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2.28.2011

Rebirth (continued)

At the beginning of this month I announced my intention to re-dedicate myself to the upkeep of this blog and that a real-life friend of mine who goes by the internet handle of "Craftsman" inspired me to do so with his own blog. Shortly after that, I received a message from him in which, among other things, he expressed his desire to join the Vanishing Blog as an outlet to post things which fall outside the scope of "A Craftsman's Journey." I am thrilled and honored that he's decided to join us here! Observant followers of this site may already have noticed Craftsman's name on our list contributors.

Of interest: back in 2006 when I started this blog, I invited two of my close friends to join me. One was J.D. who has been blogging with me since the beginning and is still here. The other was Craftsman who joined the blog under the username of tjmk but unfortunately never found time to post. Now here we are almost five years later. I've finally got the band together. Incidentally, the three of us wanted to start a band back then called The Vanishing Day, thus the name of this blog. The band never got off the ground, but at least the blog's still alive.

Are you reading this, Craftsman? Now you've gotta post something here for real!

Alright everybody. Looks like I'm doing okay getting back to this blogging thing... so far. Hope someone out there is reading. If not, I'm still benefiting. Happy March, everyone! Woohoo!

2.25.2011

History of Film Reviews (Pt. 1)

This semester I'm in a History of Film course. As the name implies we watch films weekly in this class. I was originally going to post full-length reviews of each movie, but I am already behind in that task so I will recap the films we've seen so far with mini-reviews. 

I've liked most of the stuff we've seen which is odd because the last time I had a movie-watching class I really didn't care for a lot of those films. Typically History of Film courses start with old films and work their way to the present day, but this course is presented more topically so as not to put everyone to sleep with a bunch of silent films at the beginning of the semester. Here's what we've seen so far.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Dir. by Orson Welles
Genre: Drama
Unrated

Every film class watches this. There seems to be a popular counter-movement against this movie. You can't actually like it. Only stuffy critics like it. No one actually likes this movie - it's just that everyone has to say they do or else be kicked out of the elite film buff club.

Well I like this movie.

Really, I do! This was only my second time viewing it. The experience was definitely better the second time. The reason people hate this movie is because of hype. They're told it's the "Greatest Movie of All Time" or some such. Nothing can live up to that kind of praise. Teachers and critics who say that are setting the film up as a disappointment for regular audiences.

This being my second time watching the film I was better able to take in the intricacies of the film techniques. It really is amazing how well staged, performed, and acted this movie is. A lot of old movies feature hokey acting, but that is not the case here. The production design is giant in scale especially for the time in which it was made.

Much has been made of the cinematography and I must say the praise is well-deserved. The blocking (placement of characters and their movement within the frame) in the scenes is excellent. You don't often see blocking like anymore. In modern cinema we're too afraid to let the camera sit still for more than a few seconds. That's not to say the camera doesn't move in Citizen Kane. It does. Surprisingly it moves a lot and the movements are exceptionally well-coordinated.

The story and acting by Welles is, of course, fantastic. The movie does an excellent job covering the sweeping breadth of our protagonist's life. Kane is a complex character. At various times throughout the film we love, identify with, detest and pity him.

If you haven't seen this: do so. Don't go in with the attitude that you're going to see the greatest movie ever. Think of it as an old classic that is really, genuinely good.

Grizzly Man (2005)
Dir. by Werner Herzog
Genre: Documentary
Rated R: language, disturbing images

Grizzly Man is the story of naturalist Timothy Treadwell. 
To quote Buzz Lightyear, he is a "sad, strange little man." Treadwell spent many summers of his life in the Alaskan wilderness living amongst grizzly bears until the summer of 2003 when he was eaten by one of them. Poetic justice for a lunatic some might say.

The documentary is largely comprised of footage shot by Treadwell himself over his many summers in Katmai National Park. The footage shows us just how odd the man was. He seemed more at home with the bears than with people. He wanted to become a bear.

Director and narrator Werner Herzog although clearly not approving of Treadwell's actions does remind us that this crazy man was a human being no matter how odd or hilarious his behaviour might have been. Eventually we learn some of Treadwell's history and get something of an explanation about why he did what he did. The psychological exploration of the man along with the footage of him doing and saying crazy things are the most interesting parts of the film.

By humanizing a man many would consider mentally unstable or just plain stupid, Grizzly Man caused me to consider my own life. What separates anyone from "normal" and "crazy." Treadwell once led a "normal" life. He slipped over the edge and so could any of us if we allowed ourselves to do so.

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Dir. by Spike Lee
Genre: Drama
Rated R: pervasive language, brief nudity, violence

I'll admit I was internally rolling my eyes when I heard we were going to be watching a movie about race. Though I acknowledge the issue as complex and still more of a problem than it should be, I still somewhat hold to the view that we need to stop talking about it so much. My problem is that I've never really seen racism first-hand and yet people talk and talk and talk about it. So to me it seems overblown. But I digress...

I was shocked - shocked that I actually quite liked Do the Right Thing. Of course it's trying to make a point about racism and it does this in a fairly elegant way.

The film is neither subtle its message nor presentation, but that actually works to its advantage. It isn't meant to be subtle. Stereotypes are on overdrive here. White cops, black out-of-work hoodlums, Asian business owners, Italian pizza joint operators, druggies, drunks, white supremacists, black supremacists... the gang's all here. Race relations are bad, bad, bad.

But Do the Right Thing explores larger issues than just race in America. It presents us with a case study of what happens when different cultures clash. In actuality racism has less to do with skin color, eye shape, or ethic origins and a lot more to do with what people believe; how they talk and function; and what customs they hold to.

This film shows that often one can have just as many or more disagreements with one's own "people" than with those of other ethnicities and cultures. The protagonist Mookie finds himself as odds with his black friends as often as with his white employer. Both of these characters are tying to bridge a difficult cultural divide. They know it's the right thing to do. This is very effective in making us root for them which is why the film's conclusion (which I will not spoil here) is even more effective.

Do the Right Thing is a tale of human nature the governing law of which seems to be "For every action there is an equal and opposite overreaction." It is a sad circle. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. No wonder Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. It is the only way to wage effective war on war itself.

And did I mention it features Samuel L. Jackson in an early role as a DJ? Well it does.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Dir. by Guillermo del Toro
Genre: Fantasy
Rated R: language, extreme violence, disturbing images

Pan's Labyrinth is a Spanish-language film about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. And, yes, it's also a fantasy as seen from the perspective of a young girl, Ofelia.

Basically we alternate (often with little or no warning) from the horrors of real reality to the horrors of reality blended with an imagined fantasy... or may it's not imagined. I'm not entirely sure. The movie doesn't offer any clarity about that.

While the film is very well done I don't think it worked for me. It was too ambiguous in some ways and too straightforward in others. None of the characters are all that deep, not even Ofelia. The main antagonist, an army captain, is just straight-up evil. That's all fine. It's clever to have the most despicable monster be the one from the real world, but none of it goes anywhere or says anything in particular.

The film is not without merit, however. The production value is really good except for some of the CGI which is showing its age. I really liked the design of "Pale Man" a monster with the eyes in its hands (I debated putting a picture here, but decided that I'd let those who really want to see seek it out on their own). Wow. That was something. It gave me hope that a Silent Hill movie could be done really, really well (a good one, not the one they already made).

Overall it was dark and heavy but the violence didn't seem to have much of a point. If your movie's going to be violent: fine. I dig it. But have a bloody point otherwise you're just making a glorified horror movie. I think this was a glorified horror movie.

I was originally told that this movie was about a girl escaping from the horrors of war through a fantasy world of her own creation which was symbolic of her real world surroundings. I didn't really get that from the film itself. What I got was a lot of horror and weirdness, but not a lot of reason for it. Maybe that's the point. I don't know. Maybe I need more perspective on the Spanish Civil War. But I kind of doubt it.

Pan's Labryinth isn't bad, but neither is it very good. It's certainly nowhere close to the others on this list. It may be worth seeing (for those who can stomach it) simply for its creative art direction and character design.

2.21.2011

Radiohead at Peace

How great was last week for good music? Arcade Fire's The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year and we were blessed with a new Radiohead album - a day early even! Here are my thoughts on that.


Like no other band, Radiohead has the ability to transport my mind to another place. Their latest album The King of Limbs is a prime example of this phenomenon. Named after an old tree near the studio where they recorded In Rainbows, the album is a clash of electronic yet somehow organic soundscapes.

Sonically the album sounds like a cross between Kid A and Hail to the Thief but it's not as ambitious as the former and not as varied as the latter. In fact, The King of Limbs doesn't have much time to get varied although it does a good job with the time that it has. Radiohead's eighth "full-length" album runs less than 40 minutes.

The actual "King of Limbs"
If the album has any faults they are these: it is short and might very well be too subtle for its own good. This is not a good album for newcomers to pick up (that's rarely the case with Radiohead), but those who like the aforementioned Kid A and/or Hail to the Thief will likely be able to appreciate the album's beauty.

And it is beautiful.

Only "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Little by Little" seem to have the typical accusatory, paranoid vibe the band is known for and even these tracks are fairly mellow for what they are. The rest of the album (aside from the instrumental "Feral") has a sort of tranquil beauty to it. This is particularly evident in the songs "Codex" which sounds like a spiritual successor to "Pyramid Song" and "Give Up the Ghost."

These songs suggest to me that Radiohead is more at peace than they have been for a long time. There is still some measure of chaos, uncertainty, and fear but this time around it is tempered with an equal measure of harmony, hope, and peace. That is fairly unique for a Radiohead album. When I listen to the album it has a calming effect on me.

Even though The King of Limbs isn't a musical revolution for the band, it might be a tonal revolution. It features some of the prettiest tunes the band's ever produced and, although short, every songs counts. Radiohead has once again shown themselves to be supremely capable of delivering great music. I hope we don't have to wait another three years for their next delivery.

2.14.2011

Happy Pre-Order Day! ...And Valentine's...

Dun, duh, da!

It's pre-order day! Two of my most anticipated pieces of media became available for pre-order today and I've dropped the cash on both.

First up is Radiohead's eighth studio album oddly titled "The King of Limbs." That certainly sounds fitting for a Radiohead album. We've known they've been working on new music for quite some time now but in typical Radiohead fashion they've announced the album only five days before actual release.


The cover art is our only clue as to the direction of the album as no track titles have yet been announced. I like the cover although it is quite unnerving at first. Radiohead seems to be on a tree kick lately. The "cover" to their last single release "These Are My Twisted Words" also featured twisted tree limbs. Interesting. I doubt that track will feature on the album but I suppose it is possible.

I expected the new album last year, in fact. 2010 came and went and there was no news. Radiohead likes too keep a lid on things now that they control the entire process of making and distributing their music. I'll post some thoughts on the album after it releases.

Similarly Valve Corporation likes to play things close to the chest. Although their last several releases have been exceptions to that rule. Portal 2 and its magically-extending release date have been public knowledge for about a year. Now the game is up for pre-order on Valve's Steam platform.

Feast your eyes on some pretty screenshots (click to enlarge):




Even though the Source engine is getting old, Valve has done a great job of hiding that fact by creating some beautiful environments. I can't escape the feeling that this game is going to be like ten times harder than the original. It is certainly much larger in terms scope and length. I have no idea where Valve will take the plot or how that might factor into their other games. *ahem*

WHERE'S EPISODE 3, VALVE?!





Also: Happy Valentine's Day to all whom the holiday might concern. Haters don't hate on it. Is it commercially-motivated? You bet. But the holiday has wonderful origins so don't let commercialism ruin it for you. Single people: I guess I can't blame you for hating it. Sorry.

2.08.2011

Super Bowl Ad Recap

I may be a little late to the punch on this one. Likely most people who really care have already gotten their fill of discussion about this year's Super Bowl Ads.

I am fully aware of what an ironic/pathetic commentary it is on our culture that we have just as much hype and discussion on the ads as the game itself (probably more). Are we a culture of advertising? You bet. But that's a topic for later discussion.

I enjoy watching ads for the same reason that people enjoy watching bad movies... or car wrecks. I like to analyse what goes wrong or at least laugh at it. On the flip side, every once in a while something creative and enjoyable slips through the cracks. Here are some of the commercials I actually enjoyed.

Volkswagen: "The Force"
I haven't heard of one person who didn't like this ad (now I probably will). The best part is, of course, the always-awesome Imperial March.


Motorola Xoom: "Empower the People"
Motorola turns the tables on Apple in this ad which hearkens back to Apple's famous "1984" ad for the original Macintosh. Sure, you might say they're piggybacking on Apple's original commercial thereby making this one less creatively inspired. Then you might say the same thing about Apple's original ad and the George Orwell book. The fact is that Apple largely owns mobile computing (smartphones and tables) in the U.S. right now. This ad does have some real resonance for that reason. Plus, I really like the visual aesthetic though I'm sure it wasn't directed by anyone as famous as Ridley Scott.


Bud Light: "Product Placement"
I have to give props to Budweiser's ad agency. They have for years now delivered consistently decent and occasionally really funny ads. Consistently decent might not sound that good, but it's a whole lot better than some. This one was fun.


Bud Light: "Hack Job"
I doubt other people found this as funny as me. I've grown up with a mother and two sisters who have watched an awful lot of HG-TV. I know exactly the type of show this is making fun of and they did a good job with the parody. Again, a lot of fun.


Audi: "Release the Hounds"
This was my favourite ad from this year. It's clever, funny, not insulting, and it sells the dang product. It's almost like... a commercial. Well done, Audi. This was by far the most creative thing aired this year.


On the downside the E-Trade baby made another appearance. I have never found those ads funny and I don't understand why everyone else does. And I am getting completely sick of the stupid, stupid, stupid Dortios commercials. They had a good one like three years ago, but since then it's been a constant stream of so-dumb-it-hurts. Finally, Pepsi, I don't even like your soda, but here's a free tip: hitting people with cans of it isn't a good way to sell the stuff. Any moron already knows that.

2.07.2011

The White Stripes (1997 - 2011)

Well by now most everyone who cares has heard the news. The White Stripes officially ended their career last Wednesday. They will no longer be making albums or performing.

I gotta be honest: that bums me out. Sure, it's always better to end something good while it's still good rather than drag it out until all the creative juices are gone. I absolutely believe in not diluting the brand or the art or whatever it happens to be. However, I never got to see the duo live and I really, really wanted to. Oh well.

As a little tribute to the band, I present my favourite song from each of their studio albums.

"Jimmy the Exploder" from The White Stripes (1999)
The first track on the first album gave listeners an idea of the wild ride they were in for.


"Hello Operator" from De Stijl (2000)
The dynamics on this song are killer. I love the pauses; the changes in volume; the way Jack throws in little riffs after the power chords each line.


"We're Going to Be Friends" from White Blood Cells (2001)
When Jack put down the electric and picked up an acoustic guitar the results were always good, but this might be the best of their acoustic numbers.


"Seven Nation Army" from Elephant (2003)
I'll admit this pick is really, really obvious. But this is the song that got me into the White Stripes and I'm sure that's the case for many other fans.


"My Doorbell" from Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
"My Doorbell" is pure fun. Piano rock at its best. Even people who don't like the band enjoy this tune.


"300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues" from Icky Thump (2007)
This song goes from calm and laid back to suddenly chaotic and wild. In that sense, it seems to represent the band's music as a whole. A bit disjoint perhaps. It has its own kind of beauty and grace.


Meg, Jack... it's sure was fun. Thanks for putting some soul back into rock music.

2.02.2011

Rebirth

How many posts in the past have I made apologizing for lack of updates after a long absence? I'm too lazy to actually find out, but I'm guessing quite a few. It's a cliche because it's true that someone starts blogging very excitedly but loses their fever over the course of time. That's me for sure.

I hope anybody who actually reads what we post up here has noticed the recent resurgence in number of posts. I am going to try and make a concerted effort to keep at this blogging thing for a couple of reasons.

First, I believe it's good for me. It's a hobby that helps me immensely as a thinker and writer. I ordinarily lack the motivation to keep up my writing. Ultimately the most important thing about being a writer or any other craft is to do it. Blogging provides me with a public platform for that purpose.

Second, I have recently been inspired by a writer friend of mine who has just recently committed to regular blogging. I have been following his blog for some weeks now with great interest. Yeah, that's probably just because he's my buddy, but still...

Check out his blog entitled "A Craftsman's Journey" which contains his thoughts on writing, movies, and a chronicle of his current year-long quest to write 500,000 words in a year. He's also studying abroad in England this semester.

Seriously. Check it out. It's a good blog. He's awesome.

I think I am now going to refocus my blogging efforts. I have got it in my head that only certain things are fit for posting and thus I rarely do so. If I want to maintain this online presence and help myself become a better writer I've got to tear down that mental barrier.

The posts you'll get from now on probably won't seem that different. As I said, it's a mental barrier. One thing I really don't talk about on this blog is my personal life. The reasons for that are many. While I still won't be posting and telling you about my day, from now on I plan to be a bit more open to posting interesting, pertinent events from my life. The internet is pretty much real life now, isn't it? (I should explain that. Maybe a future post.) It would be hypocritical of me as a technology enthusiast to keep this barrier between my real, actual life and the internet.

At any rate, expect to see more posts and if you don't... well I guess I'm a failure or something. Later.