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Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Four “New Classic” Graphic Novels

Posted by Fred on June 24, 2008

For its 1000th issue, Entertainment Weekly published several lists of “New Classics,” defined as works created since 1983. The full collection is online as the EW 1000.  EW has always treated comics with respect (Time Warner has a vested interest in the success of the form, of course), and the list of 100 New Classic books includes four graphic novels:

7. Maus, Art Spiegelman

The story of The Holocaust and the experiences of one family that survived it.  Spiegelman famously used animal heads on human bodies to portray the players: Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, Frenchmen are frogs, and Swedes are reindeer.  Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992.

13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Without Watchmen, there probably would be no such thing as a graphic novel.  Moore and Gibbons’ masterwork, originally published as twelve single issues in 1986-1987, is set in an alternate 1985, in which costumed heroes are real and the Doomsday Clock is set at five minutes to midnight. Some familiarity with superhero archetypes is helpful for a full appreciation of the story, which nominally tells the tale of heroes without superpowers (with one glaringly notable exception), dealing with human failings, neuroses and ethical dilemmas.  A film version of Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder, is due to be released in March 2009.  It will probably suck.

37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Drawing inevitable comparisons to Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s simple black-and-white panels are a heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  The two volumes depict the author’s experiences from age six to fourteen, a time which saw the overthrow of the Shah, the rise of the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq.  Persepolis was recently released as an animated film, written and directed by Satrapi, with voices in the original by Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux and Simon Abkarian.  In the US, the film was dubbed into English, and included Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and Gena Rowlands (in addition to Deneuve and Mastroianni).

46. Sandman, Neil Gaiman

With all due respect to Watchmen, I personally prefer Sandman.  Neil Gaiman’s 75-issue series, published by DC imprint Vertigo from 1989-1996, focuses on Morpheus, King of Dreams, and (to a lesser extent) his siblings that make up The Endless.  Gaiman summarizes the plot as “The Lord of Dreams learns one must change or die and then makes his decision.”  The best part of Sandman (in addition to Dave McKean’s great covers) was the wide-ranging exploration of mythology the series made possible, which Gaiman would return to in prose novels like American Gods.  Sandman is available in ten individual trade paperback editions, or the four-volume Absolute Sandman series, the final volume of which is to be released this November.  Although there has long been talk of a Sandman film, the closest we’re likely to get is a version of Death: The High Cost of Living, a 1993 three-issue miniseries focusing on Morpheus’ older sister, to be written and directed by Gaiman with Guillermo del Toro as executive producer.

There are other great graphic novels, of course (Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and Planetary are personal favorites), but that’s a good list.


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Requiem for a Day Off

Posted by Fred on June 19, 2008

It’s a couple of years old, but I’ll always link anything using the Kronos Quartet’s amazing score for Requiem for a Dream.  That and John Williams’ score from Schindler’s List are the only ones I listen to on a regular basis.

[via Kottke]

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100 Greatest Movie Posters of All Time

Posted by Fred on June 19, 2008

Via Kottke, one site’s opinion of the 100 greatest movie posters of all time (The Sin of Nora Moran, an obscure 1933 film featuring Zita Johann, better known for her role in the Boris Karloff version of The Mummy, is #1).  These sorts of posts/articles, of course, exist primarily to stir up controversy, but I’d have to agree with Jason that the entries on the poster list are questionable.

Here’s what TC Candler says the criteria are:

A great movie poster is a hard thing to find. Most posters are cut and paste jobs that don’t sell the movie very well at all. A great poster should intrigue, shock, inspire & excite. It should be aesthetically beautiful or original. Above all, it should be so memorable that a single glance will be instantly recognizable.

But is it the movie that makes the image memorable, or the image itself? Most of the iconic movie posters are for movies that are themselves memorable (Alien, Full Metal Jacket, Jaws) – would the images be iconic had the films been forgettable?  Although Hollywood likes to think it is a world unto itself, in the end a movie poster is an advertising vehicle, so the “best” movie poster may instead be the one that best accomplishes its mission.  Thus the teaser poster, become more important of late in service of the summer blockbuster, intended to build the buzz that feeds the blockbuster beast.  Based on that criterion, no single posters have been better at building buzz than these:

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Iron Man: What a Superhero Movie Should Be

Posted by Fred on May 7, 2008

I saw Iron Man over the weekend along with a lot of other people. This is not a really a review of the film – those are easy to come by, and have generally been positive, driving the initial weekend take above $100 million. It’s clear that Iron Man works; at a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s by that criterion the best reviewed superhero movie of all time (unless you count The Incredibles, which I don’t). What’s more interesting to me is why it works. Why were Spiderman 2, X2, Batman Begins and Iron Man so good and the Fantastic Four movies, Daredevil/Elektra and the later Batman movies so bad? What will 2008’s Hulk film have to do to make it more like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and less like Ang Lee’s Hulk?

It’s not just the character – Tony Stark is cool and all, but he’s not that cool. And it’s not just the casting – Robert Downey, Jr. was inspired casting for the lead role, but putting a good actor in spandex (or a gold alloy suit) is not enough, else val Kilmer’s Batman would have been a lot better. It seems to me that Iron Man establishes (or follows) a few rules that future movies in its franchise or other franchise-wanna bes should follow.

1. Embrace and Extend Genre, Don’t Transcend It

A few of the glowing reviews of Iron Man claim that it transcends the superhero genre. It doesn’t. Attempts to transcend the genre, to turn the spandex-clad superhero comic into High Art are doomed to failure. Ang Lee tried to do it with The Hulk and we got a jumbled mess of allegory and brooding antihero. Tim Burton sort of did it in 1989’s Batman, which was less a superhero movie by Tim Burton than a Tim Burton movie that happened to be about Batman, but his efforts doomed the rest of the franchise. The key to rising above the genre is to recognize what you can and cannot do. You can use genre conventions in the service of social commentary, such as in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen. You can re-imagine characters in different eras, such as in Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 or Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, or my personal favorite, Brain Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Gotham by Gaslight. These works don’t transcend the genre; they use it, they embrace and extend genre conventions.

That’s what Iron Man does. This isn’t high art, it’s a story about a brilliant weapons designer who creates a suit of impossibly strong but light armor powered by an impossibly small generator implanted in his chest. There are only a handful of types of superhero, each with its own genre conventions. Tony Stark is the Brilliant But Flawed Genius Driven By Tragedy, the superhero without superpowers (Iron Man, Batman). This genre has different conventions than the Alien From A Planet With Different Physics (Superman, J’onn J’onnz, Silver Age Hawkman), which is different than the Natural Mutants (X-Men), the Accidental Mutants (Flash, Spiderman), the Artificial but Intentional Mutants (Captain America), the Magical Device-Wielders (Captain Marvel, Green Lantern) or the Ancient Gods (Wonder Woman, Golden Age Hawkman, Thor). So Iron Man needed a flawed genius, an act of horror/tragedy and some toys.

Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is certainly flawed – he’s a brilliant weapons designer who parties as hard as he works. He makes destructive missiles and gadgets but gives more thought to his one-night stands than the practical consequences of the military hardware he makes or the company he leads. The act of tragedy is updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and Stark’s fellow prisoner/savior Ho Yinsen changes from a Chinese physicist to a Muslim doctor (dropping the Ho). The toys remain largely the same as in Stan Lee’s original creation – Stark and Yinsen create crude armor so Stark can escape (and Yinsen can sacrifice himself to save him), Stark improves it a couple of times, and then fights bad guys. The back story is straight out of the comics, updated with modern villains – instead of Communists, you get Afghan warlords.

The supporting characters are straight out of the genre, too, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (the devoted assistant that we all know Stark should fall in love with but won’t) to Terrance Howard’s Jim Rhodes (the military liaison who intervenes on the hero’s behalf when the Air Force gets too uppity) to Clark Gregg’s S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (shadowy government agent who is suspicious of Our Hero but later proves of much use). All of these genre conventions are given a modern tweak, however. The government agent is a homeland security guy, and S.H.I.E.L.D., which was once the Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, is now the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.

Jon Favreau and Mark Fergus don’t try to transcend the genre into high art, and they don’t just make a genre blockbuster that takes no risks (a la Tim Story’s Fantastic Four and its sequel). They use the conventions of the genre in the service of a fully fleshed-out character and a story full of universal themes of personal growth and change.

2. Fanboys Are Easy, So Don’t Try Too Hard

Producers of movies based on pop culture icons have to walk a fine line when it comes to the fan community. Alienate the fanbase with a load of dreck and your blockbuster is fairly well doomed.  Just ask George Lucas. The converse is equally risky, however.  Problems arise in one of two areas.  Some productions are excessively faithful to the source material, such as certain aspects of the Harry Potter film series, which has always worked best when talented directors apply their own vision to the story. Deviating from the source is not always harmful – while some Tolkien fanboys were offended by the liberties Peter Jackson took with the Lord of the Rings, in the end all was forgiven.

A second danger is excessive pandering to the fans, which generally comes out in oblique inside references that the general public doesn’t get, supporting characters who are never fully explained, or throwaway scenes designed entirely to induce nerdgasms among the audience. The Batman series suffered from this particular malaise.  There’s no better way to get the blogs fired up than with speculation about which villain would be introduced next, so each movie in the original sequence featured a new villain. That’s all well and good, but the average moviegoer with only general awareness of the comics would much rather see the Joker or the Penguin than Scarecrow or Poison Ivy.  There are only so many major villains in the pantheon, after all.

Iron Man walks this line particularly well. There are many little nuggets for the fanboys, of course. Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo. The government agency is finally referred to as “S.H.I.E.L.D.” at the end of the movie. There’s a scene where Col. Rhodes looks longingly at the Mark II version of the Iron Man armor and says “next time, baby,” hinting at an appearance as War Machine in 2010’s sequel. Rhodes wears an MIT ring in the movie, implying that he and Stark were classmates (rather than meeting in the war zone, as in Stan Lee’s original story).  Favreau even worked the theme song from the Iron Man animated series into the movie. And then there’s the Ultimate fanboy scene, which rolls after the credits.

Lots of little nuggets for the fans, but Favreau stops short of making the movie appeal only to them.  The main villain, Obadiah Stane, is a well-known villain from the comics, but the movie never calls him Iron Monger (although Stane does refer to himself and Stark as iron mongers). He’s just a power-crazed lunatic who uses Stark’s original prototype to create a killing machine. The director is clearly reticent to introduce Stark’s nemesis, the Mandarin, created originally as a metaphor for Communism, but dropped clear hints (the Afghan baddies being referred to as the Ten Rings, for example, an obvious reference to the ten rings the Mandarin wears).  You don’ t need to know a thing about Tony Stark to enjoy the movie, but if you do, you’ll enjoy it more.

3. Make It Fun, But Keep It Human

In the end, a superhero movie is about flying around kicking the butt of bad guys. Iron Man has its share of barely-controlled chaos, as Stark zips around in his titanium and gold suit outrunning F-22s.  But the effects don’t overwhelm, as they did at times in Spiderman 3. Iron Man and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films actually have a lot in common – they’re both less about the cool things the heroes can do in their suits than they are about the human emotion, suffering, loss and ultimate redemption that got them in the costumes in the first place.  This summer’s Hulk faces a challenge, as it must simultaneously focus on the human side of Dr. Banner while not losing the fun of Hulk smashing stuff.

Favreau and his crew obviously did something right – the opening weekend was the second-biggest ever for a non-sequel (behind only Spiderman, which had the advantage of featuring a far more iconic character). I already know where I’ll be on 4/30/2010.

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Firefox 3 Beta 5’s secret robot page

Posted by Fred on April 9, 2008

If you enter about:robots in the FF Beta 5 address bar, you get a page about actual robots:


The title tag for the page is Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!  So you get references to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Isaac Asimov, Blade Runner, Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Battlestar Galactica.  Click the Try Again button and you get a button labeled Please do not press this button again.  Robots are cool. Except for the Evil Scary Robots, which are evil and scary. Except some evil scary robots are actually good, which makes my brain hurt.

[via Lifehacker]

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Physics in cartoons (good!) and movies (bad!)

Posted by Fred on January 22, 2008

Some physics links (sort of):

1. Wikipedia’s page on Cartoon Physics, including a discussion of Anvilology and Collision Physics.  Scroll to the bottom for some laws of cartoon dynamics:

  • Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation (plus an interval for live falling bodies to express an appropriate emotion).
  • Any body in motion will tend to remain in motion until solid matter intervenes suddenly.
  • Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.
  • All principles of gravity are negated by fear, surprise and/or shock.
  • Falling bodies either collide with the earth completely elastically or inelastically. If the collision is elastic, the energy will be ultimately transferred to something else which collides absolutely inelastically (e.g., into a hanging cliffside that cracks and falls).
  • Momentum is continual until noticed.
  • Bodies can achieve energies greater than they originally started with, even if no external force is added (e.g., a rock will, when rolled against a ramp) fly higher than its original starting point.
  • The amount of work on rocks falling tends towards zero (i.e., they tend to fall to their original (!) starting point).
  • As speed increases, objects can be in several places at once, a situation similar to the ones described by quantum mechanics. Or a character running wildly will meet him- or herself face to face.
  • Everything falls faster than an anvil, except for an agent attached to an anvil by parachute strings, in which case the anvil tows the agent.
  • Arms holding large falling weights are infinitely elastic, but will eventually drag the holder along.
  • Protocol or photo opportunities will suspend the motion, not only of persons running, but also of inanimate objects.
  • Tools and machinery also behave in unusual ways. An old-fashioned bumper jack, raised or lowered with a long lever, will exceed by many times the height of its own housing (similar to hammerspace) when a character needs it to lift something to a considerable height. Also, lazy tongs can be manufactured to reach over considerable distances.

[etc.]  Study of cartoon physics has a long and glorious history, with researchers ranging from Stephen R. Gould to Roger Ebert.

2. Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (now a book!).  Don’t miss the review of the worst movie physics of all time, in the otherwise execrable The Core:

There is little reason to panic over a magnetic field upset. The geological record indicates Earth’s magnetic field reverses itself at irregular intervals averaging about every half a million years. While the magnetic field probably doesn’t drop to zero during these times, available evidence suggests it becomes weak and erratic. Undoubtedly, some bad things happen but there’s no evidence that such fluctuations cause mass extinctions, let alone incineration by deadly microwave radiation.

The movie’s heroes set out to solve this horrifying non-problem in the only possible way: send a manned vehicle that looks like a windowless subway train into the Earth’s core and blow up five 200-megaton nuclear bombs. (We always knew nukes were good for something.) An unmanned vehicle would make a lot more sense for such a hostile environment, but then the movie’s heroes would not be able to exhibit courage, daring, and self-sacrifice….

The solid iron inner core normally has a rotational kinetic energy equivalent to about 340 200-megaton bombs. The liquid metal (primarily iron) outer core surrounding the inner core has a normal rotational kinetic energy equivalent to roughly 32,000 200-megaton bombs. Assuming only the inner core had to be restarted and that 100% of each bomb’s energy could be converted to rotational kinetic energy, the movie’s heroes are at least 335 bombs short of the required amount.

[Wikipedia link via Google Blogoscoped]

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Apple Introduces MPAA-crippled iTunes Movie Rentals

Posted by Fred on January 15, 2008

As expected, Apple’s going to offer movie rentals via iTunes:

As anticipated, Steve Jobs used the early part of today’s Macworld 2008 keynote to introduce movie rentals for iTunes. Rentals will be available to iTunes users, beginning today as an update to the app, priced at $2.99 for older films and $3.99 for new releases, from a library that is set to include some 1,000 films by next month. Titles will become available 30 days after their DVD release.Users will have 30 [days] from purchase to watch films, and 24 hours after they first begin to watch them. Titles can be watched on Macs, iPods, and iPhones.

The idea of downloadable rentals is a good one. The idea of streaming downloads to a set-top box is also a good one, as most people neither have their PCs hooked up to their HDTV nor prefer to watch a movie on a 19 inch LCD instead of a 50 inch one.  But, as usual, the movie industry has crippled a good idea and turned it into a bad one.  I don’t want to wait 30 days to watch a new release; I want to get it on Tuesday. I don’t want to have to watch a movie within 24 hours either – sometimes I start a movie but can’t finish it for a day or two. Other times I want to watch something a second time two days later. With Netflix or Blockbuster I can do both, but with iTunes I can do neither.  The pricing isn’t that great either.  Download three movies in a month and you’ll pay $11.97 for standard definition or $14.97 for hi def on that new Apple TV.  For that price, you could sign up for the 2 DVDs at a time Netflix plan and get unlimited PC streaming to boot.  About the only benefit to the Apple offering is the ability to play movies on an iPod, but I’d really rather use the DVD drive on my laptop instead of the 2 inch screen on my nano if I’m on the go.

Maybe the reality will be better than the early reports suggest, but for now Apple’s movie rentals don’t seem much better than their movie sales.

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Economics 101: Eliminating competition increases prices, even for Blu-ray

Posted by Fred on January 10, 2008

Why Blu-ray’s victory over HD-DVD is bad for you, the consumer:

  • Price of the Sony BDP-S300 entry-level player on December 17, 2007 (before the Warner announcement): $299 
  • Price today, after the Warner announcement at CES: $399 (BB, Circuit City, SonyStyle)

Still think the prices are coming down, Blu-ray fans?

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Another sign of the impending demise of HD-DVD

Posted by Fred on January 8, 2008


Maybe HD-DVD really is dead, considering what you get at the official HD-DVD site.

On a more serious note, I’ve finally (I think) worked through my buyer’s remorse associated with my purchase of the Toshiba HD-D3 last week(!). After the Warner announcement, I seriously considered taking it back to Costco, but I won’t. I won’t buy Blu-Ray either, especially now that Sony has jacked the price of their entry-level player back up by $100.  I knew the market was trending Blu, but bought HD-DVD anyway – at $149, the Toshiba was hardly more expensive than an upconverting standard-def DVD player plus an HDMI cable. That’s why I bought it in the first place. Blu-Ray is still substantially more expensive – the cheapest player at Amazon is the $349 Samsung BD-P1400.   Even at questionable resellers, you can’t go Blu for less than about $270.

That’s still way too expensive for a video player, in my opinion. I’ll keep the Toshiba, play those HD-DVDs I rent or can get on the cheap, and use it as a decent upconverting unit for standard-def DVDs.  At least until the Half-Blood Prince is out on disc. Then Blu-ray might be hard to pass up.  Given that HD-DVD should be officially dead by then, lack of competition should ensure that Blu-Ray is still in the $300 range.

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Apple to Offer Movie Rentals? About Time.

Posted by Fred on December 28, 2007

Among the many things I missed yesterday while stuck on an Amtrak train to nowhere: Apple is apparently set to offer movie rentals via iTMS, starting with Fox:

In an effort to jump-start the market for online movies, News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox and Apple Inc. are preparing to announce a deal in which Fox movies would be available for rent digitally through Apple’s iTunes Store, according to people familiar with the matter.Apple has for months been trying to persuade the Hollywood studios to agree to a digital rental model, in which consumers would be able to download movies through iTunes that could be played for a limited time. Until now, no studio has agreed to such a deal with Apple, and some companies have continued to resist Apple’s pitch.

In a related move, Fox also plans to release DVDs that use Apple’s digital rights management system, a move that would allow consumers to make legal copies of the disc that could be played on an iPod or other device, such as a computer. The moves were reported by the Web site of the Financial Times.

I for one hate, hate, hate the idea of music rentals, but movies are a different matter.  How many movies does one really need to own on DVD?  Schlepping down to the Blockbuster is a pain, and both Blockbuster’s online offering and Netflix are too expensive, expecially if your movie viewing is intermittent, like mine.  Downloadable rentals seem to address all of these issues – you pay only when you rent (no monthly fee), you don’t need to drive to the store and deal with the surly teenagers behind the counter, everything is always in stock, and there’s nothing to return.  Win-win-win.

The biggest downside to the arrangement is getting the movie from iTunes to the TV.  I have little interest in watching a movie on either my PC or the tiny screen on my nano.  Perhaps this service will jump-start Apple TV, which has always been an idea without a market.  Apple will need to make the box cheaper and more Windows-friendly first.  What a movie rental service would be great for, of course, is travel.  Download a big stack of movies to a laptop and you’re set until the battery dies.

The bigger news may well turn out to be not the service itself but that Apple is finally licensing FairPlay to a third party, with Fox to release FairPlay-encoded DVDs of the same movies available for download.  It’s about time.  Scrapping the FairPlay DRM entirely would be better, but maintaining it as a wall around the iPod ecosystem garden never made much sense.  Now if Apple will only license it to Sonos, Netgear, Linksys and Belkin, we’ll have something.  Better yet, let me stream from iTunes to my existing set-top box and skip yet another piece of plastic in the entertainment center, or even download directly from Cupertino’s servers to my DVR.  So long as the movie is playable only on a computer, iPod or an Apple TV box, the market will be limited.

Just don’t turn iTunes into a music subscription service, and all will be good.

[via Apple 2.0]

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