25 December 2010

Two Random Thoughts About Batman

Not much of a Christmas present, I know, but I've got half an hour, and there's a distinct possibility I've had too much to drink, so while this entry is significantly less refined than previous, I won't even request that you take it with a grain of salt due to the circumstances. After all, the first thought is just something I've noticed now re-watching Batman, and the second is an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a few weeks.

1. Stairs seem to be a rather crucial motif in the first Batman film. Consider, for instance, the gunfight at Axis Chemicals at the beginning. Napier keeps climbing higher and higher, only to fall that much farther when he's scarred and disoriented I(symbolic of his rise to power, maybe?). There's also the odd, though clearly intentional, parallel of the "after dinner" segment of Vicki Vale's date with Bruce Wayne and her eventual abduction by the Joker, him leading her up the stairs of the cathedral. In the first case, she's clearly on the offensive, actively pursuing Wayne, just shy of outright seducing him. In the second instance, the roles are reversed and given a distinctly darker twist, and with Bruce replaced by the Joker, previously shown to be clearly obsessed with Vicki. One could probably write a book or two on the gender-role subtext of this motif, but it makes for a far more interesting meditation on the notion and dangers of obsession.

2. I won't go into it full-force here, but my biggest problem with The Dark Knight is that the overall plot feels like it's a string of loosely-connected vignettes whose only common thread is that they're all schemes by the Joker to cause chaos. Granted, that's the idea, and there's obviously still plenty to like in the film in spite of this, but cohesiveness is an essential strength to any movie, regardless of the volumes of established lore behind its source material.
Put simply, if I were in charge of making The Dark Knight, entailing that I'd have to tackle getting The Clown Prince of Crime onto the big screen with all the menace he's thus far conveyed on the small screen and comic book page, I would essentially reduce the Joker to his core concept and spread it as thinly as I could. In essence, I'd take a cue from Batman Beyond and make the Joker a "Gang" of sorts. Actually, it would be more a "successive collection," but in a more abstract sense than something literal like the film Fallen where a consciousness is transferred physically from person to person.
The pitch, in a nutshell, is thus: by the time the film opens, the Joker is already either dead and buried, or incarcerated with absolutely no chance of escape. However, the whole rest of the film would boil down to Batman dealing with copycats, all very different from one another in terms of M.O.s and patterns, but all sporting the same makeup and reckless abandon for life and morality. The resolution of Batman's character arc would therefore be the realization that he will never truly defeat his longtime foe or crime in general for that matter. Of course, he'll decide to fight in spite of the attrition, but the agony could still surely be felt.
To put it in another and even smaller nutshell: I'd have multiple actors playing the Joker.
If the whole notion sounds silly and far-fetched to the point of completely straying from the path, it really isn't. The concept of a "foe of many faces" has been done before; the villain known as The Red Hood historically was comprised of only one Real McCoy, with a series of copycats following thereafter, the Joker and even a former Robin ironically among them.

21 December 2010

TRON LEGACY (culled from DevART Journal)

As long as it's on my DevART journal, I might as well post this portion of that entry here:

TRON LEGACY... Awesome. Simply Awesome. Whatever definition you attach to the word "awesome," throw it out and build up a new one, remembering that "awe" is the first syllable and you'll have an inkling of an idea of what seeing this movie was like for me. Sure, I have a few nitpicks and complaints, but it's kind of like when I saw the H2G2 movie; given everything that stood in that movie's way, that it exists at all is about as fulfilling a feeling of vindication as any success it endured thereafter.
If I do have one regret, it's honestly that I saw it in 3D.
The 3D is fine... for 3D scenes. Everywhere else (namely the real world), the glasses just put a yellow-green haze over everything. The worst part is the movie seems to be aware of this, but won't quite own up to it; at the beginning, we're treated to a rather odd title card (this isn't a direct quote, it's just the best I can recall):

The following 3D presentation has scenes that were shot in 2D. This is intentional and how the film was produced.

Please do not remove your 3D glasses for these segments.

In other words, unlike Avatar, which was fully shot in 3D or How to Train Your Dragon, which was fully CG and could therefore be easily switched between 2D and 3D, Tron was only partially shot in 3D, the remainder being 2D and only partly converted later. At one point, I ignored the title card's demand to leave the glasses on and slipped them off for one of the early scenes to find not even so much as a ghosting effect around anything or anyone, a tell-tale sign of the conversion process in any 3D film. I shouldn't be mad, as I guess the alternative would be an immersion-breaking interjection cuing the audience to put on or take off the glasses. Still, I wouldn't have been disappointed if I never saw it in 3D. When it hits the second-run theaters, and if it does so in a 2D format, it's definitely getting at least one more re-visit from me. Hell, I'm wrestling with seeing it again now. The last film to have that kind of effect on me was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which I did see twice in theaters*.

Yes, I'm generally that hard to impress and my taste in films is that hard to place and predict.

*(How to Train Your Dragon was close, but not quite there).

07 November 2010

Work Ethic Quick Notes

I don't know how long I spent writing Ladyhorse.

My re-write of The Sacrifice was done in a sitting, a rather arduous one. The original 1999 (98?) version was written in a single session as well, and I remember it coming to me very easily.

The story I'm writing now, which is not part of NaNoWriMo since it's only a short, began around November 1st, maybe earlier, with a deadline of Thanksgiving (so it's earlier than NaNoWriMo), and that's turning out to be one of the most difficult things I've ever written. I'm quite literally not happy with any of it. I think the problem is that while I stand behind the idea itself, the story requires too much simile and metaphor to work at conveying its imagery, and that can get a little too flowery for me.

The closest thing to a novel I've written was a five-act play written around 1998. It took me 2 years to write, longer if you count the 50-plus scraps that were eventually consolidated into the work, making for its 75-plus main characters. I'm never posting it or showing it to anybody. I'd rather tell the story of how I got the idea to consolidate the stories, because it is kind of hilarious (and I can say that because it wasn't my idea):
These stories were all set in relatively the same universe, and I had envisioned a kind of crossover culminating in a singular ending (I'll just say one word about it: Dallas), but only thought of that ending, nothing about the interaction of the separate characters. One day, I was in the school library, writing a story of a soldier becoming a doctor. A friend (of sorts) walked by and asked what I was doing. I told him I was writing. He asked, "Fiction?"
"Yeah," I replied, "And it's going about as well as the other stuff I've written." He looked interested, and said as much, with the prospect of being able to offer me advice since he'd written much himself. I told him that the problem with how I write is that I always have an idea of a beginning, and I more or less know how I want the story to end, but it's making the connection between the start and stop that gets to me. Believing he knew where I was going, he nodded and finished my sentence:
"Because you always want to introduce new characters, new situations."
I shook my head, "No, it's not so much that...." I stopped that sentence dead in its tracks after realizing that his complaint made for really good advice. I asked, "What did you just say?" like one of those Mel Brooks moments where you first dismiss or even laugh at an idea, but the moment you speak your dissent is the same moment you realize it's complete genius:
"Maybe we should send the dummies into battle."
"Ha!" One one-thousand, "Hmm...."

The best advice I ever got about writing came from my Western Civilization professor during my freshman year at UNM. He said that the first sentence of your essay (or anything you're writing, for that matter) should sound like it has absolutely nothing to do with what the paper is about. It's kind of hard to elaborate on what exactly that means or entails, but here's the best example I can think of, the opening sentence to John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids:
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

The novel, for those of you who don't know, is about ambulatory, carnivorous plants with venomous tongues that have a ten-foot reach and target the eyes, yet those are not the worst thing going on in the world when the story starts.

06 November 2010

Civilization by Committee (Metropolis Tezuka/Rintaro)

I never thought the time would come when I'd actually get to use the following analogy to describe a film.

Take the DeLorean, the DMC-12, arguably the most famous (if not most recognizable) car in film history. Despite its place in pop culture and history, in terms of automotive design, it's something of a spectacular failure. The fact is, no single element of this car's design is uncool or ill-conceived, but putting them all together on the same car simply doesn't work. The Double-Y chassis designed by Lotus gave the car's mid-engine layout fantastic handling, but the stylish gull-wing doors gave it too high a center of gravity to take advantage of it. The stainless steel body looked striking enough, but was almost impossible to maintain. The engine was a collaboration of three great automakers, yet their combined efforts were staggered by changes made to comply with United States emissions standards.

Rintaro's Metropolis is a DeLorean.

Perhaps it's a matter of expectations being too high, but I was really disappointed by this film. Of course, when your story is patterned after one of the most influential and iconic films of all time, it can be a heavy and cumbersome premise to run with. Imagine if Disney decided to start making films based on the works of William Shakespeare rather than classic fairy tales. There would be no denying the visual craftsmanship, but Disney's usual vibrantly charming animation style and art direction would undoubtedly clash with the dark and subversive tone of something like Titus Andronicus. Dark twists on Disney characters have worked in past instances such as the Gargoyles television series, the Kingdom Hearts games, or some of the lesser-known Mickey Mouse comics like The Throg Ray Wars, but a tragedy about a roman general whose daughter is physically mutilated and takes his revenge by making a meal of her attackers served to their own mother would simply be going too far. Metropolis has this same issue of tonal conflict in that the themes it deals with are done a massive disservice by its presentation. Maybe if the character designs were a little less cartoonish and cuddly, or if the backgrounds were less busy and realistic. Maybe if the score were either a more traditional orchestra or a full-on jazz ensemble throughout instead of jarringly flip-flopping between them at rather inappropriate times. Maybe if there had been a little more clarity of vision to the art direction and design, perhaps there would be fewer distractions that break the immersion into an otherwise beautifully-crafted world. Sadly, however, they distract only from deeper flaws. Beneath the visuals and sounds lay the plots and characters. This is where substance has a chance to step forward and let style save face. Sadly, it doesn't fare much better.

The plot of Metropolis is rather cluttered and scatterbrained, littered with false starts and half-baked ideas, but it's ultimately linear enough that a decent summation can be given before addressing its flaws. The film begins with the celebration of the finished construction of a building called The Ziggurat, a massive tower in the center of the city. There is some unrest surrounding the building's construction because of suspicions that its purpose is completely military and not at all civil. These suspicions are correct as the ziggurat's crowning feature is a device capable of generating sunspots, which causes chaotic interference with all electromechanical devices, namely robots. The weapon is controlled from a single room adorned with an ominous-looking throne. As for who sits in the literal seat of power, Duke Red, the lead military authority in Metropolis, hires the mad scientist Dr. Laughton to construct a new kind of android not only indistinguishable from a normal human, but also modeled after his deceased daughter. The duke's intention is for Tima to take the throne and be the main controlling component of the weapon. Rock, Duke Red's adopted son, feels this plan is all wrong and that it should be the Duke himself who takes the seat. The conflict stems from Rock's resolve to seek out Dr. Laughton's secret lab and stop him from completing construction of Tima. Coincidentally, Laughton is being pursued by Detective Shunsaku and his nephew Kenichi, who rescues Tima from the wreckage of the lab following its destruction by Rock.

The first and most obvious problem that arises from this premise is a question of motivation on Duke Red's part. Why would he want a robot in control? Is it some kind of stalemate tactic, with a robot not recklessly using a weapon that affects other robots? If that's the case, why would the robot be made in the image and given the impression of being the duke's own daughter? If she thinks she's human, wouldn't she then make human decisions? On the other hand, if we look at it from the superhuman angle (as Duke Red and Dr. Laughton insist Tima is), why would a superior being be concerned with or have a better viewpoint of the petty affairs of lesser beings, let alone be in charge of the arsenal? There are just too many factors to see the logic in this plan.

Speaking of multiple factors, the second glaring flaw this film has is that it has no singularly apparent protagonist. At first, we might think Kenichi is the hero and, for all intents and purposes, he is despite being notably absent if not literally unconscious for nearly one-third of his total screen time. More often than not, he serves as a kind of bargaining chip to lure Tima out of hiding; Rock uses a forged letter from him to lure her out of Duke Red's home, and Duke Red himself keeps Kenichi captive in the ziggurat, knowing that his detective uncle will have Tima use her superhuman powers to search for him, thus bringing her to her potential seat of power at the ziggurat. It's an ironic (even cute) twist on the damsel-in-distress trappings of an adventure story, but Tima is too underdeveloped as a character to make it a full role-reversal.
Later on, we're introduced to Rock, whom we almost are led to believe is the real lead (especially if you knew going in that he's an original character created for the film, which I didn't). His should be the most interesting character arc, desperately trying to gain his adopted father's approval yet not being able to keep silent about his father's irrational and immoral decisions. That he doesn't understand his father's plan should make him the audience-identification character given that we don't understand the plan, either. However, he's just too unlikeable to relate to; normally, we can forgive an arrogant anti-hero's antics because of the faults of his personal life or because he eventually commits some redeeming act of selflessness or kindness (Save the Cat, as screenwriters say), but this latter action never comes to pass. He enters as a dastardly antagonist, and exits as one as well, leaving only a body count in his wake.
Detective Shunsaku could have also made a good lead, but he only comes center stage and into his element after Kenichi is taken by Duke Red. When introduced, he comes across as comedy relief, second fiddle to his nephew (again, the one we first believe to be the hero). Even during his separation from Kenichi following the destruction of Laughton's lab, he only offers occasional points of insight before resorting to his usual pratfalls and farcical misadventures. All this just makes his taking the wheel toward the finale that much more unprecedented and difficult to take seriously. Playing the fool in act one only to come out on top before the final curtain is a difficult trait to have in a hero because it throws the audience for a loop and breaks their relationship to the character, which is why more often than not it's reserved for villains or other traitorous denizens of fiction. The only other surefire way it works on heroic terms is when the narrative turns its focus to how the supporting cast reacts to these seemingly out-of-character moments by the lead(*), but this doesn't happen as no one is surprised by or ever doubts his actual competence.
As for the supporting cast, two of the characters who could have made decent contributions to the plot are rendered virtually ineffectual by the same revolving-door narrative structure that marginalizes the main cast. Pero, Detective Shunsaku's city-appointed android assistant, for example, serves the Red Dwarf's Kryten-esque role of "Exposition on Legs" minus any actual personality or relevance, making his death as pointless as that of the man who caused it. That man is Atlas, whose name is an unsubtle reference to objectivism(**), our second-most useless character. Between his late entry and hasty exit, coupled with the fact that the most interesting part of his character arc is his staring match with Pero at the onset of his workers' revolution, he's only one rung on the ladder above Pero in terms of importance to the story. Furthermore, the very revolution he's essentially the face of is by far the least important subplot of the film, which is a shame given how central the workers' revolt was in the original Metropolis. They speak out against the upper class, but their violence is directed at the machines they insist took their jobs, one of which is described as being too dangerous for humans to do in the first place. Overall, the revolt just comes across as incompetent and misguided; One scene a pair of Zone 1 citizens can be seen curb-stomping a robot, and the next scene an entire crowd of them are standing in awe of a firefighting robot putting out a burning building in their zone. For them to then take to the streets and massacre every robot they come across only emphasizes how misdirected the revolt is. Of course, it is entirely possible that the robot massacre is merely a prelude to what should be their real and proper objective of storming the ziggurat, which ends in a slaughter before they get to the front gate, but that just raises more questions about their motives. If the ziggurat was their real target, and the robots were not hindering them (except for Pero to stand in the middle of a very wide street and calmly advise that their demonstration disperse), why the massacre? Sure, the workers' revolt in Lang's Metropolis was equally misguided and needlessly violent, but that's because it was deliberately misguided by a plant in their own ranks. Atlas is no plant, so our only conclusion about him is that he's just an idiot leading a herd of sheep through a minefield. That's not sympathetic, that's suicide.
It's entirely possible that these casualties of characterization and plot development are redeemed by having more fleshed-out backstories and exposition in the original manga. This, however, I cannot accept as a saving grace to the film, or any film adaptation for that matter. An adaptation should do justice to its source material but ultimately stand alone. If the film can't be bothered to tell us enough about Atlas to make him an important character, then the film shouldn't have him in it. If a point made in the source can't be expanded upon or at least done justice in the film, it needs to be omitted and worked around. It's the same problem I have with The Last Airbender and every Harry Potter film since the third one, with them feeling less like adaptations and more like ancillaries. Lastly, even if one were to try and take the source material into consideration as a way of making up for all the film's shortcomings, it would do no good because not only is Rock an original character created for the film (and thus has no excuse), but much of the remaining cast members are actually borrowed from Tezuka's other works, so it's practically impossible to judge them in terms of the source material because they were quite literally never there to begin with.
As it stands, Rintaro's direction of Tezuka's Metropolis fails as a film, on both the style and substance fronts. It's a spectacular failure, true, but a failure nonetheless.

(*)The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a textbook example of this formula and how it can work effectively as a narrative structure.

(**)Which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the themes explored in any version of Metropolis. In fact, if any character in Metropolis (2001/1927) exemplifies objectivism, it's Laughton/Rotwang (respectively), and they rank among the villains, so it's either a misnomer or a condemnation. Take your pick.

04 November 2010

F--- Hughesnet

Hopefully, I can get through writing this. When I got my new job back in July, the new income permitted me to move to a place where I could get high speed internet through a cable provider. The old place was too rural and couldn't have cable, leaving dial-up and satellite the only options. Enter Hughesnet, with their limited data connnection of 200MB/day, mediocre customer service, 80USD/month bills for so-called service, and 400USD early termination fees (despite only being an internet provider. Until the day of cancellation, I actually thought the ETF was 200, like a cell provider or most cable services; they offer more than web services, yet the web-only provider charges more. Still, I cancelled, resolving to pay the final 400 over time.
Today, I just get home from work and find a letter from Hughesnet showing a final balance 300USD over the previous one of 400. The extra was a returned equipment fee, because in the move I'd managed to leave the modem in the trunk of my car well past the 45 day return window. I called in to see about waiving the fee if I sent it in this week, only to find out from them that I don't even have all the equipment. It turns out, in addition to the modem and power supply, which I confirmed with them by phone the day I cancelled the service, I have to include something called the Radio Assembly, part of the receiving dish outside in the front yard of a house I moved out of 3 months ago. I have no idea if it's still there. Customer service insisted they not only told me about the Radio Assembly, but also e-mailed me instructions on how to disassemble the dish. I didn't read this e-mail because, as I told them today, I was only told of the modem's return. Why would I need/read directions in identifying a modem and its power supply? Their notes on that call I made back on the 14th are vague, saying only that the "equipment" must be returned, with no details beyond that. So, nearly 1000 is owed to an internet provider because of a 100USD modem (that can be returned right away) and a 200USD dish component that may or mat not be there after all this time.
I'm literally having trouble breathing, and I feel like I'm about to pass out as I can't seem to take a deep enough breath. I'm taking breaks as I write this to catch my breath to quell the dizzy sensation, and I don't even have asthma.
I found out just after the call to Hughesnet that I became an uncle for the third time this morning, and now I can barely stand up because of a stress attack over some stupid bill.

EDIT: It's been about four hours, and I'm a little better (and adding tags). I drove by my old house on my way to get food, and luckily the dish is still there, so I'll come by tomorrow, meet the new owner, and get to work disassembling the dish. I wonder, though, if someone moves into a house and gets the same satellite service, would Hughesnet get them a new Radio Assembly? If so, what happens to the old one, given that while it doesn't technically get sent back by the previous owner, it does get handled by a professional installer with connections to the company?

29 October 2010

vii Favorite Movies With Numbers in the Titles That Are Not Sequels

2001: A Space Odyssey
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
7 Samurai
District 9
The 10 Commandments
Plan 9 from Outer Space

Honorable Mention:
Godzilla 2000 , technically speaking, none of the Godzilla films are exactly sequels, more like episodes, akin to James Bond films or the works of Kevin Smith. There may be ties (especially if it involves Mechagodzilla), but each film, by its very nature, stands alone. If nothing else, Godzilla 2000 has the weakest ties to the other films in the series.

10 of My Favorite Movies With One-Word Titles:


22 October 2010

You know what I hate about Stephen King?

The damned colloquialisms.

Whether it's:

"F--- me, Freddy" in Dreamcatcher,

"Shoot a Pickle" in The Tommyknockers,

"Doodly-Damn" in Cycle of the Werewolf (thankfully excised from Silver Bullet),

or any other that I can't remember, they're omnipresent and annoying. They grind the story to a screeching halt and never sound natural coming out of anybody. Maybe the problem is simply that I've never in my entire life actually heard anyone say any of these things. Whenever I hear someone in the story say them, they never seem to be in the right context, and even READ like they were afterthoughts. As dialogue in film or television adaptations, they sound even more clunky and forced. It completely kills the immersion and utterly deflates the terror.
Of all the criticisms I can level at King's work, this is the only one I can never forgive and move on from (except maybe the name-branding and pop-culture references).

20 October 2010

Okay, this could pose a problem...

I just found out that when I post a weblog entry, the date it sets is not actually the date it gets published, but the day the draft was created (or last saved, I can't quite tell). This made my horror movies for non-horror movie fans list show up as being posted on the 15th of October rather than the 18th, making the whole "13 days until..." motif rather embarrassingly erroneous, if only in appearance.

This strikes me as very odd. I mean, why would I want the "post" date to be based on when I wrote the draft as opposed to when I actually publish the post? After all, when a film is copyrighted, it's copyrighted the year of its theatrical release, not the moment post-production concludes or principal photography wraps or the script is approved. Many films have been sidelined by distributors (would-be or otherwise) for years following post-production. Video games have a similar problem, especially considering the games that are imported from Japan. I recently heard about a game called Hydlide, an RPG released back in 1985 in Japan but not released in the US until some four or five years later. In terms of technology, even back then, that was practically a generation gap, akin to comparing Phantasy Star II (1989) to Final Fantasy VIII (1999) or even The Tower of Druaga (1984) to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000).

Of course, that's overstating the situation as we're only talking about a few days or maybe weeks, but it's not as if I wrote the entry out in full and then let it sit in the posts list for weeks before publishing it. Even if that were the case, I'd still give it a once-over, and I know there would be changes to make, whether they were needed or not.
It's a problem I've had since maybe even high school; no matter how much preliminary writing I'd do, I'd end up doing a first-page rewrite the night before. I wouldn't even look at that first draft for guidance. Of course, that had as much to do with me having already internalized my notes on the given subject as any sort of dissatisfaction or disassociation with that early draft. This habit reached its apex in college and at one point I was very overwhelmed with something like four papers in three consecutive days.
The truly ironic part, though, was that I'd always get better grades on those rushed essays than the few essays that I'd write early on and finish weeks before the due date, as though they were the control factor in an experiment. At worst, I'd get a B on a hasty and agonizing re-write.
People tell me this is a great ability, and sometimes that they even envy me for it. The fact is, I hate it. I hated that my last-minute forehead-bleeding sessions got better results than works I'd planned out in advance and got done early. It cheapened the accomplishment and left me feeling like I'd put a gun to my head as some sick means of self-motivation. It's like when you start nodding off on a long drive and, instead of doing the sensible thing and pulling over, slap yourself as hard as you can. Sure, you've made great time, but the stinging sensation on your palm and cheek doesn't go away as quickly as it should and you feel like a tool for hitting yourself. It's like how I imagine Bruce Banner feels when he makes himself get angry and reluctantly unleash The Hulk.
It never helps that I already sweat over every word I write, regardless of time, even if it's a reply to a comment on something I've written or a thank-you note for a birthday card. I worry over everything and find myself playing out every possible outcome of the scenario, from jovial conversation to excruciating fall out. Maybe it's some subconscious fear of dying and the inevitable reality that ultimately my words survive me, as they ultimately do for everyone.

So, yeah, Blogger turned out to have a weird set-up with drafts and publishing dates. Good thing I caught it now before I finished a few other time-sensitive journal entries.

Lastly, random fact about me: I hate saying goodbye. Hearing it is somewhat tolerable, but overall it just depresses me. I think I can cite the moment when it began getting to me, but it would only be a supposition and giving that event far too much credit. So, if you're the first to say goodbye, and there's a pause before I reply (with anything BUT goodbye), that's the reason.

Good night, and good luck. (Haven't closed a journal with that phrase in years. I like it, even if my theater background makes me averse to wishing good luck. Come to think of it, I should really see that movie again; the last time I saw it was in the theater.)

18 October 2010

Horror For All!

As Stephen King pointed out in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, horror comes in three flavors: Terrify, Horrify, and Gross-out. Gross-out is self-explanatory, best represented by films like the Saw series (which will plague us for, hopefully, the last time with this year's installment), Turistas, and anything made by Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore. Horrify is less obvious, but just as straightforward in concept; it refers to what's commonly called the jump scare, anything that's only really scary because it startles us with its abruptness and unexpectedness, playing on our flight-or-fight response hardwired into our very being by evolution itself. Terrify, lastly, is the hardest to describe as it relies neither on visual stimuli or instinctive reactions to make itself known. Rather, it works by what it doesn't do but makes you think it will.
One might think, then, that this makes for three different types of horror movies, one for each form of fright. However, in terms of horror movies, there's more like two, with Terrify serving as a kind of guiding principle for the other two to follow. In fact, Terrify is so vague as a principle that some of its best cinematic examples are not even horror movies. Films of the Gross-Out variety, on the other hand, tend to "preach to the choir" so to speak, while those of the Horrify ilk rise above the one-trick pony quality of their gory kin and tend to draw the bigger crowds.
What follows, in honor of having only 13 days until Halloween, is a list of films that favor the Terrify variety of horror, and only occasionally employ the Horrify strategy, but all generally steer clear of the Gross-Out ideology. In other words, these are horror movies that really anyone can enjoy; not many people like to get grossed out, but deep down, almost everyone likes to get scared on some level, even if only at one particular time, like a certain holiday.

This Oscar-nominated anthology based on Japanese legends collected and published by Lafcadio Hearn is as eerie as it is beautiful. Japan as a nation was something of a Johnny-come-lately when it came to color in its cinema, having been completely left out of the Technicolor era. That said, when they came on the scene, they hit the ground running, hitting their full stride by the time Kaidan (sometimes spelled "Kwaidan" due to the translational sensibilities of the time) reached screens. The sets look like sets, it's true, but what sets they are. Admittedly, I've only seen two of the four segments that comprise the film, but even just one of them is worth the price of admission and I'll probably be celebrating Halloween by checking out the other two. The two parts I saw were "The Woman of the Snow," where a happily-married woodsman admits a terrible secret to his wife, only for her to have one for him as well, and "Hoichi the Earless," where a blind musician is asked by a mysterious visitor to play for a most uncanny audience.

Not many would consider Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a horror film, nevermind that most of the story involves a group of astronauts trapped on a claustrophobic ship run by a sentient computer with full control of the airlocks, life support, and (most importantly) any and all communications with anyone who might be able to do anything to help in case, say, said computer were driven homicidal by a small oversight in teaching it the difference between being asleep and being dead. In Andrei Tarkovsky's "Anti-2001" film Solaris, it's not the computer onboard that one should be weary of, nor even the enigmatic and alien ocean below, but of one's own demons within, or rather, what the aforementioned ocean makes of those inner demons. For reasons never fully explained, the ocean of the eponymous planet is able to make physical representations of people from the crew members' respective pasts. The trouble is, the ocean doesn't quite get many of the details right. It's not its fault, though; it's working from their memories... and consciences.

There's quite a bit of hate out there for this film, and, for the life of me, I don't understand exactly why. In a way, it's the perfect kind of horror movie; it takes a simple premise (in horror terms, a common fear) and runs with it. In the case of The Forgotten, the base fear that makes up the premise has to do with paranoia, the feeling that some unseen force has an agenda against you and you are completely powerless against it, coupled with the possibility that the whole thing may be merely self-delusion. In the film, Julianne Moore plays Telly, a mother grieving the loss of her son, the exact circumstances of which are not only mysterious, but ever-changing, from a plane crash at the age of nine to a miscarriage that many years earlier. Admittedly, the execution of the film's "What's real and what isn't?" motif is fundamentally flawed, but the performances keep you invested in spite of that.
My only beef with the film is that I've somewhat already seen it before, albeit in a rather unlikely place, the 5th episode of the 4th season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Entitled "Remember Me," the story centers on Dr. Beverly Crusher unknowingly trapped in a failed warp bubble experiment wherein members of the ship's crew sporadically disappear without anyone giving any notice or having any memory of them ever existing. It aired on the 22nd of October in 1990, fourteen years before the release of The Forgotten. The two share a similar premise, and both feature a strong female lead (both redheads, oddly enough). They even share a subtext in the form of romantic tensions between the leads and their male counterparts, Crusher and Picard in the case of Star Trek, and Telly and Ash in The Forgotten. I wonder if screenwriter Gerald Di Pego is a Trekkie?

I feel like I've talked endlessly about these "faux first-person footage" films and, for those of you that have endured reading those reviews of mine, it may seem a bit strange that I'd recommend one in any favorable light. Put simply, of all the Blair films out there, this is one of the best. Most of the scenes in the film are locked-off shots. That is, the camera is mounted on a tripod and left "unmanned" by any sort of camera operator. The angles favor function over flattery and certainly aren't intended to hide or obscure anything. Though seen as a weakness in comparison to other Blair films, this lack of ambiguity works in the film's favor and while we may never see the entity in question, there's certainly no question about what it is, what it wants, and how far it's willing to go to get it.

The fear of dying is arguably the most common and universal fear that plagues humanity. Almost all of our actions are dictated, driven, and motivated by the singular principle that we are mortal, and that mortality is fickle and unpredictable. Flatliners centers around a group of medical students obsessed with death, namely patients who have actually experienced it or situations not far removed from it, with one patient having once been declared legally dead for four-and-a-half minutes. The students, using their medical knowledge, endeavor to "explore" the great unknown by way of inducing near-death states of being. They each are revived, luckily and in the nick of time, each having a different and unique experience of "the other side." The trouble is, they don't leave those experiences behind when they come back. What's great about this film is that, because the fear it centers upon is essentially that of the unknown, it really doesn't matter what your personal beliefs are going in. I don't personally believe in the afterlife, but that didn't make the film any less terrifying. For me, the real moments of fear and tension are in the CPR sessions where the students bring each other back their states of near-death.

Part of the reason why this film seems to have such a wide appeal beyond the normal crop of horror fans is that it's really so unlike any other horror film to come before or since. Stanley Kubrick has never been one to work within the confines of genres, ignoring their far-too familiar tropes and cliches yet still staying respectful to them and not straying too far from the path. The Shining stands as a kind of horror psychology test, with different people seeing the film in different lights. For some, it's a ghostly, haunted house story of the most supernatural variety. For others, it's a psychological thriller about the effects of isolation, where . For others still, it may be both of these things, or neither. Whatever the overall interpretation, it's a textbook example of the best kind of horror movie, taking a simple premise and running with it.

I actually debated whether or not to include this one, and I'm not going to have that much to say about it, and what I do say will be the result of a mental strain to find the right words. Don't get me wrong, The Mothman Prophecies is an effective horror movie, but the way its horror works is so different from the other entries on this list that it stands as having an unfair advantage over them. Whereas the other films are ultimately works of fiction, though some more thoroughly researched than others, this film is only a slight dramatization of a book that chronicles and collects the accounts of residents of the otherwise-sleepy little town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, of a series of seemingly unconnected events culminating in an unquestionably tragic event not forgotten today. The film is well-made enough on its own merits, but having the backlog of lore, skepticism, and facts sets it above any other attempt in cinema to capture the essence of human fear. The fears are real because the people are real. Say what you will about what they believe they saw, but that makes it no less real to them, their fear of it no less real.

12 October 2010


I mentioned Twitter last time, and writing about how I appreciated its versatility made me remember something. The first weblog I ever had was on Yahoo!360. I knew well of (and hated) MySpace, but hadn't heard of Facebook. I always preferred 360 to MySpace because it seemed that 360, by virtue of being a Yahoo! service, attracted a wider and more eclectic audience, whereas MySpace was almost exclusively a teen phenomenon. Call it ageism or technophobia, but it's probably safe to assume that more people have an e-mail address than a MySpace account, therefore that older and/or less tech-savvy generation still "ooh"-ing and "ah"-ing over Electronic Mail will be more likely to start up a weblog if that service is offered as part of the "packaged deal" that came with their e-mail account as opposed to seeking out an external, self-contained site that requires separate registration. In other words, on Y!360, you got more people who would probably not have otherwise started a weblog because they wouldn't want to leave their comfort zone.

Yahoo!360 is gone now, crushed underfoot by practically every other social networking site in existence, the key problem being a few unresolved technical issues (which led to my friend Vanessa tragically losing her entire account), the others being a deliberate dismantling by Yahoo! in light of a proposed buy-out of Facebook and an attempt by Yahoo! to make the networking tools of 360 a more integrated part of one's Yahoo! profile. I've archived those entries to a site called Multiply, a rather shameless MySpace knock-off. I won't link them here; they're not much to look at. Most of them recount my obsessions over my own personal pet peeve about 360 in light of other weblog sites like Multiply or Blogger, which was mobile-friendliness. I prided myself on "breaking the system" by using my PSP's built-in web-browser and wi-fi to write entries in clear defiance of desktops. It probably went a little too far; every time I got a new device, my readers would know it, evidenced by my "Hey, guess what I'm writing this on!" style of entry.

There was something I don't think I ever said on 360 and I think I never said it because I wasn't actually sure how well it would translate to text, so here goes:

The very best thing about 360 is that WE'RE ALL DIFFERENT, COMING FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE, ALL OVER THE WORLD, and yet, at the end of the day, we're all just sitting at home in front of our computers, talking to one another.

the very worst thing about 360 is that we're all different, coming from all walks of life, all over the world, and yet, at the end of the day, WE'RE ALL JUST SITTING AT HOME IN FRONT OF OUR COMPUTERS TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER.

The point is, while I may have been seemingly singing the praises of Twitter last entry, my adoration is almost entirely conceptual; the first social networking site made with mobile networks distinctly in mind. By its very nature, it encourages people to go out into the world and not feel tethered to their undoubtedly uncomfortable desk chairs in front of their undoubtedly cluttered and cumbersome desks upon which rest their undoubtedly ghastly laptops and monolithic desktops.

To crib a saying by filmmaker Jean Cocteau: Weblogs will never truly achieve anything until they can be taken to all the same places ordinary notebooks and pens can go.

Twitter was a good start.

Tumblr appears to be the next step.

Evernote is the long stride between them.

10 October 2010

Do It To It, Dammit!

I should have known this would happen; I make a To-Do list and all it makes me want "to do" is anything but what's on the damned To-Do list. In my defense, some of the journal entries proposed are technically "here" on Blogger, just in draft form. So, they aren't NOT being worked on. The only one that may be abandoned is a review of Jim Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey, a mini-series featuring Jack Kirby's New Gods with art by the indomitable Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. I may still make the accompanying primer video giving an historical overview of Jack Kirby's The New Gods. In keeping with my desire to write reviews of items that don't fit proper categories or are otherwise heavily-marginalized, the video would discuss how originally Kirby's Fourth World series of monthly comics were never meant to be part of the DC Universe proper. That is, we'd never see crossovers with or guest appearances by DC denizens such as Superman or Batman. Tragically, though, the books would be abruptly canceled (the notably ironic exception being Mister Miracle, Super Escape Artist) and many of the characters would be scattered to the winds, settling upon the larger DC Universe in an oddly intriguing kind of "separate, yet joined" status. There's a long-running tradition of superheroes (or other comic book characters) that lack the following to sustain their own title, but are popular enough that guest appearances in other books meet with little to no dissent or disinterest.
As for Cosmic Odyssey, I don't think I'll be reviewing it simply because it's a tad on the unremarkable side. It was far from disappointing; with Starlin's fearless approach to storytelling and Mignola's dramatic lighting and shading, it truly is a match made in heaven, one that I wish would have been repeated prior to Starlin's solo project The Death of the New Gods. Suffice it to say, if Starlin and Mignola do work together again, it won't be on The Fourth World.

Changing gears to old business, there's no update on Jolicloud's "Windows Refund" program as they've yet to answer my inquiry and I've found no other information on it specifically. There was, however, something tangentially related: an article sourcing the Novell Boycott's information about Dell's "Windows Tax Credit." I won't go into too much detail because it's actually going to help me round out the story regarding Jolicloud's refund program, but the long and short of the matter is that Microsoft has essentially pressured Dell into selling PCs with Windows pre-installed exclusively, with prices actually favoring Windows-equipped PCs versus ones with a Linux OS on it.

In the broader scheme of things, there have been a few minor changes to the format of Decay-Proof Record Scroll. I've overcome my fear of tinkering with CSS or, for that matter, any HTML document I didn't write from the ground up myself, and proceeded to tweak the template I selected when I first opened this Blogger account. While I do like the format overall, a few minor problems came up that were fast becoming persistent nuisances, chief among them the width of the main text column. For text, it wasn't an issue, and admittedly seemed to help the words flow, being neither an intimidating, monolithic wall of text nor a thin, whispy news ticker. For videos, however, it turned problematic. Even with videos in the 1.33:1 ratio, the results of refitting them to fit inside the column were less than satisfactory, with videos in 16:9 even more so. Granted, I remember the days when 160 x 120 was the norm and formats like 320 x 240 were "cinematic," but after more than ten years following those days, even I don't feel regret thumbing my nose at videos smaller than 320 x 240. Put simply, it's been long enough, we can expect more. The highest quality Youtube HD video may still only just hold a candle to a DVD, but they're still leaps and bounds above the Cinepak cut-scenes of the early CD-ROM era.

I've also added a Twitter module, which probably gets more updates than any other site I frequent. Then again, that's supposed to be the appeal of Twitter, that you can update it from practically anywhere with any reasonably-equipped electronic device, mobile or otherwise. In a sense, it's what I've always wanted from a weblog tool, a journal anyone can see that's as accessible to me as pen and paper.

Speaking of which, I've also removed Atop the 4th Wall from the Better Reads module. Don't get me wrong, I still watch each new update and hold no ill will against it, it's just that Better Reads seems better suited for weblogs that update irregularly as opposed to AT4W's "Every Monday" model. It also lets me give top billing to my friend Karla Thomas' new Tumblr page Bloggity Blog, which sadly doesn't seem to get half as many followers as her original DeviantART page. It's understandable as, typically, people who "live" on a particular site don't like to be told to go "somewhere else," even if it's only for a brief visit. This is probably the worst part of the whole "Web 2.0" side of the internet; no longer one vast, open country, but a scattering of walled city-states that insist on their own self-sufficiency.
It reminds me of something my brother told me when he went to Canada. On the plane, the in-flight magazine was full of ads promoting tourism in countries all over the world, including Poland and Japan. At first, he didn't think much of it until, when he landed and got settled in, he still kept seeing the same foreign travel ads all over, with the same ubiquity there that "What happens in Vegas..." has in the States. He said it really put the concept of "international" in perspective, noting how the US seems to have this "we have everything right here" mentality when it comes to tourism. It's genuinely sad that we went from services like Geocities to ones like MySpace; sure, it makes networking far easier, but it would seem to do so at the cost of diversity. Perhaps it's just an inevitable social phenomenon.

Last update: I'm also working on a short story, and hopefully I haven't jeopardized its completion by mentioning it here. Like the act of making the To-Do list, I find the less I spend talking about something is more time I can spend doing something, hence not displaying the list here. As such, I'm not going to delve into the plot apart from little hints I've divulged on my Twitter feed, such as doing research on Orbital Resonance despite not technically being a sci-fi story.

Now, we move onward to more regular updates, and less updates about updates.

25 September 2010

Not Every Jolicloud Has A Silver Lining

Platform Agnostic is what's written on the "Operating System of Choice" line of my DeviantART profile as well as any other profile or bio that asks. It means that, officially, I couldn't care less what OS something has installed on it because, apart from a few and fairly reasonable strength/weakness debates, they're all alike. The only factor that truly differentiates Microsoft from Apple from Linux is market share; Windows is the 500-pound "Any color, as long as it's black" Gorilla, Mac is the Cocky "Well, you win some, you lose some" Upstart, and Linux is the Grassroots "None of the above" Rebel. I grew up in a Mac household up until OSX, became a Windows convert of sorts with XP after college, and dabbled in Linux (specifically, Ubuntu and Mint) the last two years. I've seen the best each has to offer, and I've witnessed their stumbles. Most recently, I gave a little OS called Jolicloud a try, after hearing it briefly mentioned on a podcast called Dumpstertech. I thanked them for letting me know about it via Twitter:

Matsugawa: I'm about to try out that #Jolicloud OS that I heard about on @dumpstertech some time back. We'll see how it stacks up in Linux terms...

This leads me to what is probably my favorite part of Jolicloud's design, the installation and demo design. Normally, if you want to install a Linux operating system on your PC, you have to download the .iso file to create an install disc with a CD or DVD burner. ISO files are between 650MB and 1.5GB in size, so this requires a relatively substantial internet connection, not to mention a modest degree of patience. In short, it's more of an investment than an impulse. Jolicloud, however, seems to understand the weariness many of its potential users may feel toward trying a new and substantially-simplified operating system, so they came up with a solution in the form of Express, something that could only be described as a demo of the full version of the OS. Demos are usually reserved for applications, namely games, and consist of a pared-down version of the full program intended to take up less room on one's hard drive and be relatively easy to install and, if necessary or desired, removed or upgraded to its full capabilities. While Jolicloud Express cannot be upgraded-to-full per se, it does not require an install disc to be made, and is instead simply downloaded and installed like any other application.
Jolicloud is designed for netbooks and favors touchscreens, giving it more than a passing resemblance to the iPad operating system. While it has folders for user-created documents such as text files, photos, and videos, applications are hidden except for desktop shortcuts, which are large icons arranged in a grid on the main screen. When there are more apps than there is room to display, or you want to organize your apps according to their function or something, a small row of white dots appears along the bottom of the screen, each representing a new "page" of applications.
While this setup would only prove slightly problematic as my test drive proceeded, there was something of a false start that nearly put the whole trial on indefinite hold. When an operating system is installed on a computer as a partition (that is, keeping the original OS with the new one installed alongside it), the option is presented upon boot-up which one is to be used until the next shutdown or restart. Unfortunately, after installing Express and restarting, no such option appeared. I found out Jolicloud's support department had a Twitter page:

Matsugawa: @Jolisupport I used the Express version, but it won't let me choose between it and XP on boot, only #Jolicloud. What gives?

Expecting an automated "please visit our full site" response, I was rather relieved to get a real response from a real person with whom I could have an actual (if somewhat limited) dialogue:

Zak Kaufmar: @matsugawa Did the installation complete correctly? Maybe try reinstalling. ^ZK

Looking back over JoliSupport's other messages to users, this was the catch-all solution offered at least once during the conversation, regardless of the situation. To be fair, back when I worked in customer service for a cellular provider, whenever a customer was having a technical issue with their phone, our first step was always to have them turn the phone off and back on again and, surprisingly, that solved the issue nine times out of ten, at least. At worst, the issue would recur and do so frequently to the point of no longer being simply a glitch, but this was rather rare. The point is, this solution was not by any means inappropriate, but its preceding question assumes that a first-time user would know the difference between a successful install and one that was otherwise.
Furthermore, the problem was that I couldn't actually reinstall if I wanted to, because I would have to go back into the Windows XP environment to remove Jolicloud, but I couldn't get there to do so. The only thing that kept my next message from being one of complete verbal abuse was a great sense of smug satisfaction that I'd listened to my prior instinct and backed up all my files onto an external disk before installing Jolicloud. Past experiences with computers have included some close calls in terms of data loss, but while I've made archiving a habit, it begs pondering how many otherwise-lucky people trying Jolicloud will fill Jolisupport's inbox with pure textual hatred.
On a whim, I went to Jolicloud's official page and clicked on their support link, arriving at their community forums named "Get Satisfaction" (which always makes me think of Barry Lyndon, for better or for worse). It seemed more than likely my problem wasn't unique, so I typed in a brief description of the issue, something along the lines of "Jolicloud dual boot XP issue," and got about a half-dozen forum threads whose respective headers noted that at least two or three people each had this exact same problem. It turned out, luckily, that XP had not been supplanted so much as upstaged by Jolicloud. To fix this issue, all I had to do was find a file called boot.ini and open it in a text editor. To Jolicloud's credit, a user can access all their original Windows files (like documents, photos, and the like) while in the Jolicloud environment, and this was where I found the mystical INI file. The document, a script less than 20 lines in length that effectively told the computer how long to leave the dual-boot option visible for, with the "timer" set to zero. All one had to do was change that value to something like 10 or 30, click on save, and restart. Sure enough, there was the dual-boot screen. It sounds weird to speak of how the sight of some white text on a black background can invoke such a warm feeling of relief. Still, I wondered how many other users would be as patient and, more importantly, persistent as I in finding this solution, and concluded that just because a problem has a simple solution is no reason for it to not have preventative measures taken against it. I told as much to Jolisupport:

M: @Jolisupport found a solved thread regarding XP bootup issue. Thanks, just wish boot.ini's timeout defaulted to 30 instead of 0.

Of course, had this been a full install, there would have been no XP, Vista, or 7 to choose, so there would have been no reason for the INI script to be set to a value higher than zero. Similarly, if this had been a partition installed, the ability to still access Windows files might well have, for most users, made the whole dual-boot option borderline redundant. The problem is, though, this was neither a full install nor a partition, this was a demo, essentially an application running in Windows. In other words, it's a completely different entity from its more "permanent" kin, so why not have the default dual-boot timer set to 30 or 15? From what I came to understand, this issue is somehow exclusive to XP users, so it might have more to do with Windows than Jolicloud, but it still just strikes me as this glaring flaw that will ultimately break more deals than make them.
With that rough start out of the way, my second session with Jolicloud resulted in what could best be described as the OS having a nervous breakdown. After installing a few apps (namely Opera, as I didn't care for the default browser, Chromium), I tried to rearrange them into something a little more intuitive and streamlined. I found it a bit frustrating that I was limited to two horizontal rows of icons, thereafter I had to go to the little white dots underlining the screen to see the rest; my monitor was tall enough, and there was a tantalizing gray space between the second row and the white dots. This ended up not being the worst of it, as suddenly I found I could no longer rearrange the icons and the white dots at the bottom of the screen did not respond to being clicked on, limiting my view to one screen and with only a fraction of my apps accessible. The most troubling part of all was that, every time I clicked on an icon or tried to drag and drop it to elsewhere on the screen, a white dot would appear on the bottom of the screen; where once were two, now came to be three and counting. Every failed attempt at moving an icon made for a dot, until they numbered at least twelve. Jolicloud had crashed, but it was completely oblivious to it. I tried the old standby countermeasure Ctrl+Alt+Del only to find that Jolicloud didn't work that way. I used my phone to bug Jolisupport on Twitter again:

M: @Jolisupport cannot rearrange apps, white dots at bottom of screen multiply if I try to move an app, and stuck on one screen. What now?

Z: @matsugawa You're dragging and dropping? Can you maybe provide a screen shot? ^ZK

M: @jolisupport yes, I drag and drop the icon only to have it stay and a dot appears at the bottom of the screen, as if it's been moved

Impatient for a reply, I used the next oldest remedy and physically restarted the PC. It regained its senses; I could rearrange the icons, but they now left lingering transparencies of themselves where they once stood, overlapping with whatever application would fall into its place.

Z: @matsugawa Have you tried reloading the launcher with F5? ^ZK

M: @jolisupport actually, I'd tried restarting altogether, which fixed the issue, but F5 has helped a new issue of icons overlapping.

So, with that second ordeal sorted, there was now a chance to do some tweaking of the system's general settings. In particular, I wanted to change the desktop background to a customized image. As this can be done with any and many a number of devices, including cellular phones and even my PSP, it didn't seem like it would be utterly out of the question to do this with a netbook OS. Sure enough, there was a way to customize the desktop's appearance, but it was rather unorthodox to the point of enigmatic. On Windows and OSX, these features are managed using the Control Panel. On Jolicloud, however, there's a button on the upper-left corner of the screen (resembling a gear) that takes one to a sort of profile page, which displays the user's profile information and a device manager. Here, there's a tab labeled "Legacy Apps" containing a set of App icons which cannot be removed, rearranged, or placed on the desktop proper, the first of which is "Local Settings." This is the control panel where the desktop's appearance is managed, including desktop wallpapers. In any other operating system, the Control Panel for customization is an integrated part of the OS, so having it as an application (not to mention, one that is held in place compared to its more mobile counterparts) made the option seem like an afterthought of the design process. To deepen the mystery, the entire application seemed ineffectual as I could not actually see any image I picked as the desktop wallpaper. It was only visible for a brief second during startup and shutdown.

M: @Jolicloud why is Local Settings a Legacy App instead of a more integrated part of the system?

Z: @matsugawa Because it's part of the legacy system of Ubuntu/Gnome, I believe. ^ZK

Fair enough, I suppose, though I don't remember any such setup in Ubuntu or Mint. A return visit to Get Satisfaction revealed that the inability for the custom desktop image to appear was, in fact, not a bug, not a feature (the oldest spin in the history of technology), but rather a solution to a bug. Affecting only dual-boot installs, switching between the two operating systems creates conflicts in the graphics cards of most netbooks, so the option to make the desktop transparent to show the customized background image was simply left out.
So, the rough start was simply a growing pain, the nervous breakdown was a temporary insanity solvable by a simple keystroke, and the lack of customization was limited to the trial version. All these things could be forgiven, but when everything else had been solved, one problem remained: there was no sound. I went back to the forums, found a few relevant threads, and followed all steps to no avail. This, for me, was the deal-breaker. The next day, I turned on the computer with the intent of starting up Jolicloud to try a few new apps, only to select Windows by reflex and take that as a sign that this was not going to work out.

M: I think I'm officially done with #Jolicloud ; I switched back to XP and don't miss it. Write-up to follow soon.

Z: @matsugawa Did you have any trouble with it? ^ZK

Yes, lots of trouble, more than 140 characters in a tweet can express, hence this write-up. To Jolicloud's credit, I probably wasn't the target audience, given my relative expertise with most operating systems and the fact that my computer needs tend more toward the productivity side of things than basic browsing or networking options. Also, the computer this was installed on was my Compaq Presario, bought on a tax-free day in 2005 and, except for a graphics card and additional disc drive, left virtually untouched in terms of its specifications. Needless to say, there have been many changes in the market since then, so compatibility issues are practically unavoidable and not technically anyone's fault. This was intended for newer netbooks, and I used it on an older desktop, so, from the start, Tech Support went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I was happy with their product.

In the end, I can't truly recommend Jolicloud, but take that condemnation with a grain of salt and consider my experience an example of the worst possible scenario, which consisted of a brief scare followed by a few petty annoyances. I highly doubt you'll have a worse experience than what I just detailed.

To end on a positive note, one thing that intrigues me above all else about Jolicloud as a company is a note at the bottom of their main page. It promises that if you purchase a computer and perform a full install of Jolicloud, you can have the cost of Windows refunded to you. Between OEM versions of Windows ranging in cost from 90 to 150USD, depending on the version, and netbooks costing as little as 250USD, that sounds like a damn good price to pay for an iPad clone. This is exactly the sort of step Linux needs to take in order to be taken seriously as an alternative to Microsoft and Apple. This offer is not without conditions, of course, but they're unspecified beyond "Applies in certain countries." Still, I'm going to e-mail them through their media inquiry channels for more details and write a follow-up of it with their reply.

05 September 2010

Yeah, but it's the WAY you said it... (from Gamespot)

Magic Knight Rayearth for Sega Saturn

Here's where, despite not actually doing this for any sort of living, I betray my own sense of professionalism by not doing proper research before discussing a topic. During perusals of Hulu's fine selection of animation, I happened upon Magic Knight Rayearth, at one point one of the most difficult anime series to find on either disc or tape, almost as rare and hard to find as the Saturn game. In fact, the only consistently available iteration of the property is in the various printings of the original manga. I absolutely adore the manga, and even have the original Viz prints before Americanized versions of manga went to the original Japanese formats, leaving the books "unflipped" in smaller sizes and printed on cheaper paper.

For the record, I hate the change.

Granted, the publishers' reasons for doing this are understandable. At least, I understand that they wanted to preserve the original page orientations (with the spine of the book on the right-hand side instead of the left), but the smaller format and distinctly inferior (as in, one step above newsprint) paper just rub me the wrong way. Sure, these printing methods allow a volume to be sold at around 10USD instead of the typical 15 or even 18, but at least I felt like I got what I was paying for. Where once I thought 13USD for each volume of Rayearth was a good deal, I now find 10 overpriced. It's one thing for a monthly comic to be printed on cheap paper, since eventually the respective story arcs would be compiled into trade paperbacks, but with manga, the volumes are essentially the final product.

Anyway, here's the aforementioned betrayal: I know the anime series ultimately came ex post facto, but as for the relationship between the manga and the Saturn game, I'm just going to chalk it up to probably being one of those weird, circular relationships like 2001: A Space Odyssey's book and film counterparts. There's probably a Wikipedia page on it, or at least an article somewhere, but I just don't feel like looking it up to confirm chicken/egg conundrum that is Magic Knight Rayearth. In any case, I'll let someone else fill in that little missing piece of information.

As for the anime, I'd forgotten a pet peeve of mine until I started watching. On the whole, between dubs and subs, I had no real preference. In the VHS days, I generally bought dubs because video cassettes didn't technically give you the option to turn off the subtitles, so you always had irritating text genlocked onto the screen. There was also that paradoxical price hike that never made sense to anybody, wherein subtitled versions of anime series were generally about 10USD higher than dubs, despite dubs obviously being more expensive to produce. I'm sure the sales figures justified the difference, but it was still wildly unfair to those who preferred the subtitles; why not make them the same price? Fortunately, DVD seems to have completely nullified the argument, if only on the economic level. Still, there is a situation in which I would genuinely prefer to watch an anime series subtitled, and that's if I'd read the manga first.

This goes all the way back to when, even as a little kid, I dreaded the thought of there ever possibly being an animated version of Calvin & Hobbes. Don't get me wrong, I love Calvin & Hobbes; I still consider it the best newspaper-style comic strip series ever conceived. The problem is, I had my own idea of what Calvin sounded like (I never pegged down a consistent idea as to how Hobbes would sound; for some reason, Calvin just seemed more obvious to me.) and I knew that whoever would be selected to voice the little schizoid sociopath (let's face it, he was one, just look at the Transmogrifier story arc) would "get it wrong" and completely ruin my enjoyment of the comic. The same thing happened with Sonic the Hedgehog; I'd read a little promotional comic in Disney Adventures magazine prior to the game coming out, had my own idea of how the little blue blur sounded, and had that voice in my head (NOT in the schizophrenic sense, mind you) completely shattered when the animated series came out and Sonic was voiced by actor Jaleel White (Yes, THAT Jaleel White).

To be fair, I did warm up to White as well as the voice actor in Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast and all subsequent iterations following. Furthermore, when I think back to that voice I'd heard in my head reading the comic, it actually makes me laugh (Imagine one of the Chipmunks trying to do a Michael Ironside impression, and you'll have a vague idea of what popped into my head all those years ago). With anime, however, it's different, especially since the voice acting business is so small that many actors and actresses so frequently re-appear, typically voicing several characters. It was one thing when Urkel lent his voice to the world's most famous hedgehog; Like Luke Skywalker voicing the Joker, there's enough of a difference in how the actor approaches the character you more often than not don't recognize the voice (I wish I had a camera for some of the times I've told people that Mark Hamill has spent over 10 years playing the Clown Prince of Crime to capture the looks on their faces). When I recognize the voice actor (and if it's "off the mark" on how I think the character would sound), it's jarringly distracting and takes me right out of the experience. At that point, without the immersion and enjoyment, I'm left with critique and analysis of the character (I guess it's me trying to justify or otherwise deduce the casting decision), which can lead to some pleasant surprises.

Something I find interesting with dubs, from a filmmaking standpoint, is how the dubbing can actually change the entire demeanor of a character. If a name were to be given to this phenom, my vote would go to The Madison Effect. Granted, this concept has been present in dubs from day one. In fact, it goes all the way back to the silent era, when silent films had narrators (called Benshi in Japan) who would often embellish or re-interpret the events on screen. Suddenly, a love triangle becomes an overbearing brother protecting his sister from a would-be suitor, a grudge between two gunslingers centers around impressing a woman instead of a past betrayal at a bank heist, and a coded message sought by spies the world over goes from being a geographical record of missile silos to being a recipe for an egg salad sandwich (on a related note, when I first talked about Benshi for a Japanese class, my professor mentioned What's Up, Tiger Lily?, so maybe Tiger Lily Effect is more appropriate?). You get the idea. Anyway, the reason for the name Madison Effect refers to the American localization of CLAMP's own Cardcaptor Sakura (apt since we're talking about Rayearth), specifically the character of Tomoyo, renamed Madison in the English version. In the course of the show, Sakura's efforts to recapture the creatures of the mysterious book The Clow are recorded on video by Tomoyo, who even goes to the trouble of providing stylish outfits for Sakura to wear during her escapades. While this gimmick is consistent between the two versions, the motivations behind it are not. In the US version, Madison is portrayed as opportunistic and self-confident to a fault easily mistakable for callous, even, with her interest firmly rooted in the spectacle of rampaging monsters being defeated and subsequently tamed. In the original version, Tomoyo is practically a polar opposite, shy and soft-spoken, and somewhat creepily-loyal to her friend Sakura, whose costuming and video sessions were a staple of their relationship long before any of the magical creature hunting went down. Call it cynicism about Conservative America, but while this change in the character probably had to do more with cultural differences and attitudes about feminism (borderline Tomboy vs. obvious Wilting Lily) than anything else, it seems more likely the change was motivated by the simple fact that the original portrayal of Tomoyo was just downright creepy.

In the end, I don't think I'll be watching the rest of the series. I can't get past the dub, and the overall presentation, look, and feel of the show simply falls short of the energy and craftsmanship of the manga. Instead, I'm going to turn by attention toward Hulu's presentation of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, a show I have literally not seen in over 15 years.

29 August 2010

Should I Feel Flattered?

Some time ago, I decided to share my terrible acting skills with the world and create a series of bogus audio recordings of the (possibly) lone crewman of a spaceship overcome by a terrible calamity. I have to give credit where credit is due and point out the article Snap, Crackle, Plot by Graeme Virtue as well as his Science Officer's Log Blogger page. Additionally, there's Jason Killingsworth's Start Press: The Spirit of Radio. They all deal with these little items of video game fame known as audiologs:

So, in short, I made a few of my own, bogus audiologs for a game that never was. I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, but I'd also uploaded them to Revver where, after taking a surprisingly short amount of time in showing them live, the videos were given maturity ratings, effectively on the power of words despite there being no foul language and no innuendo. Heck, there isn't even any music or sound effects.

Part One:

This received a 13+ rating from Revver's internal review board. I wasn't disappointed or upset or anything, as I had no idea what sort of "rating" my content would warrant. After all, the fact that novels lack a sort of rating system compared to theatrical motion pictures would imply that simply describing a gruesome act (either via printed text or even spoken, as with an audiobook) is not half as objectionable as a movie showing it to us. In the case of Part One, the act in question is the hysterical aftermath of some sort of outbreak or invasion, wherein frantic and paranoid crew members begin indiscriminately killing one another.

Part Two:

Part Two received no rating, implying a general appeal and lacking in any overly objectionable material. This seemed rather odd to me; I mean, it was obvious I was making episodic content, so why wouldn't they just stick with the "13+" designation as the default rating? It's not uncommon for a film series to have ratings go up, as was the case for Revenge of the Sith and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which received PG-13 and PG ratings respectively while their prior chapters were rated PG and G, but it's quite a different issue when the ratings go down. This was the case for Conan the Destroyer and Weekend at Bernie's II, both PG-rated sequels to R-Rated films as well as Be Cool, the PG-13 sequel to the R-Rated Get Shorty. To give further perspective on how ratings going up for a film series is more common than going down, consider the James Bond films, which had all been rated PG up until Licence to Kill in 1989, which was originally rated R upon release but later re-rated PG-13, which ended up being the typical rating for a Bond film henceforth despite retaining relatively consistent levels of violence, suggestive dialogue, and sexual scenarios throughout. Granted, the PG-13 rating didn't exist until the late 1980s, so the shift ultimately had more to do with social standards than the actual content of the films.

Part Three:

Here is where I apparently cross the line, or at least come as close as is possible to it without actually crossing it since that would probably just lead to the video being taken down. As for what tripped the alarm and got me the "17+" rating:


That's the only thing that might be considered objectionable in the whole recording. I mean, I doubt anyone's offended by vending machines or the continued use of coined currency in the distant future. So, apparently discussing and describing mass hysteria and homicide is worthy of "13+" but taking the extra step to mention that those victims of said hysteria and homicide will start to reek a bit when no one's around to clean up takes us straight into adult territory. It's like in old westerns and, probably more noticeably, the jailbreak scene in Star Wars where people just seem to vaporize after they fall out of frame, clutching their fatal shot wound. It's something we can probably find examples of everywhere, but the fallacy of the logic behind it: showing humorous or inaccurate results of violence is all right for children, but once you start showing the real consequences (like in a public service announcement against drugs, gangs, guns, and the like) suddenly the material is objectionable.

Part Four:

Like part two, it received no mature rating, implying mass appeal. This is just baffling since the plot ultimately leads to my character requesting what basically amounts to a mercy killing (possibly in the idiom of self sacrifice, if there was indeed any sort of calamity) and begging his wife for forgiveness about not being able to come home.

At the risk of turning this into a catch-phrase: Am I missing something here?

15 August 2010

The Fourth Kind... of Worst Movie of All Time

As stated in the Paranormal Activity review, one of the biggest criticisms against these "Faux-Archival Recordings" films like The Last Broadcast or Cloverfield is their use of cinema-verite shooting and editing styles to disguise a low budget and/or inexperienced crew. It's akin to the criticism that most video recordings made of UFOs take advantage of low resolution and shakiness to hide what could otherwise be either a very obvious model or a perfectly normal and natural aerial phenomenon. To that end, The Fourth Kind tries to dispel these potential accusations by taking the bogus amateur footage and juxtaposing it with polished and highly dramatized re-enactments in the tradition of Unsolved Mysteries or America's Most Wanted. This merging of styles should have been the strength of the film. Instead, it tears at the very fabric of cinematic reality itself and exposes the utter incompetence of the director.

The plot of the film centers around a widowed psychologist named Abby Tyler, who's studying the sleeping habits of some of her patients in Nome, Alaska. She's carrying on the research of her husband, who was murdered several years ago while they slept. The good doctor has vague and distorted memories of the event and finds herself unable to clearly recall the killer's face. To further add to her anguish, her daughter is rendered blind shortly after the murder and her son becomes withdrawn and resentful of his mother. Unable to deal with him, Dr. Tyler buries herself in her late husband's work and begins to notice strange similarities in the testimonies of some of her patients. They all seem to have been woken in the middle of the night (around 3am) by a white owl. This owl becomes the last thing these patients clearly remember before they experience memory loss and blackouts. Attempts at using hypnotherapy to uncover these missing hours often results in fanatical panic attacks. Things take a turn for the worse when one of these patients becomes completely unhinged and murders his family before taking his own life, hysterically referencing an enigmatic "them." If you think you can see where the rest of the movie is going from here, there's at least a 75% chance you're absolutely right on the money. After all, when dealing with entities like ghosts or aliens, there aren't many directions the narrative can go; either you keep it vague and bank on the audience projecting their own fears over the gaps, or you come right out with it and turn the whole thing into a creature film. That's not a bad thing, and it's certainly not the low point of the film.

Where the movie fails is almost entirely in the presentation. The film has such a confused sense of its own reality yet tries desperately in spite of this to suspend the audiences' collective disbelief. This is what I like to call an Imperial Failure, which refers to a film that tries to be something more than what it is but has nothing to back up its endeavors with, much like The Emperor's New Clothes, where dignity and royalty are thrust upon the seemingly simple-minded masses in the hopes none of them will notice that the big kahuna's new threads are a birthday suit. Thus, when someone does point out the obvious, er, shortcomings, the whole exhibition falls apart and becomes a laughingstock. In short, there's nothing wrong with trying something new or different, but don't expect the path less traveled to be beyond criticism compared to the path well-worn.
Right from the start, we get our sense of reality thrown into question when Milla Jovovich emerges from a shadowy and out-of-focus forest, approaches the camera, looks the audience dead in the eye, and introduces herself as... herself. She goes onto say that what we are about to witness is based on reported events. She explains how the film will essentially be structured, with archival footage mixed with reenactments, either side-by-side on screen, juxtaposed, or even overlaid (in the case of some of the audio recordings).
If this all sounds like it would be jarringly distracting, completely ruining any sense of immersion, it is. The movie takes great pains to continually remind you that you're watching a reenactment; whenever a new character is introduced, however late into the narrative that may be, a caption appears beneath them giving the actor's name, their character's name, and, where applicable, a notation stating that the character's name is actually a pseudonym to protect the identity of the supposedly real individual.
This double-identity run-around reaches its epitome when the director himself appears in the film as the head of the psychology department at Chapman University, using his real name, which is Olatunde Osunsanmi. This situation is two-thirds true; Chapman University is a real establishment, and Olatunde Osunsanmi is an alumni, but he's not the head of the psychology department, now nor ever. Normally, I'd say, "fair enough" and even call the move subtle to the point of being masterfully crafted. After all, the director is not particularly well-known, certainly not as well known as someone like Milla Jovovich, so appearing to us in the supposed archival footage interviewing the allegedly real Abby Tyler would stand as a kind of subtle, yet finalizing, clue as to the film's insisted authenticity. Unfortunately, subtlety gets thrown out the window when he shows up at the end, in the shadowy and out-of-focus forest alongside Milla Jovovich, and delivers a would-be cryptic message to the audience along the lines of, "believe what you will."

This is the part that speaks to the director's incompetence. Milla can break character because she's part of the reenactment side of the equation, so she doesn't interfere with the archival footage's feigned authenticity. Olatunde, however, is part of the authentic side of the story, the part we're supposed to be fooled by, so when he breaks character (even if it's not that much of a character), he takes half his own movie down with him, leaving the other half twisting in the wind. This makes his pretentious statement of "believe what you will" utterly laughable because his very presence removes all doubt about what we're supposed to believe. People often talk of directors sabotaging their own movies, but few do it in person.

And another thing...

To put it another way, "twisting in the wind" is a charitable assessment of how the film's other half fares on its own.