March 2009

  • Pseudopod: the sound of horror

    Episode 135 of Pseudopod features “The Duel“, by Michael James McFarland, a tale of fraternity, brotherhood, time-honored tradition, upper-class twits and firearms. I think we’ve probably all had a friend who was mad at us, seemingly for no reason at all. Be glad they didn’t take the Burr/Hamilton tack when resolving whatever wrong we may have inadvertently done them.

  • An Update from The Secret Lair


    The Secret LairThere’s plenty brewing over at The Secret Lair, most of which is not coffee. While the hosts attempt to establish a more regular podcast release schedule, the Secretary of Artistic Propaganda continues to produce and publish their illustrated adventures. As of this writing, the most recent episode of the podcast involves the movie Watchmen, the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, and the adaptation of various media to film, while the webcomic deals with the upside of radioactive waste.

    The Secretary of Artistic Propaganda has also created a number of images suitable for use as wallpaper on your desk- or lap-top computing device. The images can be found in the show notes for Episode 0020 of the podcast, and were one to actually listen to that episode, one would be treated to a review of the classic science-fiction film, Silent Running (so long as one has a fairly generous definition of the word “treat”).

    Finally, the Overlords have created an Intertube forum that interested individuals (or hive minds) may join so as to express their thoughts on various matters of interest to thirty-something geeks. While it is not a requirement that one be a thirty-something geek to join this forum, it may be advisable to spend some time (a la Jane Goodall) with a small group (or tribe) of these geeks in order to learn their ways before attempting to communicate with the larger community.

    EDIT: All those links to The Secret Lair have been lost in time, like…tears…in rain.

  • HOW-TO: Make Video Game Movies Better


    John Scalzi, a science-fiction author whose works (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream) I’ve been enjoying over the past several months, has a column over at AMC’s SciFi Scanner section. Today’s entry is entitled “Doom for Dummies or How Hollywood Makes Video Game Movies“. 1I don’t want to spoil the column for you, but if the title were a question (a la, “How babby is formed?”) the answer would be “badly”.

    Now, there’s been some debate recently about whether slavishly reproducing the original source for movies adapted from other media is good or bad. Movies like Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and, more recently, Watchmen, tend to hew very close to their source, whereas films like The Lawnmower Man and Blade Runner bear very little resemblence to the works from which they are derived. Video games tend to fall into the latter category, as what’s ultimately delivered to theaters (or straight to the shelves at Blockbuster) often shares little more in common with the game than the name. For a fine example of this, see In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. 2Actually, don’t. Really. Skip it. You’re better off not knowing.

    Now, having recently seen Watchmen, which is a movie adapted from a comic book mini-series, I’m of the opinion that sticking as close as is reasonably possible to the source material can result in a pretty good film. On that basis, and that basis alone, I am recommending that filmmakers attempt more faithful recreations of video games when adapting them to the screen. There are some elements that simply won’t transfer well—such as the character’s health bar and the fireworks display any time he or she levels up, or the constant chugging of mana and health potions—but I think there’s one common video game element that filmmakers consistently overlook when adapting from console to screen, an element that is well within a director’s ability to recreate faithfully, a nod to fans that is both simple to accomplish and will be instantly associated with the source material.

    I’m talking, of course, about crappy camera angles.

    If Lara Croft were, in the midst of a potentially deadly encounter with one of the many dangerous creatures one comes across while raiding tombs, suddenly obscured from view for several seconds because the camera swooped behind an outcropping of rock for some damn reason, anyone in the audience who had actually played the game would instantly identify with the moment.

    Cave Chao Lan Reservoir Khao Sok National Park. Photo by René Ehrhardt. Released under a Creative Commons license.
    Lara Croft battles a giant, fire-breathing salamander in the latest Tomb Raider film.

    If Max Payne were to duck down an alleyway and disappear because the camera didn’t follow him, only to be brutally attacked by a hidden, hellborn beast that the audience couldn’t see because why the hell isn’t the camera moving? I can’t see what the hell is happening! the audience would know beyond a doubt that the original source material had been treated with kid gloves. “Yes!” they would cry. “Yes! At last, here is a filmmaker who understands the video game experience!”

    The only way to further immerse the audience into the events unraveling on the screen would be to give them controllers to throw at it.

    1 I don’t want to spoil the column for you, but if the title were a question (a la, “How babby is formed?”) the answer would be “badly”.
    2 Actually, don’t. Really. Skip it. You’re better off not knowing.
  • Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)


    Watchmen (2009)Watchmen (2009)

    Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Stephen McHattie, Robert Wisden and Max Headroom.

    Directed by Zack Snyder.

    It is 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President of the United States. America and the Soviet Union stand on the brink of nuclear war. Only the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan, a being who some postulate is more god than man, keeps the nations from annihilating one another. The masked heroes who once patrolled the streets have retired; only the enigmatic outlaw vigilante known as Rorschach remains. When an unknown assailant throws sixty-seven-year-old Edward Blake through the window of his thirtieth-floor apartment, Rorschach turns up at the crime scene to investigate. Before he retired, Blake’s secret identity was the government-sanctioned hero known as The Comedian, and Rorschach suspects that Blake’s death may be a sign that someone is gunning for former heroes.

    Watchmen is based on a twelve-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Originally released in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is considered by many to be one of the most important comics ever created, and a work that couldn’t possibly be translated to film.

    Watchmen is an interesting beast: a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I can envision various people not liking at all, for various reasons.

    • It’s too long. Since the resurgence in popularity of superhero films around the turn of the century, the average entry into the genre has been just over two hours in length. 1A sampling of thirteen of the most popular (or at least prominent) films in the genre reveals an average running length of 125 minutes. The Dark Knight, which I found to be about 40 minutes too long, clocked in at just over two and a half hours. Watchmen adds another eleven minutes, with a running time just seventeen minutes shy of three hours. That’s a long time to be sitting in a movie theater without an intermission.
    • It’s too short. The DVD release of Watchmen will include a whopping forty minutes of additional footage, and that’s before the animated Tales of the Black Freighter is added to the mix. That’s all material cut out of the original comic book, material that fans of the source—at least those fans who wanted to see the allegedly “unfilmable” story brought to screen—are eager to see.
    • There’s not enough action. Watchmen opens with a rather lengthy fight between Edward Blake and an unknown assailant, but after that it’s mostly a bunch of people talking for the next hour; this isn’t a movie for an audience used to seeing a big battle every seven to ten minutes. The problem is exacerbated by trailers that show lots of the very butt-kicking that we’ve come to expect from our superhero movies, setting expectations for an action-packed thrill ride with costumed heroes laying the smackdown on an endless parade of thugs, punks and ne’er-do-wells.
    • There’s too much violence. For a movie with only a handful of real action sequences, Watchmen is chock full of violence. Bone-crunching, blood-spraying violence that’s graphic enough to earn an “R” rating several times over. Zack Snyder implies very little, preferring instead to show the sometimes-nauseating results of the brutality right up there on screen; “subtle” isn’t a word that enters into Snyder’s vocabulary here. The violence isn’t all perpetrated in the name of justice, either. There are some very disturbing moments in which the heroes do terrible things to one another and to the very people they are ostensibly protecting.
    • It’s not a proper superhero movie. Even the darkest of our superheroes—Batman, for those who are keeping score—has a line he refuses to cross. No matter what the villain of the week did, no matter how many innocent people died at his or her hands, The Dark Knight isn’t going to intentionally kill the bad guy. Oh, sure, he might elect not to save someone from an untimely demise of their own making (see: Batman Begins), but he’s not going to take that life with his own two hands. The heroes in Watchmen, on the other hand, routinely torch the bad guys with flamethrowers, break their necks, or simply make them explode into a spray of blood and gore with a gesture. To make matters worse, the good guys sometimes kill innocent people, too. Next to the likes of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, Batman is about as dark and gritty as The Greatest American Hero.

    In spite of all this, I liked Watchmen. A lot. I’ll happily purchase the extended six-disc 2This is probably an exaggeration. Probably. Director’s Cut on DVD because I do want to see what Snyder left out of the theatrical cut, but I’m glad he did save it for the DVD release because I really, really had to pee by the time the end credits rolled, and another forty, twenty or even ten minutes in the theater would have resulted in disaster. 

    Everything else—the lack of non-stop action, the ultra-violence and the despicable acts perpetrated by the so-called heroes—I was fully prepared for when I walked into the theater. I’ve read the mini-series at least a half dozen times over the past twenty years, so I was well aware of the sort of things these flawed—sometimes very deeply flawed—people do when given the means to do pretty much whatever they want. I was a little surprised to see just how much of the gruesome aftermath of violence Snyder was willing to splash up on the screen, but considering the source I don’t feel it was excessive.

    In most respects, the film holds true to the comic book.  The resemblance of the cast to their illustrated counterparts is nothing short of astonishing, and some scenes are lifted (lovingly) directly from the page to the screen; it really is like seeing one of Gibbons’ panels come to life. Some story elements have been changed, perhaps for purposes of simplification, but the core ideas and themes appear—to me, at least—to be intact. 

    I was a little worried about how the characters of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan would come across, but for the most part I was satisfied. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely brilliant, delivering the vigilante’s stilted dialogue in a manner that stops just shy of becoming corny; no mean feat. Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to make Edward “The Comedian” Blake both a vile, despicable bastard as well as a frightened, damaged and ultimately tragic man, while the transformation of Billy Crudup into the blue-skinned, white-eyed Dr. Manhattan is nothing short of stunning.

    It’s almost unfortunate that those three characters are so brilliantly realized in the film, as it casts something of a shadow over Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Nite Owl is my favorite Watchmen character, probably because I enjoy heroes who use brains and gadgets to fight crime, and because I admire the way in which Dan Dreiberg has embraced the owl theme in his costume, weapons and Archie (short for Archimedes) the owlship. I’ve always thought Bruce Davison would be my ideal Dreiberg/Nite Owl, but he’s a bit past the age where he could realistically play the role. Wilson does a fine job, and Akerman fills out the Silk Sceptre’s rather scanty costume well, too. Neither have quite the presence of Rorschach, but that’s to be expected; of the characters, it is Nite Owl and Silk Spectre who most closely fit the classic image of the superhero, and their alter egos are the least damaged of the bunch. Approaching something that could almost be called “normal”, they are thus the most out of place in the world of Watchmen.

    1 A sampling of thirteen of the most popular (or at least prominent) films in the genre reveals an average running length of 125 minutes.
    2 This is probably an exaggeration. Probably.