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by Jason Gross

13 Jan 2009

Just as music was ready to flow freely from iTunes, with all of the DRM stripped away (and offering suckers who already had DRM-coded files to pay extra to free them), entertainment companies now want to add the thorny little copy protections to movies/DVD’s, presumably so they don’t have to go through the same headaches they did with… iTunes and Apple! 

So far, the sheer size of movie files has stopped them from being as easily and readily traded as music has been online but as technology catches up and faster connections are offered to consumers, the gate-keepers realize that this is gonna become a big problem.  The question is, will DRM help these companies lock in consumers and make them buy the movies through Apple or other online services? 

The answer is that if movies are locked down in stupid, confusing, frustrating ways (the way way that digital music has been), consumers are going to find non-sanctioned ways to get the goodies.  Given the entertainment industry’s track record in the digital age, we can count on them to keep doing the wrong thing and provide good cautionary examples for future generations.

by Matt White

12 Jan 2009

The 1993 music video for “Gentlemen” was my introduction to the Afghan Whigs, who would quickly become one of my favorite bands. At first glance it might seem like a pretty standard-looking rock video, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be something much stranger.

In the video singer Greg Dulli stalks around a house that looks like a set from Beverly Hills 90210, peering out the windows at the neighbors, snarling and looking more than a little like Joaquin Phoenix (young Joaquin, not new shaggy Joaquin). Behind Dulli, the band is rocking out with such force that it’s hard not to wonder why the Whigs aren’t brought up more as one of the truly great bands of the ‘90s. The song itself is an all-out attack, with Dulli not so much singing the words as spitting them. Recounting a relationship gone sour, you can hear the venom in his voice on lines like “We dragged it out so long this time started to make each other sick” and “I waited for the joke…it never did arrive.” The chorus has him pleading innocence: “Do you understand?! I’m a gentle man!” The delivery of these lines would lead us to believe otherwise.

As Greg walks through the house after peeping on the neighbors, something very strange happens. It cuts from him walking towards the camera, singing, to a large black man walking towards the camera, singing. It then cuts back to Dulli and then to an old (white) man walking towards the camera, singing. Both the big black guy and the little old man are dressed exactly the same as Dulli, suggesting that they in fact ARE Dulli. It’s bizarre and somewhat unsettling and what it’s suggesting is anyone’s guess. The whole video actually, from the sets to the editing, has a very ominous Twin Peaks-like, surreal quality about it. In other words; a great video and a perfect introduction to the Afghan Whigs.

by Bill Gibron

12 Jan 2009

For a long time, fans of Hong Kong action movies have complained about the “Americanization” of the genre. No, not the obvious bows to Western convention copied by film directors desperate to bring some style to their spectacle, but the brutal, mostly unnecessary desire by US studios to overdub dialogue and substitute scores. A perfect case of this revamp attitude is Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3. The third in the successful series for superstar Jackie Chan, it was a huge hit in 1992. But it wasn’t until after Rumble in the Bronx proved the Asian actor’s box office power in the States that the film was retitled, redubbed, and given a slick urban hip-hop sheen. Now, Dragon Dynasty is offering purists a chance to see the film outside the English and rap realm. Sadly, however, some of the more controversial cuts remain intact.

After several successful cases, the Hong Kong police want to promote Inspector Chan Ka Kui. The chief, however, countermands his supervisor Uncle Bill Wong and requests that their “supercop” take a deadly assignment on the mainland. With the help of Interpol director Jessica Yang, the policeman will infiltrate a coal mining prison, rescue a wanted drug dealer, and deliver him back to his mob boss leader, Big Brother Chaibat. All goes to plan, and soon Ka Kui and Yang are working for the criminals as brother and sister. As they prepare for a massive deal with a disgraced dope smuggling general and his many minions, the lawmen think they’ve finally won. Leave it to Ka Kui’s jealous girlfriend May to mess things up. She exposes her undercover lover, leading to a standoff between our heroes and the hard-boiled villains.

With nearly ten minutes missing from this version of the film and a desire by The Weinstein Company and its martial arts imprint to label this edition “Ultimate”, fans of Jackie Chan and Police Story 3 have some serious issues to consider. On the one hand, Dragon Dynasty does its typical bang-up job when it comes to sound, image, extras and overall packaging. We get interviews with Chan and incredible co-star Michele Yeoh, as well as talks with director Stanley Tong and ‘FoJ’ (friend of Jackie), bodyguard and training partner Ken Lo. Heck, even Hong Kong film scholar and sometimes producer Bey Logan is back for another of his effervescent, informative commentaries. But to take a movie originally running 101 minutes and trimming it down to 91 seems like a shame. And since we are supposed to believe that this DVD trumps all others, the absence of said sequences is troubling.

Don’t be mistaken - Supercop (as it was retitled) is still a great film, not matter the final content. It represents a perfect pairing in Chan and Yeoh, a chemistry that calls into question any other combination with the performers. It offers fights o’plenty and a plethora of pulse-elevating stunts. It illustrates how favored actors and familiar characters can lead to all manner of entertainment options, and ends with one of the most classic car/helicopter/train chases ever. As a matter of fact, if you watch closely, you can see some of the moves Matrix action coordinator Woo-ping Yuen more or less “borrowed” for his work with the Wachowskis. Add in the usual amount of Chan-inspired self-deprecating humor, a nutty subplot involving Insp. Chan Ka Kui long suffering girlfriend May, and a viable villain in Chaibat, and you’ve got all the elements for a first rate rollercoaster thrill ride.

And director Tong truly delivers. This is a perfectly paced effort (which naturally makes you wonder about the missing minutes) with the narrative unveiled in calm, considered chunks. When Ka-Kui is asked by Brother Panther to visit the undercover cop’s ancestral “home”, the drawn out process towards a police-inspired familial set-up makes for a nice level of nervousness. Similarly, when Chan is hanging from a helicopter, clearly performing his own stunt several HUNDRED feet above the Hong Kong skyline, the inherent vertigo is frightening. Tong plays up the bidding relationship between Chan and Yeoh, making Maggie Chueng’s May (a series mainstay) seem almost unnecessary.  He even milks laughs out of “Uncle” Bill Wong’s inspired drag act.

For their part, The Weisteins and Logan argue for the changes. The discussion centers on how to successfully market a foreign film to novice viewers and the various reasons for Chan’s success in the West. They complain that those arguing for the inclusion of the lost footage have rarely seen it, suggesting that its initial inclusion was somehow superfluous. The also explain a “culture-ccentric” view of the entire process, stating that Hong Kong crowds want a more “serious” look at their crime stories, while Americans crave big, dumb spectacle. While they have a point - and the added Q&As are indeed excellent - what true aficionados want is the complete film, flaws and all. They want to judge what should and should not be in the final cut, not someone who senses they know better.

Whatever the controversy come messageboard debates, one thing’s for certain - Supercop (or Police Story 3, whatever you want to call it) is a super film. It breezes by on the charm and physical acumen of its leads, and leaves nothing behind in its pursuit of big screen, balls to the wall thrills. The notion that Americans couldn’t appreciate Chan in his “native” form is foolish. Nothing done for this US version countermands the elements that make Master Jackie a worldwide phenomenon. He is still one of the bravest, most affable actors in all of action filmdom. And his physical grace matches his personal courage flawlessly. Nothing can rewrite that bit of show business truth. While it may not actually represent the “ultimate” edition of the film, the DVD of Supercop is sure to please even the most diehard martial arts maven.

by L.B. Jeffries

12 Jan 2009

I’m a bit late to the Braid party when it comes to blogs. When the prestigious Soulja Boy has weighed in with his opinion, there is clearly not much new to analyze about the game. Still, I’ve had this thing on the back burner for a while and now seems like as good a time as any to post it. People always have a funny reaction when you try to explain the problems with a piece of writing. When you say something is causing hiccups in the process, yet is still grammatically correct or communicated its point, one wonders what more can be expected. One way of explaining writing is that it can be seen as a system that needs constant tweaking based on the message you’re trying to communicate. Order of information, complexity, and presumptions about the reader all have to be factored. The words and phrasing must be adjusted to fit the message. For example, you don’t quote a Shakespeare line about doom to tell someone that a bus is coming at them because “Hey, car, watch out” will suffice, right? You do that because it’s a simple communication. It’s a simple message and doesn’t require more explanation that communicates greater depth. Contrast that to when someone asks you why you’re upset. “I’m upset because my girlfriend dumped me,” communicates a comprehension of their emotional state because we can presume the reader knows what this means. “But I thought you hated her,” your friend asks back. What we now have is a hiccup in the system. Past statements are conflicting with the explanation, listener’s past experiences don’t resonate, or they aren’t following the train of thought sequentially. What do you do?

 

I’m starting this critique of Braid with that explanation of writing because I think the game’s short vignettes warrant explaining. Jonathon Blow created a metaphorical video game design about time and he incorporated the writing into that design. He’s also taken a lot of flame from people for having the guts to make this game not be highly accessible and I can see why it would put him on the defensive. Popmatters did an excellent review of it and as Subramanian points out, the writing is the only thing one can possibly bitch about in the game. Blow himself explains in an interview with Joystiq, “The narrative in Braid is not being obscure just for obscurity’s sake. It’s that way because it was the only way I knew how to get at the central idea, which is something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly.” Of all the things that people seemed the most conflicted about with the game, I thought this one merited addressing. So what’s the problem? The writing is neither bad nor incorrect. It is out of order.

 

Back to the barrier of communicating why the girlfriend you hated still made you upset when she dumped you. What do you say? There are two basic choices: indicate that this is a complex form of sadness OR use an example. Essentially, “It’s complicated, man” or “Well, she could be a real pain but she really made me feel good about myself too.” Which has communicated more to you? The example, right? I’m filling in what your brain does when you try to understand something, I’m providing the frame of reference for the conduct that you don’t have. That’s why writers always say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me that you’re upset, show me why. Don’t tell me the character is lonely, show them acting lonely. It’s the traditional method for communicating complex feelings because it’s still functioning like a simple “Hey, car, watch out” by supplying the person who doesn’t understand the image of the car as well. Braid, with its themes of time manipulation, chucks a big monkey wrench into this whole process. The text, which we are expecting to be some kind of introduction or explanation, is actually a combination of responses to the level and metaphors for various things going on in-game. What’s off-putting is that we’re getting this before we have any frame of reference. Just as the game is about the implications of time travel and achieving goals, the text is about experiencing a variety of emotions and experiences out of order as one would expect once sequential time is out of the picture. We’ll take a few examples and watch this in action.

 

A green book from World 2:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly
with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt.

But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it,
shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for
the mistake?

The paragraph makes perfect sense after you’ve played the level. This is talking about the larger implications of forgiveness and time travel. It explores the time-reversal mechanic by explaining it as a form of forgiveness, of being able to undo punishment. Other books follow similar suit, World 3 talks about being non-manipulable and not always controlled by the princess, the levels involve the glowy green stuff that is immune to time rewind. World 4 talks about visiting childhood memories and reliving them, time travel moves forwards and backwards in conjunction with you. When we are thinking about our memories, we are in absolute control of their movement. In combination with quantum mechanics, it also proposes the idea of time not being linear and how all these alternate realities are spooling out. What throws the player is that you’re reading this text before you play the level. You’re being warned about the incoming car without having any frame of reference for the car itself. It’s saying “This is complicated, man” without me having any understanding of why. Thus the complaints of being intentionally obtuse: the text is designed to be experienced out of order from the actual comprehension. This confusion is corrected as soon as one plays the level, but it’s the reason for the reaction many people had.

Let’s look at a book from World 6:

But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a
beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion,
distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.

This is the world where the wedding ring acts as a way to make a time bubble. Anything in the bubble slows down significantly, allowing you to slow down cannons or platforms so you can get through at just the right time. Stephen Hawking is about as far as I get with quantum physics but my understanding is that the game design is calling the wedding ring a blackhole, the idea that time slows to absolute zero at certain points but are also inherently empty. Ergo the part about “people being slow to approach and terminating social interactions. Or not, given the part about being a shining beacon, but it’s the way the symbol resonates with me the most. Like the other texts, you can’t quite get a grip on what he’s talking about until you play the level. It works once you play and think about the point Blow is making…but that’s not what the audience is expecting when they read these books. They want an explanation or introduction. This quirk in writing is particularly effective provided you play the game without using gamefaqs and don’t try to do it in one sitting. On my initial encounter with many of these books I didn’t follow their point and went through the door confused. After playing in that world I’d get tired of a puzzle and leave to try a different world. When I came back ready to try again, another glance at the books and suddenly they made sense. In this way the actual text is understood in the same fluctuating way that the game’s design deals with time.

The ending stays strong, including the atomic bomb reference, as a collection of examples of goals one pursues but how our relationship with these goals collapses under quantum physics (we already got the goal) and personally (there is always another goal to pursue). Short vignettes before a level starts that establish the setting and story have been done before and under conventional game structures they act like an introduction. Braid’s upsetting of that norm is ultimately welcome for many people looking for a new kind of game experience. The point of this critique, as I pointed out above, was to figure out why people complained about the writing. The argument that language is about being understood is a good one but one should never get too confining about what their art can and cannot do. There is a proud tradition of writers and artists who have taken this ideal of communication and told people to shove it. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce all wrote some of literature’s greatest books in non-sequential and incredibly confusing manners to experiment with time and rationality. If it’s any consolation to those irritated by the game, keep in mind Faulkner got a lot of shit for

The Sound & The Fury

too. But it’s also a great book once you realize what he was going on about in the Benjy section.

by Lara Killian

12 Jan 2009

Do you remember what sort of books you enjoyed when you were a teenager? Or if you’re a teenager right now, what are you reading? Last week I started a youth services course and as an opening exercise we were asked to think about what our lives were like when we were 15 years old. (I won’t lie, some of us cringed.) The instructor brought in stacks of books and laid them out on tables; some familiar and some totally unknown. We were asked to pick a book, whether we knew it or not, and then explain what had drawn us to the particular volume. Obviously cover art or titles, and occasionally an author’s name, attracted many of us.

I picked up a book called An Earthly Knight (2004) by Janet McNaughton. The old style calligraphy font of the title reminded me of the historical fiction I started reading as a teenager. It always seemed preferable to spend time with my mind in another time and place than the all-too-real-and-scary present. After we’d discussed why we were drawn to the books we’d chosen, we were invited to take them home and read them. Why not?

image

There is some wonderful historical detail in this book; the author has clearly done her research. At its heart this is a love story of a slightly immature young woman doing a lot of growing up in a short period of time, and learning to recognize the motivations people have for their actions. Caught up in the possibility of someday becoming the Queen of Scotland, Lady Jeannette (Jenny) allows her behavior toward family servants to become petty, as she stamps her feet and shouts when she doesn’t get what she wants. She immediately realizes she’s behaving badly, but believes such behavior is expected from those who are privileged. Though status is all-important to her father, Jenny finds herself intrigued by a young man who lives apart from society. He is always gentle and kind, and Jenny feels herself around him—calm, peaceful.

Teens, particularly young women, are likely to identify with Jenny’s rapid changes of temper and emotion, as well as her desire to be her own person and yet cultivate the approval of the more powerful figures in her life, especially the men. She behaves badly, then realizes that in her heart it is more important to have friendship and love than power and pretty clothes. McNaughton points out aspects of language and culture, at this intersection where local Scottish culture interacted with the English Church and Norman tradition. (There are even a few of the wee folk present and working their mischief.) Without overwhelming her audience with too much historical detail, McNaughton tells a good story, while educating her reader a bit at the same time.

What were you reading at age 15?

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