is an old-school horror movie, from when people understood that “horror” meant less gore and cheap surprises, and more horrible things happening to people for no reason and they can’t figure out why or how to stop it. Imagine the T. Rex scene from Jurassic Park with better child actors and no goofy toilet gag, then repeat that for two hours.

So it ends up being very well-done, but kind of hollow. Spectacular effects and full-to-bursting with memorable scenes, but without any real depth to make it resonate. And I think that’s not the fault of the director, or the screenwriter, or any of the actors, but just that that’s as much as anyone could possibly get out of the source material. Adding a “life lesson” more blatant than the “don’t get too cocky, mankind” that’s already in there, would’ve come across as trite.

Instead, they decided to go as realistic as they could manage — no clumsy exposition (the narration just gave it a 50’s sci-fi feel, and was appropriate), no sudden epiphanies or life lessons, no gearing-up-for-the-big-battle, just random death, destruction, and confusion. You’ve got to give them kudos for that. (And kudos for having the leads of the 1953 movie show up in cameos). It ends up being pretty upsetting; when the attacks first start, both the kids ask if it’s “terrorists,” which gives he movie some relevance and makes life outside the theater seem even more dark and pointless.

Also, I’m pretty sure someone involved in the production has played Half-Life 2. Obviously they both use the same source material, but a lot of the scenes in the movie are like a live-action version of the game, with all the weapons to fight back removed. I thought it was neat.

Plus they showed a trailer for Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the movie. I’m going to watch the hell out of that movie. It just looks damn cool.

Spoilers for War of the Worlds after the link…
Continue reading “Joims!”