Archive for the 'Entertainment' category

"The Wicker Tree?" (Updated)

This one was an immediate WTF moment for me: Robin Hardy, the writer/director of the original version of the film The Wicker Man (1973), is "reimagining" his film as The Wicker Tree, slated for release sometime this year:

For those who aren't familiar with the original film, it is undeniably a classic of the horror genre and in my opinion one of the greatest horror films of all time: subtle, atmospheric, darkly humorous, and genuinely horrifying*.

Details are sketchy as it stands; the official movie site is little more than an image right now.  IMDB has the following summary, which may or may not be accurate:

Young Christians Beth and Steve, a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave Texas to preach door-to-door in Scotland . When, after initial abuse, they are welcomed with joy and elation to Tressock, the border fiefdom of Sir Lachlan Morrison, they assume their hosts simply want to hear more about Jesus. How innocent and wrong they are.

I'm definitely of mixed emotions about this news.  On the one hand, I'm horrified (and not in a good way); an abysmal remake of The Wicker Man was just recently released in 2006 and illustrates that there is no lower limit on the quality of such projects.  On the other hand, The Wicker Tree is by the original writer/director, and he has seen fit to bring back Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, one of the most inspiring castings of all time.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see...

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* Seriously -- this film has one of the most cringe-inducing moments of any horror movie I've ever seen, and shames a lot of the "extreme" modern horror films.

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Update: As long as I'm talking about unusual movie projects, I see IMDB has a trailer up for the Solomon Kane movie, "based" on the character by Robert E. Howard.  I'm not sure what to think, as yet: it might end up being an enjoyable movie, but it doesn't look, or sound, much like Howard's Solomon.  The IMDB summary says a lot:

A mercenary who owes his soul to the devil redeems himself by fighting evil.
Howard's Solomon is a fanatical Puritan who fights the devil's works overly wherever he goes!  It is pretty much impossible to imagine that character having made a deal with the devil, as the summary and trailer implies.

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Captain America has a tradition of social commentary

Feb 13 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, [Politics], Entertainment

If you haven't seen it yet, the most recent issue of the Marvel Comics series  Captain America has drawn the ire of teabaggers because of its negative portrayal of them.  Via Yahoo news,

Since 1941, Captain America has been one of the most popular comic book characters around. The fictional super-patriot fought Nazis during World War II, took on those who burned the American flag during the Vietnam era, and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for Marvel Comics along the way.  Now, the appearance that he is taking on the Tea Party Movement in a storyline about investigating white supremacists has forced Marvel to apologize for the comic hero.

The Yahoo article also includes the relevant pages from issue 602 of Captain America:

I am of somewhat mixed feelings about the whole "controversy", if indeed it is one.  On one hand, I probably wouldn't be thrilled if a right-winger wrote a comic caricaturing liberals as fanatical communists (though I wouldn't be whining about it), on the other hand in my opinion the strip doesn't depict anything that isn't spot on.  I'm sorry to see that Marvel felt like they had to apologize for an artistic decision by a writer, though I can somewhat understand that they are an entertainment business that doesn't want to alienate any customers.

One thing I'd like to point out, though, is that the Captain America comic has a long history of addressing  social issues.  This isn't the first time that its writers have used the book and the character as a mirror to show its readers some of the unpleasant traits of America.

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Mythbusters were scooped -- by 130 years! (Finger in the barrel)

Jan 10 2010 Published by under Entertainment, History of science, Physics

During my first evening in San Antonio, I sequestered myself in my hotel room to polish up my presentation.  Fortunately, there was a Mythbusters marathon on the Discovery Channel at that time, so I was able to keep myself marginally sane by watching the 'Busters abuse places, things, and themselves for the cause of science.

One of the episodes that played during the marathon contained the "finger in the barrel" myth -- the idea that a person can stick a finger in the barrel of a rifle or shotgun as it fires, causing the barrel to split like a banana peel without harm to the finger!  The initial investigation of the 'busters clearly demonstrated that a finger would certainly be lost in the attempt, and that a barrel would not split in the manner suggested.  An updated investigation two years later, however, demonstrated that a rifle barrel could be split if sufficiently weakened by use.

In a remarkable case of serendipity, the next evening I was browsing the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and came across an article with the title, "On the bursting of firearms when the muzzle is closed by snow, earth, grease, &c."!  The article, by Professor George Forbes, is a theoretical explanation of the bursting of firearms and was published in the 1878-1879 session of the Royal Society, meaning that Forbes' investigation was some 130 years before the Mythbusters!  The calculation and explanation are short and entertaining, and I thought it would be fun to take a look at them.

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Happy birthday to Bill Nighy!

Dec 12 2009 Published by under Entertainment

Even as busy as I am, I can't resist taking a moment to wish happy birthday to one of the coolest actors out there, in my humble opinion: Bill Nighy!

Nighy has been acting since the late 1970s, though he really caught my attention around the turn of the century, when he took on a number of great and unique roles: obnoxious aging rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually, Shaun's barely-alive stepfather in Shaun of the Dead, Slartibartfast in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, squidly Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Man's Chest, and the smug Chief Inspector in Hot Fuzz.

Nighy is one of those actors who really livens up any movie he's in, even making otherwise annoying films enjoyable, such as Dead Man's Chest and the very silly Underworld.

I see via IMDB that he'll have a role as Rufus Scrimgeour in the two final Harry Potter films, and is a perfect choice for a role in that series!

For me, though, I think I love his turn as Billy Mack the most.  Even if you're not a fan of romantic comedies, Love Actually is worth watching just for the fun Nighy has as a rock star past his prime and willing to say and do anything to regain the spotlight!

Happy birthday to Bill Nighy!

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Richard Garriott on Ultima V

Dec 04 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

(I'm still working hard on my book!  I'll throw a few posts out here and there as I find the time.)

As a follow-up to my post on "videogames as art", I decided to buy "The Official Book of Ultima", a nice little book by Shay Adams written in 1990 that is partly a strategy guide and partly a history of the creation of the first 6 Ultima games.  Garriott's statements show that he really evolved from making adventure games into making games that would force players to think about their actions.  He was, in fact, a true auteur for the first four Ultimas, having written the script and coded the games entirely on his own!  I can't resist quoting one fascinating section:

ORIGIN actually lost an employee over another of Garriott's efforts to involve players emotionally as well as intellectually an imaginatively with his fantasy worlds.  He says it even got his family involved emotionally, triggering a significant debate among them.  It all had to do with killing that roomful of children (or not killing them, depending on whether you killed them or not).  While designing some of the 256 individual dungeon rooms in Ultima V, "populating dungeons, filling them with stuff, and putting things here and there," Garriott racked his brain for some novel and unexpected situations to build into the dungeons.  Since the software didn't support putting characters capable of conversation in a dungeon room, Garriott was restricted to filling rooms with furniture or monsters.  If he placed a villager in a dungeon room, for instance, the man would function as a monster and could not be addressed in conversation.

"I was looking through the tile set and I came across this very interesting shape -- children" he says.  As he constructed a dungeon room, deep down in a maze, he filled it with little jail cells, then filled the cells with children.  The room was set up so that when players push on the wall in one place, the jail cells open and the young prisoners are liberated.  "So you see the children and you want to save them," Garriott explains, "but when you find a way to open the jail cells, they come out and start attacking you

"Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn't it?  Because I knew darn well that the game doesn't care whether you kill them or whether you walk away.  It didn't matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind -- and any conflict you bring up in anybody's mind is beneficial.  It means a person has to think about it.

"Personally, I didn't care how they resolved it, so I put it in.  I was really pleased with myself.  However, one of the playtesters in the New Hampshire office found that room.  He was a religious fundamentalist and was immediately outraged -- he thought it was encouraging child abuse.  He didn't call me about it; he wrote a long letter to Robert [Garriott's brother], two or three pages about how he was utterly unwilling to be involved with a company who would  even consider, in his mind promoting child abuse.  Well, Robert was outraged.  He called me up and said, 'Richard, Richard, how could you consider putting something like that in your game?' I told him he had it all wrong, I mean, he'd interpreted it as it said in the letter, that the only way you can win the game is to slaughter the children in that room.  I am telling him, first of all, most people aren't going to see that room, because you don't see every dungeon room, and secondly, when you walk in the room, you don't have to let them out.  And third, you don't have to kill them.

"If you were that bent out of shape about killing them -- which is the easiest way to get out of the room -- you could charm them and make them walk out of the room yourself.  You could put them to sleep and walk out of the room.  You could do any number of things, but the point is that you don't have to kill them.  Admittedly, nine out of ten people who find the kids screaming out around their feet are going to kill them -- but you don't have to kill children to win the game, so there's a big difference.  Robert still thought I had to remove them from the game, and he got my parents involved.  They called and said, 'Richard, how can you consider doing this?,' and they were saying, 'just remove this, it is just a little room, why are you bothering to fight for this so much?'

"And I said, because you guys are missing the point.  You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically -- about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is.  If it was something explicitly sexist or explicitly racist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored.  But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room.  The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove  that room from the game."

I actually remember that room in the dungeon of Ultima V.  The first time in it, I killed all the little tykes.  That response bothered me so much, however, that I reloaded the game and played it through again and instead chose not to unlock the cells.  (I wasn't worldly enough at that age to think of the 'charm' or 'sleep' strategies.)

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Video games as art: My favorite games that are more than just 'point and shoot'

Nov 25 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime playing the finale of the video game DragonAge: Origins, the recently released fantasy role-playing game (RPG) by BioWare.  Though the game had a lot of technical limitations that drove me nuts, and the fantasy setting was definitely stereotypical (Zero Punctuation had a great review of the game), in the end the characters and the development of the story won me over.  The game is designed to force you to make very hard decisions, most of which possess no right answer.  Though I made the choices that I felt were right in the game, I was genuinely saddened at the end of the game because of the consequences of those choices.  It may seem odd, but it is a game that will probably stick with me for some time.

This reminded me of a topic I've thinking of blogging about for some time: are video games artistic?  Of course, modern video games have armies of artists producing the graphics and the music, and there are other sites that consider video games as art in a more abstract sense, but I'm really thinking more about the stories that are told and the way they are told.

Roger Ebert has, in years past, caught a lot of flak for expressing his opinion that video games cannot be art comparable to great literature and movies:

...I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Roger Ebert has given this a lot of thought (and gotten into arguments with Clive Barker over it), and he makes a very reasoned case.  If I understand it correctly, he argues that good movies and literature require the author to tell a story the way he or she wants to tell it -- the more one gives the player control over the outcome of the story, the more one is sacrificing their story and artistic vision.

I used to think more or less the same thing as Ebert, but these days I respectfully disagree with him.  Firstly, interactivity doesn't necessarily ruin the story the author wants to tell -- it can place the gamer into the story in a way that gets them more involved than a passive reading can do.   Furthermore, it is possible to use the very act of interactivity to tell a sort of 'meta-story' -- showing the gamer how their actions have consequences and showing how those consequences can ripple further along the line in the tale.

Of course, most games don't do this at all, and I can't blame Ebert for not being familiar with some of the gems of the genre.  Heck, most movies that are produced fall very, very short of being 'high art', and someone who casually follows the summer blockbusters would certainly get the impression that movies are shallow and vapid.

With this in mind, I thought I'd share my list of video games that aspire to something more than shallow entertainment.  Whether or not they reach the level of 'art' I leave it to the reader to decide.  Certainly this isn't intended to be the final word or even a convincing argument in favor; the internet is filled with commentary on the subject.
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Horror writers on horror films, from Focus Features

Nov 03 2009 Published by under Entertainment, Horror

A few days ago, I got a nice email from FilminFocus.com, the film culture website of film company Focus Features (A Serious Man, Brokeback Mountain, Coraline).  For Halloween, they asked five horror writers to each list their five favorite horror movies.  Some of the names I'm familiar with -- Kim Newman, Joe R. Lansdale, Tananarive Due -- and others are new to me, but their choices are all interesting, even though there are some that I wouldn't necessarily agree with (Carnival of Souls?  Really?).

You can read the list here.

Though I'm not a professional horror author (yet), I thought I'd chime in with my own set of movies that disturb me!   This list is by no means complete -- after all, it's only five -- but it is indicative of what unsettles me...

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The movie 2012... stoopid before it even comes out

Nov 02 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, Entertainment

You know, I'm not in principle against a film based on the premise that the world will end in 2012 as prophesized by the ancient Mayans, even though the idea is complete bunk.  What does bug me is that the film is by Roland Emmerich, and looks to be another noisy, incoherent mess heavy on special effects and almost bereft of plot or character development.  (See Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, etc.)

I had to laugh, though, when I saw this trailer on television the other day.   The text of the trailer declares,

The Mayans warned us

We should have listened

Waitaminit -- the film is, in essence, about the end of the world, involving the destruction of pretty much everything on the planet.  How would listening to the Mayans actually help at all in such a circumstance?  How are we supposed to prepare for the end of the world, "duck and cover"?  Hide under the kitchen table?  Build enough spaceships to fly everyone to the moon?

This sort of incoherent trailer does not bode well for the film, in my opinion.  Then again, has there ever been a film about global catastrophe that has been any good?  Looking through the recent list of choices -- Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact -- I can't say there are any that are particularly memorable.  Really, there have been so many movies involving mass destruction in the past few years that I'm totally desensitized to it.

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The Linkin' Log, video edition: October 8, 2009

Oct 08 2009 Published by under [Politics], Entertainment

Over the past couple of weeks, a few videos caught my eye, for various reasons.  I thought that it was a good time for a collection of links:

Via Steven Benen at Political Animal, a video has been found which encapsulates the obstructionist policy of the Republicans with respect to health care and, come to think of it, everything else:

Via Roger Ebert's "Answer Man" column, I learned of the movie Paranormal Activity, a low-budget, "Blair Witch"-style documentary horror film which is getting rave reviews as a stunningly scary film.  It hasn't received wide theatrical release yet, but hopefully it will be coming to a theater near you soon:

Shepard Smith, though an anchor on the stunningly dishonest Fox News, manages to demonstrate an admirably independent thought process.  This week, when Senator John Barrasso spouted spurious GOP talking points about the proposed public health option, Shep let him have it (via Talking Points Memo):

As long as we're speaking of Fox News personalities, I can't pass up pointing out what a phony slimebag Glenn Beck is.  Though it will surprise few that his teary-eyed commentaries are completely faked, it is still amazing that this video was released showing his tear-producing method: Vick's Vapo-Rub:

Finally, via HuffPost, some truly amazing video: the only known film footage of Anne Frank, a short scene in a video of the wedding of the girl next door.  This footage was released by the Anne Frank House, and is now on YouTube:

That's all for now!

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Happy birthday to Mark Hamill!

Sep 25 2009 Published by under Entertainment

Today "marks" Hamill's 58th birthday!  People are most familiar with Hamill's star-making role as Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, which I still remember seeing in the theaters when it was originally released.  But Hamill has had a long and distinguished career, including television, movie and voice roles.

Amongst comic fans, he is now best known for his absolutely amazing voice work as the Joker in the various animated Batman television shows, namely Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999).  He does such an amazing job voicing the Joker that it is hard to imagine anyone else ever taking the role!  His  talents are an essential part of the recently-released videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is one of the best videogames I've ever played.  (Last night I started to play through the entire game a third time, which I've never done with any game before.)  Another voice role of Hamill's that made quite an impression on me is his role as the evil Fire Lord Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I've noted previously is one of the best television shows I've ever seen.

Happy birthday and best wishes for a continuing successful career to Mark Hamill!

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